Tag Archives: Isaiah

The Lord’s Servant

This morning, my devotional reading was in Isaiah 42. I was struck with the following (vv1-4 ESV):

Behold 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 aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

 

It is important that we understand this passage is a description of Christ. However, keep in mind it also points to another. Hebrews 10:1 tells us that the law was a shadow of the good things to come. The law established Israel as a servant of God. Israel was a shadow of the true good servant to come. Israel, in this capacity, serves as a shadow of Christ. So this passage refers to Christ as the good servant who would peacefully and faithfully seek justice, but it also refers to his Old Testament image—Israel. Now, after the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church fills this role as the image of Christ upon the earth. We must keep this in mind. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 42:1-4 was, in their role as the Old Testament shadow of Christ, Israel; was Christ who came in the flesh; and, is applicable to the Church who displays Christ today. If Christ is seeking Justice in the world—as Isaiah says he will do—then he does it through his church.

Notice something about this passage. It says the servant would not cry aloud or lift up his voice, would not break even a bruised reed, nor extinguish a faintly burning wick. This is an image of someone working, but doing so peacefully. It is not the image of an activist screaming in a bullhorn. It is not the image of a rebel taking up arms to throw off a tyrant. It is the image of one who quietly and peacefully sets his shoulder to the work of establishing justice around him.

This image is to be a description of our own work in the world. We are to be about the business of establishing justice and these efforts should be marked by two qualities: peacefulness and faithfulness. We are to seek justice in a way that encourages the peaceful transformation of society from unjust to just and we are to do so no matter how long it takes and regardless of how many oppose our efforts.

The faithfulness is easy to understand and difficult to misapply. This means doing it without stopping and without discouragement. Actually, the passage goes on to say that the servant will not grow faint or be discouraged until his work of establishing justice is complete. This helps us to understand exactly what is meant.

The problem comes when trying to understand the peacefulness quality. Does this mean we must always be quiet and malleable? Does this require having a milquetoast quality? Well, if we follow Christ’s example we have to conclude that this is not what is intended. Christ opposed strongly. He stood for the weak and he spoke for the voiceless. He insulted the spiritual leaders of his day (What else is meant by calling them “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones” or a “brood of vipers”?) He flipped over tables, and drove away the merchants with a hand fashioned whip. He stood before a king and contemptuously refused to answer any questions.

So, what does this mean? How do we fulfill this quality? Actually, the passage itself makes it clear.

First, how we speak:

It says he would not lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. This doesn’t mean we never shout or be loud in support of justice. But it does mean we do not draw attention to ourselves. When we shout it is not to put ourselves forward, but to put forward the cause and the need for justice and to draw attention to the victims. If we raise our voices, it is so the world is informed of the injustice. We speak to publicize the need, rather than our efforts.

Second, how we act:

Notice that the unbroken reed was already bruised. For those who do not understand this means that it is previously damaged and weakened. Notice that the unquenched wick is already burning faintly—nearly extinguished on its own. In other words, he will not do more harm to what has already been damaged. The servant of God does not destroy what is already broken, nor does he tear down what is already falling. The servant of God seeks to build up, to encourage, to mend.

Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite. When we see Christians screaming in people’s faces or practicing scorched-earth politics the world sees a twisted image of Christ. Believers responding to sin with judgment rather than forgiveness mistake Pharisaism for Christianity. When we are more interested in being loved by the powerful than lifting up the weak we are not acting as Christ.

Christ had an Old Testament image which was embodied in Israel. Christ was the physical manifestation foreshadowed by Israel.

Peacefully seek justice—justice for our fellow believers, justice for our neighbors and even justice for those who oppose us.

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God not like other deities

Reading this morning in Isaiah thirteen, I’m struck by the contrast between the gods of ancient pagan societies and the Biblical God, YHWH. Most societies of the day, did not see their gods as being universal. Most saw them as dwelling somewhere within their land. The power of these gods was seldom seen as reaching far beyond their own borders. Most of these nations were locked in a state of struggle or negotiation with surrounding peoples and, as polytheists or henotheists, they viewed their gods in a similar relationship to the deities of those others. In their mind set, “You are my enemy, so your god is my god’s enemy.” When one nation overthrew another, it was seen as a victory for the people and their gods. We see an example of this thinking in 2 Chronicles 32:14-15 (ESV):

“Who among all the gods of those nations that my father devoted to destruction was able to deliver his people from my hand? Now, therefore do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you in this fashion, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to deliver his people from my hand or from the hand of my fathers. How much less will your God deliver you out of my hand!”

