Isaiah 42:1-9

From internal historical references, this section of Isaiah has been dated to approximately 545-539 B.C.E. The author would thus have been addressing the Israelites toward the end of the Babylonian exile. In these specific verses, a servant is presented (vv. 1-4) and is commissioned by God (vv. 5-9).

Who is the servant? One common interpretation is that servant is the nation Israel, God’s people; this identification is explicit in nearby passages of Isaiah. If true, Isaiah’s audience would likely have seen themselves as ‘the servant’.

It is remarkable that God’s message to the servant, and thus to people in the “despair of exile”, is a call to action: they are to be “servants for justice”. What does ‘justice’ mean in the Bible? The Mosaic tradition of justice involves reordering “social relations for the sake of the vulnerable”, so that the poor may live with dignity and in security. Freeing prisoners may be understood as one example of this social reordering, since imprisonment was often related to poverty. In bringing forth justice, the demeanor of the servant is one of gentleness (“a bruised reed he will not break”), but also firmness (“he will not falter”).

Prayer: Dear God, in our times of despair, call us to action. Make us servants for justice. Teach us to lift up the poor. May we do your work with gentleness and firmness. Amen.

Seth Roberts