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. 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.”
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.”
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 – 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.”
Isaiah 49:1-6, excerpt from Isa 49:1-7, lectionary for January 19, 2020
Another week in one of Isaiah’s ‘servant’ texts. Last week the LORD was the speaker. We read and saw God as if gesturing to an audience, saying, ‘See — my servant!’ (Isa 42:1), then turning and addressing the chosen one directly: ‘I have called you … I have given you’ (Isa 42:6). This week the servant — first spoken of, then spoken to — becomes the speaker: ‘The LORD called me … said to me …’ (Isa 49:1, 3). Not every word is the servant’s own — the LORD is quoted — but the LORD’s words are recited in the voice of the servant, who recalls and repeats words first addressed to him: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations …’.
But whose voice is the servant’s?
I wonder this every week as I read. What license do I have to take the words of scripture as addressed to me, an individual? How can I appropriate them to my own need when they were spoken to and for and gathered by a community of faith? Should I not always search the words of the Bible for the Word of the LORD given to the collective, God’s guidance to the public ‘We’ of the community, persons gathered across space and time, not just the personal ‘I’?
In whose voice — for whose need — should I read? In whose voice does the servant speak? Is the servant a community (‘You are my servant, Israel’)? Is the servant an individual (one formed in the womb to gather Israel in)? How can Israel gather Israel? Perhaps this puzzle is itself a cue to a solution? After all, if the text can so persistently blend and blur the identity of community and individual so that the servant’s identity is more ‘both/and’ than ‘either/or,’ is that not license for me to do the same? To say this text is to me and not only to me. To say I can only understand it to the extent I can read my own life through its lens — and it through my own life. And to say it can only be understood to the extent that it is read and lived in community.
The curve encompassed by this passage is experienced by individuals and by communities: the conviction of failure, of having spent one’s strength to no avail. Is that not an implicit disappointment in the LORD who had called so beguilingly in the first place?
(My mouth made like a sharp sword; my face flint-firm; my stance solid on a sure foundation — Wait! It is wobbling underfoot! I throw out my arms to regain my balance. And I wonder anew.)
Read the arc of it how you will: individual or community. Both pursue calling. Both make decisions about missions and buildings and relationships. Both look up to wonder if they/we/you/I are adrift after all, somehow off-target to the understood goal. Both ask for what has that strength been poured out?
This wobble — the speaker’s worry that labor has been wasted — is where the text turns, the arc sharpens. In v.4 the servant mourns his strength all spent; in v.5 the servant claims God his strength — and in this renewed sense of relationship and possibility (not just God calling the servant ‘mine’ but the servant using the possessive pronoun of God) — comes a new insight. The servant’s fear of failure is borne of mistaking a waypoint for the end goal. The servant Israel has thought in terms of Israel alone. The servant (he/I/you/we) was focused on this particular and mistook it for God’s whole. But the LORD says Oh, Israel is too light a thing — I am sending you to the world. To the world.
Is that the lesson? It is too slight a thing for me to gather just myself (for a community to consolidate just its own existence) — yet even that too-small burden is beyond my capacity. Stop spending my own strength. Spend, instead, the strength of the one who called me and formed me and gave me to go. To the world.
And in being given, and going out, may I find myself (may you find yourself; may we find ourselves) gathered in with all the nations, as God’s salvation reaches the ends of the earth.