Isaiah 42 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 42
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

(1) Behold my servant . . .—Here the words point not, as before, to the visible, or even the ideal Israel, but to One who is the centre of both, with attributes which are reproduced in His people in the measure of their fulfilment of the ideal. “Elect” is another of the words with which Isaiah has fashioned the theology of Christendom. It meets us there four times (45:4, 65:9, 22), and is echoed and interpreted in the voice from heaven of Matthew 3:17. That voice fixed on the human consciousness of the Son of Man that He was “the servant of the Lord,” and throughout His life we trace an ever expanding and conscious reproduction of the chief features of Isaiah’s picture. Disciples like St. Matthew learnt to recognise that likeness even in what might seem to us subordinate details (Matthew 12:17-21).

I have put my spirit . . .—An echo from Isaiah 11:2, heard once more in Isaiah 61:1. The promise we note as fulfilled in closest connection with the utterance of the previous words in Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:22; John 1:32-33.

He shall bring forth judgment to . . .—The ministry of “the servant,” as extending to the Gentiles, is prominent in 2 Isaiah (Isaiah 49:6-7; Isaiah 52:15). It expands the thought of Isaiah 2:1-4. There the Temple is the centre from which the knowledge and the “judgment” (used here in the sense of law, or ordinance) flow; here it is from the personal teaching of “the servant.”

He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
(2) He shall not cry . . .—Isaiah’s ideal of a teacher, but partly realised in himself, is that of one exempt from the violence of strong feelings, calm in the sereneness of authority, strong in his far-reaching and pitying sympathy. False prophets might rave as in orgiastic frenzy. We are reminded of Solon affecting the inspiration of a soothsayer in order to attract attention to his converts. Even true prophets might be stirred to vehement and incisive speech, but it should not be so with him. No point of resemblance between the archetype and the portrait seems to have impressed men so deeply as this (Matthew 7:29; Matthew 12:17-21). The “street” describes the open space of an Eastern city, in which, as in the Greek agora, men harangued the people, while “the gate of the city” was reserved for the more formal administration of justice. (Ruth 4:1; Proverbs 31:23.)

A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
(3) A bruised reed shall he not break . . .—Physical, moral, spiritual weakness are all brought under the same similitude. In another context the image has met us in Isaiah 36:6. The simple negative “he shall not break” implies, as in the rhetoric of all times, the opposite extreme, the tender care that props and supports. The humanity of the servant of the Lord was to embody what had been already predicated of the Divine will (Psalm 51:17). The dimly burning flax, the wick of a lamp nearly out, He will foster and cherish and feed the spiritual life, all but extinguished, with oil till it burns brightly again. In Matthew 25:1-13 we have to deal with lamps that are going out, and these not even He could light again unless the bearers of the lamps “bought oil” for themselves.

Judgment unto truthi.e., according to the perfect standard of truth, with something of the sense of St. John’s “true” in the sense of representing the ideal (John 1:9; John 15:1).

He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.
(4) He shall not fail nor be discouraged . . .—Both verbs in the Hebrew point back to those of the previous verse, He shall not burn dimly nor be crushed, as if to teach that in helping others to strength and light, the servants of the Lord, after the pattern of the Servant, gain light and strength for themselves.

The isles shall wait for his law.—The relation of “the servant” to the far off Gentile world is still dominant in the prophet’s mind. The LXX. Version, given in Matthew 12:21, “In His name shall the Gentiles hope,” is a paraphrase rather than a translation. The words describe the “earnest expectation,” the unconscious longing of the heathen for One who shall be a true teacher (Romans 8:22).

Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:
(5) He that created.—The accumulation of Divine attributes, as enhancing the solemnity of a revelation, has an earlier parallel in Amos 5:8; a later one in Zechariah 12:1.

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;
(6) Have called thee in righteousness . . .—The words apply to the personal servant. His call was in accordance with the absolute righteousness of God, manifesting itself in love.

A covenant of the people.—The context limits the “people” to Israel. The “servant of the Lord” is to be in Himself not only the mediator of the covenant, but the covenant, the meeting-point between God and man, just as He is the “peace” as well as the peacemaker (Micah 5:5; Ephesians 2:14). The words may well have furnished a starting-point for the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31:31, and the whole series of thoughts that have grown out of it.

A light of the Gentiles.—Re-echoed in Luke 2:32.

To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
(7) To open the blind eyes.—The prophet must have felt the contrast between this and his own mission (Isaiah 6:10). The words all point to spiritual blessings. (Comp. St. Paul’s call in Acts 26:18.) The “prison” is that of the selfishness and sin which hinder men from being truly free. In the “prisoners of hope” of Zechariah 9:11, and the “spirits in prison” of 1 Peter 3:18, we have different aspects of the same thought.

I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.
(8, 9) I am the Lord. . . .—The prophet grasps the full meaning of the name revealed in Exodus 3:15. It follows from that meaning that God cannot look with indifference on the transfer to the “graven image” of the worship due to Him. With his vision of Cyrus still present to his thoughts, the prophet again presses the unique point of prediction as distinguishing the religion of Israel from that of the heathen. The “former things” refer probably not to the remote past, but to Isaiah’s earlier prophecies, say the whole Assyrian cycle, on which he now looks back from his new stand-point; or even, as in Isaiah 41:22, to the near future of the conquests of Cyrus as compared with that which was to usher in the restoration of Israel.

Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.
Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof.
(10) Sing unto the Lord a new song.—The words are familiar in the Psalms (Psalm 33:3; Psalm 40:3; Psalm 98:1) and are probably quoted from them. The only touch of definite localisation is found in the mention of Kedar. (See Note on Isaiah 21:16.) Starting from this, the other terms gain a more defined significance. The proclamation seems to be addressed to the nations of the Eastern, not the Western world, as if to the ships that sailed from Elath or Ezion-geber down the Elanitic Gulf. The rock, or Sela (see Isaiah 16:1), is the Petra of Roman Idumæa; the ships are those that trade to Ophir or the land of Sinim. The cities and the nomad tribes are all invited to join in the hymn of praise, and it is to be echoed in the far-off “islands,” or coasts, of the Indian Ocean.

Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar doth inhabit: let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains.
Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare his praise in the islands.
The LORD shall go forth as a mighty man, he shall stir up jealousy like a man of war: he shall cry, yea, roar; he shall prevail against his enemies.
(13) The Lord shall go forth . . .—The boldly anthropomorphic image prepares the way for the yet more awful picture of Isaiah 63:1, which belongs outwardly to the same region. As if roused from slumber, Jehovah stirs up His jealous indignation against the idols, which had seemed to sleep, and rushes to the battle as with the war-cry of a mighty one.

I have long time holden my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry like a travailing woman; I will destroy and devour at once.
(14) I have long time holden my peace . . .—The change of person indicates that Jehovah is the speaker. “Long time,” literally, for an age, or an eternity. What is actually meant is the period of the exile, during which, till the advent of the deliverer, there had been no interposition on behalf of Israel. To the exiles this had seemed endless in its weariness. Now there were the travail-pangs of a new birth for the nation. (Comp. Matthew 24:8.) Was it strange that there should be the convulsions and catastrophes which are as the thunder-roaring of the voice of Jehovah?

I will destroy and devour.—Better, I pant and gasp. The verbs express strong emotion, the cries of the travailing woman rather than destructive acts.

I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs; and I will make the rivers islands, and I will dry up the pools.
(15) I will make waste mountains . . .—The whole description is symbolic, and points to the subjugation of the heathen nations, the “rivers” and “pools” probably representing the kingdoms of the Tigris and Euphrates (Isaiah 8:7). All this seems a purely destructive work, but through it all mercy and truth are working, and a way is being opened for the return of Israel, in painting which, as elsewhere, the literal melts into the spiritual, as in a dissolving view. (See Note on Isaiah 40:4.) “These things” include the whole work of judgment and of mercy.

