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God’s controversy with the heathen world is continued, but in this chapter, to verse sixteen, it is represented as in the higher and last stage. Thus far in the description he has presented in contrast, first his omnipotence, and second his omniscience, of which attributes idol gods have absolutely nothing, and so are utterly discomfited; lastly, he here shows his almighty love his goodness and mercy in the gift of the promised almighty deliverer, the Messiah.
1. Behold my servant Who is meant? Not Israel, as in Isaiah 41:8, nor the prophet himself, because what is affirmed of this “servant” transcends what any Old Testament prophet was ever called to, and what any mere man was ever capable of doing. The Targum adds Messiah to the words “my servant,” as explanatory of them. And Abarbanel, the Jewish enemy of Christians, says those who interpret otherwise are “smitten with blindness.” To the conception of a transcendent Personality the word must refer, from attributes following, which are applicable only to such a conception; in other words, to the incarnate Redeemer, looming up to the prophet’s eye from the far future. It may be asked what affinity has this word here with the same word in Isaiah 41:8, and in Isaiah 42:19-20, where it seems God’s true Israel is called his “servant.” The answer is, our prophet was of the broadest cast of mind; of loftiest spiritual conceptions withal; and was ever certain of victory crowning truth and righteousness as against idolatry and sin; and the conqueror was ever to be the Messiah, first of the Davidic type of kingly glory and righteousness, (Isaiah 17:12;) then Jehovah and co-workers, namely, the embodied idea of the true Israel as in these chapters, (41-47;) then the holy seed descended from Abraham, the indestructible germ, in which the continuity of Israel was preserved, culminating in the Christ, as St. Paul interprets in Galatians 3:16. The one true Israel becomes thus individualized in the person of the future great deliverer, the coming Christ. Delitzsch illustrates by a pyramid, of which the base is Israel as a whole; the central section Israel according to the flesh, but purified, and so the remnant Israel; the apex is the personal Messiah springing out of Israel. God has also his “servants” outside of Israel; of whom, in these chapters, is Cyrus, representing employed agencies from the Gentile world over whom he rules, as do typical Messianic agencies from Israel in whom he rules.
2. He shall not cry Here is described Messiah’s work as unobtrusive and unostentatious. He seeks no publicity by crying or shouting for others to give attention to him. If he work, he works in silence; if he suffer, he suffers in silence. See Isaiah 38:7; Isaiah 58:4; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 12:16.
3. A bruised reed In Isaiah 36:6, Egypt, impaired by Sargon of Assyria, was called a “broken reed.” Figuratively, the bruised and oppressed in Israel are compassionated by Messiah.
Shall he not break He will not bruise it more. His nature is to deal tenderly with all; not to command, but to give help more effective than individuals or peoples can obtain from other quarters.
The smoking flax The dimly burning and smoking wick, ready to go out for lack of oil, he trims and replenishes, thus imparting to it efficiency; whatever the exigency, he is at hand mercifully to give aid.
Judgment The true religion, with all it involves.
Unto truth Unto victory, to the ends of the earth and forever.
4. He shall not fail His work, though unshowy, shall be efficiently done; shall be everywhere extended.
Set judgment Established his religion.
Isles Regions in and around the seas: heathendom shall tire of idols, and clamour for Messiah’s coming and religion.
In these four verses are predicted attributes and doings which assuredly make out God’s “servant” (Isaiah 42:1) as more than a mere man, and more than Israel collectively.
5-9. The words of Jehovah here are not, as in Isaiah 42:1-4, so much about as to his “servant.”
God the Lord האל יהוה , Hael Jehovah. This phrase is peculiar. It means the Mighty One, the Lord. The great Creator, the Mighty One, proclaims himself also the mighty Redeemer. But why announced just here? (1) To keep still in view the infinite contrast between the only true God and the miserable nothingness of idolatry. (2) To give solidity to the hopes and faith which Israel, and the concentrative idea of Messiah springing out of the true Israel, should have in the work now before Messiah to accomplish. And (3) to show, as the predicates expressing creation, etc., are all participles in the present tense, that God, in creating worlds, does not wind up the machinery, set it a going, and then retire, but that his omnipotent presence is as needful to preserve as his power had been to create. Hebrews 1:3. The language here is simple, phenomenal, and descriptive.
