How A Servant Serves-Isaiah 42

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(Isaiah 42) "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" (Isa 42:2-3).

Theme: The primary failure and weakness of Christian leaders is the failure to truly be a servant, to be unassuming, gentle and humble, especially when angry and upset or when someone ruffles their feathers or messes with their hair. No one can do what God expects, yet no one is excused from not doing so. One who imposes his way on others is not displaying the way of Christ (Mt 12:17-21; Phil 2:7-8), the ultimate Servant who does not lord over others.

Meek and mighty. The Servant is gentle yet powerful. But usually when people are gentle they are not powerful; when they are powerful they are not gentle. One of the easiest things for a leader to do is to intimidate, coerce, scare, guilt-trip, pull rank and lord over others. However, Amy Carmichael said...

“For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.”

Intolerant of others who are not like us. We naturally and easily see the speck of sawdust in the eyes of others, while being completely oblivious to the glaring plank in our own eyes (Mt 7:3; Lk 6:41). When we do we are usually anything but humble or gracious. We become the opposite of the servant who does not shout, cry out or raise their voice (Isa 42:2). When Christians emphasize the preaching of the gospel, they are often critical of those who focus on social justice. They think of "social justice Christians" as those who care about the physical needs of people (which to them are less important), while ignoring the soul (which is of utmost importance). On the other hand, when Christians regard social justice as a primary emphasizs of Scripture, they are often critical of preachers and churches, who in their minds are only talking and teaching but practically "doing nothing." To them they talk the talk but do not walk the walk. They are so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.

Do Christians truly and humbly imitate Christ? It is easy--even natural--to think and believe "Yes, I'm imitating Christ" (1 Cor 11:1), in order to justify what we say, do, decide and command others to do. What is interesting about humility is that no one can make themselves humble. In fact the one who is truly humble will likely be consciously and acutely aware of just how proud and recalcitrant they are.

May the theme of my life be reflected by the paradoxes of Christianity. The mark of Christians is to be joyful always (1 Th 5:16), not as a flippant comedian but as a man of sorrows (Isa 53:3). The power of God (Rom 1:16) is not expressed through strength but through vulnerability and weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Like Jesus, a Christ follower is a man of peace (Isa 9:6) who comes not to bring peace but a sword (Mt 10:34). May the theme of Isaiah 42:1-4 be a primary recurring theme for the rest of my life.


"He is not self-assertive. The three verbs stress his quiet, unaggressive demeanor (42:2). "Shout" ('shriek') could suggest that he is not out to startle, "cry out" ('raise his voice') not to dominate or shout others down, "raise his voice" ('make his voice heard') not out to advertise himself." (Alec Motyer)

"Think for a moment about the modesty of God. He is always at work: He guides the sun, the stars, and the universe. He controls every galaxy. He refreshes the earth constantly. But He works so quietly that many people now try to make out there is no God … That is the hallmark of reality in service. God's artists do not put their signatures to the pictures they create. His ambassadors do not run after the photographer to get their pictures taken. It is enough that they have borne witness to the Lord." (Alan Redpath)

"In the eyes of the Lord, the test of the real servant is, does he bend with the humility of Jesus Christ over a bruised reed and smoldering wick (smoking flax)?" (Alan Redpath)

"He is not dismissive of others: however useless or beyond repair (bruised reed), however 'past it' and near extinction (smoldering wick) they may seem. The negative statements imply their positive equivalents (42:3): he can mend the broken reed, fan into flame the smoldering wick. The former has been internally damaged, the latter lacks the external nourishment of oil. The Servant is competent both to cure and to supply." (Alec Motyer)

“God never intends for our lives to be shaped by conformity to a list of abstract rules. Rather, he intends for them to be shaped by a joyous pursuit of greater and greater likeness to the character of our covenant Lord, our Father.” John N. Oswalt, Isaiah.

“The great danger of maturation is calcification.” John N. Oswalt, Isaiah.

“Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. And those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost.” Tim Keller, Gospel Christianity, 2003.


  1. What the Servant does (1-9): Proclaims justice to the nations. It expresses his disposition and his ministry. [Will "not" occurs 7 times in 42:2-4.]
    1. God prepares the servant to bring justice (1).
    2. What the servant will not do to bring justice (2-3).
    3. The servant will not fail to bring justice to all (4).
    4. God the Creator speaks (5).
    5. The servant's mission (6-7).
    6. God's name is glorified (8-9).
  2. How the world responds (10-12): Praise the Lord!
  3. What God does (13-17): Zealously accomplish his purpose.
  4. Who we truly are (18-25): Blind and deaf.


  1. (42:1–9) What will Yahweh do for (1), and with (1b, 3b, 4a), this servant? What is the attitude of this servant (2, 4a)? What will be the function of this servant (3)? Compare this servant to the one in 41:8–20. What are the similarities and differences? Are they the same servant? For further insight into the identity of this servant, compare 61:1–3.
  2. How did Jesus fulfill Isaiah 42:1-4 (Mt 12:17-21; Phil 2:7-8; Mt 20:25-28; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:24-27)?
  3. (42:10–13) What in the surrounding context might account for this outburst of praise? Notice the various parts of the earth mentioned. What is the point? [The “coastlands” or “islands”(42:10, 12) are the far ends of the earth. Kedar and Sela (42:11) are desert cities.]
  4. (42:14–17) What was Yahweh’s feeling about the exile? Was he grimly glad that the Israelites had finally gotten what was coming to them? How eager was he to deliver them? What is the point of the reversals in these verses, especially in relation to the idols mentioned in 42:17?
  5. (42:18–25) What are the characteristics of this servant? In the past God had given them his glorious instructions for life (“law”) to share with the world. But what has become of them? Instead of blessing them, what has it done to them? How does this relate to us? What will make the difference?
  6. Why are the Israelites in captivity (23-25)? Was it because of Babylon’s superior power? What would this mean about their deliverance?

Isaiah 42 [4Servant-Songs]

1 The nation Israel was the servant. God will be with them, help them. The benefits of being God’s servant. But this servant will bring forth misphat. Justice is not a bad translation. It’s just not big enough. It means legal equity. Misphat does mean this, but much more; it means God’s divine order for life. This servant is going to restore God’s order in the world.

2-3 Question is who is this servant? What benefits does this servant receive according to 1-4? None. What is said about this servant? This servant has a mission: to restore God’s misphat on the earth. Is this Israel? No. What does God say to the servant?

6 Israel is not a covenant to the people. The old covenant is broken. It cries out for satisfaction: God you have to kill them. They swore in blood to keep the covenant, but they broke it. The new covenant, one written on our hearts (not on tablets of stone), calls out for ratification (official formal confirmation, validation). Somehow this servant has to satisfy the old covenant and ratify the new covenant. Isaiah wonders how this would happen. God say keep writing.

7 look at ch. 61:1. This is not Israel. This is some other servant.

One of the exercises for Oswalt’s students to do is to go through all the references to “servant” in ch.41-48. All the references except this one is clearly to the nation. Most are benefits except this one. Not a word about benefits but everything about mission.        Another exercise ch.49-55. All except one (for benefits) are to the servant for his mission. It’s flip flopped.

10-13 a song of praise. For what? It is a song of joy because of the revelation of God’s delivering servant. Geographically how far does this praise extend? 42:1-9 calls for universal praise. Introduction to what is happening. We will be talking about two servants here.

14-17 Was God glad about the exile? No, v 14. Who are they? V16 blind, deaf, lost. 18-23 this servant can’t find the way out even when the lights are on.

24-25 making an important point. Why did Israel go into exile? Who took them into exile? The Lord put them into exile. The people think it is Babylon who was stronger than them. God say, it was not Babylon, but I sent you into exile. So now, I can get you out. [40:6-8 all flesh.]

An Address to the Servant (42:1-9)

God's perfect Servant. The "servant of God" theme is one of the riches strands of Isaiah's thought, and it lies right at the heart of his message as it moves to its climax in this second half of the book.

In 41:1-20 the fearful servant needed to be reassured that although Cyrus's coming meant terror for the idol worshippers, it need not cause the servant any fear (Isa 41:10, . In 42:1-9 expands on Yahweh's control of history. Just as God will bring down the Babylonian Empire through Cyrus, so he will bring justice (Isa 42:1,3,4) to the nations  through his servant. The "new things" God will do through his servant (Isa 42:9) is what the gods/idols could never declare in advance, which the Lord can do so with impunity.

The identity of this servant has been the source of endless controversy. The differences between him and the servant Israel are striking. The servant Israel is fearful and blind, yet God loves him and will deliver him so that he can be God's evidence to the nations that he is indeed God. But this Servant who only appears here in ch.40-48 and but three times in ch.49-50, is of a different sort. He is always obedient and responsive to God, his mission is to bring justice to the nations for God, and he is to be a light to the nations and a covenant to the people (Isa 49:6). In contrast to the promises of divine blessing constantly being given to the servant Israel, this servant receives no benefits through his ministry but only increasing difficulty (49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). In sum, whoever this is, it is not the nation of Israel; it is another figure altogether.

The reiterated statements are that

  • this person is going to bring justice on the earth (Isa 42:1,3,4),
  • God's Spirit will be on him (Isa 42:1), and
  • his accomplishment of this end will not be through oppression (Isa 42:3).

This reminds us of the prophecies of the Messiah in Isaiah 9, 11 and 32, where we have the servant as King, while here we have the king as Servant. The idea that the ends of the earth (the islands), which could not defend the deity of their gods (Isa 41:1), will put their hope/wait for/trust in his law (Isa 42:4) is further indication that this figure is a messianic one (Isa 2:1-5).

The further description of the ministry of this Servant in 42:6-7 confirms that this is not the nation but someone who will function for the nation and indeed for the world. Where Israel was blind and deaf, captive to the powers of this world, this Servant will give sight and freedom. This ministry will be the ultimate revelation of the glory of God, which fills the earth (Isa 6:3) and belongs to no idol (Isa 42:8).

References: Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. 2003.

David Guzik: Study Guide for Isaiah 42.

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