Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 2 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. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But 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.” 5 And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—6 he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The suffering Servant of Yahweh passages in Second Isaiah have long been a staple of Christian preaching, inasmuch as they provided the textual “glue” which held together, at least in the minds of early Christians, the story of Jesus with the much older story of Israel. The early Jesus movement had to fend off charges, both from within (e.g. Marcion) and without (e.g. Mainstream Judaism) that it was propounding a religious novelty, which was never a good thing in a culture in which older automatically meant “better” and newer automatically meant “suspect.” The Servant passages therefore were thought to provide legitimacy to the Jesus movement at a critical juncture in its early development when it was not clear whether the movement would be sustainable or not.
After Auschwitz, however, the church can no longer efface the primary meaning of these and other Messianic texts as if they are self-evidently referring to Jesus, a figure five centuries ahead in Second Isaiah’s future. We don’t have to give up our claims which connect Isaiah with the gospels, but we have to do this as a second-order reflection, first taking seriously the text in its pre-Jesus context, as would a pre-Jesus reader, as opposed to presuming that no one could make heads nor tails of these passages until Jesus showed up and clarified them for the Jews.
When one makes an observation like this, one is often met with a kind of resignation on the part of one’s hearers that they are being forced into a posture of political correctness designed to mollify some group whose feelings might otherwise be hurt, but which otherwise has little utility. However, reading a text like this week’s Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament lection, Isaiah 49:1-7, in this “double” fashion which takes seriously the text’s primary meaning can be enormously fruitful for Christian discipleship, particularly within the US, but also, to lesser extent, for Christians residing in any of the Western industrial democracies.
When read this way, Isaiah 49, rather than being a prophecy about Jesus, presents two positive emphases that the church has always wanted to latch onto, namely the beloved community ‘s chosen-ness (vv. 1-3) and the intentionality behind it on the part of Yahweh (v. 5). These characteristics are gladly shared with the antecedent community of Israel, who is the one being specifically addressed in Isaiah 49, of which the church believes it is an extension. Out of all of the peoples of the world, God chose us, the text suggests, and God did this even before anybody had ever heard of us, before there was any reason for anyone to have taken any note of us. God took us when we were nothing and turned us into a powerful conduit for God’s work in the world. It is easy to see both why Judah and the church would be captivated by such an originating myth. Who would not be proud to be so chosen? Who would not revel in the tale of being marked for such success even prior to one’s existence? How awesome is it to step outside of oneself and, from the perspective of everyone else, watch yourself come from nothing to such a great place of honor beyond that which was bestowed to other peoples and nations? Connected with such New Testament texts as Ephesians 1, the idea that God picked the church “before the foundation of the world” has exercised a powerful hold on Christian imagination through the centuries, particularly, although by no means limited to, my own Reformed tradition, which was also the theological orientation of 17th century colonial immigrants to New England.
What has been much less emphasized in Christianity, at least in its Constantinian variety, but which is just as important for discipleship, are the two negative aspects of the passage, namely the fact that Israel has been chosen by God to serve the rest of the world (vv. 3,5-6), and the fact that, in the course of that service, one is promised suffering (v.7), all of which is envisioned prior to the final glory (v.7). On these two issues, the temptation to read Jesus into Isaiah becomes immense because these two elements of the song encompass two of the big ideas of the New Testament, namely that Jesus is God himself come to humanity as a servant ( cf. Philippians 2) and that Jesus would suffer rejection before later universal acceptance.
It’s not surprising that the negative by-products of chosen-ness would be deflected from the community’s self-understanding onto the person of Jesus. After all, it’s pretty much human nature to want the glory without the suffering. Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum that it takes about 10,000 hours of intense work to become truly expert at something hardly stops any of us from wishing to be a great actor, athlete or musician—we want the glory but are not so much interested in undertaking the process by which such accolades are achieved. But it is in and through that process that one becomes worthy and capable of such success.
It seems to me that this describes the self-understanding of American Christianity. The belief in its chosen-ness by God, and its exaltation apart from service or suffering, lies at the heart of the notion of what is regularly describes as “American Exceptionalism.” From the composition of John Winthrop’s “Errand into the Wilderness” nearly 400 years ago, down to the present, American Christianity has largely believed itself to be the divine favorite who can do no wrong and whose ultimate success has already been pre-determined. Like Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers, we see ourselves as being on a “mission from God” which excuses whatever shortcuts may be taken or mayhem produced in quest of obtaining our objectives. And, because we are so enmeshed in our national life, our objectives have more often than not dove-tailed perfectly with that of the state such that there has remained little space in which to articulate a critique that would reflect the values of the kingdom of God which we were chosen to represent. We have, for example, just lived through a decade of fighting two wars and dealing with the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in several generations, yet one could scarcely know of any of this based on an analysis of your average Sunday sermon, our discourse being dominated by such staggeringly crucial subjects as the merits of “blended worship” and discerning from demographic data what Millennials really want in a church.
If the American church is as chosen and exceptional as we imagine ourselves to be, it will be manifested first in our service to and suffering for the sake of the world. Like the ball player or musician who wants to perform before thousands, we must first proceed through the essential preparatory work to achieve that goal, a process we seem to have convinced ourselves we can avoid. What the world needs is not another group of people scrambling for advantage or clamoring for privilege, but rather a community of people engaged in acts of transcendence that move beyond the interests of the self towards the furtherance of the common good. That will only happen when the church tells the truth about how and why it was so chosen by God and re-orders its practices accordingly.
Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology