He will faithfully bring forth justice. —Isaiah 42:3
Jesus is not like anyone else we’ve ever seen. He is not a religious version of our highest ideals. He was not what the Jewish people expected so long ago. He has always been surprising. If we’re going to understand him, we need new categories. And the best way to get inside who Jesus really is is by the very categories he used to understand himself. Jesus had a clear self-concept, and he didn’t get it from Mary and Joseph. He got it from the prophecies of the Old Testament. We can read the same things he read, right here in our Bibles today, and enter into the mind of Jesus. We are able, through Scripture, to grasp how Jesus defined himself to himself. Is there any more authentic way to see Jesus than how he saw himself? He is surprising, but he is also knowable, if we go where he himself went for the answers.
Jesus saw himself in a mysterious figure called “the servant of the Lord” in the ancient prophecies. Isaiah wrote four poems about this servant. Isaiah didn’t know who this servant would be or when he would appear in history. But what Isaiah did know he wrote out in four prophecies called “the servant songs.” Isaiah foresaw that the world would finally get healthy again not when we got all our top people working on it but only through a servant whose name Isaiah didn’t even know. It was Jesus. At his baptism, the voice of God announced from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). That declaration from God combined two Old Testament prophecies – one from Psalm 2 and the other from Isaiah 42, the first servant song. Jesus heard those words at his baptism. They sank in. They defined him. He knew who he was. God was telling Jesus from the Old Testament that he was both the king of Psalm 2 and the servant of Isaiah 42. And God said it out loud, not secretly to Jesus’ heart, but God said it out loud for others to hear. And God put it in the public record of the Bible, so that every generation could grasp who Jesus is with the same clarity that Jesus himself had. It is not true that by now it’s impossible to know who Jesus really was. We can know the same way he knew – from the Old Testament.
What did he know? He is the king, according to Psalm 2. He alone is the rightful king of this entire world. All human ownership is a cultural construct. God has deeded over to Jesus the rights to everything in this entire world – all computer software, all artistic work, all sports accomplishments, everything. But his kingdom is a surprise. It’s not oppressive but life-giving. His kingdom is unlike any culture we’ve ever created. Jesus doesn’t apologize for his royal claim to every square inch of this world and every one of us and every aspect of our daily lives. But he builds his kingdom by serving us. Isaiah 42 defines him as the servant of the Lord. You can see Jesus through his own eyes. Then you can understand him and trust him and admire him and obey him and live for him.
As a lead-up to the first servant song here in Isaiah 42, God presents someone else first. He first predicts another king, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus rose to power in the 500’s B.C., and God was the one who made him successful:
I stirred up one from the north, and he has come,
from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name.
Cyrus didn’t climb the ladder of human power on his own. God stirred him up. God rules over all the events of human history, including the most un-God-like events, like the rise of a Persian warlord. But wait a minute. Why does Cyrus the Great even matter? He matters, because he was the one who set the Jewish people free from exile in Babylon. He conquered Babylon around 539 B.C. and he let the Jews go back to the promised land, so that they could get ready for the coming Messiah. Cyrus stepped onto the stage of biblical history to play that role in God’s plan. He “called on God’s name” in that he explained his release of the Jewish people in terms of the will of God (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). But Cyrus never knew God personally. That was obvious from his behavior:
He shall trample on rulers as on mortar,
as the potter treads clay.
That is not how a servant behaves. Cyrus was a typical tough-guy of his time. He stepped on anyone who got in his way. It’s how the world still works. It’s another reason we love the gospel. The gospel is not just about our personal salvation. It’s also about a whole new world. But at the time, back then, it looked like more of the same-old same-old. Cyrus didn’t look like someone God was using. That’s why God openly predicted the rise of Cyrus. He wanted everyone to know who is really running this world:
Who declared it from the beginning, that we might know,
and beforehand, that we might say, “He is right”?
There was none who declared it, none who proclaimed,
none who heard your words.
I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!”
and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news.
But when I look, there is no one;
among these there is no counselor
who, when I ask, gives an answer.
Behold, they are all a delusion;
their works are nothing;
their metal images are empty wind.