It was assumed, “My gods want me to succeed; your gods want the same for you.” This was only natural in societies who saw the offerings made to their gods as somehow bestowing benefit upon the gods. When conflict between people arose, victory was believed to be a sign of who had the more powerful gods.

YHWH (Jehovah) is very different. He was not the tribal deity of a band of wandering Hebrews. He was the God of heaven and earth who had chosen this people through which to work his plan—bringing forth the Messiah to redeem all of mankind. As such, he wields power over all peoples in all situations. He even uses the other nations as if they were his tools. God speaks of his use of foreign people as, “The Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle. They come from a distant land, from the ends of the heavens, the Lord and the weapons of his indignation to destroy the whole land” (Isaiah 13:4c-5 ESV).

When God’s people suffered defeat, it was not because he had been overcome by more powerful gods. It happened because he was disciplining his people. But there is another dimension to which I alluded a moment ago—the self-interest of the deity. If a people is convinced that their gods need their service and offerings, then the gods must do everything they can to keep such service and offerings coming regardless of the morality of the people. We see a perfect example of this in the mythologies of the surrounding peoples. Their gods were not moral. Those gods lived amoral existences and cared little about the morality of their people. Their greatest interest was in keeping the offerings coming. They were believed to protect the people because they needed what the people brought them. Any punishments meted out were either for neglecting service to the gods, or because the gods had chosen one person over another.

YHWH was different—and I don’t just mean because he existed and the other gods did not. YHWH did not need the offerings being brought to him. The people needed him, but there was no codependence. God could have chosen any people or no people. He chose the people of Israel out of his sovereign power to choose, but not because they deserved to be chosen or because he needed a people to serve him. This keeps God independent. His only self-interest was in fulfilling his final plan. He didn’t need to keep the offerings coming. He didn’t need to preserve the people at any cost, regardless of their moral failings. He could do what was needed to accomplish his purpose: the creation of a chosen people from which to bring the Messiah.

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Shelter for our Enemies

Isaiah 16 demonstrates an interesting dimension of Judeo Christian ethics. In this passage, God is punishing Moab for past sins against God’s people. Yet, God commands his people in verse four, “let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer” (ESV).

It’s often imagined that compassion for one’s enemies is a purely Christian commandment first given by Jesus. Of course, Jesus takes it to a new level by telling us to love them. We imagine because Jesus said, Matthew 5: 43f, “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (ESV). Because of this many have claimed the Old Testament taught hatred for one’s enemies. Actually, no such command is found in scripture. Jesus, in this passage, is directly referencing the extra biblical teachings of the Pharisees.

Actually, Jesus command in Matthew 5:43f is very much in keeping with the tenor of Old Testament on behavior towards one’s enemies. Jesus took it farther by commanding active love towards them, but the Old Testament includes several admonishments to act toward them in a loving way (Ex 23:4f; Pro 24:17; 25:21; 29:10 to name but a few).

Yes, there were times the people of God were commanded to kill their enemies in warfare. However, we must be careful to discern two things, (1) these were directly commanded by God, or in response to active enemy attack, and (2) these were commands for the nation and not the individual. The duties of the individual were often very different from those of the nation. It was often the actions of the nation that made it possible for the individual to live to a higher ethical standard. Think of it today as our government leaders have the duty to punish the evil doer, and my individual duty is to forgive that same evil doer.

In Isaiah 16 God commands us not to gloat over our enemies. It also commands us to actively shelter our enemies from the outpouring of God’s wrath. Think of it this way:

“Moab has harmed you and attacked you. Moab has taken advantage of you when you were smitten. Now, I will smite Moab and punish them severely. But when they come among you to escape the destroyer I send among them, you must shelter and protect them. You must not do as they have done, but must behave as my people should.”

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