Since Isaiah 42:1-9 starts Holy Week, I came to it prepared to read today’s lection as an oracle about Jesus:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen; in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street… (vv 1-2)
But my Bible’s commentator insisted that the “servant” whom God has given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (v 6) is a people, not just one person. “The Church has taken these poems to refer to Jesus,” he writes, “even though it seems unmistakably clear that the primary reference in these poems is to Israel as God’s servant.”
And that commentator is Walter Brueggemann. So who am I to disagree? I’m not a biblical scholar, let alone one of the leaders in the field; I’m only dimly aware of the debates that have long swirled around this section of Isaiah.
And I am a historian, more than dimly aware that Jason Byassee is correct: “For centuries Christians’ Holy Week observances have included quasi-ritual anti-Judaism.”
So while Brueggemann acknowledges that the “Christian imagination” is bound to translate Isaiah’s historical allusions to Israel and Jerusalem into metaphorical statements about Jesus, I want to be careful to read this week’s passages from Isaiah in such a way that my “Christian imagination” doesn’t obliterate Jewish meaning.
But as my mind wrestled with that tension this morning, I felt myself thinking more about the idea of God — how he speaks, to whom — and neglecting my actual goal for this series: to spend time with God, to dwell in relationship with him. For all its interpretive complications, Isaiah 42 speaks with crystal clarity, to all God’s people, about who God is:
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you… (vv 5-6)
This is the divine person with whom I want to spend time, to dwell in relationship? I feel ridiculous even thinking such thoughts, let alone writing them down. And I’m not the first.
“How shall I call upon my God?”, wondered Augustine in the late 4th century. “For when I call on Him I ask Him to come into me. And what place is there in me into which my God can come — into which God can come, even He who made heaven and earth? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain You?”
If the God-stretched heavens cannot contain him, who am I to call upon him: to claim his attention, even his love? “When I look at your heavens,” asked David, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Ps 8:3,4)?
And yet Augustine, like David, knew that God has “made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Through his covenant with Israel — the laws God gave that people, and the prophets he sent to call them back from their lawless ways — and through his new covenant in Jesus Christ, God makes it possible for all of us to find our rest in him.
All of us: from the benighted nations beyond Israel (v 6) to the despised languishing in prison (v 7); from those oppressed by injustice (v 4), to the oppressors. We all can find our rest in this God, who takes us by the hand and keeps us.
So this Holy Week, I pray that I will turn away from the idols that distract us — the false gods that “are nothing,” whose “work is nothing at all” (Isa 41:24) — and return to the God who stretched out the heavens and, as amazingly, loves each and every person to whom he gave spirit and breath.