Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ancient prophet, young Messiah

Old IsaiahSometimes I read something in the Bible that makes my heart beat faster. It happened this morning when I was reading the prophet Isaiah.

I was reading chapter 49, which contains the second of Isaiah’s ‘servant songs’. (For the other three, go here.)

In amongst these prophecies about Jesus, I read this:

The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:1-3)

We aren’t told much about Jesus’ infancy and childhood in the New Testament. Apart from Luke’s fascinating glimpse of Jesus in the Temple, telling his bewildered parents that he’s been “about his father’s business”, there’s almost nothing.

Yet here, in this prophecy from centuries before Jesus’ birth, we get another glimpse. Jesus is “named” in the womb as the servant, the saviour. (A divine christening that works itself into history as the angelic instruction that his name should be Jesus, “Saviour”.)

Young JesusAnd then we get a glimpse of Jesus in his childhood and youth, being prepared by God, sharpened in wisdom, protected, readied for what was to come. It’s wonderfully poetic, too: in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away”.

Jesus was hidden in the quiver for about 30 years before God took him out and fired him, like an arrow in the heart of his enemies. And in those years, Jesus heard his father’s call. He discovered who he was. Who he was called to be. Israel-in-person. Messiah. Servant. Saviour of the world.

To get the best effect, say these words aloud, but as a whisper – like they would have been whispered in Jesus’ mind and heart over those years of preparation: And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

It is a mystery quite how Jesus became aware of his calling and identity. I’ve long since been dissatisfied with explanations that leap too quickly to Jesus’ deity (babe-in-manger thinking through quantum physics et cetera); they don’t seem to me to do justice to Jesus’ full and true humanity.

But I love the glimpse Isaiah gives us. This young prophet, but more than a prophet, this servant, but more than a servant, this son. He hears his father’s voice. The call grows. Certainty grows. He reads Isaiah and knows.

And then the day of confirmation: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

That call was tested immediately with the demonic “if” – and afterwards? Isaiah himself prophesies an agony of uncertainty, especially in the face of rejection from his own people: I said, “I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (verse 4).

But Jesus saw it through; through the tears, the sweat, the blood. The result was salvation.

What a salvation. And what a saviour.

That was the heartbeat moment of inspiration. Thought I’d share.


For those who want a bit more exegetical background on ‘the servant’, this mysterious yet compelling figure who crops up several times in the latter chapters of Isaiah, here’s some theological small print:

The ‘servant’ is called ‘Israel’ – yet the prophecies about him find their fulfilment in Jesus. (The first servant song is quoted by Matthew to that effect; verse 8 of the chapter I read this morning is similarly cited by Paul; Acts-writer, Dr Luke, has Philip the evangelist explain to an Ethiopian eunuch (got all that?) that Jesus is the servant… And so on.)

How can the servant be both Israel and Jesus? Answer: because, as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus represents Israel as a whole. This idea of representation is found throughout the Bible. A chosen individual can stand for a whole people: a patriarch can represent his whole family; a king can embody his whole nation.

Jesus takes on Israel’s ancient calling to be light to the world, a blessing to all nations. Jesus, the Messiah, the servant, a ‘one-man-Israel’, embodies both Israel’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is the fulfilment of God’s purposes through Israel and the answer to all God’s promises. He says to the prisoners, ‘Come out’, to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear’.

In Isaiah 49, the prophet announces the servant to the whole world (v.1) as: called by God from conception (v.1), prepared in his youth (v.2) and commissioned to be God’s servant (v.3); knowing pain as his mission seems to fail, yet trusting God nonetheless (v.4); tasked with calling Israel back to God (v.5) – and not only Israel but the whole world (v.6); despised and rejected, yet eventually commanding the allegiance even of monarchs (v.7); embodying God’s saving covenant with His people (v.7) – and not just with Israel, but with people from all over the world (v.9-13).

Thank you God for your servant, Jesus.

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