The “servant of God” theme is one of the richest strands of Isaiah’s thought, and it lies right at the heart of his message as it moves to its climax in this second half of the book. The announcement at the beginning of the chapter, “Here is my servant…” suggests that a new and significant stage has now been reached in the development of this theme. Clearly, God Himself is the one who makes the announcement in verse 1. But who is the Servant He is referring to, and to whom is He speaking? The announcement is made to God’s people themselves. The Servant it refers to is not just a ideal they should aspire to but (as we shall see in due course) a real person who is God’s answer to their weakness and failure.
There are three parts to this first song. Verses 1-4 are addressed to Israel with the Servant as the subject. Verses 5-7 are addressed to the Servant Himself, with Israel overhearing what is said. Finally, in verses 8-9 Israel is once more addressed directly. The main topic of all three parts is the mission that the Servant is to carry out.
The key term in verses 1-4 is justice. The Servant will bring justice to the nations (v. 1); He will faithfully bring forth justice (v. 3), and He will establish justice on earth (v. 4). But we have to be careful here, for in the book of Isaiah the Hebrew word for justice is a rather bigger thing than we normally think of as justice. In 40:14 it has to do with the order God has given to the whole universe by His creative acts. In 40:27 it refers to the maintenance of Israel’s position in the world as a nation in a special relationship with God, and in 41:1 it has to do with the false claims of the nations and their gods being silenced, and the truth about the Lord’s total sovereignty over history being established. Viewed against this background, the mission of the Servant is a gigantic one. It is nothing less than to put God’s plans for His people into full effect, and to make the truth about the Lord, Israel’s God, known everywhere, especially the fact that He alone is the sovereign Creator and Lord of history.
The same breathtaking mission is explained in verses 5-7 in terms of the Servant being a covenant and a light (v. 6b). As Creator, God is the one who gives breath to all people (v. 5b). Moreover, the God who made the world is committed to its welfare; there is a “covenant” between God and the human race implicit in the act of creation itself. And the Servant, as a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, is to be the very embodiment of that covenant. It is through Him that God’s purposes for His world will be realized, by the opening of blind eyes, and freeing of captives, and the release of those who sit in darkness (v. 7). In short, the Servant 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.
Finally, in verses 8-9, the mission of the Servant is spoken of in terms of former things and new things. The work of the Servant would open a new chapter in God’s relationship with His people and with the world, in which His glory would be displayed in a new way, far surpassing anything that had happened previously. In fact, it would lead eventually to new heavens and a new earth.
The real wonder of the Servant’s mission, however, lies not so much in its breathtaking scope as in the manner in which it will be accomplished. He will not be a military conqueror like Cyrus. The source of His strength will be the Spirit of God (v. 1). The instrument of His rule will be the Word of God (v. 4b). His manner will be gentile rather than overbearing (vv. 2, 3a), and there is more than a hint in the opening line in verse 4 that His mission will involve Him in personal suffering.
This contrast between Cyrus and the Servant brings us back at last to the people in view in this message. They were going to need two kinds of deliverance. They would need release from physical captivity, and God would use Cyrus to achieve that. But they would also need release from bitterness, blindness and spiritual darkness (v. 7). Their deepest need would be for someone who could heal their broken relationship with God. And here God points them to the One who will accomplish that for them. The message of comfort with which chapter 40 opened has its deepest roots here, in the work of the Servant. This first Servant Song is good news for all people, but it was good news for Israel first of all. God’s healing; saving work would bring with them, and then overflow to a waiting world.
Isaiah 42:1-9 Reflection Questions:
Where in the New Testament Gospels do verses 1-4 appear in reference to Christ?
Where do you see yourself in this study?
How are you reflecting God’s glory daily?