6. I the Lord have called thee in righteousness “Thee,” Messiah. Faithful to my word of promise with Abraham; faithful also to my own intrinsic righteousness. Both are involved in the covenant.
Covenant… light These are terms equivalent to universal gospel blessings.
7. To open the blind eyes That is, to quicken the intellect to discern moral distinctions the conscience to feel, and the will to bestir itself, in view of them.
To bring out the prisoners Deliverance from the prison house of sin was another function. Messianic work is providential work, so-called; ordering, through its moral changes, physical changes. The Gospel and effects are an exemplification of these things everywhere.
8. I am the Lord Rather, Jehovah, the immutable, the incommunicable Name. There is no disjointed chain of thought here. It is Jehovah’s right at every step in this dealing to guard well his sovereignty for moral impression on an idolatrous world. Messiah is no rival. He is sharer, rather, in his Father’s glory, whose will is, that all men “should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father.”
9. The former things “Former” prophecies, respecting which some suppose earlier predictions are meant. This breaks the continuity of the present course of thought in these chapters, to preserve which the sense must be that the rise of Cyrus is here intended, with the agitation of the nations it is to occasion. The events, though yet future, are prophetically accomplished. As God sees them in historical succession they are essentially past, and the prophet so treats them; since, having once announced them, that they will occur is, in his mind, certain. The new things now foretold before visible development, concern the restoration of God’s people and the great gospel blessings which are bound up with that event. The simple return is, to what is visible; but springing out of this are also unseen spiritual effects.
10-13. Sing… a new song On this marvellous unseen religious development which is to fill the whole earth, God calls for jubilation. The “new things” furnish the impulse for a “new song.” This means not only fresh praise but a fresh occasion for it. The whole world of the heathen are summoned to join in it.
Standing on some Palestinian eminence, the prophet’s eye sweeps the circle of the earth lands to the far east, and waters to the west and south.
Ye that go down to the sea The Red Sea on the south, and the Mediterranean on the west.
The isles, and the inhabitants thereof These take in all the populous western shores; the beautiful shephelah, or plains stretching in length from Carmel to the South Land, and in width to the foot hills of the Palestinian range.
The wilderness and the cities thereof These are the vast steppes eastward, yet to be ideally more blooming, (Isaiah 35:1,) and to become hospitable tracts for towns and cities, like oases and great river valleys.
Kedar This includes the wild Ishmaelites, and their peaceful civilization is implied.
All these are summoned to lift, with grand good will, their voices in praise of the forthcoming renovation of mankind. The strong imagery of Isaiah 42:10 indicates that the things predicted are the ultimate sure triumphs of the Gospel in all the earth. God, in his almightiness, pledges it. Time is never noted, but all shall come to pass in his own time. Non-infringement of the free human will is the divine principle of action, and this necessitates time on and for the human side. The promise as to extent of renovation has no limit, either in amplitude or completeness.
14. I have long… holden my peace The tense of the first sentence is preterite; that of the sentences following is future. Alexander’s rendering clears the passage of the difficulty: “I have long been still, saying, I will hold my peace, I will restrain myself. But now, like the travailing, ( woman,) I will shriek, I will pant and gasp at once.” The difficulty is in the second member; but if the word saying may precede, the difficulty is removed. Seeing sin in idolatrous forms the Lord had patiently forborne avenging it, long hoping amendment. But he will forbear no longer. Intense anthropomorphism is used to express the energy of his pent-up wrath against it. Divine judgment in an expressed form, fierce and awful, is legitimate when sinners become utterly incorrigible. Perhaps no language, no conception, can reach the reality of the wrongness of sin against God.
15. Waste mountains and hills Extreme execution of threats against sinners under figures of utter desolation wrought upon comely landscapes.
Islands Dry land as opposed to water. Gesenius.
16. And Antithetic continuance, equivalent to but. The result of catastrophes in preceding verse is the redemption of God’s people, and of others not incorrigible.
The blind Such as have lost spiritual sight through sin are brought to the truth, though not in their own self-prescribed way. Jehovah alone knows the true way, and therein he leads them. This applies, not only to the blinded Gentiles, but also often to him who had been a better-instructed Hebrew.
17. They shall be turned back It is true, many of the heathen will remain blind, but those who are “turned back” to the truth as originally given to all shall be greatly ashamed; or, ashamed with shame; that is, utterly mortified at their stupidity in ever having worshipped idols.
Sec. 3. GOD’S CONTROVERSY WITH ISRAEL, Isaiah 42:17 to Isaiah 44:5.
The controversy with heathendom closed. Its period is from Abraham’s call ideally to the last triumph of Messiah. The message is now again to Israel. It began in Isaiah 1:2, and has been scatteringly resumed ever since.
18. General message.
Hear, ye deaf… look, ye blind The thoughts expressed in Isaiah 42:17-25 are all coherent, though quick leaps are apparent, as is usual with Isaiah under excited emotion. The words “deaf,” “blind,” imply quite the same moral state. They apply to less instructed Gentiles, but more to the wayward Israelites both yet confused by the pronounced utter failure of the idol system.
19. Who is blind, but my servant? Gentiles are now out of the account. The “servant” is Israel, still so stupid that Jehovah can scarcely think of the blindness elsewhere. “What could I have done to my vineyard that I have not done?” Isaiah 5:4. Still beloved, but still under discipline, is Israel. Not yet clarified to the degree required in the “servant” the one embodied, accepted, co-working Israel, who has his highest antitype in the individualized Messiah. See notes on Isaiah 42:1.
20. Seeing many things Not, therefore, left in entire darkness.
Observest not Because neglectful of using his sight.
Opening the ears, but he heareth not And this, too, at a time when the “ears” of the deaf heathen are being attent. Israel is thus keenly reproved. The prophet’s emotions become tumultuous; the proverb recurs: “Having eyes, they see not,” etc. The prophet, no doubt, thinks that by this time the great things done for Israel should have made him perfect.
21. This verse shows what those great things are.
For his righteousness’ sake That is, for the sake of his righteous cause, he will still be propitious to this swerving people. On Mount Sinai he gave the glorious law, the true religion, and he will still keep it so; he will not relax an iota of its claims; he will hold it over men as unremittingly exacting in its claims. The latter clause of this text is misapplied when made to refer directly and dogmatically to the atoning work of Christ. It should be so used only in the most incidentally illustrative way. It is entangled too much in a thicket of words words, too, of censure to be of service as a proof-text for such an important doctrine.
22. But Better, notwithstanding.
This is a people robbed and spoiled They leave the worship of Jehovah; then enemies are sent among them, who unwittingly are God’s instruments of chastisement. All this is in glaring contrast with that condition which Jehovah’s mercies were intended to produce.
Snared in holes Possibly caves, whither, when pursued, fugitives fled.
In prison houses Perhaps they were often kept in their own houses by a besieging enemy.
None saith, Restore No one who can interfere says this; in other words there is no deliverer.
Who will… give ear to this? Who… hearken Calvin and Stier explain this clause as a reproachful exclamation; but Birks, with much truth, says: “It is rather a wondering search after the small remnant who will lay the message to heart amidst the general unbelief.”
Who gave Jacob for a spoil… did not the Lord? Jacob, having splendid opportunities, and using them properly, could have saved himself, but he did not so use them, and has himself wrought the “spoil and the plunder.”
In retribution the Lord has sent the Chaldean as his instrument. The masses of Israel, down to and even through the Captivity, have suffered fury of God’s anger. The nation is overturned; temple and city are destroyed; exile and its mortifications are gloomily endured; but these have been a purifying fire to the remnant few only, while the masses still heed not the desolations thus made upon them as a whole people. In Isaiah 42:19-25 Israel is still the servant of Jehovah, chosen, yet unfaithful to his trust; instructed, yet dark minded; and at best improving but imperfectly the divine lessons given.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 42". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18