Light for the Captive
Passage: Isaiah 42:1–42:9
Light for the Captive
The carol we sang a moment ago – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – is a fitting introduction to today’s passage. The song is really a prayer, as the first stanza pleads for Emmanuel to come and ransom captive Israel. And it’s that idea of captivity that introduces our passage. As we come to Isaiah 42, the people of God face the daunting reality of exile. The Babylonians are coming, and the people of Judah will be taken into captivity. That is a horrible fate, but it is also deserved. The people face exile because, quite simply, they have neglected God. And so, the Lord will now give them what they have pursued. They chased a life without God, and now they will reap the fruit of that life.
Understand, then, that as Isaiah 42 opens, God’s people struggle against two very powerful temptations, both of which will erode their faith. On the one hand, there is the temptation to fear. Think about it. To Isaiah’s audience, the future likely appears very uncertain, even fearful. Yes, they have heard God’s promises through prophets like Isaiah, but do those promises hold true if they are in exile? Will captivity shackle the Word of God too? There is this temptation to fear.
And at the same time, that fear feeds the temptation to idolatry. Again, you have think from the perspective of Isaiah’s audience. If exile is coming, then perhaps we are following the wrong god? If Babylon conquers Judah, then shouldn’t we trust in Babylon’s god? I hope you’re getting a sense of the situation. The circumstances are fearful, and that fear fuels the greatest temptation of all – the temptation to trust in something other than God.
But into this fearful situation, God does something remarkable. He doesn’t leave the people on their own, which honestly is what they deserve. No, God speaks a word of hope to his wayward people. Isaiah 42 introduces us to the Servant of the Lord – see it there in v1, “Behold, my servant,” God says. And this Servant is the divine remedy to what plagues God’s people. This Servant will do what the nation cannot – he will deliver God’s weak and frail people. And in doing so, the Servant will also expose idolatry as a dead-end scheme, proving once and for all that God alone determines history. The Servant is the remedy for God’s wayward people. The Servant drives out fear and calls God’s people again to faith.
And that gets to the heart of this passage for us. Times and culture have changed, but the temptations facing Isaiah’s audience continue to stalk God’s people today. Who among us has not struggled with fear in the face of an uncertain future? It’s a common experience to every believer – to have fear fight against our faith. And then think of how easy it is in those times to give our trust to other saviors – whether it be having the right job, building a growing family, being in good health, financial stability, living in the right neighborhood? If I just have those things, I’ll be saved – I’ll be delivered from those fearful circumstances. Idolatry is not merely an ancient problem. We may not be tempted to bow down to little carved statues, but we’re surrounded by idols everyday. Ours are just better disguised and perhaps more respectable.
All of that to say, brothers and sisters, we need to hear God’s Word in Isaiah 42. We need to understand how the Servant of the Lord delivers God’s people from captivity to sin, fear, and idolatry. And most importantly, we need to see how the Servant of Isaiah 42 has been revealed as none other than Jesus Christ our Lord. It is through him that Isaiah’s good news comes to pass.
Let’s look more closely at this Servant whom God promises to raise up. Specifically, let’s consider his Calling, his Character, his Commission, and his Confidence. And as we consider these things, brothers and sisters, my hope is that by looking to Christ, we will find our faith renewed to trust in God alone.
The Servant’s Calling
Let’s begin in v1 with the Servant’s Calling. From the start, it is clear that the Servant has a unique relationship with God. Notice again how God presents his Servant, v1 – “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.” What should get our attention here is the language of divine appointment. The Servant does not chose his position, but is rather chosen by God. This is how God spoke of Abraham, Moses, and David, Each of those men was a uniquely appointed servant, called to fulfill a specific role. And that’s the case here in Isaiah 42. The Servant of the Lord has a divine appointment, v1 says.
But you’ll also notice that the Servant comes with divine empowerment as well. Notice how God says he will put his Spirit upon the Servant. This is what sets the Servant apart. If we look back to chapter 41, we find God describing the idols of this world as nothing more than empty winds. You can see it there in v29 of Isaiah 41. The gods of this world have no power. They’re a bunch of hot air, in other words. But not so God’s Servant. The Servant of the Lord is empowered by the Spirit, the very breath of God, you might say. He has divine empowerment.
But we should notice also that the Servant comes with divine approval. Look again at the text, and notice how the Servant is the One in whom God delights. This is profound. The Lord God says there is a bond, a communion of being as it were, between himself and his Servant. God delights in his Servant, and the Servant, we’ll see, delights in God. This is far different than what the idols of this world can offer. Every other so-called god is an abomination to the Lord, an assault on his glory. But not so God’s Servant. The Servant embodies the very pleasure of God, which means he has divine approval.
