Isaiah Chapters 42-43: Be a Servant at Work
Note: PRS.work is a plug-and-play video Bible Study. Everything you need to connect the Bible to your work is in the video above. Feel free to press play and just listen. Or follow along with the transcript below.
Welcome to PRS.work, a video series that helps us hear the Bible together at work. In this video you'll hear a brief introduction, a Psalm read as an opening prayer, a long passage from the Bible, and a commentary about what this means for work, workers, and the workplace. When the video ends you can discuss how this applies to your work.
Our Public Reading of Scripture today comes from Isaiah’s prophecy in the Old Testament. Isaiah spoke on God’s behalf to Israel’s leaders. He accused them of rebelling against God and warned that God’s judgment would come from Babylon. Then, one hundred years later, it happened.
Yet Isaiah’s prophesy is also one of hope. A future servant or Messiah would come to restore God’s kingdom and create a New Jerusalem.
Before reading along to a dramatic recording of Isaiah chapters 42 and 43, we will open with Psalm 72 in prayer.
A Psalm of Solomon.
Give the king Your judgments, O God,
And Your righteousness to the king’s Son.
2 He will judge Your people with righteousness,
And Your poor with justice.
3 The mountains will bring peace to the people,
And the little hills, by righteousness.
4 He will bring justice to the poor of the people;
He will save the children of the needy,
And will break in pieces the oppressor.
5 They shall fear You
As long as the sun and moon endure,
Throughout all generations.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the grass before mowing,
Like showers that water the earth.
7 In His days the righteous shall flourish,
And abundance of peace,
Until the moon is no more.
8 He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him,
And His enemies will lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles
Will bring presents;
The kings of Sheba and Seba
Will offer gifts.
11 Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him;
All nations shall serve Him.
12 For He will deliver the needy when he cries,
The poor also, and him who has no helper.
13 He will spare the poor and needy,
And will save the souls of the needy.
14 He will redeem their life from oppression and violence;
And precious shall be their blood in His sight.
15 And He shall live;
And the gold of Sheba will be given to Him;
Prayer also will be made for Him continually,
And daily He shall be praised.
16 There will be an abundance of grain in the earth,
On the top of the mountains;
Its fruit shall wave like Lebanon;
And those of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure forever;
His name shall continue as long as the sun.
And men shall be blessed in Him;
All nations shall call Him blessed.
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,
My Elect One in whom My soul delights!
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.
2 He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,
Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.
3 A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench;
He will bring forth justice for truth.
4 He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”
5 Thus says God the Lord,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,
And will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles,
7 To open blind eyes,
To bring out prisoners from the prison,
Those who sit in darkness from the prison house.
8 I am the Lord, that is My name;
And My glory I will not give to another,
Nor My praise to carved images.
9 Behold, the former things have come to pass,
And new things I declare;
Before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
And His praise from the ends of the earth,
You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
You coastlands and you inhabitants of them!
11 Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice,
The villages that Kedar inhabits.
Let the inhabitants of Sela sing,
Let them shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord,
And declare His praise in the coastlands.
13 The Lord shall go forth like a mighty man;
He shall stir up His zeal like a man of war.
He shall cry out, yes, shout aloud;
He shall prevail against His enemies.
14 “I have held My peace a long time,
I have been still and restrained Myself.
Now I will cry like a woman in labor,
I will pant and gasp at once.
15 I will lay waste the mountains and hills,
And dry up all their vegetation;
I will make the rivers coastlands,
And I will dry up the pools.
16 I will bring the blind by a way they did not know;
I will lead them in paths they have not known.
I will make darkness light before them,
And crooked places straight.
These things I will do for them,
And not forsake them.
17 They shall be turned back,
They shall be greatly ashamed,
Who trust in carved images,
Who say to the molded images,
‘You are our gods.’
18 “Hear, you deaf;
And look, you blind, that you may see.
19 Who is blind but My servant,
Or deaf as My messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as he who is perfect,
And blind as the Lord’s servant?
20 Seeing many things, but you do not observe;
Opening the ears, but he does not hear.”
21 The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake;
He will exalt the law and make it honorable.
22 But this is a people robbed and plundered;
All of them are snared in holes,
And they are hidden in prison houses;
They are for prey, and no one delivers;
For plunder, and no one says, “Restore!”
23 Who among you will give ear to this?
Who will listen and hear for the time to come?
