A Chosen Servant

We continue our walk through Isaiah with Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) as our guide. Today we focus on Isaiah 42, the first of the servant oracles – presented as lyric poetry or “songs.” Witherington emphasizes, however, that they are prophetic oracles. Isaiah 42:1-7 is a well known text.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (42:1-7)

The Lord’s servant will bring forth justice for the nations – including, but not only, Israel.  The Hebrew word behind our translation “servant” is a general term not necessarily defined by a specific role … “More to the point in a context where Yahweh is speaking, it refers to a relationship someone, or some group, has with God.” (p. 201) God’s servant, whom he has chosen, on whom his Spirit rests, will bring forth justice. Although “servant” is, at times, applied to Israel (e.g. Is 41:8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend“), in chapter 42 it appears to reference a specific individual, perhaps with multiple levels of fulfillment. The servant is made a covenant, i.e. embodies a covenant, for all peoples. The servant himself is central.

Whether the intent of the original human author was to identify an individual or the Jewish people as the servant, there is no doubt how it was interpreted in the early church. Jesus is the faithful servant, the faithful Israelite. Jesus does what Israel never could accomplish. Matthew quotes the first part of this passage explicitly, and applies it to Jesus as predictive prophecy. (12:17-21)

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Witherington points out that Matthew has not tailored this quote to fit fit his immediate context. Rather, he is quite clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy. In fact, “Matthew is quite clear that Isaiah prophesied this oracle, and prophesied it quite specifically about Jesus.” (p. 205) This doesn’t mean that it had to be the historical Isaiah living in the time of Hezekiah, but it surely means the original author of this portion of the book – long before the first century birth of Jesus. Matthew also emphasizes that this was spoken through the prophet – these are the words of God spoken through his prophet. Only with the advent of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the church was their meaning more fully understood.

Matthew does make one clear change to the text – following the Greek rather than the Hebrew text of Isaiah. The nations will put their hope in his name not in his teaching. It is Jesus himself, not the law, that brings hope.


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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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The link to the book above is a commissioned link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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