But then it all culminates in the Servant’s divine mandate. Notice the end of v1. Why does God appoint, empower, and delight in his Servant? So that the Servant will bring forth justice to the nations. Now, justice here is more than a legal term. The Servant’s job is not simply to enforce laws or right wrongs. He will do those things, for sure, but he will do so much more. The Servant will set the entire creation right. He will call all people to live in light of the truth that there is only one God – the Lord God Almighty. That is the Servant’s divine mandate. He is an agent of God’s Word. He reveals God’s truth in God’s world so that all people see their need to be reconciled to his One, True God.
When you put all the pieces together here in v1, you begin to see that the Servant of the Lord must be more than the nation of Israel. The nation is sometimes called God’s Servant, but here in chapter 42, the Servant is more than the nation. The Servant must be none other than the Messiah. Divine appointment, empowerment, approval, mandate – this must be the Anointed One, the Promised Son of David, the King who will reign over God’s kingdom.
And listen, that is not my attempt to read Jesus back into this passage. No, the NT itself urges us to see this connection. Matthew 12 is one clear place where Isaiah 42 is specifically cited about Jesus, but I want you to think about Matthew 3, Jesus’ baptism. What happens as Jesus comes up out of the Jordan? The sky splits, the Spirit descends, and the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Appointment, empowerment, approval – it’s an echo of this passage in Isaiah. The Lord Jesus is this Servant of the Lord. He is the One in whom the Father delights, and it is through him that God will bring justice upon the earth – not simply the justice of laws enforced, but the perfect order of life lived under God’s good Word.
We’re only one verse in, brothers and sisters, and already, I hope you see the confidence God’s people have as we face the future. Here we have God speaking in Isaiah of his Servant, and then we see God acting in Matthew to reveal his Servant, the Lord Jesus. Do you see the progression? What God says, he does. What God predicts, he accomplishes. The future is in God’s hands, in other words, and perhaps nowhere do we see that so clearly as in the coming of Jesus Christ.
So at the most basic level, the believer’s confidence for the future is found right here – in Jesus Christ. I don’t mean to sound trite, but the Lord Jesus truly does answer the fear that can so easily afflict our hearts. If there is nothing else you take away from this morning, I pray you’ll be encouraged by this – simply by his coming to earth, the Lord Jesus is assuring you that the future is secure for the people of God. I cannot tell you that every circumstance will turn out ok in this life. I cannot assure you that every tragedy will be avoided. But I can remind of this, brothers and sisters – What God speaks, he does. He calls for his Servant here in Isaiah, and in the fullness of time, he raised up that Servant in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Servant’s Character
That’s the first feature of the Servant we should note – his calling. As we move to vv2-4, we find the second feature – the Servant’s Character. God now gives us more insight into what his Servant will be like. And considering the Servant’s grand calling, we might expect him to be marked with pomp and power, you know, the kind of leader who has no time for people who slow down his march of progress. That’s what we might expect, but we would be wrong. God’s Servant, as we see in vv2-4, has an entirely different character. Notice it with me.
Perhaps most importantly, the Servant of the Lord will be humble. V2 says he will not cry out in the streets or lift up his voice. In other words, the Servant will not be a self-promoter. He’s not someone who seeks out the limelight. He’s not trying to maximize his platform or build a brand. No, the Servant of the Lord will be quiet. He’s content to carry out his ministry outside the spotlight, perhaps even on the margins that the world tends to overlook. That’s the Servant’s character. He is humble.
The description continues in v3. The Servant of the Lord is gentle. God says the Servant will not break a bruised reed or quench the faintly burning wick. In Isaiah’s day, reeds were used for support, but a bruised reed was basically useless. Same for a dimly burning candle – it doesn’t give you much light or heat, so why not just snuff it out? But that’s not how the Servant of the Lord treats God’s people. He doesn’t break the bruised, and he doesn’t quench the faint. In other words, there is no one too weak for the Servant to reach, and there is no one too far gone for the Servant to revive. He’s gentle.
But then notice the final piece of the Servant’s character, v4 – he is strong. Look again at v4 – “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” Now, there’s actually a play on words here that captures the Servant’s character. He will not break the bruised reed, v3, but at the same time, the Servant will not be bruised himself, v4. It’s the same word, and that helps make the point. The Servant of the Lord is gentle enough to meet his people’s weakness, and yet, he is strong enough to overcome their weakness as well. He doesn’t burn out and he will not break.
Try to imagine a Leader who is strong enough to bring justice to the entire globe, and at the same time, gentle enough to reach the hurting, the broken, and the weak. It almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Almost like a fairy tale. Expect this is no fairy tale, brothers and sisters. Isaiah 42 is a preview of the Messiah who would be born some centuries later in Bethlehem. Like no one else can, the Lord Jesus embodies the character of the Servant. He is humble, choosing to lay aside his glory in order to come to this earth to save his people. And while on earth, he ministered in an out-of-the way part of the world, discipling fishermen, calling tax collectors, associating with the lowly, and befriending the outcast.