And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.
They shall be turned back, they shall be greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, that say to the molten images, Ye are our gods.
(17) They shall be greatly ashamed . . .—Manifestly the winding up of a section. The foretold victories of Cyrus shall bring shame and confusion on the worshippers of the idols which he, the representative of a purer faith, should overthrow.

Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see.
(18) Hear, ye deaf . . .—The words form the beginning of a new section. The prophet feels or sees that the great argument has not carried conviction as it ought to have done. The people to whom Jehovah speaks through him are still spiritually blind and deaf, and that people is ideally the servant of the Lord (Isaiah 41:8), in whom the pattern of the personal servant ought to have been reproduced. (Comp. John 9:39-41.)

Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the LORD'S servant?
(19) Deaf, as my messenger . . .—The work of the messenger of God had been the ideal of Isaiah, as it was of the servant in whom the ideal was realised (Romans 10:15; Isaiah 42:1). But how could a blind and deaf messenger, like the actual Israel, do his work effectually? (Psalm 123:2).

As he that is perfect.—Strictly speaking, the devoted, or surrendered one. The Hebrew meshullam is interesting, as connected with the modern Moslem and Islam, the man resigned to the will of God. The frequent use of this, or a cognate form, as a proper name after the exile (1 Chronicles 9:21; Ezra 8:6; Ezra 10:15; Nehemiah 3:4) may (on either assumption as to the date of 2 Isaiah) be connected with it by some link of causation. Other meanings given to it have been “perfect” as in the Authorised Version, “confident,” recompensed,” “meritorious.”

Seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not.
(20) Seeing many things . . .—With a clear vision into the future, the prophet sees that the future Israel will be as far from the ideal as his contemporaries had been. In the actual work of the Servant we find the fulfilment of his vision. Scribes and Pharisees are as those who “learn nothing and forget nothing,” on whom all the lessons of experience are cast away, reproducing the state from which Isaiah started (Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26). The transfer of the words to the sufferings of the Christ, who bore them as though He neither heard nor saw, is scarcely tenable.

The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.
(21) The Lord is well pleased . . .—The tenses require a change: The Lord was well pleased . . . He made His law great and glorious. This had been His purpose, and he had not failed in it. He had done all that it was possible to do. (Comp. Isaiah 5:4; Romans 9:4.)

But this is a people robbed and spoiled; they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison houses: they are for a prey, and none delivereth; for a spoil, and none saith, Restore.
(22) But this is a people robbed and spoiled . . .—It is hard to say whether the prophet contemplates the state of the exiles in Babylon, or sees far off yet another exile, consequent on a second and more fatal falling off from the true ideal.

None delivereth . . . none saith, Restore.—The tone of despondency seems to come in strangely after the glorious promise of deliverance. On the whole, therefore, the second view seems the more probable; and, so taken, the verse finds its best commentary in Romans 9-11, which is permeated through and through with the thoughts of 2 Isaiah. The “holes” are, primarily, rock-caves, used, not as places of refuge (Isaiah 2:19), but as dungeons.

Who among you will give ear to this? who will hearken and hear for the time to come?
Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers? did not the LORD, he against whom we have sinned? for they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient unto his law.
(24) Who gave Jacob for a spoil . . .?—The sufferers, whether in the nearer or more distant exile, are reminded that they have brought their sufferings upon themselves, and that it is Jehovah who sends them in the wrath which, as aiming at their restoration, is but another aspect of His love.

Therefore he hath poured upon him the fury of his anger, and the strength of battle: and it hath set him on fire round about, yet he knew not; and it burned him, yet he laid it not to heart.
(25) The fury of his anger.—Better, the burning heat of His wrath, and the violence of war. Historically, the words seem to find a better fulfiment in the “wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6) than in the long equable continuance of the exile.

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