God is speaking here. He is pointing out that no one foresaw the spectacular rise of Cyrus. But the idols of the nations were supposed to be good at predicting the future. The pagan priests would go to their temples and cut open a chicken and examine how the intestines coiled around and find in all of that clues about the future – something you can really build your life on! But God proves how real he is by predicting the future in plain language. God told everyone Cyrus was coming about 150 years ahead of time. Isaiah wrote this around 740 to 700 B.C. But Cyrus appeared on the scene around the mid-500’s. And in chapters 44-45, God even calls Cyrus by name. God proved that he alone was orchestrating world events, so that we would trust him right here in all the upheaval of our world today.
In Isaiah we see short-term predictions of Cyrus, which came true. We see longer-term predictions of Jesus, which also came true. And we see ultimate predictions of a whole new world, which we have reason to believe will come true. What else is there to believe in? We’ve been lied to so many times. But God told us Cyrus was coming to set the Jews free, and he did. God told us a servant was coming to set us free, and he did. God told us a new world of freedom is coming, and will we doubt him? Here is that greater promise:
Behold 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.
God delights in this servant the way he could never delight in Cyrus. Jesus said, “I always do what is pleasing to him” (John 8:29). There is a happiness exploding out of God over who Jesus is, and the happiness of God about Jesus is what defines the future of this world. He gave to Jesus the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit in history, and that non-oppressive power from above is how justice will come to the nations.
The key word in this servant song is “justice.” We see that word “justice” in verses 1, 3 and 4. It’s hard to know how to translate the Hebrew. The English word “justice” is accurate, but this word includes more than legal correctness. I’m reminded of Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be. It’s a book about sin. That’s what our sin creates – a whole world that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The death of Steve Jobs is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Unemployment, as well as boring jobs – that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The most amazing communications technology in the history of the human race, used for what? Narcissistic self-indulgence. Is that why God gave us iPhones? Our sin is vandalizing the shalom God created. How can that be right? In that sense, the English word “justice” is a good translation. Our world is not the way it’s supposed to be. The culture we’ve created is unjust – ultimately, unfair to God himself. The way we are has no justification here in God’s universe. We belong in hell, because that’s what we’ve created here on earth. God would be unjust not to judge what we have done and what we have become.
What exactly is it that’s wrong with us? Well, look what Isaiah is doing here. He is contrasting the servant of the Lord with Cyrus the Great and all his grandiosity and pomp, which produced his ruthlessness. What’s wrong with us is our pride. What’s wrong with us is Cyrus the Great, Ray the Great, You the Great. Look how we behave when we get enough money and power to do whatever we really feel like doing. Look what we do with our marriages, just for starters. Every injustice in this world is rooted in human self-exaltation – someone stepping on someone else. What this world needs is nothing less than a new human race – like the servant of the Lord. Only he can save us from our Cyrus-the-Great-ish-ness.
But there’s still more to this word “justice.” This Hebrew word is used in the book of Exodus for the plan of the tabernacle. God gave Moses a kind of blueprint for building the tabernacle. There was no guesswork, and it came out just right. That’s the word Isaiah uses here too. It tells us that God has a plan, a blueprint, for ideal human existence. We all know what it’s like to have a really great day, maybe a Labor Day picnic with family and friends, and the weather’s beautiful, and the food is great, and everyone is getting along, and you think, “This is perfect.” But it isn’t. For one thing, it ends. That wonderful day comes to an end, everyone goes home and Tuesday morning it’s back to work. Even a really good day in this world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. But here in the gospel God makes us a promise. He is bringing down to us a whole new world through his servant Jesus: “He will bring forth justice, that is, human life just the way it should be, to the nations.” Everything that’s wrong with the world we’ve made, all forms of misery – we will never be able completely to unbuild what we have built, because even our good intentions are still poisoned with pride. So God, in great love, sent us a servant, an egoless nobody named Jesus. God sent us someone we can trust:
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.
There goes Cyrus the Great into historical oblivion, and good riddance! Now comes the servant of the Lord. We’ve never seen anyone like him before. What do we see in Jesus? Not what we expect of a world conqueror. No army. No threats. No demonstrations. No swagger. No hoopla. He didn’t grab attention. He lived so modestly that no one paid much attention to him until he started performing miracles, and they were always to help other people and never for himself.
