Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights. (Isa. 42:1)
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa. 53:2–3)
There is no peace. . . for the wicked. (Isa. 48:22)
These startling words are not addressed to the heathen nations but to God’s covenant people. They describe the people’s condition after their return to the Promised Land from exile. They are a lament. The people have learned so little in their captivity. The reason for their exile is spelled out with a solemn indictment: they had sinned against the Lord, “in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey” (Isa. 42:24). They returned to Jerusalem the way they had left it.
What Israel needed was salvation.
What Israel needed was a Savior. One who would come from “outside of themselves.” What Israel (Judah) needed was a Servant Savior who would do what she evidently could not do for herself.
This also is our need.
And God had good news for His rebellious people, news built upon His “covenant love” (hesed) for them. (Isa. 54:8, 10)
The prophecy of Isaiah made promises that were difficult to fulfill.
Chapters 2 and 11 depict a united, transformed world, but there is no sign of that when the exiled Hebrews return to the ruins of Jerusalem. Chapter 9 suggests a glorious David-like kingdom, but there is no sign of this reality on the horizon. Are these promises more like aspirations than certainties? Longings of what might have been rather than what actually did occur?
No, there is more than wishful thinking here. These promises find partial fulfillment in the dawning of the new covenant era: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the significance of Pentecost; and the spread of the church from Jerusalem to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And to bring this larger canvas into reality, a Messiah-figure is promised. His depiction is threefold:
1. A King, like David, who will rule and reign over an expansive, worldwide kingdom (see Isa. 1:26–27; 7:14; 9:7; 11:1; 32:1–6; 33:17–24).
2. A Servant, depicted in four “songs” (Isa. 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Twice, the servant is identified as Israel,5 but it is immediately apparent that she cannot be the sinless servant depicted in these songs. She has neither character nor desire to fulfill this role. On the other hand, the true Servant is a revealer of truth, perfect, obedient, and explicitly, a substitutionary sin bearer who voluntarily dies and lives again to clothe His people with His own righteousness.
3. An anointed Conqueror. As Isaiah looks forward, he anticipates one who is anointed by the Spirit, engaging in both salvation and vengeance, blessing and cursing (see Isa. 59:21; 61:1–3; 61:10–62:7; 63:1–7).”
And it becomes increasingly clear that the Messiah will come for both the covenant community and the gentiles (the nations):
I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations. (Isa. 42:6)
We might have expected that this responsibility would have been fulfilled by the covenant people themselves. Had they not been told that their joyful obedience would lead the nations to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6)? But, as we have seen, God’s people in Isaiah’s day are “blind” and “deaf” (Isa. 42:18–19; 43:8).
If not Israel, then who?
And the answer is another King-Servant-anointed Conqueror—Jesus. From the corridors of the eighth century BC, Isaiah saw the coming of Jesus who would bring redemption and restoration. This is why Isaiah is called “the evangelical prophet”—his entire focus is on the evangel, the “good news” of the gospel.
Good news for sinners like you and me.
This excerpt is adapted from Strength for the Weary by Derek Thomas.