The Lord Jesus is gentle, patiently meeting his people in their weakness. Think of the time the woman snuck up behind him in the crowd in order to touch his garment, Mark 5. She was ceremonially unclean, you remember, so she was not allowed to touch Jesus. And yet, when the Lord discovered her, what did he do? Rebuke her? Break her bruised faith? No, Jesus received her. He commended her with tenderness.
Or think of the father who comes to Jesus in Mark 9, begging for his son to be healed. Jesus tells the man that all things are possible for the one who believes, and the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” How did Jesus respond? Did he snuff out that father’s barely burning faith? No, he healed the man’s son, and in doing so encouraged his feeble faith.
The Lord Jesus is gentle, brothers and sisters. He won’t break you when you come to him in need, and he won’t snuff you out when your faith is little more than an ember.
And at the same time, the Lord Jesus is unimaginably strong. Isaiah said the Servant of the Lord would not grow faint or be discouraged. He would not be dissuaded from his mission to set the world right. And nearly every story in the Gospels testifies that Jesus displayed that kind of strength. When tempted by Satan himself, Jesus stood firm on God’s Word. When opposed by the religious leaders, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem and fulfill his mission. And when besieged with suffering in the Garden, Jesus did not run from the cup but rather prayed “Not what I will, Father, but what you will.” Jesus is unimaginably strong.
It’s no fairy tale, brothers and sisters. The Lord Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, the One whom God has provided to care for and deliver his people. He’s humble, he’s gentle, he’s strong, and that means that he stands ready and able to receive you. Even if your faith is weak and feels like its fading, the Lord Jesus will receive you. He won’t break you down. He won’t snuff you out. And the way you honor him is by coming to him in faith. His glory is revealed when even weak and frail people find their hope in him. The Servant’s Character, then, calls us to trust him.
The Servant’s Commission
That brings us to the third feature we should note – the Servant’s Commission. Beginning in v5, God describes in more detail what the Servant has been commissioned to do. It begins with a declaration of God’s character in v5, where we’re reminded that God is the Creator of all things. We’re going to come back to this truth in a moment, but for now, I want us to note the description of the Servant’s mission in vv6-7. Notice again what God says to his Servant – “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Now, there is a lot to unpack in that statement, and we’re not going to cover everything that could be said. For example, we could talk for some time about how the Servant of the Lord is the covenant mediator for the people of God – how he both represents the people and fulfills the covenant on their behalf. That’s a rich biblical theme, one that would eventually take us to the New Covenant Christ establishes in his blood. There is a lot we could unpack here.
But what we need to focus on this morning is the idea of light there in v6. The Servant will be a light for the nations. Now, what does light mean at this point? If you think about how light functions in the Bible, it typically represents the knowledge of God. Think about Psalm 119, v105 where God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Or consider Psalm 36, v9 where David says to God, “In your light do we see light.” In other words, the knowledge of God is the beginning point of all true knowledge. Or, if you look ahead to the NT, we find the apostle John saying in his first epistle that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Again, light is connected with God himself. Light, then, is an image for the knowledge of God that shines out from his glorious character.
And that helps us understand the Servant’s mission here in Isaiah 42. What will he come to do? Fundamentally, he comes to reveal God. The Servant comes to make God known. This is the ultimate deliverance that God’s people need. This is the answer to both exile and idolatry. Remember, even here in the OT, the physical exile in Babylon was a picture of a much greater exile – the exile of sin. Humanity is in captivity, Scripture says, imprisoned in sin’s darkness. And that darkness is so deep, its like a dungeon that imprisons us and keeps us from seeing the life-giving glory of God. That’s why the Servant’s mission in v7 is described like a prison-break – because in a real sense, that is what the Servant comes to do! He delivers people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and he does so by shining the light of God’s glory into their captive hearts.
This is a mission we couldn’t accomplish on our own. Just like Judah could not deliver herself from Babylon, so also sinners cannot deliver themselves from sin’s darkness. We need light to break in from the outside. We need a Deliverer who breaks apart sin’s shackles and then brings us out to new life in the light of God’s presence.
And as we enter the NT, we find that this passage from Isaiah 42 forms the backdrop to so much of Jesus’ ministry. Think about Jesus’ miraculous healing of the man born blind, Mark 8. What is that miracle about? It’s certainly about meeting the man’s need, but it’s also a spiritual parable, as it were, revealing to us that Jesus is the Servant of the Lord who has come to break sin’s blindness. Or, think about Jesus’ statement that he is the Light of the World, John 8. Why choose that particular image? To make clear that Jesus is the only way for mankind to see and embrace the truth about God the Father.