In verse 3, Isaiah is using a figure of speech called litotes. It’s when you say something negative but you mean something positive, like saying “Not bad” when you mean “Good.” It’s a form of understatement, which is perfect for describing the servant of the Lord. But what does Isaiah mean in a positive way? He means that the servant will heal that bruised reed and will rekindle that faintly burning wick. Jesus will value broken people and cherish them and restore them. He’s talking about wounded people, exhausted people, people who are wondering how much longer they can go on, people with doubts, people with weaknesses, people with nothing to offer, people worn down by their sins and by the sins of others, people who look at their lives with honesty and say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” Those are the people Jesus came to serve. Those are the people he moves toward. Those are the people he brings into his kingdom. He isn’t looking for potential; he’s looking for need. He is the only one who can say to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Cyrus never said that. We can’t say that. Jesus did.
But we might wonder, Can Jesus handle all this human need? And what about all my need? Is he big enough, does he care enough, does he love enough and forgive enough, to make everything right again for me?
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth,
and the coastlands wait for his law.
You and I are weak. We grow faint and discouraged. We start out on projects with good intentions and high hopes. But we falter and fail and quit. But the servant of the Lord came down as one of us, subject to our daily struggles in his humanity, and he took on all our sins as if they were his own at the cross. And he cares for our needs as if they were his own every day. And bearing all our burden, he is not crushed, he is not paralyzed, he is not immobilized, he is not overwhelmed. The prophet told us long ago, “He will not grow faint or be discouraged.” In the fullness of his resurrection power, Jesus doesn’t need time off, he doesn’t need “space,” he doesn’t need to get away from it all for a few days. His love is big enough to absorb all our brokenness, and it energizes him still further to love us so much. You can’t deplete him, but he can fill you, because he glorifies himself by his endless supply. So God’s promise of a whole new world, ruled by Jesus, is not a theory, not an ideal, not even an offer; God’s promise is an inevitability, it is unstoppable, because Jesus is able to serve us with endless power. The coastlands, Isaiah says, will wait eagerly for his law, his teaching, his gospel, his new way of life. And, to Isaiah, the coastlands were the most remote areas he could think of. The new humane world under Jesus is not a trend to hit the big cities but then leave out the boondocks. So there is hope for all rednecks!
Here is what God wants every one of us to do about this today, right now. Hear the word of the Lord. Hear it and receive it. It’s not about what you do for God; it’s about what God does for you through Jesus. Hear, believe, and receive the word of the Lord. Don’t pick it apart. Swallow it whole. Don’t hold it at a distance. Make it your own. Don’t rate the odds. Look at the facts of what God has done. And say to him, “I’m not the way I’m supposed to be, and I cannot change by myself. I’m too bruised, I’m too faintly burning. But you sent Jesus to serve broken people like me. I receive him. I rejoice in his cross and his power. I want to be a part of his new world, Father, if you’ll have me.” And he will.
If you are a bruised person, you have nothing to fear from Jesus. If your hopes for happiness are like that little spark at the end of a wick before it goes completely out, he can give you a bright new future. If you’re not sure you can go on believing what you used to believe because it didn’t work and you can’t deny the brokenness that your life has come to, Jesus is willing and able to help you. And especially, if you look at your life and have to admit that the wreckage you see there is your own fault and you have no one to blame but yourself, you especially must know that Jesus has mercy for people who deserve his wrath – if you’ll trust him and open up. Yes, he is God, and he is holy, and he is pure. But he is also man, and he was tempted too, and he died for fools who have sinned too much to have any excuses left. And now he wants you to be bold. He wants you to put your fears and doubts away. He wants you to say to him, “Would you be my servant? Would you be my king? I want no one else to help me and to rule me. Please accept me through your cross, free me from my past, lead me into your future. I’m all in.” If that’s your heart toward him, he will forgive you, he will defend you, he will hold onto you forever. Some people in your life might never forgive you, but he will. Others might hold something against you after you’ve come to them in repentance, but he won’t. At the heart of his perfect new world is perfect forgiveness. At that very point in your heart where you most feel your shame and guilt – at that very point he most longs to serve you.
Will you let yourself believe it and receive it? “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”