21 March 2016

Isaiah 42:1-9

“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.” (v. 1)

Psalm: Psalm 36


This passage has become very clearly associated, for Christians, with the person of Jesus. In fact, in Luke 4:18-21, Jesus uses it to frame his own ministry and mission. But, of course, Isaiah was writing for people in a particular context, and his words must also have meant something in that setting. The earliest hearers of the prophecy must have heard something of relevance to them and their situation.

Isaiah speaks of the "servant", but doesn't spell out to whom this refers. So who originally was this servant? In the prophecy's historical context, "my servant" might refer to Cyrus, Emperor of Persia. After the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians, Cyrus allowed the Israelite, living in exile there, to return home. He was seen as an instrument of God's grace - in fact, as an anointed one, or Messiah (Isaiah 45:1).

Or perhaps the "servant" is Israel? In the previous chapter (Isaiah 41:8-9), God addressed "Israel, my servant", so it may well be that Isaiah is talking to them here. Then Israel becomes the means by which God's justice is delivered - "a light to the nations" (v. 6), sent to be good news. Jesus claimed for himself - and perhaps for his followers too - a key place within this mission: to bring God's justice and be a beacon of God's love to the world.

Or perhaps the servant was the "one" referred to near the end of chapter 41 (Isaiah 41:25): the "one" who God has stirred up, who is summoned by name and who will trample on rulers. God's Spirit is on him. He is the instrument of God's justice, given as a covenant to the people. It is easy to see how this understanding of the passage could encourage messianic expectation. The Messiah (the 'anointed one') might be a great leader, promised by God to make Israel great again. Or he might be an angelic figure, brining in the age of God's judgement over the nations. Or he might be Jesus, bringing salvation and proclaiming God's kingdom.

To Ponder

  • The word translated "justice" (vv. 1, 3, 4) in the NRSV is, in some translations, rendered 'judgement'. The Hebrew can mean either. Which do you think fits better here? Which do you like better? What difference does it make to how you read and feel about the passage?
  • How (and how well) do we, as the Church today, carry out the call "to open the eyes that are blind," or "to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon" (v. 7)?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.