Isaiah (Part 46): God’s Rescuer: His Servant (Ch 42a)
In Isaiah 41:21-24 asks the nations who don’t follow him to state their case for their gods. He asks, in verse 22, whether those idols can prophesy. It is more than merely being able to predict the future. God phrases it in such a way as to understand control of the future. As he asks them to “tell of the past events” to “know the outcome,” God focuses on the ability to plan and actuate the plan. But these gods can do nothing. We can hear the exasperation in his voice as God says, “Do something,” pointing out their worthlessness. His conclusion gets to the heart of the error. Yes, these gods are worthless. They have no works to present. But the real stinging point is that those who, then, put their trust in these gods are worthless as well. They are worthless for making their vain choice, and they are worthless in the sense that they, then, have no rescuer; they are left in their prison of death.
In verse 25, God again shows the contrast of his own work in comparison to the ineffectual idols. He is the one who called his servant from the north and east (Media and Persia) to be the scourge of the nations and the rescuer of his people. And he does so be informing what will happen and then making it happen. God’s point here is that he doesn’t simply watch the course of human events and predict the outcome. No prophet had yet announced what would occur. God announced something new, and it came about, controlled by the very hand of God.
Notice the progression of these three verses, 25 through 27. In 25 he announces his plan, speaking in first person singular. In verse 27, he also speaks in first person singular in noting the plan. But in verse 26 the word “we” appears twice. Is God still speaking? No change of speaker has been stated, but change of speaker is seldom announced in Isaiah. What we are to remember here and envision is the courtroom scene. God speaks, announcing something in verse 25. As he announces it, a murmur runs through the courtroom. The spectators, realizing something—suddenly understanding what God has said—speak to each other. And what they say to each other is verse 26—“Yes, that’s right. Nobody saw this coming. This is announced by God, and he made it happen. This does show God to be GOD!” And in response to their excitement in recognizing the work and control of the great caregiver God, God gets excited too! It thrills and delights him just as a teacher or parent is delighted when the student or child understands the lesson. We see the delight in God’s phrasing in verse 27. Most translations smooth out the speech for us, but the Hebrew here shifts to a staccato, punctuated rush. Verse 27, more literally, is “The first thing, to Zion—Watch, watch for them!—and to Jerusalem, one-bringing-good-news I will give.” This is God’s response to the people recognizing his work. He is saying, “Yes, yes! That’s right! I am bringing the rescuer! Now, you understand!”
God then turns back to the idols, directing the attention of his people to them, and confirms, “When I speak and act, there is no counselor for me among them. They don’t say anything to me. They can’t do anything. They are worthless as the wind, full of emptiness.”
This entire court scene is a chiasm.
41:1 God calls the nations to be silent before him to listen to his case.
41:2-4 God sent Righteousness, his servant to rule the nations.
41:5-7 The nations were afraid and fashioned idols to rescue them.
41:8-10 God cared for his people.
41:11-16 God would still care and rescue his people.
41:17-20 The poor and needy would receive his care.
41:21-24 The nations’ idols can’t do a thing for them.
41:25-27 God has raised one up who will be the Servant-Rescuer.
41:28-29 The result of the case comparison is that the idol-followers will fail.
Chapter 42 presents God’s rescuer as his servant. The first four verses show the servant’s mission as bringing the truth of God to the world. In these four verses we read the thrice-repeated theme of the rescuer bringing “justice” to the nations (KJV has “judgment”). That is, indeed, the sense of the Hebrew. Isaiah still has the court scene in his vision, and the word is a legal term. It is translated elsewhere in the OT as right, cause, ordinance, law, worth, discretion, measure. In the sense of our scene, this justice that is being presented is the truth that God is able to and will rescue. Thus, the servant’s task is to send forth and set in place the truth of God. The result will be that the nations will wait and hope in this instruction (truth).
The presentation of the rescuer has both an immediate and ultimate context. The immediate context has to do with Judah’s captivity by Babylon. The rescuer, Cyrus the Persian, will conquer Babylon, taking possession of the Jews, but then releasing them as he becomes aware of God’s prophecy about him.
Notice that verse 1 identifies the rescuer as a servant. The language matches that used by God in chapter 41 to call Judah his servant. God would (1) strengthen, (2) choose, and (3) place his Spirit on (or be with) this servant. In 41:8-10, God strengthened, chose, and was with Judah.
Cyrus is the servant-rescuer in the immediate context. Although Cyrus is not mentioned here, we read of Cyrus as the rescuer in Isaiah 44:26-45:6. In that passage, God connects Cyrus to these servant qualifications again. God says Cyrus is his shepherd (servant) whom he will strengthen. He says to Cyrus, “I call you by your name,” and says Cyrus will “fulfill all My pleasure,” showing that God chooses and delights in him. And God also tells him “I will go before you,” and his “right hand I have grasped,” indicating his presence/Spirit with him.
Verse 2 speaks of the rescuer not crying out in the streets. This means that the rescuer will not be drawing attention to himself. This was certainly true of Cyrus. Although king of an empire, Cyrus makes clear in his decree to let the Jews go back to their homeland because God demands that it be done. In the portion of the decree we have in Ezra 1, Cyrus is insistent in calling God, the Lord of heaven, and admitting that God is the one who gave him the kingdoms of the earth and appointed him to rebuild Jerusalem. Josephus records a fuller version of the decree in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, Chapter 1, paragraph 3. In that decree, Cyrus shows a deeper knowledge of the Jews and their God. In discussing the rebuilding of the temple, Cyrus states, “The priests shall also offer these sacrifices according to the laws of Moses in Jerusalem; and when they offer them, they shall pray to God for the preservation of the king and of his family, that the kingdom of Persia may continue.” Thus, Cyrus does not claim glory for himself in this rescue, but consistently points to God.
Verse 3 of Isaiah 42 mentions that the rescuer will not “break a bruised reed” or “put out a smoldering wick.” This refers to the support and strengthening of the downtrodden, consistent with the 40:4 valley being lifted up and the 41:10 strengthening, helping, and holding.
In verse 4 we are assured that the rescuer will accomplish the task.
Of course, when we read these four verses, we don’t normally think of their immediate context. As Isaiah progresses, we see a shift from focus on immediate context to focus on ultimate context. In these four verses, we understand clearly the ultimate context of Christ as Servant-Rescuer. The same servant indications noted in verse 1 are presented for Christ in the baptism/desert opening of his ministry. In Matthew 4:11b, God sends angels to “strengthen” him. In Matthew 3:17, God calls him his beloved Son and says he takes delight in him. And in Matthew 3:16, we see the Holy Spirit of God descend on Jesus.
Verse 2 also points to Christ’s attitude of not ministering to draw attention to himself but rather to God (John 4:34; 6:38; 14:10b). Luke 4:18 speaks of Christ’s work to help the downtrodden. And we know that Jesus was sure to see the work complete and the truth of God’s gospel proclaimed (Matthew 12:15-21; Luke 18:31; John 1:1; Matthew 24:14).
Verses 5 through 9 of this chapter shift focus of the mission of the Servant Rescuer from bringing truth to making covenant. Verse 5 to the beginning of verse 6 show progression in God’s control from the entire expanse of the heavens to the limited area of the earth to the focus on humankind to the choice of the one individual rescuer. Again the theme of servant is emphasized in verse 6 as we see God holding by the hand, keeping, and appointing. The theme is necessary and fits in this section of Isaiah that concentrates on God’s sovereign control over the whole rescue program. We see Paul remark on this in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 in highlighting Christ as Redeemer but still wrapping it up to show that God is “all in all.”