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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 154–168 

Light to the Nations: The Servant of the Lord and the Mission of the Church (Isaiah 49:1–6)

Pierre Gilbert

What is the mission of the church? To some degree, this could be construed as an unusual question. Isn’t the mission of the church obvious? Doesn’t the Great Commission make that clear and beyond debate? It should be, but it is not quite that simple. Like puppies, human beings are a distractible bunch. It takes an exceptional person or organization to remain steadily focused on a given objective. Like chains tugging from all sides, the vagaries of life have a way of dividing our attention in a thousand different directions.

The world is determined to colonize the church, and resistance is proving to be more anemic than one might wish.

In some cases, losing sight of an objective may not be a life and death issue. But when it comes to the Kingdom of God, the mission of the church, or one’s personal calling, we cannot afford to veer off into the tall grass, for in those matters we are dealing with ultimate reality. Switching from Pepsi to Coke is not a life-transforming decision. Abandoning an active lifestyle to become a couch potato is more serious. Deserting one’s spouse for a new flame is infinitely more grievous. Corrupting our call to serve God is most catastrophic, for in this last instance the action reaches into the very core of reality with consequences that are commensurate with the scope of the action. {155}

Aviation engineers sometimes refer to metal fatigue as a silent but deadly threat to older aircraft. I believe there is such a thing as rhetorical fatigue. Rhetorical fatigue occurs when a message is repeatedly communicated in roughly the same way. Parents trying to get their children to do chores often experience this phenomenon. After a while, their words become just so much background noise. They no longer have the desired impact. Rhetorical fatigue is not limited to children; it is a phenomenon that can affect anyone and can have dire consequences, particularly when it manifests itself in the spiritual sphere.

One of the ways to avoid rhetorical fatigue when it comes to God’s mission for the church is to examine texts that are more rarely associated with the Great Commission. One such text is Isaiah 49:1–6. This text refers to the Servant of the Lord’s own understanding of his divine calling and his mission to the nations. The relevance of this text for our understanding of the mission of the church resides in the correspondence that exists between Israel’s role in facilitating the Servant’s mission, and the church’s similar role in partnering with Christ in bringing the good news to the nations. Like Israel could be an obstacle in the fulfillment of the Servant’s mandate, the church can similarly be a hindrance to fulfilling the Great Commission by passive neglect or by actively obstructing Christ’s mission. 1

Isaiah 49 follows the prophet’s dire warning expressed in chapter 48, where he reminds the people that there is no future outside of Yahweh. Babylon is not the answer to the search for security, identity, and meaning. As long as Israel continues to put her hope in someone or something other than Yahweh, she will not benefit from God’s blessing. Outside of the living God, there is but a vertiginous precipice. 2

THE SERVANT OF THE LORD: CALLING, CHALLENGE, AND MANDATE

The Servant’s Relationship to God (49:1–3)

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.” (NRSV, passim)

The pericope begins with a call to attention, which reminds the reader that God is not indifferent or blind to Israel’s fate and the fate of the nations. While the opening calls on the hearers to pay attention, by immediately shifting to the Servant’s perspective—“The Lord called me before I was born” (v. 1a)—the prophet makes it clear that if they {156} wish to understand God’s plan for them in this time of trouble, they must listen closely to the Servant’s words.

The Servant first establishes his credentials. His commission, which predates his own birth, indicates that he enjoys a special relationship with God, and that God is not taken by surprise by the hardships that plague Israel (see also 48:3–8). God had fully anticipated the present situation and created an exit plan for his people. The Servant is the key to Israel’s salvation. But what the Servant will require of Israel will not be easy. The solution he proposes for her to regain her religious vitality and independence, and fulfill her true mission, will go against her best instincts. Judging by the oracles against Babylon and her gods in chapters 46 and 47, it appears that at this point, Israel feels that Babylon is still its best hope for the future.

Considering Israel’s constant disappointment with trusting in herself and other nations, one could be forgiven for asking why she considers Yahweh such a poor risk. The answer is remarkably pedestrian—it’s the unending contest between Yahweh and the idols. Like a dog drawn to a fire hydrant, Israel is naturally and irresistibly attracted to false gods. While this impulse is utterly irrational, the divine contest is not really about idols, statues, and images. Structurally, it’s the age-old contest between the living God, on the one hand, and delusions, on the other. Or to use the language of biblical wisdom: it’s all about Life versus Death (Gen 2:17; Prov 3:18; 10:27; etc.).

To worship idols is to worship death. That is why God was so adamantly opposed to Israel choosing something other than him. If God gets vitriolic when Israel turns away from him, it’s not because he is petty, self-conceited, or can’t stand the competition. His anger derives from the nature of ultimate reality. While human beings can for a time indulge in self-induced fantasies, sooner or later reality will snap them back. Reality has a way of catching up with us whether we acknowledge it or not. God’s judgment is almost always intrinsically linked to the nature of the offense itself. Sin often carries within itself the seeds of judgment. 3 Since idols and the ideology that sustains them are lifeless, it follows that those who worship them will suffer the same fate. 4

The Servant’s mandate had been and would continue to be difficult. But God doesn’t leave his Servant without adequate preparation for the task. The Servant of the Lord is God’s special agent. The comparison of the mouth with a sharpened sword (v. 2a) communicates the clarity of the prophet’s discourse. His words will cut through the fog. They will reach into the consciousness and the soul of the men and women who hear it.

The prophet is also compared to a “polished arrow” (v. 2b). If the sword is designed for close combat, the arrow is intended for long-distance {157} strikes. His words will have a devastating impact on those who are close, his people, and those who are far, the nations. And that’s because these words come from the Lord, the ground of all reality.

The Difficulty of the Task (49:4)

While that may all be true, the Servant nevertheless appears to be taken aback. The arrow and the sword have not had the desired nor the expected impact on the audience: “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity’ ” (49:4a). Those who are familiar with the history of Israel know that the prophetic word of the Lord, whether it was uttered by Moses or the prophets frequently fell on deaf ears. Here resides the crux of the matter. The prophets were superb communicators, who knew how to capture their audience’s attention. They understood that the old covenant language had lost its rhetorical effectiveness. The commandments to love the Lord, and the curse and blessing formulas, had lost their rhetorical sizzle; flat discourse and words without power.

While the prophets clearly navigate within the framework of the covenant, they also contextualize the commands and the judgments. They infuse a rhetorically exhausted language with new life. They create new metaphors and images. They invoke ancient history. And they connect it all to a brilliant analysis of current events. 5 They also speak out of a heart entirely committed to the Lord. Their motives are beyond reproach. The prophets have all the assets needed to succeed, but they inexplicably fail.

This has also been the Servant’s experience. But the Servant doesn’t lose hope or give up on the task with which he was entrusted. The Servant’s perspective is not limited to what he sees or the immediate results of his work. Well-trained soldiers do not surrender simply because the battle theater turns out to be more difficult than anticipated. They may need to retreat and develop a new plan. Victory may not be immediately at hand, but the ultimate outcome is never in doubt. A well-trained army fights to win.

The Servant entertains no illusions about the spiritual battle in which he finds himself. If the conflict is more intense than expected, he knows that God has adequately prepared him for the task. He also knows that he fights for Yahweh. This is Yahweh’s war, and Yahweh will prevail. The Servant of the Lord is fighting on the side of certain victory: “yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God” (Isa 49:4b). 6 The New Living Translation states it in this manner: “Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward.”

The immediate outcome of the spiritual battle in which Israel is embroiled is not the Servant’s primary concern. His task is to fulfill his commission as best he can; the results of his work to be left to {158} God. Even if, in the foreseeable future, victory is doubtful, there is no question of changing camps or abandoning the mission. The Servant’s primary responsibility is to remain on the side of truth and righteousness regardless of the inimical conditions that may presently prevail.

Divine Reassurance (49:5–6)

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.”

The Servant of the Lord was given a twofold task. The one consisted in bringing Israel back to God (49:5a); the other to be a light to the nations (49:6b). The main difficulty resides in the text failing to specify the precise relationship between the two mandates. In this context, the two tasks appear to be in parallel. The mandate to restore Israel and to be a light to the nations are pictured as two separate tasks. Whether they are related to each other is not made explicit.

It is probably best to read these two mandates as intricately connected to each other; the latter organically contingent, at least to some critical degree, on the former. While it may not have been necessary for the author to highlight here their interconnectedness, it is important to keep in mind that in the Old Testament, these two objectives were typically linked to each other.

The promise to Abram explicitly ties the fate of the nations to Abraham’s descendants: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3 and 17:4–6). This idea is reiterated in Exodus 7:6; 14:1; 19:5–6, where the expression, “treasured possession,” which appears in all three passages, signals that Israel is to be assigned a special status and is to reflect God’s glory among the nations. 7 In Isaiah 19:24–25, God states that Egypt and Assyria, along with Israel, will be blessed by God and will be a blessing to others. As Israel becomes both an object and an agent of God’s blessing, so will these two nations. Isaiah 42:6–7 clarifies further the relationship between Israel’s mandate and the future of the nations: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This passage underlines the win-win character of God’s plan for Israel and the nations. Israel is liberated, God {159} acquires a people for himself, and uses it as a conduit to bring the knowledge of who he is to the nations (see also Isa 9:1–7; 25:6–8; 60:1–3; Zech 8:13).

In Jeremiah 4:1–2, the prophet links the fate of the nations to Israel’s faithfulness: “If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, if you return to me, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver, 2 and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives!’ in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall be blessed by him, and by him they shall boast.” These verses confirm the role Israel is called to play with respect to the nations’ salvation. In a remarkable echo of the promise to Abraham, this text speaks of an intimate connection between the fate of Israel and that of the nations. The future of the nations is entirely contingent on Israel’s obedience to God. 8

In summary, while the exact nature of the relationship between Israel’s faithfulness and the nations’ salvation is not made explicit in Isaiah 49, the Servant’s complaint about his lack of success with Israel (49:4a) and the close juxtaposition of the Servant’s mandate to Israel and the latter imply that the Servant was well aware of the relationship between Israel’s restoration and the nations’ salvation.

Despite the Servant’s lack of success with the task of bringing Israel back to God (v. 4), in verses 5–6, the Servant expresses his continued confidence and the basis for it. The Servant is painfully lucid about the situation he is facing. The assignment has been excruciatingly difficult, and at this point, there is no guarantee of victory. But this is the task for which he was created. He was formed right in the womb to serve as God’s ambassador. Even before he was conscious of his own existence, God was preparing him for this mission. He also knows that he is fighting for the only king worth fighting for. Win or lose, to serve this king is the greatest honor there is. As long as he serves the great king, the king will give him the strength to stand his ground. He is the king’s knight.

Be that as it may, there is merit in persevering with a task only if that task is worthwhile and necessary. Verses 5–6 provide the rationale behind the Servant’s determination to maintaining the course at all costs. The Servant’s mission is a matter of life and death. Israel is on a path that will lead to its destruction. If Israel will not come back to the living God, she will cease to exist, not only as a political entity, but most importantly, as a religious one. If the present conditions prevail, the Israelites are doomed to lose their identity as God’s people and in so doing, lose everything.

And that would be most tragic, not only because Israel would cease to exist, but because God’s chosen people were the key to the redemption of the entire world. In order to redeem humanity, God the Son had to become a man, live, die an unjust death, and come back to life (Mk 8:31). All this had to happen at a given time and in a specific context. Israel represented the platform for all this to happen. The demise of Israel would therefore {160} signal the end of all of humanity’s hopes. The Servant of the Lord could only be a light to the nations if Israel first came back to God.

At this point, we need to ask what the expression “to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him” (v. 5) precisely refers to. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the prophets envisioned Israel’s full repentance at some time in the future (see, for instance, Isa 11:11; 43:5, 6; Jer 31:8–10; Ezek 36:19, 24, 28; 37:1–9). On the other hand, it would be a mistake to conceive of Israel’s “return” to God as an either-or proposition. While the Old Testament envisions a time when Israel will be wholly committed to God, in the meantime, it is probably best to describe Israel’s relationship with God as a continuum between the full embrace of idolatry, on the one end, and the comprehensive redemption of the nation, on the other. In order for the ultimate expression of the Servant in the person of Jesus Christ to fulfill his large-scale mandate to the nations, at the very least, Israel had to occupy the land again and a portion of the people had to be faithful to God. Spiritual and moral perfection was not a necessary requirement. At this point in time, what is most likely envisioned is the return of the people from exile. 9

BAAL AND THE COLONIAL IMPULSE

To the casual reader, Ancient Israel’s consistent impulse to abandon God in favor of idols is one of the most confounding aspects of her history. A word of explanation is in order. The most basic issue with respect to Israel’s identity was always one of loyalty to God and worldview. Israel was the people of Yahweh. As such, Israel was expected to hold on to certain truths—to uphold a distinct worldview and to live in a manner that was consistent with that worldview. That was the essence of the loyalty Israel owed to God as a vassal of the divine suzerain. Declaring her loyalty to God was not sufficient in and of itself. Israel’s status as Yahweh’s people was to be authenticated by exhibiting a certain set of beliefs and practices (see Deut 4:1–2,15–20; 5:1–21; Mic 6:8; etc.).

The importance of worldview should never be underestimated. Ultimately, we are what we believe. Bad ideology always gives birth to evil. Here is where the heart of the problem lies. Israel was constantly tempted to turn to idols. The issue was not so much whether Israel would worship various divine representations. The problem was much deeper than that. To worship idols involved, at its most basic level, giving allegiance to another god and embracing the underlying set of beliefs associated to that deity.

But being the people of Yahweh was not strictly about beliefs. According to Deuteronomy 6:4–5, Israel was to love (’hb) God. This command meant that Israel was to be “all in.” 10 This attitude was akin {161} to the kind of emotional and volitional loyalty a soldier would give his king. And it implied a commitment to a certain understanding of reality, which translated itself into a specific set of doctrines and practices. To turn one’s back to Yahweh and adopt a different set of beliefs constituted a violation of the commitment the Israelites were to demonstrate.

By all accounts, being faithful to God should have been a straightforward and manageable commitment to keep. 11 The differences, for instance, between the biblical worldview and its Canaanite counterpart are glaring. While it is beyond the scope of this article to spell out the differences between the two, it will suffice to signal that the creation account attested in Genesis 1–3 contains the ideological framework required to discard belief in magic and provides the foundation to affirm the intrinsic value and dignity of human life. The contrast between the two worldviews is simply startling. At the limit of each worldview’s horizon, it’s the difference between day and night, reality and illusion. 12 From purely an ideological point of view, one would have to be a fool to abandon the biblical worldview to embrace the Canaanite one, but this is exactly what repeatedly happens to Israel. So why were the Israelites so sorely enthusiastic about embracing Baalism? Two overlapping phenomena were at work.

On the one hand, Israel was exposed to a whole gamut of religious and ideological influences. The pagan world was constantly knocking at Israel’s door to lure her into idolatry. This meant, as I indicated earlier, that Israel was continually in danger of being ideologically colonized by Baalism. 13 Judging from the Old Testament record, this ideological and religious colonialism was deeply invasive and utterly seductive (see, for example, Isa 1:2–4; Hos 1:2; 2:5; 4:1–2; Hab 1:2–4; etc.).

Baalism was in the air, and Baalism, by virtue of the religious system it represented, competed against Yahwism. Nothing surprising here. But why should Baalism constitute such a powerful appeal? Given a choice between a nugget of gold and a clump of mud, what could possibly motivate a person to choose the latter? As counterintuitive as it might seem from our vantage point, with few exceptions, Israel almost invariably preferred mud to gold.

To understand Israel’s puzzling attraction for Baalism, one must consider the problem within an ontological framework. There is something in human nature that is naturally inclined towards the “clump of mud.” The human heart appears to be naturally predisposed to lean in the direction of Baal or whatever name and shape the deity happens to take in any given culture. Baal ultimately stands for everything that represents death and is opposed to the living God. Human beings are never in a neutral position with respect to God. Jesus himself alludes to this uncomfortable reality {162} in Matthew 15:19: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (cf. also Mark 7:21).

There is indeed an intersection between the human heart and that which is opposed to God. 14 It is by virtue of this commonality that Israel was almost inexorably attracted to Baal. If Baalism sought to colonize Israel, Israel was only too happy to comply.

A REFLECTION ON THE CHURCH’S MISSION

In some respects, it is fair to say that the church finds itself in a situation like Israel’s in Isaiah 49. Jesus is the definitive expression of the Servant of the Lord figure whose mission is to be a light to the nations. Because God works in history and in partnership, the instruments he will use to accomplish this task will vary in accordance with the historical context. Today, the Servant’s mandate is to be fulfilled in partnership with those who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. But as was the case with ancient Israel, the church, at least in its temporal expressions, is not a monolithic entity; it has always been and still is a mixed bag. While some congregations faithfully and effectively communicate the knowledge of God, some flounder, and others are or have the potential to be obstructionists.

The Servant’s mandate to be a light to the nations is mediated, at least to a major extent, through the church. That is the essence of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–19. But in the same way Israel could be an obstacle to this mission if she refused to be faithful to God, Christian communities similarly have the potential to become such obstacles.

As I intimated earlier, Baal was not simply an ancient Canaanite deity. Baalism also stood for an ideology. In that sense, while the deity may have been relegated to the dustbin of history, because it is one of a thousand expressions of the darkness of the human heart, the ideology underlying Baalism is alive and well. Baal may no longer parade as a Canaanite god, but Baalism’s ancient message of death remains.

This is what the apostle John calls “the world”: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). John’s exhortation manifestly implies that Christians are not immune to the world’s colonial efforts, the lure of Baalism. This is not to suggest that the universal Church will ever fall prey to the enemy’s tricks. There is no doubt about the ultimate outcome of this war between the world and the Church. As promised by Christ, the Church will prevail (Matt 16:18). I am, however, suggesting that individual Christians, churches, and even entire denominations may not fare so well.

The Church doesn’t exist for its own sake. As long as the present age prevails, Christians have the responsibility to be a light to the nations. But how can Christians fulfill this mandate if, like ancient Israel, they have been ideologically colonized? If the notion of loyalty to Jesus Christ is to {163} be more than a mind game, in which we substitute our own preferences, doctrinal and ethical, for the objective demands of Christ’s lordship, then the question of whether we are being ideologically colonized becomes an urgent matter.

It is at this point that such a discussion can become controversial. While Christians may agree with the general principle I put forward, not everyone will agree on what precisely constitutes ideological colonialism. What some view as theological faithfulness will be viewed by others as dangerous compromise. The devil is indeed in the details.

That ideological colonialism represents the greatest threat the Western church is facing is beyond debate. Popular culture promotes views that are squarely opposed to orthodox Christianity. It is intolerant of opposite views, totalitarian, and “evangelistic.” In the European church, for instance, this ideological infection is deep and far-reaching. When people think of the church, they immediately visualize an empty heritage building or a trendy condominium. The European church offered no effective resistance to secular humanism, and European culture became a spiritually empty shell. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche succinctly summarized this deplorable phenomenon when he proclaimed the “death of God.” 15

This may explain why an ideology such as Islam, which has little to no objective appeal to Westerners, is progressing at such a remarkably rapid pace. It’s not that Europeans join Islam in great numbers; it’s that the vast majority of Muslims immigrating to countries like France, Britain, Norway, and Sweden simply find no credible religious or ideological alternatives. This sociological reality confirms the inescapable truth that something always beats nothing. 16

The situation in North America is not identical to what is going on in Europe. While there are significant segments of the church that have moved or are presently moving away from orthodoxy, 17 a significant number of churches still seek to remain faithful to an orthodox understanding of the faith and to communicate the gospel effectively. As a recent Pew Research study shows, churches and denominations that align with orthodoxy tend to grow or at least maintain their own, whereas those that don’t, decline. 18

Notwithstanding important differences between the European and North American scenes, Western culture has been steadily moving away from traditional Christian values since at least the 1960s, a trend that has clearly been accelerating in the last couple of decades and shows no sign of slowing down.

Why is this phenomenon so invasive and far reaching? I suspect it first has something to do with the extent to which Western societies have embraced the culture of death that characterizes secular humanism. The siren call of nihilism is initially always difficult to recognize and resist. One of the most salient signs of this death orientation is the abandonment {164} of meaning: we no longer know why we live and how to die. As the renowned French historian Pierre Chaunu observed a few decades ago, the Christian discourse on death and eternity has virtually vanished from our collective memory. 19 A second sign is our society’s indifference to the fate of the unborn. Abortion, which represents the ultimate act of violence against an innocent person, is practiced on a scale that defies imagination. But popular culture is utterly oblivious to this greatest of all injustices. Another sign is the Western world’s disregard for the plight of persecuted Christians, particularly (but not uniquely) under Islamic regimes. Their cries of despair simply do not register in the great pyramid of human rights our culture has constructed.

Popular culture, particularly when aligned with the state, does not take well to Christian dissent. The reason is simple. It is the Church of Jesus Christ that constantly reminds the surrounding culture that there is an alternative to death and totalitarianism. It is Christians who declare that the state is neither divine nor eternal. As C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, in the big scheme of things, empires are but blips on the screen of history. It is Christianity that best relativizes the status of the state with respect to the individual person. Compared to a human being, the state is but a barely perceptible flash that is gone the moment it is glimpsed. 20

It is for this reason that when the State and popular culture are on the same frequency: they are powerful allies in their efforts to colonize the church or, failing that, eliminate it altogether. We are living in a time when these two agents now share a worldview that is profoundly at odds with Christian orthodoxy. No wonder they are intent on eradicating any sign of Christian dissent. And to fulfill this objective, they have two ideological “torpedoes” in their arsenal: the postmodern challenge to the notion of absolute truth and the subversion of the traditional view of sexual morality.

The nature of the first threat should be obvious to all Christians. The intent is to undermine two truths that are intolerable to the postmodern (and anti-Christian) mind: the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The second threat is linked to the relentless impulse to unmoor the notion of sexual identity and morality from its historical Christian framework. In more recent times, the process began in earnest with the so-called sexual revolution and has been unfolding ever since. This profound redefinition of human sexuality, in a manner not dissimilar to the subversive influence of the fertility cult in ancient Israel, plays a major role in the effort to colonize the church. This approach constitutes a ferociously effective strategy, targeting one of the most fundamental dimensions of human life, and represents a superbly astute backdoor {165} challenge to the notion of absolute truth and, in its wake, the unique claims of Christ.

Our culture has decreed the complete emancipation of human sexuality. The social engineers have now given us a quasi-deified sexuality, cut off from history, biology, procreation, personal responsibility, commitment, and any linkage to the notion of the image of God. We have inherited a sexuality that is entirely closed to the future, a new fertility religion without fertility. She is a goddess that requires nothing less than absolute obedience. The sex religion has its own church, its holy dogma, its priests, its evangelists, its inquisitors, and its altars.

I don’t expect all Christians will agree with my assessment of the problem I outline. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we carefully consider the nature of the threat I have described and that we debate its legitimacy. The gravity of the mission that has been entrusted to us demands it.

EPILOGUE: A REASON FOR HOPE

Is there any hope for the twenty-first-century church and the world? Can Christians still be a light unto the nations? If it was entirely dependent on them, I would not bet on it. In one sense, the world is indeed still under the influence of the Enemy (Eph 2:2; 1 John 5:19; 2 Cor 4:4). While Christ was victorious over the powers of darkness, there is still a robust insurgency. The natural affinity between the human heart (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21–22; Col 1:21) and the principle of death that dominates our world ensure that men and women will be much more inclined to listen to the Adversary than to God. That same affinity is also there for the Christian. The world is determined to colonize the church, and the resistance is proving to be more anemic than one might wish.

