We are studying Isaiah 42:1-9 for April 5 – Palm / Passion Sunday, or Palm Sunday of Christ’s Passion. This is the first part of the first of the “Servant Songs” in Second Isaiah. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Isaiah is LONG.
The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah lay out the prophet’s announcements to Judah in the time of kings “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah” (Isaiah 1:1), that is, from the last half of the 8th century BCE. In a variety of complex literary forms, they warn of impending judgment on Judah, because of the leaders’ and the people’s greed, wickedness, and idolatry (e.g., look at Isaiah 2:5-22, or Isaiah 5). But also offer beautiful visions of a completely different future (e.g., look at Isaiah 2:1-4, or Isaiah 11). There are stories, like the famous narrative of Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry (see Isaiah 6), or the one of King Hezekiah asking for the shadow to go backwards on the wall to prove that he is going to be healed from a fatal illness (see Isaiah 38:1-8). There are judgment oracles on many other nations (Isaiah 13-27). And there is the chilling finale, the story of the prophecy about the Babylonian exile, and King Hezekiah’s purely self-interested complacency in reaction to it (Isaiah 39).
If only that sort of thing had ended in 700 BCE.
Then, there’s a dramatic break between the end of Isaiah 39 and the beginning of Isaiah 40, which we think of as the break between “first Isaiah” and “second Isaiah.” Second Isaiah begins with a famously beautiful message of comfort to the exiles in Babylonia.
The Bible Project’s video on the second part of Isaiah nicely summarizes the older and the newer way people explain this shift in the text.
Whatever we think about this text’s date of composition, it’s clear Second Isaiah directly addresses the exiles in Babylon, and offers a message of comfort and hope from God to those exiles, about their continuing relationship with God, and their continuing purpose in God’s plan for the world.
Our text is part of that larger message, and includes the first of the specific texts known [especially to Christians] as the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) that are part of it.
That all raises the big philosophical / theological / hermeneutical issue that affects how we are going to read this week’s text right away.
The Bible Project has a distinct approach to the question of “what Isaiah is really talking about.” What the entire Hebrew Bible is “really talking about” for that matter. They are comfortable saying “the whole Bible points to Christ.”
I am more comfortable saying “we can read the whole Bible as pointing to Christ … if we’re Christians.” That may sound like a small difference, but I’ll argue it’s an important one. I think it’s a mistake not to acknowledge that if we read the Bible that way – as all pointing to Christ, that is – we are making a theological choice about how to read it, a choice based on something we already believe about the text. I’m not saying we are mistaken to read it that way, either. But I am more comfortable making a different theological choice, which leads me to want NOT to suggest that the rabbis don’t also know how to read the Bible. “Correctly.” Although they don’t read it as pointing to Jesus.
So: what we’re bringing to this text is part of the background and context, seriously. And with this one in particular, we are bringing a couple of thousand years of heavy Christian readerly baggage.
Let’s notice that in Isaiah 41:8-10, the text explicitly identifies Israel as God’s servant, chosen, upheld.
Our text is near the beginning of Second Isaiah, the first of the “Servant Songs.” After this, the text will go on to encourage the exiles with assurances of God’s forgiveness, care and protection, reminders of God’s power, prophecies of the demise of Babylonia (see Isaiah 47), the expansion and elaboration of the servant’s mission … and then, starting in chapter 56, which we might think of as “Third Isaiah,” also new prophetic reminders to straighten up and act right.
Isaiah 42:1-9 is the lectionary reading for the Monday of Holy Week in years A, B, and C, as well as the reading for the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord in Year A, so chances are good that people will have heard it in church, more than once. Its position in the lectionary reflects the importance Isaiah in general and this part of Isaiah in particular has had and has in Christian understanding, and the role it has played in establishing Jesus’s identity as the Christ, for Christians.
The notes in the Access Bible point out that there was an Ancient Near Eastern formula or established protocol for introducing an emissary, and our text follows it. It attaches the authority of the sender to the sendee, who then acts with that authority, and it states the emissary’s mission.
CLOSER READING: The organization of the passage looks like this to me:
- Verses 1-4 introduce the servant, and his mission;
- Verse 5 identifies God, YHWH, as the sender, the one served;
- Verses 6-7 are two patterned statements, opening with “I am YHWH” and making a point:
- Verses 6-7 turn to directly address the servant, and describe the servant’s mission;
- Verses 8-9 turn back to the original audience, and describe the situation.
In Verses 1-4 there’s an emphasis on justice: the word shows up in three of four of these verses, as being integral to the mission of the servant, God’s chosen.
The justice is for “the nations.” We usually think of the nations as the Gentiles. Rashi (in a note on v6) suggests they might be the individual tribes of Israel, each called a nation in its own right.
Verse 1 presents the servant as highly favored: God chooses him, God’s soul delights in him, and God’s spirit is upon him.
The choice of verbs in verse 2 may remind us of the cry YHWH heard when Israel was in Egypt … or, in the bad old days in Jerusalem (Isaiah 5:7), which may explain why the servant will not do that. Those days are [or should be] past.
Verses 3 & 4 are carefully arranged around the verbs “to crush” and “to grow dim/faint.” The servant will not break a “bruised” [literally, “crushed”] reed, and will not be “crushed” himself; will not quench “dimly burning” flax and will not [literally] grow dim or faint himself.
I used to always have the image of a bonfire in mind when reading verse 4, because the KJV here reads “smoking flax.” The NRSV gives us a reference to a lamp wick; these reportedly were made of flax. Commentators tell us these grow dim and finally smoke when the lamp runs out of fuel. If you add more fuel, though, the wick can still burn brightly. This implicit reference to light in verse 4 already tells us about the servant’s mission, of being “a light to the nations” (verse 6) and opening blind eyes and releasing prisoners sitting in darkness (verse 7).
The God who is announcing all of this (v5), specifically YHWH, backs up the servant with the authority of the creator of everything. That’s a lot of authority. It seems significant that this God gives spirit to every person, echoing the gift of God’s spirit to the servant in v1.
If we kept reading, we’d encounter a description of the “servant” as blind himself (verses 18-23), and unlikely to believe a prophetic message that God has fresh plans for servant Israel. But stay tuned, the prophet says, you should. And if we kept reading, we’d learn that God is redeeming the people, and nothing is going to stand in God’s way (Isaiah 43). And the text continues this way for many chapters.
In other words: there is a very good case to be made that “the servant” all the way through Second Isaiah is Israel, is God’s covenant people.
Which is not to say that Christian readers of Isaiah are not allowed to think of Jesus Christ as the most perfect exemplification of God’s covenant relationship with Israel ever. I don’t see how we could not think that. Even if we wanted to. Which I, for one, do not.
[Added 04.03.2020] In verse 9, the verb translated “spring forth” is the kind of “springing” associated with plants sprouting from the ground or flowers springing forth from branches (I say to myself, looking at the blossoming redbuds, and thinking “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made flowering trees!”). Rather than the kind we might associate with a gazelle or a jack-in-the-box, which is what I used to think.
Here is something else on Isaiah and our readerly assumptions.