Read: Isaiah 42:1-9
Christ has come into the world, not just to bring light, hope, peace, love, comfort and joy. He certainly does all that, but to bring justice.
The Bible is a story book. That is, it’s a book that tells a lot of stories, stories that have shaped our culture and formed our values. But the Bible is also a story book because it’s a book that tells a single story. The Bible’s story is about salvation. In the beautiful words of the famous Christmas service from King’s College, Cambridge, it is “a tale of the loving purposes of God.” And this is the theme of the whole Bible, from beginning to end.
The Old and New Testaments are not two different books with two separate stories, one about the Jews and the other about the Christians. They are two parts of the same story—the story of salvation by grace, through faith. There’s an old saying about the relationship between these two parts of the story: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” And the most important thing concealed in the Old Testament but revealed in the New is the identity of the hero of the story, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior. That’s why the book of Isaiah, in particular its later chapters, is so pregnant with meaning for Christian readers.
“Behold my Servant”
The forty-second chapter of Isaiah opens with a statement drawing our attention to a special person. The Lord himself is speaking, and he’s speaking about someone he identifies as his servant: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (v. 1). The invitation to us is to look and see, to consider, to give regard to this person, to pay attention. It’s made all the more compelling by the impressive language God uses to convey the pleasure he takes in his servant. Chapter 42 is only the first of four special passages in Isaiah all describing the Servant of the Lord. The others are chapters 49, 50 and 53. And these four sections of the book of Isaiah are known collectively as the “Servant Songs.” For Christians they are among the most important of all Old Testament passages.
The servant songs are all remarkable, but we cannot fully understand them in the context of the Old Testament alone. Even the greatest scholars will miss the songs’ ultimate meaning if they limit themselves only to interpreting them from Isaiah’s point of view for though he himself was inspired to write marvelous things about the Servant of the Lord, the prophet could not foresee the full truth about this person. Still, his description is unparalleled.
The Servant, writes Isaiah, is someone whom God has specially chosen; in whom God delights, on whom he depends, to whom he gives support and strength, upon whom he has poured his Spirit in boundless measure. Now who could that be? The Old Testament answer is that the servant of the Lord is Israel as a whole, that is, the nation itself, the people of God collectively. And it’s a true answer, up to a point. But Isaiah is also clearly speaking of an individual in these songs, someone who does things no group could do; in fact, things no ordinary mortal could do. So the Servant is not merely the collective people of Israel; he is an ideal figure, a perfect representative, Israel personified. The Servant is able to accomplish God’s purpose not only as Israel but for Israel.
Christians have never had any trouble understanding Isaiah’s statements about the Servant of the Lord. Matthew speaks for all who have ever met Jesus Christ when he says that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. Matthew 12:15 says that at one point in his ministry “Jesus . . . withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all. . .” And then Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah,” and he proceeds to quote Isaiah 42:1-4:
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the [nations]. . . .
and in his name the [nations] will hope. (Matthew 12:18-21)
So Isaiah’s Servant Songs point straight to Jesus Christ. Jesus is both God’s Servant and Son. The same voice that through Isaiah cried, “Behold my servant” would later say, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” Jesus Christ is the Chosen One, the Beloved, who brings salvation, and in whose name the nations can hope.
“He Will Bring Forth Justice”
And according to Isaiah chapter 42 this salvation, this hope that the servant brings, is all about justice. Human religion – as opposed to biblical religion – can easily slip into sentimentalism. The further it strays from the Bible’s hard-edged realism about sin the more such religion falls into the habit of proclaiming a “feel-good” sort of message. It speaks of love and peace and getting along together. It tells us to be nice, to believe in God. It affirms that everyone is really good, deep down, and that everything turns out happily in the end.
Isaiah’s first song about the Servant of the Lord provides an antidote to the sentimentalizing of biblical faith. For here we are told that Christ comes into the world, not just to bring light and peace and love—although he certainly does do that—but also to bring justice. That word points to the fact that there is something radically wrong, both with us and with our society, with our whole world. And before Christ can usher in a kingdom of universal peace and love, he has to do something. He has to fix things. And to fix things, he has to fix us. That’s what justice is all about.
So God tells us to “Behold my servant.” The reason for drawing our attention to the servant is because of this work that he will do. And that work is summed up in this single word “justice.” So Isaiah 42 says that the servant will bring justice to the nations (v. 1), he will faithfully bring forth justice (v. 3), he will not stop until he establishes justice on earth (v. 4).
Negatively, justice means judgment upon sin and punishment for sinners. In the Bible, sin doesn’t just mean violating some abstract rule of good behavior. It means turning against the God who made us for himself. It’s not like breaking the speed limit; it’s more like betraying your lover and breaking his heart, or committing treason against your ruler and destroying your country. Sin is the ultimate personal insult, and the person insulted is God. Sin demands punishment; justice must be satisfied; judgment will fall upon evildoers. But the wonder of God’s grace is that Christ accepts this in our place. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes,
. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness . . . , so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)
The justice that Christ establishes ought to mean destruction and doom for every sinner. But because Christ himself pays the price it means instead forgiveness for all who have faith in him. But this is not the end of Christ’s work. It’s one thing to justify sinners and reconcile us to God. It’s another to establish justice in our own lives and in our communities. And Christ also comes to do that. The Old Testament prophets talk about doing justice, which means practicing God’s will, especially in our treatment of the poor and the defenseless. The justice that the Servant of the Lord will establish in the world is the holy and perfect will of God, and that will is that the blind will see and the captives will be released and no one will be oppressed and all will be well.
If that’s the ministry of the Lord’s Servant, then it follows that it should be our concern as well, for we too, in our own way, are the servants of the Lord. In Isaiah 42 God says,
I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as . . .
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. . . (Isaiah 42:6-7)
The “you” in those verses is plural. God is speaking first about Christ, but he’s also speaking about us, Christ’s people. For Christ died and rose again to satisfy the righteousness of God but in Christ God has created a new people to live according to that righteousness. The church is a new community, transcending all the old barriers, and we are to work for the same kind of justice that Jesus personified.
Justice means many different things. To conservative, middle class, comfortable people, people like me, it usually means law and order, and punishment for crime. But to the poor and oppressed peoples of the world justice looks quite different. To them justice means freedom from want and fear, an end to prejudice and violence, a setting right of the inequities of society. And these things too are part of God’s justice. We must be concerned about them.
We can’t bring justice into the world ourselves. Only God can do that. And only with Christ’s glorious return will the new creation of the kingdom of God come in its fullness. But we can anticipate that kingdom. We can begin to live by its values. We can reflect its presence in our own lives and communities.
And we can pray daily for the King to come.