Isaiah 42:1-7 (NRSVCE)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
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.
There’s something that strikes me as odd in this passage, and it’s right in the last few lines. The Lord has made His people a “light to the nations”, a light that is meant to open the eyes of the blind. That is, to open the eyes of those who do not believe. Those who don’t believe are like prisoners in a dark dungeon, unable to leave. God’s people have been shown the Light of the World, and having been made bringers of the Light themselves they are to illumine the dark dungeons, in order to bring the prisoners out into the Light.
That imagery of prisoners in a dungeon unable (or even perhaps unwilling) to get out, because they do not have the Light, sounds eerily familiar. I don’t know about you, but my mind immediately went to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Of course, the writer of Isaiah is not making a reference to the Cave here, as that won’t be written for several more centuries at the time when he’s writing, but the similarities are intriguing.
Plato envisions prisoners tied up in a cave such they cannot move, they can’t even turn their heads. They can only stare at the wall in front of them, forever. Behind them is a great flame, and between the flame and the prisoners are a bunch of moving figures (think stick puppets). The flame casts shadows of these figures on the wall, and all the prisoners can do is watch the shadows, pontificate about the shadows, form opinions about what the shadows might be or why the behave the way they do. For the prisoners, those shadows are everything in the world. And they content themselves with that reality. The thought of anything beyond the shadows is ridiculous.
But one of the prisoners gets free. He is able to stand up, and turn around. He sees that the shadows are not the world, but are just imitating the real objects, the stick puppets. And the stick puppets aren’t the source of the shadows, so much as they are being acted upon by the flame. The flame is the ultimate source of all that exists, so it would seem. But then the prisoner sees another light off to one side, and he begins to follow it. He climbs and climbs, stumbling and clawing his way toward this mysterious light. Until finally he emerges outside the cave, and is blinded by the intensity of the light. When his eyes finally adjust, he sees a world full of color and life. Grass and trees and animals. Surely this is far more real than what he knew in the cave! He notices, though, that some of these real objects have shadows too. So he looks for the flame that causes them. He looks to the sky and sees the sun, what must be the source of light and life for everything that is! He has finally seen the true Light!
In his eagerness, he rushes back into the cave. He needs to illumine the minds of his prisoner friends! They must come to see the Light! But when he tells them, they scoff and laugh. They mock him. What a ridiculous proposal! How could there be more than these shadows?! We want nothing to do with your so-called Light! We are happy in darkness!
Plato uses this allegory as an example of what it’s like to be a philosopher, and share the knowledge one has gained with those who still “dwell in darkness.” Isaiah is using a similar analogy, but instead of the philosopher’s truths, it’s the divinely-revealed truths of God which we are trying to share with those stuck in the cave. It’s the call to evangelize the world, and the difficulty that we will face in doing so. We will be mocked, we will meet resistance, perhaps even violent resistance. Those who have spent their whole lives in darkness will often want nothing to do with the Light—they are content in darkness. But God has set us forth with a purpose, to illumine the world. So no matter how difficult it may be, we must continue to shine. Not just for our sake, but for the sake of those still in darkness who God also loves and with whom He wishes to share His light.