An ancient Christmas: The servant
As we continue tracing the prophecies of an ancient Christmas, I trust you have noticed that the prophecies tend to arise in response to crisis. God first helps his people to see their deep need of his help before he gives the various prophecies we have been considering. The prophecy of the servant is no different.
Isaiah is famed for its “servant songs” (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–7; 52:13–53:12)—four poems about a particular servant of Yahweh, appointed by God to lead his people, but horribly abused by them—indeed, killed—before being exalted by Yahweh himself. The servant, of course, was Jesus Christ.
The first servant song is given against the backdrop of gross but futile idolatry (41:21–29). The “metal images” that God’s people created were “nothing”—only “empty wind” (41:29). Because Judah had given itself to idolatry, there was “no one” with wisdom, “no counsellor” (41:28). But the Lord would provide an answer to this in his promised servant: “Behold my servant” (42:1). Once again, the pattern is clear: promise against the backdrop of deep, divinely-identified need.
As we consider the fifth prophecy of an ancient Christmas, we do well to begin by contemplating the problem of idolatry. Idolatry is not an ancient problem with which we do not struggle today. We are tempted to idolatry today as much as Judah was tempted in 600 BC. Ligon Duncan defines idolatry as “any time we find our satisfaction, security, or treasure in someone or something other than God.” If we boast in our wisdom, might, or riches—things not wrong in and of themselves—rather than in the Lord, we have caved to idolatry (Jeremiah 9:23–24). The object of idolatry may not necessarily be a bad thing in and of itself, but when we substitute God’s good gifts for God himself—when we find ultimate satisfaction and security in anything or anyone other than the God of the Bible—we have become idolaters. We face the same problem as the Jews of Isaiah’s day, and so the solution is the same: the servant whom the Lord provided.
God deliberately pointed out Israel’s idols (41:24) and idolatry (41:29) before he pointed them to the promised deliverer, who would prove to be the solution to the problem of idols and idolatry. He would be God’s appointed servant, who would lead them to worship the true God in the prescribed way. Isaiah’s readers were beholden to their idols (41:24) and idolatry (41:29), but they needed to be beholden to God’s servant instead. Only the servant could provide what Judah was looking for in their idols.
We need to learn the same lesson. Too often, we find our security, identity, fulfilment, and satisfaction in those things that we substitute for God. When our idols are ripped from us, we find ourselves lost and despairing because our source of ultimate hope has been removed. But if our ultimate hope is in the servant promised in the ancient Christmas, nothing can ultimately remove our hope.
But what does the text tell us of the promised servant? Consider five things from 42:1–4.
First, notice the servant’s appointment: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen” (v. 1). The servant was handpicked by Yahweh, and therefore carried Yahweh’s authority and sufficiency with him. Having been selected by Yahweh, he would have divine power to accomplish his mission. The idols were useless, but God’s servant was sufficient. The idols could never provide what Judah needed because they were not “chosen” by God. God chose and equipped the servant to give what the idols could never give.
Second, notice the servant’s approval: “Behold my servant … in whom my soul delights” (v. 1). The servant would not be merely someone whom the Lord noticed was qualified to do the job. His work would not be simply appreciated and therefore remunerated accordingly. The servant would be God’s “delight.”
Third, notice the servant’s anointing: “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1). When God appointed a king, anointing with oil was often the sign of God’s bestowed authority (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:1ff). Here, the servant would be anointed with God’s Spirit. The Spirit would be poured out on him so that he would do what Judah’s kings had failed to do: bring justice to the nations.
Fourth, notice the servant’s attitude: “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2–3). The servant would not come in a self-seeking, self-promoting, or self-congratulating way. He would not behave angrily toward his subjects. Instead, he would behave kindly and tenderly toward the weakest of people. As powerful and as righteous as he would be, he would deal gently with the weak. The justice he would bring would not be harsh, but gentle—completely unlike the kings with whom Judah was accustomed.
Fifth, notice the servant’s accomplishment: “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (v. 4). The kings of Judah quickly grew weary as they were opposed. Many of them gave up entirely on the quest to establish justice, but the servant would be different. He would pursue God’s full justice and would not stop until that justice was established.
Highlighting and responding to the idolatry of his people, God promised to provide a servant. The servant would do what Judah’s kings could not: He would labour faithfully, not promoting himself, until he fully accomplished the establishment of God’s justice on earth.
That servant came on the first Christmas almost two thousand years ago. He did not arrive in a grandiose, self-promoting way, but quietly, with a specific mission in mind. He quietly went about his business for thirty years, not ruffling any feathers, until it was time to enter public ministry.
Even in public ministry, Jesus did not seek to promote himself. Isaiah 42:1–4 is quoted in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 12:18–20). The context of this quote is important. Jesus entered the synagogue one Sabbath day to find a man with a withered hand. He healed the man, which immediately raised the ire of the Pharisees, who conspired to kill him (Matthew 12:9–14). In response, Jesus withdrew, and he did so, according to Matthew, in order to fulfil this very prophecy (Matthew 12:15–21). He did not get into a shouting match with the Pharisees who tried to kill him. He was not interested in promoting himself. He quietly withdrew, and faithfully went about his business of bringing about God’s justice on earth.
Justice was accomplished at the cross. There, God’s wrath against the sins of his people was poured out on his Son, and his Son’s righteousness was credited to them. Jesus persevered in the face of great opposition until this act of righteousness was complete. The servant came at Christmas and conquered at Easter, proving that he is Lord of all.
Infant holy, infant lowly,
for his bed a cattle stall;
oxen lowing, little knowing,
Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging angels singing,
noels ringing, tidings bringing:
Christ the babe is Lord of all.