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God’s promises to His servants 41:1-42:9
The intent of this unit of material was to assure Israel that God had both the power and the desire to deliver her and to bring salvation to the whole world. It contains three basic themes: the pagans’ inability to refute Yahweh’s sovereignty, the promise to deliver fearful Israel, and the divine plan to use an ideal servant as redeemer.
The ministering servant, Messiah 41:21-42:9
How is it clear that Yahweh, and not the idols, directs world history? Yahweh alone can predict the future and then bring it to pass (Isaiah 41:21-29). Since Yahweh is the God of Israel, does He have any regard for the Gentile nations? Yes, a servant of the Lord will bring forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1-9). The court case with the nations-begun in Isaiah 41:1, but interrupted with comfort for the Lord’s servant Israel in Isaiah 41:8-20 -now resumes. Before it ends, however, the Lord will explain the ministry of His Servant, Messiah (Isaiah 42:1-9).
"The hen (behold) in ch. xli. 29 is now followed by a second hen [in Isaiah 42:1]. With the former, Jehovah pronounced sentence upon the idolaters and their idols; with the latter, He introduces His ’servant.’" [Note: Delitzsch, 2:174.]
Yahweh called on the nations to see (give attention to) His Servant, in contrast to the idols (cf. Isaiah 41:29). The Old Testament used "servant" to describe the relation of God’s people to Himself (cf. Psalms 19:11; Psalms 19:13). Individuals described themselves this way (e.g., Moses in Exodus 4:10; Joshua in Joshua 5:14; and David in 2 Samuel 7:19 and 1 Chronicles 17:17-19; 1 Chronicles 17:23-27), and others described them this way (e.g., Moses in Exodus 14:31; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Exodus 32:13; and David in 1 Kings 8:24). "Servant of the Lord" describes Moses 21 times and Joshua twice. The Lord referred to the following entities as "my servant": Israel (14 times, including seven times in Isaiah 40-55), Moses (six times), David (21 times), the prophets (nine times), Job (seven times), and Nebuchadnezzar (twice). Isaiah’s explicit references to Cyrus call him Yahweh’s "shepherd" (Isaiah 44:28) and His "anointed" (Isaiah 45:1). [Note: Motyer, p. 319, n. 1.]
Yahweh would uphold, or grip firmly, this Servant; He would sustain Him with deep affection. He would be one in whom the Lord delighted wholeheartedly, not just one He would use (cf. Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). The Lord would place His Spirit on this Servant, blessing Him with His presence and empowering Him for service (cf. Isaiah 11:2-4; Numbers 11:16-25; 1 Samuel 16:13; Psalms 33:6; Psalms 139:7; Matthew 3:16; Luke 4:18-19; Luke 4:21). This Servant would bring forth justice to the nations of the world (cf. Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:3-4; Isaiah 16:5). Justice (Heb. mishpat) connotes societal order as well as legal equity. The Gentiles would not find this justice on their own, but the Servant would bring it to them (cf. Isaiah 11:1-5; Isaiah 32:1). Jesus Christ will do this at His second coming. The Targum equated the Servant with Messiah. Modern Jews believe the Servant is Israel or the faithful within Israel. This was also the interpretation of Codex Vaticanus, but the following explanation of the Servant passages should rule out this view.
He would not serve the Lord ostentatiously, nor would He advertise Himself. His ministry would be quiet, non-aggressive, and unthreatening. Obviously Cyrus was not this Servant.
"In Isaiah 42:1 we met the quintessential servant; here is quintessential service. It was forecast by Isaiah, exemplified perfectly in the Lord Jesus Christ, and is to be reproduced in all who would serve the Lord with true service." [Note: Ibid., p. 320.]
The Lord’s Servant would be gracious and patient. He would not discard what seemed to others useless, and He would not extinguish what seemed to others too spent. His calling was to save, not destroy. He would be faithful to His calling to bring forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1; cf. Isaiah 11:3-4).
Not only would He not break or extinguish others, but the pressures and blows of others would not break or extinguish Him. This reflects the Spirit’s empowerment in His life (cf. Isaiah 42:1). He would complete His mission of establishing justice on the earth. The furthest reaches of the earth will, therefore, anticipate the coming of His law, as Israel did at the base of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19; cf. Isaiah 2:3). They would do so eager for justice to come to the earth, not necessarily eagerly anticipating it to come through the Lord’s Servant.
The Lord now turned from describing His Servant’s task by speaking about Him to confirming His task by speaking to Him. This is a pattern in the Servant Songs: confirmation follows description (cf. Isaiah 49:7-13; Isaiah 50:10-11; Isaiah 54:1 to Isaiah 55:13). Two aspects of the Lord’s glory that earlier exposed the plight of the Gentile world, namely, that the Gentiles do not know the only true God and that they worship idols, bracket this passage dealing with Gentile hope. [Note: Ibid., p. 321.] The task of the Servant, not His identity, continues to be the focus of attention. Each segment begins with a reaffirmation of the identity of the true God (Isaiah 42:5-6; Isaiah 42:8).
The speaker identified Himself, for the benefit of the idol-worshipping nations (cf. Isaiah 40:1). He was the transcendent God who created all things (Heb. ha’el, cf. Isaiah 40:18), namely, Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God of Israel. He described Himself further as He who established the earth and who alone cares for it and sustains its inhabitants. The Servant’s ministry will fulfill the Creator’s original intention for the earth.
Yahweh not only called an invader in harmony with His righteous purposes for humankind (Isaiah 41:2), but He alone also called this Servant at the right time, in the right place, and for the right purpose.
"The righteousness of God is the stringency with which He acts, in accordance with the will of His holiness." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:178.]
Cyrus would destroy, but Messiah would build. The Lord promised again to uphold His Servant (cf. Isaiah 42:1). The Servant would fulfill the covenant requirements and promises that God had given His people, becoming a covenant to them in that sense, and so bring them into intimate fellowship with Himself (cf. Isaiah 49:6-8). Thus this Servant cannot be all of Israel or even saved Israel or the prophets. Some commentators view this covenant as the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), which Christ would ratify with His blood. [Note: See Ibid., 179-80; Grogan, p. 255; and Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 100-101.] Still others view it as the "covenant of grace" that Christ made available to people by dying on the Cross. [Note: See Young, 3:120-21.] The coming conqueror would drive the nations further into idolatry (Isaiah 41:5-7), but the Servant would lead them to God by serving as a light to the nations who sit in darkness (cf. Luke 2:32; John 14:6). The Lord Himself would do all this through His Servant (cf. Exodus 3:15; Exodus 6:3).
As light, the Servant would heal disabilities (physical and spiritual), end restrictions that others imposed, and transform individual circumstances (cf. Luke 1:79; John 1:4; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 9:39-41; John 12:46; Acts 26:18). He would bring people out of bondage, including their bondage to sin (cf. Isaiah 61:1; John 8:32; Colossians 1:13).
The Lord-Yahweh is His covenant name-is a distinct person with His own name (cf. Exodus 3:13-15). He would keep His covenant with Israel. He is not an idol that someone made and received the glory for making. The praise for His great acts belongs to Him, not to some image fashioned by one of His creatures (cf. Isaiah 41:21-29).
"Behold" concludes this passage as it began it, forming an inclusio (cf. Isaiah 42:1). The former things that God had predicted through the prophets-that had come to pass already-provided assurance that the new things that Yahweh just revealed, about Cyrus and Messiah, would also happen. Another view is that the former things are the predictions concerning Cyrus, and the new things are the things having to do with the restoration of Israel. [Note: Delitzsch, 2:180.] Yahweh had revealed them before they happened, thus proving His uniqueness and superiority over the gods of the nations. This is the first of six times God claimed to predict the future in Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 44:7-8; Isaiah 45:1-4; Isaiah 45:21; Isaiah 46:10; Isaiah 48:3-6).
Thus ends Yahweh’s disputation with the gods (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:9). The appearance of Cyrus, more than 150 years after Isaiah’s prophecies about him, would be a kind of sign that the prophecies about the Servant would also come to pass-in the more distant future.
The certainty of redemption 42:10-43:7
God had not forgotten, nor was He unable to deliver His people (cf. Exodus 3:7-9). Their redemption was certain.
"This vision of what God will accomplish through his Servant is so exciting that Isaiah breaks into the ecstatic hymn of praise (Isaiah 42:10-13), which then functions as a bridge from this section, Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:9, into the next, Isaiah 42:10 to Isaiah 44:22." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 109.]
A new song arises in Scripture when someone has learned of something powerful and good that God has done or will do (cf. ch. 12; Psalms 33:3; Psalms 40:3; Psalms 96:1; Psalms 98:1; Psalms 144:9; Revelation 5:9; Revelation 14:3). Here it is salvation through the Servant that prompts this song of praise (cf. Isaiah 6:3). Isaiah called on everyone to praise the Lord because the Servant’s ministry would benefit the whole earth. People living on the farthest seacoasts and in the desert lands should praise Him. Kedar, a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13), was also the name of a town in the Arabian Desert (cf. Isaiah 21:16-17; Isaiah 60:7). Sela was near modern Petra and was the mountain fortress city of Edom (cf. Isaiah 16:1). These people in various places represent diverse sources from which universal praise should come to the Lord.
God’s purposes for His servants 42:10-44:22
The section of Isaiah that I have titled "God’s promises to His servants" (Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:9) sets the stage and introduces themes that Isaiah proceeded to develop in this section. Those themes are the certainty of redemption (Isaiah 42:10 to Isaiah 43:7), the witness to redemption (Isaiah 43:8 to Isaiah 44:20), and the memory of redemption (Isaiah 44:21-22).
