Pastor Mike Schumann
How God's gentle servant will bring good news to the nations.
So, as a church, we’ve just completed a short season of walking together through the book of Philippians. Now, as a church, we’re beginning an even shorter season, just these next four weeks leading up to Christmas, with the book of Isaiah. This is a big shift. There’s many differences between Isaiah and the book of Philippians, but the greatest of them, I believe, is this: Philippians is a book written shortly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Isaiah, on the other hand, is a book before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah — long before, in fact 700 years before.
Now, what we’ll find together, is that while much Isaiah, like Philippians offers assurance and encouragement to the believer, is does so not with a tone of completion and finality, but of eager expectation. It’s posture is not one of looking back at what has been done, but of looking forward to what will, most definitely, be done.
Eager expectation — That’s the tone for today, that’ll be the tone for next week, and that will be the tone of this whole short season of advent, leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
We’ve read the sermon text for today, that’s our content. We’ve just talked about “Eager expectation,” which will be the tone for today, but what’s the setting of Isaiah 42? We’re going to be slightly lost if we don’t take a second here to set the scene.
The setting here is that it’s around the year 700 BC, and God, speaking through Isaiah, has been giving us some categories:
First, Isaiah 39, we get the problem, which is Babylon. Now while it’s true that chapters 1-37 focus mainly on opposition from Israel in the north, and Assyria to the Northeast, chapter 38 is kind of the hinge point where our focus turns to a future time when Babylon would take over Judah, take over Jerusalem, and kick the Israelites out of their land to dwell, once again, as foreigners, exiles, this time in Babylon rather than Egypt. So, things have shifted in chapter 38 of Isaiah, and the problem, right now, is Babylon.
Now, we get our next category, false gods. Yahweh, in chapter 41 of Isaiah, will challenge these false gods, saying, “Let forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them, (your idols), tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them…Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you”
So, you have a problem, Babylon. You have false gods who can do nothing to help you with your problem.
Next category, God himself. Again chapter 41, God speaks, “Who stirred up one from the east whom victory meets at every step? He gives up nations before him…he makes them like dust with his sword …Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.”
He Is a Servant
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” How surprising it would have been to hear the God of the universe proclaim that his Messiah, his rescuer, would be a servant. Think of it. The Israelites lived in the time of world empires — Egypt, Assyria, then Babylon, and Persia. And every one of these world empires would be led heavy-fisted leaders who’d gain and maintain their power through force — death and destruction, weaponry and war. Yet, God says, behold, my servant, empowered not by bows, bullets, or bombs, but the very Spirit of God himself. “I have put my Spirit upon him.” To do what? To destroy? To enslave? To ruin? To bring forth justice to the nations.”
Now, is “Justice” good news or bad news for the nations? After all, justice, in the Bible, often connotes “punishment” — as in the courtroom where a judge is said to bring a person found guilty of a crime, to justice, meaning punishment — prison sentence, a fine of some sort, whatever. We call that punishment “bringing a person to justice”. So, is that what’s going on here? Will the “justice” this servant brings punish the nations?
Well, let’s keep reading to see how this justice is described.
Verse 2 says, “He (the servant) will not cry aloud or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street;3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; (and then we see it again) he will faithfully bring forth justice. So far, this justice looks fairly gentle. Unlike the tyrant kings of old who stirred up the crowds, made noise in the city — Hey, look at me, look at my power, fear me, serve me, bow down to me. This servant will not cry aloud or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. And, also unlike the tyrant kings of old who left paths of destruction behind them, wakes of burnt buildings and bloodied bodies all around them. This servant, a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” So it appears, so far, that the justice the servant will bring to the nations will be refreshingly, gentle.
Now note, by gentle I do not mean weak. Yes, he will not break a bruised reed, but he is no bruised reed himself. Yes, he will not quench a smoldering wick, but he is no smoldering wick himself. The text says, “he will faithfully bring forth justice. (and) He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he’s established justice in the earth.” This is not language of weakness, but power, definite, sovereign power. He will do it, he will establish justice. Nothing will thwart him, nothing will stop him, nothing will get in his way. There’s authority here, certainty here, power here. And on no small scale either. The justice he’s bringing will be in all the earth! What an audacious, grandiose claim to make — unless your God.
Unless you’re God, the promise to be a light for the nations seems doubtful
Unless you’re God, the promise to open the eyes that are blind seems laughable.
Unless you’re God, the promise to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon seems hopeless.
Unless you’re God.
And here’s where we see the unique glory of God. You see it’s one thing to take the world by a the heavy-hand of a tyrant. It’s another thing to take the world by the smooth talk of a manipulator. It’s an entirely different thing to take the world the gentle servitude of carpenter’s son. Who could possibly manage that?
So, the servant, he will gently, and powerfully, bring justice to the nations — and it seems, that’s good news, not bad news, for the nations. And why would that be? Well, Theologian John Oswalt is really helpful here. He says, justice, in the sense of it being talked about here in chapter 42, “Is nothing less than the salvation of God defined in its broadest sense…It connotes the entire, life-giving order which exists when the creation is functioning in accordance with the design of its Lord.”
