Posts Tagged ‘Servant of the Lord’

ISAIAH 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
    and my reward with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
6 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7 Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The theme of vocation refers to the experience of being called to a purpose that transcends the daily round of wish-and-worry. The Bible’s metaphor of choice for exploring this idea of vocation is that of a servant. If it began as a somewhat exclusive reference for the exceptional man or woman who stepped out heroically on faith and risked everything in obedience to God’s will, eventually this metaphor of the servant of God came to be applied to a community, an entire nation, and even by extension to the whole species of humankind.

In the ideas of vocation and servant we have the issue of the call and submission to the call, the summons from God and the response of commitment. Of course this leaves open the possibility that the call may not be returned, that the voice might fall on deaf ears and the vocation never engaged.

Remembering that Second Isaiah is writing from within the situation of exile where he is trying to help his people see their tragedy in a new light, the prophet’s  first-person description of God’s servant is remarkable for its bold and far-reaching lines. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”

If Isaiah is hoping to effect a radical shift in the self-concept of his people, he is certainly well on his way in declaring that God had this very moment in mind before this generation was even born. In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of Jews to the foreign land of Babylonia were events now in the process of being redeemed.

                                                                                                

In addition to re-grounding the concept of vocation in the primordial intention of God (“before I was born”), Second Isaiah throws open the boundaries of space as well. Whereas earlier traditions had remained preoccupied with the welfare and destiny of God’s chosen people, the author reframed this status of privilege into a purpose of universal scope.

“It is too light a thing,” says God concerning the special vocation of the generation of exiles, that the New Being coming to birth in them should be for the sake of Israel alone. The beneficiaries of this redemptive work would now become all nations of the earth.

This achievement in reframing eventually would provide the foundations for the renewal movement of Christianity in the first century CE. The two key insights of Second Isaiah to energize that renewal would be (1) that God’s grace and calling are given prior to, and are therefore essentially independent of, an individual’s moral effort; and (2) that God’s purpose for the individual is to reach out and share with the whole world this gift and its core message of hope, forgiveness, and peace.

It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus took so much of his inspiration and evangelistic vision from the writings of Isaiah.

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.