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A Just Servant
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 2: God Promises a Just Kingdom
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 5, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9
Key Verse: 42:1
- Identify the Lord’s servant and the servant’s task.
- Explain the fulfillment of the lesson text found in Matthew 12:15-21.
Today’s lesson begins Unit 2, which emphasizes God’s promises of a just kingdom. The prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah as the champion of justice. And such prophecies have a direct bearing on Palm Sunday. As appropriate, some of these connections will be evidenced in the lesson.
The prophet Isaiah, for his part, had a lengthy ministry, from approximately 740 to 680 BC. The book featuring his name is comprised of two parts. Isaiah 1-39 has been described as the Book of Judgment; it focuses on the sins of the people of Judah. Isaiah 40-66, the Book of Comfort, looks forward about a century and a half to the times when Judah’s exile in Babylon is coming to an end. We keep in mind that the exile did not even begin until 586 BC.
However, the end of the exile is foreseen in the chapter preceding our lesson scripture: God called “one ... in righteousness” (Isaiah 41:2) to bring the captivity to its end. That man has been identified as Cyrus, the king of Persia who conquered Babylon in 539 BC (see 44:28 and 45:1, where he is designated “shepherd” and “anointed,” respectively). Cyrus issued a decree permitting the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem beginning in 538 BC (Ezra 1:1-8).
We are told that the word “servant” occurs more than three dozen times in the book of Isaiah. And in chapter 41, the Lord applies it to Israel, my “servant” (Isaiah 41:8,9). This servant was fearful and for that reason, God reassured the people of his love. They didn’t need to fear as their exile in Babylon was not evidence that God had cast them away forever. God promised Israel that they were still his covenant people. The Lord encouraged his helpless servant Israel by declaring that the people need not fear, because God would help them (41:10, 13, 14).
At this point, the Lord addressed the nations and their idols. He challenged the nations to provide evidence that idols had ever correctly predicted the future. After announcing judgment on the false gods, God proclaimed that he had “stirred up one from the north” (Isaiah 41:25) – surely once again alluding to Cyrus.
Now, against the backdrop of a pagan king as an instrument of God to rescue our exiled people, Isaiah introduced the fascinating servant to the Lord.
Isaiah 42:1-9 (which is today’s text) is the first of Isaiah’s five “servant songs,” in which the servant is identified with the Messiah to come (see 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; 61:1-4). These messianic songs point out what the servant is to accomplish on behalf of the world.
In 42:1-4, God introduces a Servant who is charged with a specific task and whose style of carrying it out is described.
Verse 1 identifies God as the source of all that the Servant is and is called to do. Appropriately, therefore, the passage is in the divine first person. God presents the Servant in intimate terms: “Here is my Servant’ (v.1a). Then with equal clarity, the source of the Servant’s strength is revealed as God who upholds him. And the Servant is chosen because God delights in him.
Now, the servant introduced here bears some similarities to the anointed shepherd Cyrus and servant Israel in having God’s approval. However, this servant is profoundly different from both. The quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4 that is found in Matthew 12:18-21 establishes this servant to be Jesus. And as previously mentioned, God both supports and delights in him (Matthew 3:16, 17). This suggests that this servant will be obedient and godly in a way like no other.
Verse 1b reads, “I will put my Spirit on him.” Members of ancient Israel did not experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as Christians do today (see Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:14-21,38). Thus, the servant is marked as special for a special purpose, and Jesus’ baptism clearly points back to this verse. On that occasion the Spirit will descend on him after he rises from the water as the Father expresses his pleasure with his Son (Luke 3:21,22; see also Isaiah 11:1-5).
Verse 1c states, “and he will bring justice to the nations.” We simply cannot miss the servant’s mission of bringing “justice” to the world, since it is mentioned three times in the first four verses of Isaiah 42. However, the concept of justice here encompasses much more than judicial equity in a courtroom, a fair redistribution of goods in society, etc. The justice that the servant “will bring” also includes making available God’s salvation. Although Israel often found itself being enemies with surrounding nations, God’s plan ultimately is to make one people of many (compare Genesis 49:10; Romans 5:18, 19: Galatians 3:26-29).
Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, stated, “Isn’t it noteworthy in the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus does not give a straightforward answer to the question ‘who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). The thought is that everybody is our neighbor.
The enormous challenge of the servant’s assignment immediately raises the question, “How can this justice be accomplished?” The manner in which God intends the servant to carry out the task of bringing forth justice to the nations stands in sharp contrast to the manner of conflict and brute force:
“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”
The style of witness of the servant stands in stark contrast to the way of the nations and their leaders. The typical king or conqueror calls attention to himself through loud proclamations. No, the servant won’t even “shout or cry out” nor “raise his voice in the streets.” For sure, God’s answer to the world’s arrogance is not more arrogance.
The crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry will shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! (Luke 19:38).” Notice that while the crowd speaks in loud voices (Luke 19:37), Jesus never says a word. Jesus will not speak up even to defend himself against false accusations (Acts 8:32-35, quoting Isaiah 53:7,8).
As in ancient times, many people are attracted to leaders who drew attention to themselves, boasting of their abilities and accomplishments. However, Christians will do well to remember that Jesus did not boast.