This verse gives the reason for the praise just called for. Isaiah gloried in the fact that Yahweh would one day arise as a mighty warrior to overcome His enemies. He did this when He moved Cyrus to allow the Israelites to return to their land. He did it more mightily when He sent Messiah to accomplish redemption. And He will do it most dramatically when Messiah comes back to the earth to defeat His enemies at Armageddon (Revelation 14:14-20; Revelation 19:17-19).
God Himself explained that He had remained quiet a long time, but in the future He would cry out, as a pregnant woman does just before she gives birth. The cry (cf. Isaiah 42:13) signals a mighty act. God would bring forth a new thing.
Nothing in all creation would be able to resist and prevent the Lord from acting. His coming to judge sin and sinners would be as devastating to them as the searing east wind was to Palestinians.
However, He would lead His own people, those unable to find their way through the blinding storm of His judgment, to safety (cf. Revelation 12:14). The people of Israel were blind and could not bring the Gentiles into the light, but God would lead His blind servants (cf. Isaiah 42:7). He promised definitely to do this.
That deliverance would spell humiliation for idolaters because they, and others, would see the impotence of their gods compared to Yahweh. Return from the Exile provided a sign of what God would do for His people in the eschaton. Both acts of God seem to be in view here.
The rest of this chapter addresses Israel’s present condition of blindness (cf. Romans 10). Yahweh now disputed with His people, not with pagan idolaters, as formerly. Motyer analyzed the structure of this part of Isaiah differently and saw a parallel between national redemption in Isaiah 42:18 to Isaiah 43:21 and spiritual redemption in Isaiah 43:22 to Isaiah 44:23. [Note: Motyer, p. 326.]
The Israelites had concluded that Yahweh was blind and deaf to their situation, namely, impending destruction. Now He revealed that it was they who were blind and deaf to what He would do for them. He challenged them to comprehend what they had missed.
It is the servant of the Lord, and of all people-Israel (cf. Isaiah 41:8-16)-that was blind and deaf. How ironic it was that God’s messenger to the world, the one that He had brought into covenant relationship with Himself, was blind and deaf, blinder and deafer than any other. Israel, above all others, needed to be able to see and hear what her Lord told her so she could tell it to the world (cf. ch. 22). The nations were blind (cf. Isaiah 42:6-7), but Israel was both blind and deaf (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10; Isaiah 30:9-11; Amos 2:4).
"As Isaiah was the messenger of God to Israel, so Israel was called to be the messenger of God to the world. But the still unanswered question was: What kind of coal from the altar would it take to bring the nation to its senses and cleanse its lips for service?" [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 131. Cf. 6:6-7.]
As the Lord had told Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry (Isaiah 6:9), the Israelites saw but did not perceive, and heard but did not comprehend (cf. Deuteronomy 29:2-4). The Israelites’ response to the Mosaic Law is primarily in view.
"The cardinal sin of the people of God is to possess the divine word and to ignore it." [Note: Motyer, p. 328.]
Here is what the Israelites were blind and deaf to: the teaching of Yahweh. The law in view here probably includes all of what God had revealed to His people that enabled them to come into relationship with Him and to live lives of fulfillment as His creatures. The Lord glorified this instruction (Heb. torah) because He is righteous; He does what is right for the welfare of people, and that involves revealing His gracious will to them.
In contrast to God’s purpose for Israel (cf. Exodus 19:5-6), the nation was in a position, because of her own sin and God’s discipline of her, from which she could not deliver herself, much less lead the Gentiles into the light (cf. Isaiah 45:14-25; Deuteronomy 28:49-53). Each description of Israel in this verse contrasts with what she should have been in the will of God.
The prophet despaired that no one among the Israelites was learning from God.
God’s people needed to observe that sin had led them into their present wretched condition, and that whenever their ancestors had gotten into such a condition, repentance brought restoration to usefulness. Their relationship to God was the key. The Torah, of course, explained what God promised to do if His people obeyed or disobeyed Him (cf. Isaiah 1:4-8; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-29), but the Israelites had not paid attention to this teaching. Since they chose to go their own way, the judgment of God had burned them. Most of Isaiah’s contemporaries were still claiming that they did not deserve the hardship that God had sent them.
Chapter 42 thus contains a strong contrast. It opens with one Servant who will discharge His ministry successfully, and it ends with another servant-in servitude to his captors-having failed to minister effectively. The Servant Messiah obeys God and fulfills His task, but the servant Israel refuses to listen to God and draws His judgment.
Even though Israel had failed to learn from the Lord (Isaiah 42:18-25), He would still deliver her in the future out of pure grace (Isaiah 43:1-7). He had not cast off His covenant people (cf. Romans 11:1).
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 42". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany