Isaiah 42:1-9: Servant leadership

ISAIAH 42.1-9: SERVANT LEADERSHIP

Is 42.1 “Here is my servant”. Or in the more dramatic rendering of the AV: “Behold my servant”! The question immediately arises: Who is this servant here in Isaiah 42? Indeed, who is this servant who features in all the four ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah? For Is 42.1-9 is the first of the so-called Servant Songs of Isaiah: the others are found in Is 49.1-6; 50.4-9; and 52.13-53.12.  Many books have been devoted to answering the question of the servant’s identity. The difficulty is that sometimes the servant is clearly one person – and another time the servant appears to be a group of people. The general consensus is that the prophet was not describing one particular individual, but rather he was drawing an ideal picture of how God would have people serve him. In these servant songs the prophet declares his hope that as a result of the chastening experience of exile, Israel would serve the Lord in a new way. Alas, Israel never lived up to its calling. But six centuries later there came one who did. His name was Jesus.

  • I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.27), said Jesus.
  • The Son of Man came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45)
  • At the Last Supper, Jesus performed the task of a servant as he tied a towel round his waist and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13).

In the words of the Christ-hymn of Phil 2, Jesus, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”.

We cannot pretend that the prophet had Jesus in view when he spoke about the Servant of the Lord. But in a way in which the prophet could never have envisaged, these words were fulfilled in Jesus.

Tonight I want us to focus on the first four verses of Isaiah 42: “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”.

  1. God fully approves of his servant:  he is, says God, “my chosen in whom my soul delights”. Peterson: “He is the one I chose, I could not be more pleased with him”. Significantly these words are echoed at the baptism of Jesus: We read that as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.10-11)
  2. God gives his servant the task of ‘bringing justice to ever nation’. Three times in this brief passage of four verses this task is mention:

    42.1: “he will bring forth justice to the nations
    42.3: “he will faithfully bring forth justice
    42.4: “he will not give up “until he has established justice in the earth”.

    What is this justice? The RNJB speaks of the prophet bringing “fair judgment” to the nations”. Peterson in his paraphrase The Message says: “He will set everything right among the nations”. “The Servant”. wrote Barry Webb, “will undo all the horrendous and degrading effects that sin has had on the human race and restore to people their true freedom and dignity as sons and daughters of God”. George Knight: The servant reveals ‘the right way’ for men (sic) to live together in peace and concord’From 40.7 we see that justice involves the opening of the eyes of the blind and the setting free of those who sit in dark prisons. It is a new way of living where God’s rule is supreme.

    In the words of Steven Croft: “Justice is the biggest of words. It embraces the whole of setting the world to rights: healing the dislocation between the creator and the creation; providing a way for sins to be forgiven and humanity to be reconciled with God; establishing fairness in human society, be that in law, in politics and community life or in the community life or in the economy; the good stewardship of creation and handing on the earth unharmed to all future generations.” (p43)

    What a wonderful world that would be!

  3. Although God’s servant will set about his mission by adopting a “quiet, unaggressive and unthreatening” (Alec Motyer) way of doing things: 42.2: “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”. GNB: “He will not shout or raise his voice or make louds speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed or put out a flickering lamp”. Or to quote Peterson’s paraphrase: “He won’t call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades. He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and the insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right”. I find it interesting that we are told “not what the Servant is to do, only what he is not to do” (North). The Servant is not going to dragoon people into the Kingdom; he is to identify with those who have lost all hope, who are bowed down with the burdens of this life. As one commentator (Paul Hanson) pointed out:”The style of witness of the Servant stands so starkly in contrast to the way of the nations and their leaders that it must be regarded either as foolishness or as an intriguing alternative to a failed strategy.”
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    The implication is that it is not going to be an easy job. 42.4. “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth”. God’s servant will encounter opposition. Not everyone will welcome his God-given vision for society. However, “the pressures and blows that immobilize others will not deter him” (Alec Motyer)

  5. The secret to the success of his mission is that the God who calls, also empowers. Here is my servant, whom I uphold” (NRSV/NIV). A little later we read: “I have taken you by the hand and kept you” (40.6). God holds on to his Servant. In addition God gives his Spirit to his servant. “I have put my Spirit upon him”, says the Lord.  As Isaiah 11.2 reminds us, “the spirit in the Old Testament is the power and wisdom of God with whom those who serve are endowed” (Hanson).

Inevitably as we read these words this side of the Cross and Resurrection, we see Jesus. Jesus who in the synagogue at Nazareth read from Isaiah 42 and then said: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21):

However, we cannot simply identify the Servant with Jesus. For the figure that we find in the Servant-Songs also personifies the people of God. God’s people are also to be God’s servant. What was true of the people of God in the 6C BC, is also true of us today. “Here is my servant”, says God. And as he says this, he points to you & to me!

God has chosen us! Paul Hanson: “In times when discipleship weighs heavily and the joy of living true to God’s compassionate justice dimes, remembering that the source of the vocation of those who love God is in God’s delight can have an uplifting and empowering effect” (44). God has given us his Spirit: “Through the empowerment of God’s Spirit, weak and ordinary human beings rise up to accomplish daunting tasks on behalf of God’s reign of justice” (Hanson)

QUESTION:  How comfortable do you feel in applying these words of Scripture to yourself? What is your vision of the kingdom?

Steven Croft relates this passage to the need for servant leadership both in the church and in the world:

We need this leadership as the world rebuilds after Covid. We need this leadership to empower and release the gifts of the church. We need this leadership as we wrestle with creating a safer church and continuing to care for the victims and survivors of abuse. We need this leadership as we explore and debate human sexuality and gender. The world has never been in greater need of this deep, healing stream of leadership, witch exercises power with enormous caution, to heal and not to hurt, to build and not to destroy, persevering and not overwhelming the agency of others. (44)

He concludes: “This is the leadership we are invited to exercise in our families, our communities and our churches” (45)

QUESTION: To what extent is servant leadership the mark of today’s church’s leadership?

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