One of the noteworthy things about the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory in Super Bowl 54 is how their star quarterback Patrick Mahomes handled everything. At 25 years of age, Mahomes is the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win Most Valuable Player, the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl MVP.
Yet, according to his coaches, “for Patrick Mahomes, it’s all about the team and his teammates.” There was no boasting from Patrick Mahomes.
Back to the servant! Instead of using his power to crush the mighty, the servant will be so gentle that he won’t even “break off a bruised reed” that is bent over (compare 11:29). With gentleness, the servant will minister to the weak and the broken.
In addition, we are told that the servant’s mission is tied to “justice.” Where the servant Israel has failed, servant Jesus will succeed. Indeed, Jesus will prove himself to be the very embodiment of faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:13).
Now, the servant does not cry out when oppressed and does not move through the streets calling for pity. Rather, the servant bears witness with quiet, patient gentleness, confident that the nations will be drawn to God’s reign of justice, not by human force but by the embodied power of compassion and righteousness.
Important to remember! However, the source of that attention is not within the servant. To live faithfully in the service of the justice of God is to pattern one’s life in the nature of God. Only in this way does God empower a mortal to faithfully bring forth justice.
The Lord is not merely Israel’s “God” but is “the Creator” of all things. On this basis, God rightly claims authority not just over the land and people of Israel but over all nations (Psalm 82:8).
More significantly, God is the one who gives “breath” and life to people (compare Genesis 2:7 with Acts 17:24, 29). How unfortunate that those very people in turn create idols that have no breath themselves (Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17), let alone able to impart breath to others.
Having presented the servant and his mission, now in Verse 6, the Lord addresses and commissions his servant. God has “called” the servant according to his own nature – his righteousness (compare Jeremiah 23:6). The servant doesn’t have to fulfill the mission by himself. God says, “I will take hold of your hand.” Therefore, the servant will do the Lord’s work in God’s power according to God’s will.
Verse 6 reads, “and I will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles. At the center of that work is the fact that the servant will initiate “a covenant.” From other Scriptures, we know that the Messiah is to fulfill the Davidic Covenant and establish a new Covenant through personal sacrificial death (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:6-13; 9:15). This covenant is without end (Isaiah 54:10; 59:21: 61:8).
The “people” here refers to those who have already received God’s revelation – the Israelites (see Isaiah 49:8).
Their role as a priestly nation is meant to draw other nations to the Lord. The range of the servant’s ministry reflects this concern as he also becomes a “light on behalf of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6; Luke 2:29-32; Acts 26:18, 22, 23). The servant is to become the instrument through which nations come to share the light of God’s salvation.
Verse 7 goes on to give specificity to the implications of the covenant as it reaches the nations. It makes clear that the order of God’s justice involves healing of human illness and the reform of oppressive political structure. As God’s covenant with Israel took shape in the form of God’s actively getting involved in the plight of slaves in Egypt, so too the task of the servant people involves advocacy for those who suffer and are oppressed.
Bishop Ken Carder tells of being a seminary student and going to ghettos in Washington, D.C. His job was to ask some of the people there what they thought of the church.
He pointed to the steeple of a Methodist church nearby and asked a man, “What do you think of that church?” The man said, “I don’t think anything about it.” Carder asked, “Do you know of anything the church does in the community?”
“They don’t do nuthin’ down there but have church.” Ouch!
In verse 8, God’s declaring of his “Name” recalls the scene of Moses at the burning bush. There God revealed his personal name to Moses at the event that commissioned Moses for his task. And that task was to go back to Egypt so that God could establish his covenant with Israel at Sinai.
Now, Isaiah’s own calling has made him more aware of the fact that God is holy and the whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3). God alone has all authority so “idols” cannot share his “glory” or “praise.” Both the servant and Isaiah’s audience are reminded that the servant’s mission will confirm that God is beyond comparison.
In Isaiah 41:22 (not in our scripture text), God challenges the idols to reveal the “former things” – the things God has revealed in prophecy and brought to pass later. Simply put, the idols cannot. However, God can reveal not only those things but also the ultimate end result. Events predicted about Cyrus and the servant “have taken place,” and this confirms God’s sovereign authority.
We are told that the “new things” of the Old Testament era likely point to Israel’s restoration following the end of the Babylonian exile (see Isaiah 43:19-21). However historical hindsight reminds us that God’s plan for his people will remain unfulfilled until the coming of the servant Jesus and his perfect work. And because of this there is hope for all the world.
One Last Thing
The biblical concept of judgment represents God’s righteous world order. At his first coming, Jesus treated people more than justly. When Jesus walked the earth, he overcame enemies with gentleness and love. However, when he returns he will judge the world based on how each person treated “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). Meanwhile, during the interim, we, as the people of God, have a part to play in the servant’s task of bringing light to the nations and to our neighbors who live in darkness.
Resources for this lesson
- How do you think Jesus is the champion of justice? Please explain.
- What’s the best way for Christians to guard against glorifying anything or anyone except God? Or is there a single best way? Please explain.
- What stands out to you in today’s lesson?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 269-276.
- “Interpretation Commentary, Isaiah 40-66” by Paul D. Hanson, pages 40-48.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI,” pages 360-365.