ISAIAH 42:1-9

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.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 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:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
7     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

The topic of vocation has become increasingly important in the recent literature, both religious and secular, interested in the question of purpose or mission in life, business, and personal development. Since the word itself is identified in the popular mind with an individual’s profession or occupation, the general preference in this literature has been to recover the root meaning of the term vocation itself, which refers to one’s calling.

The difference between occupation and calling, just as far as literal definitions are concerned, is the difference between the role one occupies in the commercial fields of labor, manufacture, service, intelligence and trade, and the deeper human purpose to which one is being summoned by the evolutionary universe itself.

As our quest for fulfillment forces us to look beyond the relative rewards of professional success and economic value, more and more people today are being drawn to this question of human purpose. What is it that the supreme reality is calling us to become? What is the evolutionary goal of humanity?

In the middle section of the book of Isaiah, called Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) this question of human purpose is the driving focus of the author’s work. His answer to the question will reflect the actual conditions of his historical situation and that of his community, but his central metaphor of servanthood is something that has been proven to transcend time and circumstance altogether.

                                                                                             

While in exile, the author of Second Isaiah received a vision of his displaced community in terms of a corporate personality, with the entire generation caught up and unified in the image of God’s chosen servant. This image enabled him to look through their shared circumstance of captivity in order to discern the deeper hidden current of God’s purpose being worked out through their loss and adversity.

By definition, a servant is one whose principal task is to carry out the will and purpose of another. Different from a slave, a servant occupies a recognized social class, providing services in exchange for room, board, social protection, or a regular wage. When Second Isaiah fastened on this metaphor of servant as a way of conceptualizing the experience of his people, he opened the path toward incorporating their suffering into the purposes of God.

Significantly, however, his image did not simply assume the popular idea of suffering as punitive for sins. Instead of the Suffering Servant of God enduring hardship as punishment for the past, their – remembering that the title refers to the exiled community as a whole – travail is interpreted as birth pangs of a future reality.

Of course, the idea of God working out a purpose through a people had been around for some time. It was central to Abrahamic religion. But now, even suffering was seen as redemptive.

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