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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 42’

The opening lines of the first of four ‘servant songs’ in the book of Isaiah establish with their bare descriptiveness a range of qualities about this figure that will be sustained and developed in the ensuing chapters. It is indeed an introduction in every respect, just as הן עבדי (‘Behold, my servant’ or [NRSV] Here is my servant…’]) would lead us to expect.

Here is 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 or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)

Notwithstanding the neatly aligned, almost prosaic, sentences that profile this newly introduced figure, the vocabulary is so rich that it renders the interpreter reluctant to offer the kind of abbreviation that follows. Nevertheless, there is value in doing so.

First, the servant’s relationship with YHWH is both substantive and deeply felt in a way that captures the formidable turn from justice to mercy and from enmity to collaboration that surges forth from chapter 40 onward. YHWH upholds and chooses the servant. Yet there is sentiment in the arrangement, for the servant is the one ‘in whom my should delights.’ The subsequent expression—‘I have put my spirit on him’—likely envelopes both the substance and the feeling that have been expressed just before it.

A rupture has been repaired, giving way to a remarkable functional intimacy between YHWH and his enigmatic servant.

Second, there is a preoccupation with the servant’s role vis-à-vis the world beyond Judah’s borders. We read that the servant ‘will bring forth justice to the nations’. Later, the servant will prove resilient until ‘he has established justice in the earth’. Indeed, a kind of reciprocity is hinted at, for on their side of things ‘the coastlands wait for his teaching’. The combination of these elements seems to suggest something other than a mere judgement upon the nations. In any case, that point could have been made more simply, and in combination the elements suggest that populations remote from Judah will welcome the servant’s justice when it arrives and perhaps even cooperate in seeing it established.

This is all the more so if the תורה for which the coastlands wait in 42.4 is understood principally as instruction rather than an imposed regimen, as seems likely to be the case. If this is the correct reading, then one discerns an allusion to the nations’ eager receptivity in the Vision of Visions at 2.3, taking into account that the learning of YHWH’s תורה back on that exalted mountain leads directly into some kind of imposed—even if welcomed!—rearrangement of relationships among the nations.

Third, the modus operandi of the servant is firmly established as a quiet and persistent one. Even if the servant is destined to achieve great and international things, the quiet and persistent gentleness of his manner will be sustained to the end. An excerpt establishes the point:

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Isaiah 42:2-3 (NRSV)

There is more to be said, even in this first of four servant songs, about the conduct and the anticipated accomplishment of YHWH’s servant. Yet these three observations will be sustained even in those moments when the more glorious aspects of the servant’s commission are commended. It begins to seem that his identity as YHWH’s עבד—his servant—is multivalent. Quite obviously, this figure is a servant in a way that faces YHWH himself, who here presents and upholds him. That is to say, he is an agent of YHWH’s purpose. Yet his manner also suggests a servant’s posture with regard to those entities whom he faces in the course of fulfilling his commission. ‘A dimly burning wick he will not clench’ stands here as an early declaration of this latter point.

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