In our last essay we studied Isaiah 41, which is part of the second major portion of Isaiah made up of chapters 40-55. The section as a whole predicts delivery of Israel from the Babylonian Exile. Thus from Isaiah’s eighth century BC perspective, it was a predictive prophecy dealing with the mid sixth century BC.
The segment, 42:1-9 is the first of four so-called “Servant Songs.” The others are found in 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. These Servant Songs all are Messianic. They speak of the coming divine Servant. And it was Jesus who fulfilled these passages. Now there are other passages in which the nation Israel is called God’s servant. Indeed there is one in this chapter. Therefore some scholars insist that the Servant Song passages also must be interpreted as referring to the nation. Still others have suggested that Cyrus of Persia was the one intended by the designation, “servant.” If you jump ahead a couple of chapters, we are told in 44:28 that Cyrus was called by God to carry out God’s purposes. And in 45:1 Cyrus is called God’s “anointed,” which is the word for “messiah.” But that argument falls to the ground due to what we see here in 42:2-3. God’s servant will not break a bruised reed, or quench a dimly burning wick. Those are not the characteristics of a conqueror like Cyrus. On the other hand, one should not interpret verses 2-3 to mean that the servant is weak. As verse four tells us, “he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” And the “coastlands,” the Gentiles, await his teaching. John Oswalt takes the traditional position that the servant is the divine Messiah. That, by the way, also is the position taken by the New Testament writers.
Something we should note about verses 1-4 are the similarities in them to Jesus’ baptism experience. Please turn to Matt. 3:13-17 and read those verses.
Now then coming back to Isaiah 42, notice in verse one the words, “my chosen in whom my soul delights.” That is very close to, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Also in verse one, we read, “I have put my spirit upon him.” And of course at Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus (Matt. 3:16). These similarities suggest that both passages are speaking about the same person.
Notice, still in verse one, that the servant’s function is to bring “justice to the nations.” That means to the Gentiles. And the idea of establishing justice was so important to Isaiah that he repeats it two more times in verses 3-4.
In verses 5-9 the Lord declares that he is the creator of everything, and the one who gave physical life to human beings. And then he addresses his servant about his future coming. Notice in verses 6-7 that the ministry of the servant will be a ministry of righteousness, and of bringing light to a dark world. In addition the servant will be “a covenant to the people.” The “people” are the people of Israel, and the covenant is the New Covenant. We have seen in this passage that his ministry would be to the Gentiles; but the next Servant Song, in 49:1-6, clearly indicates that the servant has a ministry to Israel, as well as to the nations. The dungeon in verse seven is the bondage of sin not the Exile.
Verses 8-9 remind us that God jealously guards his glory. He shares it with no one. And we are reminded that God can do what the gods and their idols cannot; namely, make sense of the past, the “former things,” and predict the future, the “new things.”
At 42:10 Isaiah begins a new section, the larger point of which is that the people of Israel are to be God’s witnesses that the Lord alone is God. Look at verse 10: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth.” Verse 12: “Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare his praise in the coastlands.” In order to complete this emphasis on being witnesses, move ahead to the second half of chapter 44, verse 8, which syas: “You are my witnesses! Is there any God beside me? There is no other rock; I know not one.”
Coming back to chapter 42, the next section, 42:10-43:7, has to do with the certainty of redemption. And the first part of that, in 42:10-17, proclaims God’s victory.
The announcement we just reviewed in chapter 41 of the Servant who brings God’s justice to the earth (vv. 1-3), who manifests God’s grace (vv. 6-7) and glory (v. 8), prompts a call for a song of praise in the following verses. The song is new, because God is going to do a new work, namely, deliverance from the Exile. In the longer view, the salvation that benefits the entire earth (42:4) also is included. But deliverance from the Exile is at the forefront. Notice that the call to sing praises goes forth to everyone: those by the sea, those in the desert, and those on the mountains. Kedar was the second son of Ishmael. Therefore Oswalt suggests that Arabian Desert dwellers were intended by the reference. And he suggests that Sela probably represents the Edomite city of Petra.
The God as warrior image of verse 13 is quite common in the Old Testament. But the image of God as a woman in labor in verse 14 is not common. The connection between the two images is the scream at the climactic moment.
The warrior psyches himself up for the battle; and then when he is ready to charge, he screams to fortify himself and frighten his enemies. The idea in relation to God is that he will fight for his people. The woman in labor also screams when she is giving birth in order to give expression to her pain. And the idea in relation to God is that, when he acts, he gives birth to a new situation.
Notice that God begins to speak in the first person at verse 14. Interestingly, in verse 15 the Lord moves from the image of the “panting” of labor in giving birth to an image of the dry, howling east wind that dries up everything in its path. The idea is that God is able to do unheard of things: lay waste the mountains, and dry up the herbage, rivers and pools.
The blindness of verse 16 is not literal blindness. It is spiritual blindness. Like the physically blind, the Jews Of Isaiah’s day and those in Exile, and us for that matter, are helpless in our sin unless God guides us. And he promises to do that. He will turn our darkness into light and the rough places into level ground. God will be victorious.
After the announcement of God’s victory in 42:1-17, the Lord turns in 42:18-25 to the present, blind condition of his people, whom he identifies as “the servant of the Lord.”
It is important to understand that there are two servants of the Lord. In 42:1-9, we saw the servant of the Lord as God’s Messiah. Here it is God’s people, Israel. Blind and deaf Israel is commanded to see and hear, which proves that their blindness and deafness is willful. It isn’t that they cannot see or hear. They will not see nor hear.
Notice the three-fold repetition of the blindness. They absolutely refuse to see anything. Verse 20 reminds us of the Lord’s commission of Isaiah as a prophet in chapter six. At that time the Lord predicted that the response of the people to Isaiah’s ministry would be one of refusal to see and hear.
It is clear from verse 21 that the Lord wanted his “teaching,” or “law,” torah in Hebrew, to be spread and magnified. That was why he called Israel in general, and Isaiah in particular, to spread the message. But the people were incapable of doing it, because they were imprisoned. In Isaiah’s day they were imprisoned by sin; and in the days of the Exile, the Exile itself was a kind of prison for the people.
Oswalt says that the “this” of verse 23 is the data of Israel’s past experiences from which they have learned nothing. Then verse 24 lays the blame for Israel’s calamities at their own feet. The Lord permitted the calamities to happen, because the people sinned against him. They refused to walk in his ways and to obey his law. Finally, we see in verse 25 that the servant Israel’s rebellion and disobedience brought judgment upon them. Although they were severely burned by that judgment, they did not “take it to heart.” They never understood their spiritual situation.