24 Who gave Jacob for plunder, and Israel to the robbers?
Was it not the Lord,
He against whom we have sinned?
For they would not walk in His ways,
Nor were they obedient to His law.
25 Therefore He has poured on him the fury of His anger
And the strength of battle;
It has set him on fire all around,
Yet he did not know;
And it burned him,
Yet he did not take it to heart.
But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I gave Egypt for your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
4 Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;
Therefore I will give men for you,
And people for your life.
5 Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your descendants from the east,
And gather you from the west;
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
And to the south, ‘Do not keep them back!’
Bring My sons from afar,
And My daughters from the ends of the earth—
7 Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”
8 Bring out the blind people who have eyes,
And the deaf who have ears.
9 Let all the nations be gathered together,
And let the people be assembled.
Who among them can declare this,
And show us former things?
Let them bring out their witnesses, that they may be justified;
Or let them hear and say, “It is truth.”
10 “You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
Nor shall there be after Me.
11 I, even I, am the Lord,
And besides Me there is no savior.
12 I have declared and saved,
I have proclaimed,
And there was no foreign god among you;
Therefore you are My witnesses,”
Says the Lord, “that I am God.
13 Indeed before the day was, I am He;
And there is no one who can deliver out of My hand;
I work, and who will reverse it?”
14 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
The Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I will send to Babylon,
And bring them all down as fugitives—
The Chaldeans, who rejoice in their ships.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
The Creator of Israel, your King.”
16 Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea
And a path through the mighty waters,
17 Who brings forth the chariot and horse,
The army and the power
(They shall lie down together, they shall not rise;
They are extinguished, they are quenched like a wick):
18 “Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
20 The beast of the field will honor Me,
The jackals and the ostriches,
Because I give waters in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert,
To give drink to My people, My chosen.
21 This people I have formed for Myself;
They shall declare My praise.
22 “But you have not called upon Me, O Jacob;
And you have been weary of Me, O Israel.
23 You have not brought Me the sheep for your burnt offerings,
Nor have you honored Me with your sacrifices.
I have not caused you to serve with grain offerings,
Nor wearied you with incense.
24 You have bought Me no sweet cane with money,
Nor have you satisfied Me with the fat of your sacrifices;
But you have burdened Me with your sins,
You have wearied Me with your iniquities.
25 “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake;
And I will not remember your sins.
26 Put Me in remembrance;
Let us contend together;
State your case, that you may be acquitted.
27 Your first father sinned,
And your mediators have transgressed against Me.
28 Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary;
I will give Jacob to the curse,
And Israel to reproaches.
Pause for Reflection
Now we'll take a moment to reflect silently on what we have just read and heard in Scripture.
Be a Servant at Work
From the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Isaiah
Where righteousness in Isaiah 1-39 is a term used to reveal Judah’s shortcomings and infidelity, the Hebrew mishpat in Isaiah 40-55 is understood primarily as a gift from God that he accomplishes on behalf of his people. Isaiah himself serves as the prime example of the servant of God who brings this gift of God.
Justice or judgment is established in Isaiah 40-55 by the enigmatic “servant” embedded within this portion of Isaiah’s witness. Isaiah 42:1-4, the first of the so-called servant songs, speaks of the servant as one who establishes justice in the earth. Here, in the figure of the servant, God answers Judah’s cry for justice: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right (mishpat) is disregarded by my God.” (Isaiah 40:27) God’s own divine initiative is now enacted to accomplish for his people what they could not accomplish for themselves. The means by which God will accomplish salvation both for Israel and for the nations is in this developing figure of God’s servant. Righteousness and justice are accomplished by the servant.
The servant’s narrative identity develops within these chapters - from Israel per se in chapters 40-48, to an individual figure in chapters 49-53 who takes on his own shoulders Israel’s missional identity for both herself and for the nations.
“The Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3)
The reason for this shift from national Israel to a figure who is Israel incarnate (or an idealized Israel) is Israel’s failure to fulfill her mission because of her sin. What one observes in this servant figure is the unique means by which God communicates his gracious presence and restorative intentions to his wayward people. It is by the figure of the servant that righteousness (now understood as covenant fidelity to his people) is offered to them as a gift on the basis of God’s own freedom and sovereign commitment to his promises. Righteousness is something to be received rather than attained.
This prompts us to ask about our own roles. As members of a people being redeemed by God’s grace, we can be vessels of that grace for the benefit of those around us. Sometimes we have the opportunity to make our workplaces more just, more compassionate, more oriented toward making the world a better place. In doing so, we may enact the servant’s mission in small ways ourselves.
