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Isaiah 42

Chapter Forty-two:

vs. 2-3: How could this possibly apply to Cyrus, a conqueror?  Both Barnes and the Oxford commentary agree that the “servant” of vs. 1-4 does not refer to Cyrus.  So to whom does it refer?  Speaking strictly in the context of this chapter and those surrounding it, the term “servant” seems to be a very fluid reference, not easily nailed down.[1] In v. 8 of chapter forty-one, the Hebrews are collectively called “my servant” but are described as a “worm” and an “insect” which God will transform into a devastating threshing sledge.  This does not harmonize at all with “my servant” of verses 1-4 in chapter forty-two.  Here the term references some gentle,[2] wise,[3] strong[4] and just[5] teacher/judge who could hardly be described as something so weak as a worm or so violent as a threshing sledge.  Again, in vs. 19-25 of this same chapter, the term seems to reference the Jews collectively, this time as blind, deaf, weak and plundered.  Obviously, therefore, the term “servant” itself is not very useful in identifying specifically whom the writer is describing in each passage.

Oxford believes that (in verses 1-4[6]) the term refers to an ideal of the Jewish people collectively, whose purpose was to model righteousness and true religion for the pagan world.  I agree that this was one of the purposes God had in making the Hebrews his special people, but I do not believe “my servant” here is a reference to that.  In the context of these chapters, the ideal Israel seems to be “Israel the threshing sledge” as opposed to “Israel the blind worm” who lives trapped in holes and hidden in prisons (v. 22).  But, as I noted above, the servant in this early part of chapter forty-two is not a threshing sledge, nor is he a captive; in fact, he frees “the prisoners from the dungeon” (v.7).  This seems awkward to apply to the Jews when one considers how often these chapters allude to their imprisonment during Babylonian Captivity.  I wonder if the interpretation of the “servant” of these verses (42:1-7) as an ideal Israel arose after the birth of Christianity.  If that is the case, then such an interpretation could be biased, intending only to discredit Jesus as the Messiah.[7] Barnes claims that the “ancient and early Jews” understood this passage to refer to the Messiah (98).  That was the view of the early Christians as well.[8] One thing is certain to me at least: the description of the servant of vs. 1-7 fits Jesus much better than Cyrus, or an ideal Israel, or any other interpretation I have run across, and it does so centuries before Christ actually came to Earth.  An ideal Israel could have been envisioned by the writer at any time, and skeptics could claim that passages about Cyrus were inserted at a later date (after or during the Persian king’s lifetime), but nobody claims that these verses were written after the life of Christ, and yet they are most applicable to his life.

So what do these verses (vs. 2-3) mean?  Without resorting to Matthew’s application of them to Jesus, I think one could honestly conclude that the writer intends to say (in verse 2) that this servant will have a meek nature.  In the context of verse 3, I think one could add that he will be gentle, compassionate, and just.  A bruised reed is almost broken, and a smoldering wick is almost out, but he will take care not to hurt these fragile things.  Since the concept of justice implies that he is dealing with humans, I am assuming that these metaphors of fragility represent people in a weak and helpless state whom he will care for and bring justice to.  This person, and the one referred to in 61:1 seem to be the same.

As Matthew applies this to Jesus, the following conclusions can be added:

Not crying out or making his voice heard in the street refers to the fact that Jesus told those whom he healed not to spread the news of their miraculous healings.  He probably did this from a desire not to confront his enemies before the time was right and not to stir up so much public curiosity and attention that he would be hindered in his work.  Both desires stem from a righteous and meek personality, which prefers peace and seeks it whenever it is permissible to do so and avoids the adulation and attention that come from fame.  A brash, arrogant person (such as we in America are unfortunately taught to admire) would have been eager to confront his enemies (for the joy of smashing and humiliating them) and to receive the adulation of as many people as possible.

Not breaking a bruised reed or quenching a smoldering wick refers to Jesus’ healings.

v. 4: The “coastlands” must mean the Gentiles.  Matthew seems to agree with this.[9]

v. 6: Barnes says that “people” here is an unclear reference; it may mean the Jews or the Gentiles, and the Oxford commentary apparently agrees that it is unclear, noting that the Hebrew wording is uncertain, but in the context of the previous verses I believe “people” must refer to Gentiles.  It is paralleled with “nations” later in the verse, which seems a clear reference to the Gentiles.  When have the Jews been referred to as “the nations”?

v. 9: Compare this with the false gods’ inability to predict the future (41:23).

v. 10: They will sing a new song to commemorate a new thing.  See 43:19.

v. 11: See also 21:16-17 and 60:7 for other mentions of Kedar in Isaiah.  Here, I think, Kedar is just presented as one in the list of non-Jewish peoples representing the Gentiles that will benefit from the work of the Messiah.

vs. 13-25: It is hard to decide exactly what certain parts of the rest of the chapter refer to in the context of the whole chapter.  The Gentiles are called on to praise God, and God himself declares that he will deliver the Jews, yet God is very angry with at least one group of people.  So with whom is he angry, Gentiles or Jews?  Furthermore, the type of destructive fury that God declares he will unleash seems out of place in the same chapter that talks about his servant not breaking a bruised reed.  Nevertheless, here is the best I can do:

God is angry with “his foes” in v. 13.  I suppose this is Babylon, specifically; perhaps the other Gentiles, from the villages of Kedar to the coastlands, should praise his name because, by his actions against Babylon, they will be freed of the tyranny of Babylon just as surely as the Jews will.   Perhaps he has kept his peace for so long (v.14) because he was waiting for the time he had allotted for the Jews’ punishment at the hands of Babylon to be fulfilled.[10] I think this view explains the analogy of a woman in labor very well.  God was actually in severe pain and wanted to deliver his people from their darkness in Babylon just as a woman wants to deliver her baby from the darkness of her womb, but he could not accomplish this work until the time that he had allotted was fulfilled, just as the pregnant woman cannot give birth whenever she wants to.  When the time comes, however, for the people to be delivered, God is fierce in bringing them out, just as a pregnant woman becomes fierce when the time for delivering her baby is at hand.  Hence, God lays waste to mountains and hills (v. 15) as he leads the blind [his people[11]] by a road they do not know, turning the darkness into light and making the rough places level (v. 16).  I am not sure who “they” are in v. 17.  “They” are obviously idolaters, but arguments could be made for their being Jews on the one hand and Gentiles on the other.  If the writer means for them to be Jews, then they are the idolaters that provoked God’s wrath against the Jews as a group (v. 25).  If they are supposed to be Gentiles, then their mention here flows smoothly into v. 18, which is obviously addressing Gentiles.  I say v. 18 is addressing Gentiles because, though the person (people) being addressed is called blind and deaf (as one would expect of someone not privy to the special teaching of God) he is distinguished from “my servant” (v. 19) who is even more blind and deaf.

v. 18 (or possibly v. 17) begins a shift in focus.  No longer is God talking about the future deliverance of his people, but rather he is talking about why Jews had to suffer the Babylonian Captivity in the first place.  His people are more blind and deaf than the Gentiles because even God (given the constraints he puts on himself for the sake of our free will) was unable to make them see or hear (vs. 20-21).[12] He tried to teach them (v. 21). “But [in spite of that] this is a people robbed and plundered.”  Since they would not hear his teaching, “he poured upon them the heat of his anger and the fury of war” (v.25).  God is angry again here, but not with the Babylonians.  Here, he is angry with the Jews and uses the Babylonians to punish them.  Nevertheless, even after suffering this punishment, the Jews have not understood.  Thus, the prophet asks the questions of v. 23.  However, I am not sure what the prophet means by “the time to come” in v. 23.  Most of the predictions of the future in these nearby chapters seem to talk about the freedom from Babylonian Captivity, so I lean more toward interpreting “the time to come” in terms of the deliverance from Babylon.  Nevertheless, I suppose another interpretation could see “the time to come” in terms of the Babylonian Captivity itself (as opposed to the later freedom from that captivity).

The interpretation of vs. 13-25 that I have given above is the best I can do, but I am unsatisfied with it for a couple of reasons.  First, it does not address the seeming incongruity of having this section, which talks of God’s righteous, destructive wrath against Babylon and his own people, with the section describing God’s servant who will not break a bruised reed.  Second, it seems odd that the Gentiles (the coastlands, etc.) should rejoice over the destruction of Babylon by Persia here, while they are threatened with the coming of the Persian king in chapter forty-one.


[1] Although the specific term “servant” is not applied to Cyrus in chapter forty-one, it seems fairly clear that he is functioning as one there.

[2] “A bruised reed he will not break.”

[3] “The coastlands wait for his teaching.”

[4] “He will not grow faint or be crushed.”

[5] “He will faithfully bring forth justice.”

[6] Oxford treats vs. 1-4 as a group, but I suspect the prophet is still referencing the same “servant” through v. 7.

[7] See note on a similar possibility in 49:3.

[8] See Matthew 12:18-21.

[9] “In his name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12:21).

[10] See note on 40:2.

[11] See v. 19.

[12] This reminds me very strongly of Isaiah 6.  See also 43:8

8 Responses to “Isaiah 42”

  1. […] [1] See note on 42:14. […]

  2. […] surrounding it, the term “servant” seems to be a very fluid reference, not easily nailed down.[1] In v. 8 of chapter forty-one, the Hebrews are collectively called “my servant” but are […]

  3. […] [4] See note on 42:10. […]

  4. […] [1] See note on 42:14. […]

  5. […] surrounding it, the term “servant” seems to be a very fluid reference, not easily nailed down.[1] In v. 8 of chapter forty-one, the Hebrews are collectively called “my servant” but are […]

  6. […] [4] See note on 42:10. […]

  7. […] [1] If it is a gloss, I wonder if it was added by Jews after the time of Christ in an attempt to make these verses seem less applicable to him.  See note on  42:2-3. […]

  8. […] [1] If it is a gloss, I wonder if it was added by Jews after the time of Christ in an attempt to make these verses seem less applicable to him.  See note on  42:2-3. […]

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