Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9
For too long has Isaiah 42:1-9 been read solely within the context of the so-called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).
Certainly these are important intertexts, but by reading Isaiah in such a manner one’s understanding of the concept of the Servant in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) will be reductionistic.
Today’s reading ought to be interpreted within the context of chapters 40-42, which form a chiastic structure with 41:8-20 as its focal point. These early chapters of Second Isaiah introduce Cyrus the Persian king as the agent of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel in exile. In 45:1 Yahweh grants Cyrus the title of “Messiah” and in 48:14 he declares his love for the Persian ruler. It would be Cyrus who defeats the Babylonians, releases Israel from its captivity, and provides the returnees the means to rebuild the Temple. Second Isaiah’s task is to convince a dubious exilic community that Yahweh is using a pagan king to accomplish his redemptive purposes for his chosen people.
Oddly enough, embedded within a text focused on introducing Cyrus, are texts that introduce the Servant of Yahweh. The Servant is first identified as Israel (41:8), but through the course of Second Isaiah the identity of the Servant becomes enigmatic and more individualistic in nature. Significant overlap exists between language regarding Cyrus and the Servant. According to Second Isaiah Yahweh holds both the Servant and Cyrus by their right hand (42:6; 45:1), calls upon them by name (43:1; 45:3-4), and calls them in righteousness (42:6; 45:13). Cyrus, like the Servant of Yahweh, will bring forth justice (42:1, 3-4) and liberate prisoners (42:7).
What is striking about Isaiah 42:1-9 is that the Servant is never clearly identified. What is emphasized is the activity and character of the Servant. It seems at this point Yahweh is interested more in what is accomplished rather than who does so. Yahweh’s main concern is for his just and righteous purposes for the nations.
Earlier Israel questioned the justice of God (40:27), as they lingered in exile. Yahweh’s response to his people comes in the form of a pagan king who does not know Yahweh (45:4). The people of God do not hold a monopoly on justice. In fact they are at times in need of the nations to bring justice to them. Israel was called to be the primary agent of God’s justice and righteousness in the earth (2:1-4), yet they abdicated this responsibility (1:16-17, 21-23) and they need to be redeemed by justice (1:27). Isaiah 42:1-4 reminds the people of God to be humble since they are not God’s sole agents of justice and righteousness. In some cases God may be accomplishing his plans for his people through the nations (e.g., 44:28).
Could Cyrus, a pagan king, be the Servant of Yahweh? In a one sense, the answer is “yes” as argued above, but a progressive reading of Second Isaiah will result in a “no.” Cyrus is characterized as an efficient conqueror who mightily wields the sword and the bow as he tramples upon his enemies (41:2, 25). It appears that the Servant similarly encounters no opposition since the verb to “cry out” (ṣā’aq) in 42:2 refers to the cry of the oppressed (cf. Isaiah 5:7). Whereas the Servant in chapters 40-48 will “not cry or lift up his voice” (42:2), in chapters 49-53 he will face fierce persecution and suffering.
Due to the growth of the prophetic book, Isaiah 42:2 is eventually to be interpreted in light of 53:7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” The Servant of Yahweh will indeed experience persecution, but he will endure it in silence.
Isaiah 42:2 describes how “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks signify people who may seem strong but are actually weak (cf. 36:6). In contrast to the might of Cyrus, this Servant is gentle. Lastly, unlike people who fade and grow faint (40:7, 30), this Servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (42:4). It is clear Yahweh is not merely concerned about what is accomplished for the sake of his plan, but the manner in which ministry is conducted. Justice is not to be accomplished through force but through meekness.
Matthew’s Gospel quotes an abbreviated version of Isaiah 42:1-4 and relates it to particular events in Jesus’ life in Matthew 12:18-21. Jesus’ decision to remain with the crowds even when his life was in danger (Matthew 12:14) and cure all of them of their diseases and evil spirits is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first Sunday after Epiphany commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, which signifies the commission to his Messianic vocation. The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 3:13-17, contains echoes of Isaiah 42. Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit of God (Matthew 3:16) recalls Yahweh’s declaration in 42:1, “I have put my spirit on him.” The affirmation of Jesus as God’s “Beloved, with whom [he is] well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) evokes Yahweh’s designation of his Servant as “[his] chosen, in whom [his] soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).
The ministry of the Servant signifies the dawn of a new era of salvation for the people of God (42:9). The commissioning of Jesus to a vocation of Servanthood at his Baptism indicates this new age has begun. Epiphany marks the beginning of a new year, and for Christians each new year is a reminder that the new creation, which Isaiah 42:10-12 goes on to celebrate, has been inaugurated in the Baptism of our Lord Jesus the Christ.