We first meet the enigmatic ‘servant of the Lord’ as we step over the threshold of Isaiah 42. Yet for the reader of Isaiah he bears a family resemblance. This is because what is said of the servant here carries echoes of thoughts and language that have proven important to the book of Isaiah over the long run of forty-one chapters that have led to this first encounter of a direct kind.
‘There is something about him …’, one might muse. ‘Have I met this person somewhere before? Who does he remind me of …?’
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1–4 ESV)
If I speak of ‘my servant’ (Hebrew: עבדי) as an individual or as a person, I do so not in order to prejudge the question of his identity but rather to reflect the text’s own treatment. Of the many things disclosed about this puzzling persona, let me call out a few that stand out in this first ‘public presentation’.
First, the text insists on YHWH’s sustaining hold on the servant. The servant is not only empowered by YHWH; he is very much maintained in his mission by YHWH’s sustaining presence. We’ll see more of this at another moment, but it would be an oversight not to mention it here.
Second, the servant is an agent of justice (Hebrew: משפט), a theme with deep roots in Isaian soil. Three times in this four-verse oracle, the theme recurs. Perhaps as a result of YHWH’s placement of his Spirit upon the servant, the latter will bring forth justice to the nations. Then, in a strikingly accentuated re-emphasis, he will faithfully (or ‘really‘) bring forth justice. And, finally, the servant’s vigor will not be diminished until he has established justice in the earth.
Third, there appears in these verses an exquisitely Isaian double application of the terminology of the notions of bruising and quenching. The first statement concerns the servant’s consideration of those who are weak or compromised in some material way. Following the claim that the servant will not stalk noisily through the streets, the text turns to his treatment of the weak:
A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.
Yet no sooner than this claim has been made than the text races on to clarify that this tenderness says nothing about the servant’s own weakness. Repeating the very same Hebrew vocabulary for bruising (רצץ) and fainting (כהה) in reverse order to their first appearance, the oracle asserts that:
He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth
The fact that the English Standard Version (ESV) varies its translation of כהה from ‘bruised’ in the first instance to ‘be discouraged’ in the second veils this subtle double deployment of identical language, but it is there to be seen by the Hebrew reader. Finally, this introduction of the servant may well feed into the case that can be made that Isaiah envisages a place of blessing rather than mere condemnation for ‘the nations’, even if that blessing is found by a path that weaves its way through YHWH’s heated-up justice. The coastlands, we are told, wait for or hope for the servant’s justice, which is in point of fact the justice of YHWH himself. Significantly, this places the nations’ redemptive journey alongside the route of Israel/Judah’s own hard and hopeful journey.
So does Isaiah’s ‘servant of the Lord’ establish his first impressions. This agent of divine justice, operating by YHWH’s own strength and provision, tirelessly extends justice far and near without rolling over the weak and needy in the process.
Isaiah’s development of servant’s persona has scarcely begun. Already, it is rich, suggestive, unsettling, and puzzling.