Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 42’

From the moment YHWH’s servant is introduced in 42.1, there is a hint that the servant’s career will be an arduous one. Indeed, the presentation formula at 42.1 says as much with its first breath:

הן עבדי אתמך־בו
Here is my servant, whom I uphold…

Isaiah 42:1 (NRSV)

YHWH’s pledge to uphold (תמך) all but requires that we imagine resistance to the servant’s work, the potential weakness of the servant himself, or both.

Not surprisingly, then, the passages that follow abound in promises by YHWH to supply all that the servant will require in order that he should persevere to the conclusion of his assigned agenda.

Chapter forty-four continues this sequence of promises, holding tight to the communal or collective identity of the curiously named ‘servant’ while painting with new color the circumstances of his adventure.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!

Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’S,’ another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, ‘The LORD’S,’ and adopt the name of Israel.

Isaiah 44:1-5 (NRSV)

The chapter’s opening oracle, quoted just above, provides essential elements for a comprehensive understanding of the servant figure in the book called Isaiah. Characteristically, it does so incrementally and in a dialect of rich and complex metaphor.

First, we find further assurance in a classic summons to overcome fear—‘Do not fear, O Jacob my servant…!’—that an evident danger ought not to be given more weight than it is due in the context of YHWH’s presence and provision. This continues the tone of reassurance that has accompanied the servant discourse from its beginning.

Additionally, we find overlapping imagery regarding the provision of water in a desert, on the one hand, and descendants/offspring, on the other. These are introduced sequentially, then blended a moment later when the aforementioned descendants/offspring spring up like tamarisk and willows in consequence of YHWH’s irrigation of the desert.

This interplay of images is further enriched by the realization that YHWH’s spirit and the water he provides appear to be two ways of speaking about the same thing.

Finally, the text drops plant imagery as quickly has it had introduced it in order to return to the matter of people. When it does so, we learn that the servant Jacob/Israel’s suddenly appearing children are in fact the offspring of other nations who now—remarkably—adopt the name of Israel.

The overall impact of this oracle’s supplementation of preceding servant discourse is extraordinary. The reference of YHWH’s spirit seems certain to echo that saturating spirit that comes to rest upon the Jesse-king of chapter 11, perhaps linking the collective Jacob/Israel servant with that quite individual, regal figure. And the servant’s YHWH-provisioned return—if this is the movement we are meant to imagine—somehow creates a more complex Jacob/Israel in the very act of its potentially wearying desert crossing.

The children are descended from their parents, yet they are from a different people. YHWH, supporting and sustaining his servant, will see to it. The task is hard, yet the outcome assured. The servant is vulnerable, yet strangely enriched by daughters and sons it did not bear in Babylon nor bring from that soon-to-be-forgotten place. Yet here they are, calling themselves by YHWH-names, more sons and daughters than new-found cousins.


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Just as the book called Isaiah plays on the concepts of YHWH’s strength and his provision of strength to Jacob/Israel, so does the book’s discourse regarding the servant of YHWH make artful use of the concepts of gentleness, weakness, and dimness.

The formal presentation of YHWH’s servant in chapter 42 initiates this interplay of concepts across parallel subjects.

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 (ופשתה כהה) he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

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

Isaías 42:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis and Hebrew text added)

The servant’s task and eventual achievement is portrayed as a quite formidable establishment of justice across many nations, indeed ‘in the earth’ (NRSV). In ordinary circumstances, such a feat might be expected to depend upon the application of great force.

Not here. Instead, the servant will not quench ‘a dimly burning wick’. The expression deploys the verb כהה. The metaphor is best understood as presenting a weary or disheartened person or population. We are asked to imagine that the subjection of that people to the conditions of justice will not crush the dispirited or vulnerable members of its population.

One might have expected the metaphor, having served its purpose, to recede from view. But this does not happen.

Instead, the very next verse hints at the servants own vulnerability and the effective perseverance that will triumph over it. The very same root is now deployed as a verb. The servant ‘will not grow faint’ (לא יכהה). The oscillation in NRSV between the metaphorical wick’s ‘dimly burning’ nature and the servant’s refusal to ‘grow faint’ is perhaps a necessary concession to the demands of translation. Sadly, it sacrifices the play on words that binds the weak members among the nations who will not be crushed in the course of the servant’s administration or impost of justice to the servant’s own refusal to give in to the exhaustion with which his task is understood to threaten him.

This is not the last time that verbal artistry will serve to bind YHWH’s servant deeply to the identity of YHWH himself or to that of human beings who will be impacted by his vocation. In this case, the servant’s gentle disposition towards the objects of his calling and the vulnerability he shares with them but somehow overcomes conspire to bind the two subjects into a remarkable if subtly suggestive solidarity.

All of this occurs in the context of the world-shaping, world-remaking administration of justice which the servant of YHWH appears to ‘bring out’ from Zion for the benefit of nations that, for their part, await the instruction that will shape their new future.

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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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