Commentary: Isaiah 42:1-9
The Ancient Writer And Reader
Isaiah 42:1-9 is one of the four Servant Songs found in chapters 40-55, commonly known as Second Isaiah. Read and compare the literary unit of Songs found in 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.
Two main characters speak in the Servant Songs—Yahweh and the Servant. In our passage, 42:1-9, Yahweh speaks to identify the Servant. In 49:1-6 and 50:4-9 the Servant speaks. In the last Song, the identity of the speaker is not clear.
Who is the Servant? In general terms, the Servant is a high level court officer of a King. The Servant deals with the King on a daily basis, and can be trusted with valuable court information. A specific, historical identity of the Servant is difficult to establish. Some scholars posit that the Servant refers not to an individual person but to an idealized Israel—the vision of a Servant-Israel for the future salvation of the world.1 Others, however, consider that the Song is an autobiographical work reflecting the career of the author of Second Isaiah. The Christian church, on the other hand, understood the identity of the Servant as Christ. Is the Servant the prophet Isaiah, or the nation Israel, the Messiah or the Christ? The identity of the Servant cannot be established with certitude. The contemporary reader, however, hears a clear voice giving hope to people living in exile seemingly without hope for the future.
The social setting of the poem gives clues that help us to identify the hearers of the poem. The people are in Babylonian exile (540 BCE). Many of them were deported from Jerusalem in 587 BCE when the city fell to the Babylonians. As they hear this poem, however, the Babylonian empire is on the verge of collapse in the threat of Persian power, and a "new thing" is about to happen. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians are about to be conquered by King Cyrus and Persia. With the conquest of Persia, the exiles will be permitted to return to their homeland.
These Songs may have been presented in the market places of the Babylonian towns or in the synagogues of the exile. These public oracles brought visions of homecoming to a group of people made weary by years of homesickness.2
A dominant literary form emerges in the first three Servant Songs. The speaker is heard in 42:1-4 (see also 49:1-6 and 50:4-9); a response to the speaker, which often repeats the same themes and images of the preceding unit, follows in 42:5-9 (see also 49:7-13 and 50:10-11).
The speaker announces the mission of the Servant in 42:1-6. The Servant is a chosen one (41:1). In the Hebrew Bible, the word "chosen" is associated with David, Israel, Zion, and the Israelites. The chosen Servant receives the Spirit, which according to traditional use can empower leaders with physical strength, great courage, or wisdom. In this passage, however, the Spirit gives the Servant the ability to judge (41:1b).
The Servant speaks not with loud proclamations in the street but with a soft but firm voice of judgment. No violence comes with the judgment, especially against the "crushed reed and the fading wick," which are images used to depict the poor and helpless of the society. The Servant is just and tireless in judging.
The coastlands wait for his teaching (41:4b). The coastlands (see also 40:15 "the isles") signify the most remote areas known to the Israelites. The mission of the Servant is not simply to those in exile, but to the nations, even the remote, unknown areas.
The response to the Song is heard in 42:5-9. The Creator God, who stretches the heaven out like a tent, spreads the earth with living things, gives life to the people who inhabit it (42:5a) and calls all people in righteousness. The Creator God does not leave the creation in isolation. Rather with the assistance of the Servant, Yahweh forms a "people-covenant." This covenant is inclusive, drawing all peoples. The Servant becomes the mediating force between Yahweh and the people.
The broad role of the Servant includes specific functions: To open blind eyes, to release captives from prison, and give light to those in dark dungeons (42:7). The same functions are echoed in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:18.
In light of the success of the Servant and Yahweh, acts of idolatry pale. Other gods are simply not needed (42:8). Only God can bring to pass that which is to come.
The central point of the pericope is that Yahweh saves. The Servant becomes Yahweh's agent of salvation, bringing judgment and light to the nations. Something new is about to take place (42:9). A new phase of history is inaugurated in this first Servant Song. Through the faithfulness of the Servant and the majestic power of Yahweh, people will see deliverance. They will go home again!
The Contemporary Reader
This passage preaches. The ancient story of exile and homesickness parallels modern stories of displaced lives and homesick Christians. Many moderns have lost their way. They cannot find home. Disorientation, fostered by competing claims for truth and reality, has erased the memory of home for many. Yet, a quiet desire for home, for vibrant faith, remains.
To hear this song being proclaimed by the ancient prophet in the market or in the synagogue brought hope to a burdened people. To catch a vision of how things might be in the future was to lift their eyes to hope. To hear the proclamation of God's activity expressed through an individual Servant—an individualized entity with personalized activity—gave refreshment for dry and thirsty souls.
When the church reflected on the role of the Servant, they thought about Jesus Christ. Jesus in the synagogue personally encouraged the interpretation (Lk 4:16ff). Jesus also connected the Servant image to his own ministry (Jn 13).
Wherever your homiletical focus for this message, perhaps drawn either from sixth century BCE, from the point of view of the prophet or nation, or from the first-century Christian perspective of the gospel writers, the message is clear to twentieth-century listeners—God brings hope to weary people. This passage will preach!
Linda McKinnish Bridges
1. For detailed discussion of the identity of the Servant in the Servant Songs of Isaiah, read John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah. The Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1983), xxxviii-lv.
2. You must read Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) pp. 90-108. These few pages are full of exegetical and homiletical energy.