But we are not alone. If Christians are willing to recognize the gravity of the problem facing them and to seek God’s help, just as God equipped his Servant to stand firm, he will also ensure that the church has what it needs to remain loyal to him.

If we can learn to proclaim the unique claims of Christ and the message of redemption with courage and clarity (1 Cor 10:13), there is every reason to be hopeful for this generation and the next.

NOTES

  1. While the expression “servant” is used to characterize the kind of relationship some leaders had with God—e.g., Abraham (Gen 26:24), Moses (Exod 14:31), David (2 Sam 7:5), and Isaiah (Isa 20:3)— scholars have also identified four poems that are distinctively associated with one who is referred to as the “Servant of the Lord” (Isa 42:1–7; 49:1–6; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). The main {166} difficulty with these texts is in determining the precise identity of the Servant. While Israel is unambiguously identified as God’s “servant” in Isaiah 41:8–9, it is not clear that this identification carries through in the Servant songs as such. Paul D. Hanson, who examined this question at length, concludes that the metaphor is multivalent in meaning. He writes, “The Servant is both faithful individual and obedient community in the era in which God’s plan begins to unfold among those identifying completely with God’s will” [Isaiah 40–66, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox), 128). While some scholars see a clear reference to Israel in 42:1–7 (see for instance Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40–66, Westminster Bible Companion [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998], 44), in this passage as with the others, to interpret the Servant as a metaphor for collective Israel as an individual is not without difficulties. In chapter 49, the main difficulty in identifying the Servant as Israel resides in determining how unfaithful Israel can bring back unfaithful Israel. Even if one were to concede the possibility that the Servant refers to a smaller number of faithful Israelites within greater Israel, a faithful remnant perhaps, the notion of a remnant is primarily the result of God’s judgment; the expression does not normally denote God’s human agency to bring back Israel (see in particular Isa 6:13). It may be appropriate, as Old Testament scholar Gary V. Smith proposes, to see “multiple ‘servant’ figures in the book of Isaiah, not just one person or group that fits all the passages where the word ‘servant’ appears” (Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, The New American Commentary, vol. 15B [Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009], 156). While this may represent a sound principle in general, because of the extraordinary descriptions pertaining to the Servant, his unique qualifications and mission, it may be best to read the Servant in two simultaneous perspectives: historical and eschatological. In the historical perspective, it may be that the text denotes an individual, perhaps a prophet or a leader of some kind, who has received a special commission from God but represents but a partial embodiment of the full Servant figure, who will, in an eschatological perspective, perfectly fulfill God’s redemptive mission for the world.
  2. Israel’s predisposition to seek security outside of Yahweh is a frequently recurring theme in the book of Isaiah. Israel’s bold rebellion is the subject of Isaiah’s first oracle and sets the tone for the entire book (Isa 1:2–4). Israel’s unfaithfulness does not, however, occur in a vacuum. Israel rebels against God, because she believes in the superior power of other gods (Isa 2:6–8; 8:19–20). In some instances, Israel abandons God because of her confidence in her wealth and her ability to maintain her security through clever political maneuverings (cf. Isa 3:16–23; 5:8–9,21,23; 8:12). The impulse to trust in anything but God is particularly evident in times of crisis. When, for instance, Ahaz is attacked by King Rezin of Aram and Pekah, king of Israel, Ahaz categorically refuses to heed Isaiah’s advice to trust in God only and to resist the impulse to seek the help of Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria (Isa 7:1–25; 2 Kgs 16:1–20), and that, despite Isaiah’s offer of an extraordinary sign of God’s support. Israel’s propensity to seek political allies is so prevalent that Isaiah devotes a series of oracles proclaiming the destruction of the surrounding nations in an effort to show the futility of Judah’s efforts in that respect. Judah will not turn to God {167} on its own. It is only through forced isolation and being left with nothing, that Judah may eventually turn back to God (see, for instance, the oracles against the nations found in Isa 14:24–23:18). In chapter 44:6–23, Isaiah reiterates the unique reality and nature of God and reasserts the futility of worshipping idols (cf. 45:21b–22). And, as briefly alluded to, the prophet emphasizes the hollowness of Babylon’s gods and her imminent demise in the chapters immediately preceding our passage (Isa 46:1–47:15; 48:14,15,20).
  3. The list of curses attested in Deut 28:15–68 outlines a series of judgments that will be deployed in the very areas of life in which Israel is seeking security by turning to other gods, such as fertility, health, peace, and national security (see Isa 1:5–9; 3:1–7; 3:17–4:1; 5:8–30; etc.).
  4. C. S. Lewis evokes a similar idea in his Problem of Pain, “George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally” (The Problem of Pain [New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996], 47).
  5. For an insightful application of communication theory to prophetic discourse, see Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 5–45.
  6. For a more detailed discussion of the contrast between the Servant’s own negative assessment of his mission and the ultimate success of his mission, see Smith, Isaiah 40–66, 346–47 and J. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 40–66, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 292.
  7. For more details, see Daniel I. Block, “The Privilege of Calling: The Mosaic Paradigm for Missions (Deut. 26:16–19),” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005): 397–98.
  8. For more details on the Israel’s role in reaching out to the nations, see P. Gilbert, “Mission in the Old Testament,” in The Church in Mission, ed. Victor Wiens (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2015), 17–35.
  9. Walter Brueggemann (Isaiah 40–66, 112) and J. D.W. Watts (Isaiah 34–66, rev. ed., Word Biblical Commentary, v. 25 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015 (2005)], 187) rightly point out that the text most immediately has in mind the eventual return of the Jews from exile, but whether that is the entire horizon of that text is doubtful, as the references to “princes” and “kings” in verse 7 point to a broad international reach.
  10. For a detailed study of the verb ’hb with particular attention to its covenantal associations, see P. J. J. S. Els, “בהא,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 1:277–99.
  11. That is certainly the implication of Deut 30:11: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” {168}
  12. I provide a detailed comparison of both worldviews in Demons, Lies & Shadows: A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2008), 45–75. See also Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 60–63; Jean Bottéro, “Le Dieu de la bible,” in La plus belle histoire de Dieu: Qui est le Dieu de la bible? (Paris: Seuil, 1997); Naissance de Dieu: la Bible et l’historien (Paris: Gallimard, 1986). See also Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” The Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974):81–102.
  13. I use the expression “Baalism” as a shorthand for the broader worldview that characterized ancient Mesopotamia.
  14. See, for instance, Gen 3:8–10; Matt 15:19; Rom 3:10–18; Col 1:21.
  15. Nietzsche’s famous proclamation was first expressed in his 1882 collection, The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Random House, 1974 [1887], section 108) but is most often associated with his later Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Thomas Common (New York, NY: Modern Library, 1917 [1883, 1884, 1891]).
  16. For a more detailed, if somewhat controversial, study of this phenomenon, see Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017).
  17. While it is a little dated, Edmond W. Robb and Julia Robb offer a very insightful and comprehensive treatment of the rise of the Religious Left in the mainline denominations during the 1960s and 1970s, and its impact on churches and society, in The Betrayal of the Church (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1986).
  18. See “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/views-about-homosexuality. For a summary examining more precisely the relationship between church growth and orthodoxy, see Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/may/pew-evangelicals-stay-strong-us-religious-landscape-study.html. For a Canadian perspective on this matter, see Haskell, D.M., Flatt, K.N. & Burgoyne, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” Review of Religious Research 58 (2016): 515–41. For a summary of the findings, see John Longhurst, “Beliefs linked to church attendance woes,” Winnipeg Free Press, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/life/faith/beliefs-linked-to-church-attendance-woes-403098406.html.
  19. Chaunu most notably examines this issue in La mémoire et le sacré (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1978), 35.
  20. “Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. . . . And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.” Mere Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 [1952]), 74–75.
Pierre Gilbert holds a PhD from the Université de Montréal and is Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg, MB) and MB Seminary (Langley, BC). He is the author of Demons, Lies & Shadows (2008).

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