By Father Brooks Keith, April 11, 2017
By long tradition today we contemplate the Second Servant Song of Isaiah, found in Isaiah 49:
The Lord called me before I was born…and he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”….And now the Lord is saying…he says…It is too light a thing that you should only be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the surviving Israelites. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my saving power may reach to the ends of the earth.”
– Isaiah 49, various verses
For more background on the Servant Songs of Isaiah please see yesterday’s reflection. On this Holy Tuesday we continue to prepare for the intense worship to come later this week by going where our earliest Christian forebears went to understand who Jesus is, why He came to us when He did, and especially why He died the agonizing death He suffered. Second Isaiah returns to the prophetic oracle of this mysterious figure called the Servant with a second Servant Song, which invites us to ponder more deeply the relationship between God and His people. In this song Second Isaiah opens with the voice of the Servant himself, who proclaims his divine calling from birth. The Servant comprehends that through his life God’s nature, power and purpose will be revealed first to God’s chosen people. In fact, here the Servant receives his name, as he quotes God’s voice to him: “You are my servant, Israel.” (49:3) The Servant is clearly identified not simply as any one individual but also corporately as the entire nation of Israel! Is Second Isaiah reflecting upon the long and complicated relationship between God and his chosen people poetically presented in the figure of the Servant?
The Servant also reflects upon the sacrificial dimension and extremely difficult life call he has been given by God: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God.” (49:4) Here the Servant, although not seeing any obvious fruit from his labors, still expresses trust that God will vindicate his efforts. He acknowledges that any achievement in his mission will be awarded by God and not by any human authority.
The Servant continues by reflecting upon God’s call on his life: “And now the Lord is saying to me, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him.” (49:5) The Servant has come to understand that his purpose is to bring all of God’s people back to God, to repair and restore their fractured bond by being one of them and perhaps by spiritually representing all of them to God! Given Israel’s history of rebellion, stubbornness and apostacy, this objective is no small task! Only a few biblical heavyweights have ever begun to achieve this goal; names like Abraham, Moses and David come to mind, an elite fraternity throughout biblical history.
But God has still a higher purpose in mind. In 49:6-7 God replies to the Servant by radically expanding His divine mandate to the Servant. God’s statement that simply to call His own people back to Him is far too modest a goal for the Servant. Rather, the Servant’s life will be a lantern to all nations, a radically ambitious and inclusive model which will bring Israel’s special status before God to all people everywhere! The Servant’s call is not parochial or exclusive, but global in scope. The Israelite refugees in Babylon, broken and shattered in captivity, must have gasped at this last prophetic oracle indeed! One of them, or perhaps all of them, were being challenged to bring God’s divine light to the entire world?! They must have though Second Isaiah completely insane!!
And yet, we know that both Second Isaiah and his prophetic colleague Ezekiel’s visionary oracles helped lift their dejected fellow Jerusalemites and provide them with a vision beyond their current captivity. These prophecies gave them hope and strength that God was not yet finished with them as a nation, and indeed they returned to rebuild a ruined Jerusalem just as these great exilic prophets had predicted.
On this third day of Holy Week, can Second Isaiah’s elegant and moving poetic picture of the Servant’s relationship with God help us more profoundly comprehend the person, the work, the call of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah? As our Jewish brothers and sisters clean their kitchens and dining tables from the exertions of elaborate Passover celebrations, can we understand more clearly Jesus’ call to fulfill the Servant’s dramatic life mission to be a light to all nations so that God’s salvific power can impact the whole earth? Let us pray:
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.