Summary: Year A. 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20th, 2002 Isaiah 49: 1-7 Title: “God’s Salvation”
Year A. 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20th, 2002
Isaiah 49: 1-7
Title: “God’s Salvation”
We need to understand the history- political and religious- going on behind this text, on which it is based and which it interprets. The inspired writer gives prosaic history a poetic interpretation, turning physical objects, political realities and human events into metaphors, opening them up to a broader view and vision. Politically, Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and decreed the return of the exiled Jews to their homeland, the rebuilding of their Temple and restoration of the worship of their God, is now dead. He is succeeded by Darius. The question for the Jews is: will Darius continue the tolerant policies of Cyrus? Deutero-Isaiah preached that Cyrus, a Gentile, was God’s servant, his instrument, heresy to pious Jewish ears. In 41: 1-8 he is called “the champion of justice” and “God’s attendant.” The prophet’s point is that Israel’s role in world history is not to rule over the nations. For now, that is Cyrus’ role and, as such, he, too, is God’s “servant.” In 520 BC Darius, unlikely and surprising successor to Cambyses, in fact, he was his military aide, issues a decree, becoming the second Persian king to directly support the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s Temple, which was completed in the sixth year of his reign. Darius had to fight hard to bring the disparate “nations,” under his rule. Like Cyrus, he felt Persia proper was “too small,” a domain. He, too, was to rule over the nations of the world. And the prophet saw this as God’s plan.
Because of this eventual peaceful situation, much like that of Rome, her peace and roads enabling the Church to spread to the nations, Israel could do her assigned task as “light,” to the nations, as opposed to beating them by military means- by “fight” or “fright”- into submission. She would lead by the attractiveness of her example, fruitfulness of her life, integrity of her worship. All nations would one day come to accept Yahweh on his terms, but not through war or force or violence. If Persia, through Cyrus and Darius, had a role in God’s plan in the political sphere, Israel, and the Suffering Servant, had a role in the religious sphere. Because she did not accept that role and wanted the political one, she persecuted the prophets, especially the Suffering Servant, claiming their claims were heresy.
In 40: 1-11 Deutero-Isaiah receives his commission from God to give comfort, read salvation, to his people Israel, Jerusalem. Having failed, because people wanted “salvation,” on their terms. The prophet somewhat discouraged, receives in the present text, not a reprimand for failure but a broadening of the scope of his mission to the entire world. Of course, the individual prophet servant represents his entire people and the language of the call or God’s commission can be read as addressed either to one person or the one people. Thus the Servant, Israel is the religious equivalent of the political Cyrus, Persia. The sacred writer will take ideas and images he used to describe the secular king and apply them to the religious Servant. Yahweh has protected Israel while in exile, but now shows no signs of allowing her to re-conquer Palestine and she does not like it.
In verse one, “Listen to me, O coastlands.” In 41: 1 this address began the Lord’s commissioning of the secular king, Cyrus. Now, the Servant receives a similar commission, a re-affirmation and extension of his original one recorded in 40: 1-11.
The Lord called me from…my mother’s womb: This is all part of God’s long term plan, the God who “has called forth the generations since the beginning (41:4).
In verse two,2 a sharp-edged sword…a polished arrow: In 41:2 the prophet, referring to Cyrus, said, “With his sword he reduces them, the nations, to dust, with his bow, to driven straw.” Now, he turns these physical objects, historical realities, into metaphors to describe what the Servant will do. Sword and arrow are hidden until the time they are needed. When drawn or shot they are effective means for accomplishing the end for which they were designed. The Servant was “hidden,” in the depths of the ages until now, the appropriate time, Greek kairos, for effectiveness. The “weapon,” will be not the sword but the word of God.
In verse three, you are my servant…Israel: The Servant embodies the entire people. What is true of him is true of them. This is an excellent example of what scholars call “corporate personality.” It means that an individual cannot be separated from the group. If an individual does good or evil, the group to which he belongs is affected by it for good or evil. If one member of the group is sinless throughout his life, then anyone who attaches to him will also experience freedom from sin. Here Israel is being told in no uncertain terms that her role in God’s plan, God’s Vision, God’s interpretation of history, is not the role of “ruler,” leave that to Cyrus and the secular powers, but that of “servant,” providing service to the nations in obedience to God.