Conversely, at other times, it is difficult to do our work as God intends. Individuals or systems in our workplaces may resist the way God is leading us. Our own sin and shortcomings may short-circuit any good we might have accomplished. Even our best efforts may not seem to make much difference.
In these cases, Isaiah has a word of reassurance for us.
“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.” (Isaiah 49:4)
Despite the discouragement we often feel, the ultimate result of our work is in God’s hands. We can trust God not only to use what we have done, but in God’s time to bring it to fulfillment. As Philippians puts it, “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:6). 1 Corinthians adds “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The two portraits of righteousness presented in Isaiah chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-55 are pursued to give us a nuanced understanding of righteousness in Isaiah chapters 56-66. It is in this portion of Isaiah that some of the clearer portraits of a theology of work are offered. The righteousness offered as a gift in Isaiah chapters 40-55 is now an obligation to be performed in chapters 56-66: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed’” (Isaiah 56:1).
The appeals of doing righteousness in chapters 56-66 is a realized possibility now for the people of God because of God’s prior gracious claim on them in the figure of the servant. The language of Isaiah 56:1 is linked to Isaiah 51:4-8 in which again Judah is called to pursue justice and righteousness. In this passage, the created possibility for the people of God to do righteousness is found in the last clauses of Isaiah 51:6 and 8: God’s righteousness and God’s salvation will not fail but will last forever. As chapters 40-55 move in their literary shape, we see God’s righteousness and salvation enacted in the person of the servant who suffers on behalf of and in place of others. The appeals to doing righteousness in chapters 56-66 are made possible because of God’s prior dealings with Israel’s infidelity in the gracious and substitutionary action of the servant. In theological language, God’s grace precedes law, as demonstrated by God’s gracious initiative to redeem his people at all costs. This is the only means by which talk of human responsibility or righteous actions can occur. It is in the security of the forgiveness of God found in Jesus Christ that the impetus for good works materializes.
The prophet turns the argument from the negative to the positive by presenting “the fast that I [God] choose” (Isaiah 58:6). This fast includes: Loosing the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, sharing food with the hungry, providing the poor wanderer with shelter, clothing the naked, and caring for one’s family. The result is that we participate in God's work of restoration, as described in Isaiah, "Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in." (Isaiah 58:2). Isaiah paints a picture of the values that must characterize the people of God, in stark contrast to those of most surrounding cultures. External religion or religious performance that can co-mingle with a work ethic characterized by a lack of concern for one’s laborers (where laborers or employees or subordinates are mere instruments for personal or business development), or by a leadership style that is given to strife, quarreling, backbiting, shortened fuses and uncontrolled anger — these breach our loyalty to God. A claim is made on the people of God because of the prior forgiveness of our sins in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The promise following on the heels of the invective in chapter 58 is the breaking forth of all of God’s promises in the midst of God’s people: “Your light will break forth…. your vindicator will go before you…. the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8-9).
As we trace the development of “the Servant” from national Israel to an idealized Israel, then to the Servant of the Lord in chapters 52-53, then to the servants of that Servant, we pause to reflect on the workplace implications of the model of servanthood we see in Jesus Christ. Isaiah carefully constructs his description of the servant to make it clear that he is a reflection of God himself. Therefore, Christians have traditionally equated the Servant with Jesus. Isaiah’s picture of the Servant’s suffering in chapters 52-53 reminds us that as servants of God, we may be called to self-sacrifice in our work, as Jesus was.
“So marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals….He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account….But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed….Yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.” (Isaiah 52:14, and 53:3, 5, and 7).
An adequate vision of God will motivate us to make God’s standard our standard, so that we do not allow self-interest and self-aggrandizement to pervert our work.
Jesus, in his death and resurrection, met a need we could not meet. God’s standard calls us to meet the needs of justice and righteousness through our work: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him” (Isaiah 59:14-16). As servants of the Servant of the Lord, we are called to meet unmet needs. In the workplace, this may have many faces: concern for a downtrodden employee or co-worker, alertness to the integrity of a product being sold to consumers, eschewing process shortcuts that would deprive people of their input, even rejecting hoarding in times of scarcity. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
As servants of the Servant of the Lord, we may not receive the acclaim we desire. Rewards may be deferred. But we know that God is our Judge. Isaiah put it this way: “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)