But it’s not limited to Jesus’ ministry. Think about the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4 – “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” And where do we see that glory, brothers and sisters? Paul tells us – “in the face of Jesus Christ.” What I hope you see is that there is this thread of God’s faithfulness that begins in places like Isaiah 42 and then stretches on until it reaches the flesh and blood person of Jesus Christ. This is important, brothers and sisters, and it’s something that perhaps I haven’t always done a good job of explaining.
When we talk about the faithfulness of God, we are not merely speaking about one of God’s attributes, as though his faithfulness were simply a personality trait or a characteristic of how God acts. Now, to be clear, faithfulness is one of God’s attributes, and it does mark his character. But God’s faithfulness is so much more than a mere attribute. His faithfulness is the overflow of himself – his unfailing commitment to be God.
And nowhere is this faithfulness seen more clearly than in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the flesh and blood assurance that God is faithful to his people. In giving us the Son of God, the Father has given us of himself. The Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father, Jesus says in John 10. To receive Jesus Christ by faith is to receive the Father’s absolute, unchanging, flesh and blood assurance of faithfulness. Again, this is what Isaiah is getting at here in chapter 42. The Servant of the Lord will bring the knowledge of God, and when we see Jesus Christ, that is what we receive. We receive, by faith, the knowledge, the assurance of who God is – that he is faithful, unchanging, never-failing, and merciful to the very end.
Brothers and sisters, I’m struggling to find the words to express what a profound grace this is. I’m at a loss as to how to unfold for us what is surely the most astoundingly wonderful news in the world. God promised, through his Servant, to give light to those in darkness, and in the gospel, God has kept that promise by giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And oh how I pray we see that today! What Isaiah foretold, Jesus Christ fulfills – praise God.
The Servant’s Confidence
And that brings us to the final feature of the passage. We’ve seen the Servant’s Calling, his Character, and his Commission. Let’s look in vv8-9 at the Servant’s Confidence. You’ll remember at the outset of the sermon, we said one of the temptations facing Isaiah’s audience was idolatry. If Babylon conquers Jerusalem, then shouldn’t we trust Babylon’s god? That was a pressing issue in Isaiah’s day.
Here at the conclusion of this passage about the Servant of the Lord, God delivers a decisive blow against that temptation. In just two verses – vv8-9 – God crushes idols under the weight of his glory. Notice what the Lord says, v8 – “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” Now, that might sound kind of self-evident for God to say, “I am the LORD; that is my name.” But this is more than a bare reminder. God’s name – the LORD – is his covenant name, the name by which he was known to his people. You may recall this is the name by which God revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai – “I am who I am,” God said.
And that makes this more than a name. God’s covenant name – the LORD – is a declaration of his glory. It is a statement of his self-existence. He is the God who is, and his being is found only in himself. V8 is God putting all the idols of this world on notice. Every other so-called god is dependent on his people, but not so the LORD. He is the God who is – that is his name.
And there is no clearer demonstration of God’s exclusive deity than his control of history. Look at v9. This is the pinnacle of God’s crackdown on idolatry, v9 – “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” If you look back to chapter 41, you’ll find God mocking the idols of this world on precisely this point. Those so-called gods cannot tell the end from the beginning. They cannot do anything actually, since all the idols of this world are nothing.
But God, on the other hand – God not only knows the end from the beginning, he determines it. That’s his point in v9. What he declared in the past, he has brought to fulfillment. And what will come in the future, God tells his people before it occurs. That’s the confidence that upholds the Servant of the Lord. He is not the Servant of some lifeless idol. He is the Servant of the One, True, and Living God – the One who determines the end and the beginning, the one who not only sees the future but brings it pass according to his Word.
And that is the final application, the final word to us, brothers and sisters. Our idols today may look different than Isaiah’s time, but they are as powerless as the ones God destroys here in v9. There is nothing in this world that can finally deliver us safe and sound into the future. There is no career lucrative enough, no neighborhood safe enough, no medicine good enough to protect us from what may come. Even our sleek, modern idols are nothing but empty wind, like Isaiah says.
But the Lord God is worthy of your trust. That is, perhaps, the simplest way to express the message of Isaiah 42. God is worthy of your trust. When we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ like we did today, and we pray along with that first verse ‘And ransom captive Israel,’ we’re expressing our confidence for the future, a confidence that is rooted in God’s faithfulness to us in his Son. What God spoke here in Isaiah 42, he has done in Jesus Christ. And it is through Christ, that we – his weak and failing people – find our faith renewed. Rejoice, then, brothers and sisters, for the Servant of the Lord has come. Amen.