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Isaiah 49:1-7

Every lectionary text contains much more than we can note in these postings, or in any sermon we could preach from it. From this text, we’ll note briefly the geography of Isaiah’s “coastlands” and “peoples from far away” (v 1), then consider three issues, the first at some length, the second and third only briefly.

Other than their Philistine and Phoenician neighbors, the nearest “foreign” coastlands/isles to Israel lay west and northwest–Cyprus, the astounding irregularities of the north Mediterranean coast, the multiplicity of Aegean islands, and beyond to the pillars of Hercules/Gibraltar at the Mediterranean’s western end. Into the Atlantic and northward, the Phoenicians knew the coast as far as Cornwall (today’s southwestern England); whether Israel did or not, we cannot say. North of their nearer neighbors, Aram/Syria and the old Hittite lands of present-day Turkey, Israel knew of the Cimmerians, Scythians, and others, up to the Caucasus, at least. Eastward across Asia, Israel’s elites knew of products from China, but probably no Israelite had gone that far. South of Egypt, Israel also knew of Nubia (probably today’s Sudan), Punt (Somalia?), and Ethiopia.

Who Is “My Servant”?

Among Old Testament readers across the centuries, the identity of the servant in Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” has evoked lively discussion. Is Israel the servant, or is this an individual (whom Christians usually identify as Jesus)? Speaking as a Christian, I answer this question, “Yes.” As in other areas, so also sometimes in biblical studies, either-or/binary thinking can be a straitjacket; to avoid false, misleading, or incomplete conclusions, one must avoid or escape the straitjacket.

Verse 3 is unequivocal, “You are my servant, Israel,” and nothing suggests “Israel” is a late insertion into the text. So how did Israel’s service to God extend to the coastlands/isles and to faraway peoples–even to those about whom ancient Israel could not have known? God’s invitation to Abr(ah)am (Gen 12:3) includes the crucial promise, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We could translate, “shall bless themselves,” and here again we see a non-binary option. Both these renderings of the niphal verb are valid, and we may (I think, should) choose both-and, not either-or.

God’s reiteration of this unexpected, astounding promise (22:18) confirms the reflexive nature of the prediction: “In your seed all the peoples/nations of the earth shall bless themselves” (my translation); the verb here is hitpael, which only can be reflexive. Its major difference from the first version of 12:3 also extends God’s promise significantly. On one level, “your seed” is an assurance that Abraham’s significance to and for all peoples would not die with him; it would extend through his progeny as well. On that level, Israel’s influences for good have been incalculable; we could write volumes and still not have a comprehensive listing. To anyone disposed to read further, I would recommend beginning with Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.

We will turn to the individual Servant in a moment, of course noting that his service to God on behalf of all the nations/peoples culminated in sacrifice–if, as Christians do, we identify the individual Servant as Jesus. But let us not skip too hurriedly over the fact that Israel’s servanthood also has included incalculable sacrifices, even as recently as the mid-twentieth century. D-Day, June 6, 1944, opened (at least) a fourth front in the war against Hitler’s Germany, which already was fighting Russian armies on the eastern front, British and American forces in Italy, and Tito’s partisans in the former Yugoslavia. In reality, though, Hitler’s “final solution” against the Jews of central and eastern Europe had been a “front” since before 1939, taxing Germany’s resources at every level, even as she desperately needed them on each of the four “traditional” fighting fronts. Hitler’s madness against European Jewry cost Germany WWII. [Of course, the loss of one-third of the world’s Jewish people was not the only major sacrifice of WWII. Twenty million Russians perished, and the worldwide toll exceeded fifty million. Also, we could note other factors which may have given Hitler his coveted world mastery, had one or more gone differently. This does not change the fact that had Hitler not wasted massive German resources in his genocide of Europe’s Jews, Axis victory in WWII would have been virtually assured. Though not the whole story, we should acknowledge that Hitler’s evil sacrifice of the servant Israel became for the world the blessing of salvation/delivery from (potentially) generations of Nazi tyranny.]

If words convey theological meaning, verses 5-6 show the “Servant” of Isaiah’s Servant Songs not only as Israel the nation, but also as an individual person. (This non-binary choice again!) The entire scope of biblical teaching precludes the possibility of either nations or individuals saving/delivering/redeeming themselves, in any soteriological sense. Neither “who formed me in the womb . . . to bring Jacob back to him” (v 5) nor “to raise up . . . and to restore the survivors of Israel” (v 6) can refer to Israel the people–the very ones in need of being brought back, being raised up, being restored.

Christians, of course, recognize Jesus as the individual Servant whose sacrifice was both intentional and voluntary, salutary both for Israel and for the “peoples from far away” (v 1). Of all we could say, we should remember at a minimum that Paul extended the promise to Abraham further than a non-inspired mind could have conceived. In Galatians 3:16, asserting Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the ancient promise, Paul emphasized the singular meaning of the noun, zerah (“seed”). In Hebrew as in English, “seed” is a collective noun; it can bear this singular meaning, but grammatical, syntactical, or other semantic considerations do not require it. In both languages, context determines whether “seed” is singular or plural. In effect, Paul called on the mind and purposes of God as the appropriate context for concluding “your seed” in Genesis 22:17-18 ultimately means “Jesus,” not Israel collectively nor any other person individually. From God’s/Isaiah’s Servant Jesus comes the promised eternal blessing for all the families, all the peoples/nations, of the earth.

“Too Light a Thing”

I was attracted to this Servant Song years ago, upon discovering that “light” here (“too light a thing,” v 6) is a verb from the same root that provides the name of the basic Hebrew verbal “stem”; qal verbs are “light” forms, with no additions of meaning to make them “heavy/ier.” Having memorized the perfect, the imperfect, the participles, and the infinitives of the qal stem regular verb–thirty forms in all–I was intrigued by this qal, too.

The form here (v 6) means that to “raise up/establish” only “the tribes of Jacob” would be far too “light” a task for the Servant/Jesus–no real demonstration of his abilities. It would be like an NFL running back scoring a touchdown against a junior high football defense, or a Pulitzer-Prize columnist winning a hometown writing contest over her ten-year-old child as the only other entrant; either “accomplishment” would prove exactly nothing about their respective abilities. So, too, did God promise the faithful Servant a task commensurate with his capabilities, and we of the “coastlands” and the “peoples from far away” will be eternally grateful.

Kings Will Stand, Then Prostrate Themselves

Verse 7 contains the line, “Kings shall see, and shall stand, [even] princes, and they shall prostrate themselves” (my translation). This, in the presence of the Servant, who previously was “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers”!

This astonishing prediction calls for cultural understandings that many lack in the twenty-first-century, “casual-is-king” democracies most of us inhabit. In the ancient world, kings sat, unless and until they were outranked in the presence of some greater king(s). In the king’s presence, nearly everyone else stood or prostrated themselves. (Queen, queen mother, and crown prince sometimes were enthroned alongside the king and, of necessity, scribe/s sat cross-legged writing on lap desks.) However, when the Servant appears, kings will recognize his authority and acknowledge him by rising from their thrones.

The second half of the line, calling these same kings “princes” (along with all rulers, “kings” or not), predicts an even further, more extreme, deference. When the Servant comes, “kings” and “princes” accustomed to others’ deference not only will stand up from their own thrones; not only will they kneel; they will lay themselves out full-length, face-down upon the ground/floor in front of him. Those used to command will relinquish their borrowed authority, rendering it back to him to whom it rightly belongs.

In all this, those who take God at his word in this and similar pronouncements about the gracious appearance and work of the Servant, can take courage in remembering that in almost all Scriptural narratives, those who fall prostrate before God, before angelic messengers, and before Jesus Christ himself, are directed to lay down their fear, stand up in the P/presence as a man, woman, boy or girl created in the image of God, and enter a warm conversation–welcomed and unintimidated even while undoubtedly remaining in awe.