Isaiah 42
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 42. The high destiny of Israel as the Servant of Jehovah contrasted with its present abasement and unfitness for its mission

The two preceding chapters were to some extent introductory to what follows. Nearly all the leading ideas of the prophecy have been already expressed, and all the personages of the drama—Jehovah, Israel, Cyrus, the nations and their gods—have been brought upon the stage, or at least have been mentioned. With this chapter the prophet begins to amplify and develope the various conceptions, already touched upon, by means of which he is enabled to interpret the action of Jehovah in the present crisis of history. And the first which he takes up is the thought of Israel, Jehovah’s Servant. Up to ch. Isaiah 44:23, that is the central and recurrent idea; in the end of that chapter the figure of Cyrus comes to the front, and the main theme for several chapters is the mission which he executes in the service of Jehovah. But the treatment is nowhere exhaustive; and although the minor sections are remarkably distinct, sharply defined stages or advances in the general thought can hardly be found. The writer glides rapidly from one theme to another, frequently returning on his track; and while some conceptions are dropped as he proceeds, there are others, and these the most important, which run on to the close.

In the view of many expositors, indeed, an entirely new personage is introduced in the opening verses of this chapter, namely, the Servant of Jehovah, whom these writers hold to be distinct from Israel. This is the deepest problem in the whole prophecy, and is only to be solved by paying the closest attention to the exegesis of the individual passages and the prophet’s general scheme of thought. As supplementing the notes on Isaiah 42:1-4 below, see Introduction, pp. xxxii–xxxvii, and Appendix, Note I.

Ch. 42 consists of three divisions:

i. Isaiah 42:1-9. The ideal calling and function of Israel.

(1) Isaiah 42:1-4. A portrait of Israel as the Lord’s Servant from the point of view of Jehovah, who is the speaker.

(2) Isaiah 42:5-9. The truth embodied in the portrait is held up as a ground of encouragement to Israel; Jehovah, as it were, pledges His Godhead to the fulfilment of the ideal in the experience of the people.

ii. Isaiah 42:10-17. The prophet’s thoughts are thus led forward to the great redemptive act by which Jehovah will raise Israel to the height of its glorious destiny.

(1) Isaiah 42:10-13 are a poem calling on the whole earth to rejoice in Jehovah’s triumph over His enemies.

(2) Isaiah 42:14-17. Jehovah Himself is then introduced as the speaker, announcing that He will rouse Himself from His long inactivity, to bring about the redemption of His people, and the consequent overthrow of idolatry.

iii. Isaiah 42:18-25. The prophet addresses himself to Israel in its present state of blindness and wretchedness. He calls on the exiles to reflect on all that they have suffered at the hand of their God, and to recognise in it the effect of their obduracy and unfaithfulness to their calling, their misuse of religious privileges, and their positive transgressions of the law of Jehovah.

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. The election, equipment, and mission of the Servant.

Behold my servant] LXX. reads Ἰακὼβ ὁ παῖς μου (“Jacob my servant”) and in the next line, Ἰσραὴλ ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου (“Israel my chosen”).

whom I uphold] Cf. ch. Isaiah 41:10.

mine elect] R.V. my chosen. Used of Israel ch. Isaiah 43:20, Isaiah 45:4; cf. the verb in Isaiah 41:8 etc.; and Deuteronomy 7:7 &c.

I have put my spirit upon him] The Servant’s function being prophetic, he is, like the prophets, endowed with the spirit of Jehovah. Cf. ch. Isaiah 11:2 ff., where the Messiah is endowed with the Spirit for His royal functions.

he shall bring forth (or send forth) judgment to the nations] This is the ultimate purpose of the Servant’s being raised up,—the diffusion of the true religion throughout the world. The word “judgement” (mishpâṭ) occurs three times in these few verses, and evidently in a special sense. The plural is often used of the ordinances (lit. “judicial decisions”) of Jehovah; these are sometimes viewed as a unity and described by the sing. (see ch. Isaiah 51:4; Jeremiah 5:4; Jeremiah 8:7). This is the sense here; it means the religion of Jehovah regarded as a system of practical ordinances. All recent commentators instance the close parallel of the Arabic dîn, which denotes both a system of usages and a religion. This the Servant shall “send forth” to the nations by his prophetic word. The best commentary on the passage is ch. Isaiah 2:1-4.

1–4. Israel as the Lord’s Servant. The features of the portrait are these: (1) It starts from the thought of ch. Isaiah 41:8 ff., the election by which Israel is constituted the Servant of Jehovah; but this is immediately followed by (2) the equipment of the Servant with the Divine Spirit, and (3) the mission for which he is raised up, viz., to be the organ of the true religion to the world (Isaiah 42:1). (4) The manner and spirit of the Servant’s working are then described; his unobtrusiveness and tenderness (3 f.). (5) His unflinching constancy in the prosecution of his work, and his final and complete success. The whole description is singularly elevated, and impressive; Jehovah speaks of His Servant as He sees him, and as he shall yet be revealed to the world.

If the Servant of the Lord here described is Israel, he is obviously not Israel in its actual condition of bondage and inefficiency. He is Israel according to its idea,—the Divine ideal after and towards which Jehovah is fashioning the people. This ideal is personified, and it is the vividness of the personification that leads many readers to think that an individual must be meant. But such impressions are not greatly to be trusted. It is a very hazardous thing to set limits to the possibilities of O.T. personification. The real question is whether the characteristics ascribed to the Servant are capable of being realised by the nation of Israel, or whether they are such as to demand a separate and personal embodiment. Even if it should be found that some details do not readily fall in with the national interpretation it would not at once follow that that interpretation was false; for no one argues that our Lord’s parables must be literally true stories, because they contain features to which no spiritual meaning can be attached. But that consideration need not trouble us in this passage, for it will be seen that all that is here said of the Servant is applicable to Israel in the ideal light in which it is here presented. