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Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah 42:1-9

Background to the Book of Isaiah

Historical:In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jer 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jer 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezek 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jer 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jer 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Lev 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Lev 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.

In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isa 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).

PURPOSE of Isa 40-55:These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.

The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.

This is the task of the writer of Isa 40-55 - to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.

Literary Comments: Isa 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isa 40:1-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and they have suffered enough for all their rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isa 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isa 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Gen 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isa 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be seen in many of the psalms we read.

Context of Isa 42:1-9

After the prologue in Isa 40:1-11 the remainder of the chapter extols the abilities of God as Creator of the world. It finishes with a rhetorical question to the people asking them, "how could they have not known the ways of God?" As Creator one can see God's power all around. From the declaration of God as Creator the prophet moves to God's ways as redeemer within history as the actions of God are related in Isa 41:1-7. This leads into a personal message to Israel which reiterates that God will care for them and keep them safe (Isa 41:8-20). Although he isn't named in Isa 41:25-29 the reference is understood to be to Cyrus who is already as work as the servant is to be commissioned. After the proclamation about the servant and his designated role (Isa 42:1-9), there follows a song of praise in which the creation itself sings to God (Isa 42:10-13). The chapter continues with further announcements by the prophet speaking for God making it clear to them that God is, and always has been in control, and therefore the people can trust.
Insights/Message of Isa 42:1-9

Literary structure: The servant is presented to the people (42:1-4), which is followed by a word to the servant stating the task that he is required to do. Seitz includes the hymn of praise in vv.10-13 as part of the same section (Seitz: 361). In Isa 41:8-9 the servant (ebed) is named as Jacob-Israel-Abraham. In the Genesis narratives the Hebrew does not use 'ebed' (servant) when it places Abraham in a servant relationship with God. Here the servant is not designated by name and there have been countless articles about the identity of the servant. Is it an individual chosen by God or is it the nation Israel? The servant is chosen by God and equipped for the task which means he will not do the actions described in negatives in vv.2-4. The giving of God's spirit has been associated with both the judges and prophets who have been raised up by God to do a particular task. Isa 42:5-9 begins with the divine message formula followed by the reaffirmation of God as Creator of the universe before speaking to a person who is not identified. We could assume that it is the servant mentioned above and it is a continuation of the task of the servant begun in vv.1-4. After v.5 acknowledges God as Creator the first person speech declares God's role in the call of the servant before further expansion of tasks in v.7. Vv.5 and 8 state the uniqueness of God: in v.5 God alone creates using the participle form of the Heb 'bara' and v.8 claims the Lord as the only God. V.9 doesn't flow easily from the previous verses, but is using words that are present elsewhere in the book of Isaiah (Westermann: 98). The verse is an affirmation and a call to heed the prophet's words before the events happen.

Message / Theology:The repetition of the word 'justice' serves to emphasize what is required of the servant. Unlike the early chapters of Isaiah (1-39) which berate the people for their unjust behaviour which is described in concrete terms we have little information to say why it is so important in this new situation. We are unsure of the exact meaning of vv.2-3 and they may refer to customs, to which we no longer have access. However, v.4 seems clear in that the servant will accomplish the task of justice among nations no matter what occurs to discourage him. The New Testament reading describes the baptism of Jesus which has words very similar to those in Isa 42:1 - 'This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased' . Each gospel has mention of the Spirit of God in some form. As the servant was chosen and endowed with God's spirit to do the task which was set so also Jesus as God's son was the beloved chosen to reveal God's self to humanity. The people hearing John's words would be aware of the Hebrew Scriptures and the proclamation about the servant in Isaiah. This time God identifies fully with humanity in becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ. The two elements that are important as the central foci of this passage are: first, the personal relationship between the servant and God and secondly, the task to which the servant is appointed (Hanson:41). The task of bringing justice is overwhelming if it was by human efforts alone and the description in vv.2-3 appear to indicate that it will not be by force. Indeed, the task appears to suggest there will be submission and suffering, which is incomprehensible to most. However, the promises of God in v.6 declare God's part in the task - 'I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand, I have given you as a covenant'. This was the case for Jesus who kept to the task by virtue of his ongoing relationship with God. We know how important prayer was for Jesus. The role of the servant as a leader who will bring justice and salvation for all peoples (vv.6-7) is contradictory to the world view of the time. Five hundred years later it is lived out in the person of Jesus Christ.

Resources/Worship for Isa 42:1-9
Worship: Psalm 29 is an excellent resource for an opening prayer of praise.
Resources: Commentaries

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.

Seitz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:



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