Today's first reading, Isaiah 42:1-4.6-7, contains the line:

"...I, the Lord, have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of the nations..."

This wording is from the Jerusalem Bible, the translation used in the missal.

Is the speaker addressing and referring to Isaiah? Did God make a covenant with Isaiah as light of the nations? I'd have thought Jesus is the light of the nations. Yet the line in question can't be about Jesus since He is consubstantial with the Father and was not formed. The title of the reading is: "Here is my servant in whom my soul delights" which clearly echoes today's gospel, Matthew 3:13-17 for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Year A.

I would be grateful for any insight into this.

  • b.h. se................
    – user900
    Jan 12, 2014 at 20:20
  • @H3br3wHamm3r81: As written now, maybe. But based on the Catholicism tag the OP may be asking for a Catholic teaching/interpretation, which makes it a doctrinal question.
    – Ryan Frame
    Jan 13, 2014 at 0:49
  • @TheWonderer - are you looking for a textual examination of the passage or a doctrinal teaching of some kind?
    – Ryan Frame
    Jan 13, 2014 at 0:50
  • @Ryan Frame - the doctrine ought to be based on the meaning of the text, surely? I do seek a Catholic perspective because I realised that alongside everyone else I acknowledged that "This is the word of the Lord" yet I felt it seems to contradict the Creed (if it's Jesus being referred to).
    – user5656
    Jan 13, 2014 at 3:57
  • 1
    I'm going to agree with Ryan here, this belongs here, there is a doctrinal component present due to the Catholicism tag. Answers should reflect Catholic doctrine/dogma
    – wax eagle
    Jan 13, 2014 at 13:54

2 Answers 2


First, a bit of context. Isaiah 40-55 was written during the Exile in Babylon, when the nation of Israel was in captivity. It was a period of profound re-imagination of God and of Israel's character and purpose. There are four purple passages in this portion of the book of Isaiah (often called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah):

  • Isaiah 42.1-7
  • Isaiah 49.1-6
  • Isaiah 50.4-9
  • Isaiah 52.13-53

They build up a picture of the servant, who suffers, is a light to the Gentiles, establishes justice, is a king, sustains the weary, trusts God, etc.

Precisely who this refers to is unclear. Does it refer to a specific king? (Some have suggested that it might refer to Zedekiah, or rather implausibly Uzziah.) Does it refer to the whole nation of Israel? Does it refer to a Messiah? Does it refer to a particular future king? Could it refer to King Cyrus of Persia, elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah known as God's "anointed"?

It is impossible to know for certain, and in fact it isn't terribly important to know exactly what the author(s) of the text intended. The more important thing is that the prophecy of Deutero-Isaiah has been understood throughout the Christian tradition as prophetically pointing to Jesus.

For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the precise verse you mention in saying:

In Jesus, the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but "upon the heart" of the Servant who becomes "a covenant to the people", because he will "faithfully bring forth justice".(CCC, §580)

The other servant songs are also cited:

The Messiah's characteristics are revealed above all in the "Servant songs." These songs proclaim the meaning of Jesus' Passion and show how he will pour out the Holy Spirit to give life to the many: not as an outsider, but by embracing our "form as slave." Taking our death upon himself, he can communicate to us his own Spirit of life.(CCC, §713)

As to why it is the OT reading for today, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord... Well, you are quite right to pick up on the allusion to the verse in the Gospel passage. The words from Heaven are a combination of Psalm 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1 (especially clear when looking at the Septuagint version of these passages). It has traditionally been understood as demonstrating Jesus' identity as both King and Servant.


I speak from a trinitarian perspective which is no different from the Catholic view. The whole passage is clearly referring to Our Lord Jesus Christ.

A quick look at biblehub.com/isaiah/42-6.htm will show that the Jerusalem Bible is not in step with other translations, including the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible. All the other translations, with the exception of some of the paraphrases, have words such as "keep"("I... will hold thine hand, and will keep thee" - King James Version) or other related words such as "preserved" - Douay-Rheims; "preserve" "watch over"; "guard"; "hold"; "protect".

The Strong's Concordance number for the Hebrew word "natsar"/"nawtsar" is 5341 and is used in Isaiah 26:3, and Isaiah 27:3 twice. In Isaiah 27:3, the New Jerusalem Bible "natsar" is rendered "guardian" and translated "guard" - obviously again the same idea as "keep", "protect", "preserve", but not "form" nor "create".

See https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5341.htm for the use of the Hebrew word "natsar".

For comparison, other passages containing natsar are Psalm 25:10 "such as keep his covenant"; Psalm 34:13 "Keep thy tongue from evil"; Psalm 78:7 "but keep his commandments"; Psalm 105:45 "and keep his laws"; Psalm 119:2 "and they that keep his testimonies"; 119:33 "and I shall keep it unto the end"; 119:34 "and I shall keep thy law"; 119:69 "and I shall keep thy precepts with my whole heart"; 119:100 "because I keep thy precepts".

See also 119:115, 119:125, 119:145, 141:3; Proverbs 2:11, 3:1, 3:21, 4:6, 4:13, 4:23, 5:2, 6:20; Nahum 2:1.

But if you insist on sticking with the Jerusalem Bible then it can still be applied to Jesus Christ; the Jerusalem Bible translators have not deserted their trinitarian commitments: even though he was not "formed" in his divine nature, it is still true that he was formed as man, the God/man in order to fulfil his Messianic purpose.

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