We might say this, God’s justice, like that which pervaded the Garden of Eden, in and of itself is a good thing, and it’s only a bad thing for those who’d commit injustice. God’s law, in and of itself, is a good thing, and it’s only a bad thing for those who’d break the law. God’s kingship is a good thing, and it’s only a bad thing for those who’d rather be king themselves.
But, it seems, though the nation of Israel regularly disobeyed God — committing injustice, breaking God’s law, seeking to be kings themselves rather than serve the one true king — though Israel has done all that, it seems the nations want to obey God, and his justice, and his law, and his kingship. Verse 4 reads, “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he’s established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” They want it.
And that’s been God’s plan from the very beginning. That people, all across the world, from every tribe, nation, and tongue would rejoice in calling themselves citizens of THE GREAT KING and his great kingdom. Justice to the nation. That’s been God’s plan from the very beginning.
Adam and Eve were to multiply and fill the whole world with this sense of God’s justice.
Following the flood, Noah and his family were to multiply and fill the whole world with this sense of God’s justice.
Abraham’s people, specifically, were blessed by God that they might bless the world with this sense of justice.
God’s people, today, who through faith in Christ dwell in this sense of justice with God, are, until God takes us home, called to spread this sense of God’s justice into the world.
God’s justice to the nations. This has been God’s plan from the very beginning — and it’s still the plan.
And that’s why, I think, here, in verse 5, God starts speaking directly. “Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it:6 “I am the LORD; I have called you, (my servant), in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.”
Note that God here, is speaking to the servant, why is he doing that? Does the servant needs reminders from God, encouragement from God, guidance from Him? Well, we actually see something quite similar in the NT, in John 12, God speaks directly to Jesus, the people overhear it. In response to this Jesus says, explicitly, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” In other words, Jesus didn’t need to hear from the Father in that moment, but the people did. I think that’s what’s going on here as well. God is speaking to his servant, intentionally within earshot of his people, because he’s wanting his people to see, to recognize, and draw a direct connection, between God the Father and the servant.”
God the Father is the one who calls this servant to bring forth justice to the nations
God the Father is the one who empowers this servant by the Spirit bestowed upon him
God the Father is the one who keeps this servant while the mission is being completed
God the Father, from before he first stretched out the heavens, spread out the earth, and gave breath and spirit to His people — God the father has planned to work in tandem with this servant. Which is why, I believe, he thunders out in verse 8-9, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
I tell you all of this before it happens, that when it happens, you may know, I am God, this is my servant, and this is my plan.
One big reason this matters, is because leading up to chapter 42, Isaiah has already been speaking about a servant, but a different one. The servant referred to before chapter 42 is the nation of Israel as a whole. But now, in chapter 42, the servant’s identity has changed, and now he’s clearly an individual, not a group of people. And so, the question is, is this “new” servant, of chapter 42, just God’s back-up plan? Israel was supposed to be the servant, was supposed to be a blessing to the nations, but they failed, miserably, so now God has to scramble and come out with his plan-B?
No! God has known from the very beginning that the nation of Israel, this corporate servant, would fail. In the same way that he knew the peoples’ idols of wood and stone would fail. Why does he tell us about the failing servant Israel, and their failing gods Baal and Ashoreth? Because, it is against this backdrop of humiliating failure that the glory and power of the true servant, of the true God, shines brightest.
Now, if you want more on this servant, spoken of here in chapter 42, I’d encourage you to read through the rest of the servant songs. There are four of them in Isaiah, this section (42:1-9), along with 49:1-6, 50:4-7, and 52:13-53:12, and each one of them makes more and more promises regarding the mission of this coming servant. But for now, I want us to turn our attention to the words of the New Testament, where we get to see that Jesus fulfills every single one of the promises we find here in chapter 42.
One last verse here, Matthew 12, following Jesus’ healing of a man’s hand on the Sabbath, Matthew boldly claims, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles (the nations) will hope.”
Here’s is where I want to close.
Jesus is the gentle, powerful, justice-bringing Servant…and we glorify him. Yet, someone might point out, here, what appears to be a contradiction. In Isaiah 42:8, God emphatically proclaims, 8 I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” In John 17, Jesus praying to the Father, says, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
God says, “My glory I give to one another.” Jesus prays, glorify me.
Does that accord with Isaiah 42? There are many places in the Bible we could go looking for an answer but we’ll conclude here with book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Note some of the similarities between these two books, Revelation and Isaiah:
Here is a mystery to behold. This servant of Isaiah 42, who is to become the slain, lamb-like servant of Isaiah 53, can be glorified, and worshipped, because He himself is God. As Christians, we believe in a Triune God, meaning, one God, in three persons: God the Father, God the son, and God the Spirit. And here in Isaiah we have the awesome truth that when God says he will send his servant to his people, he sends no mere human messenger, he sends his very self. God, the Son, the Servant, sent by God the Father, empowered by God the Spirit, to take on flesh and dwell among his people, and serve them through his death.
God, the servant. What a mystery to behold.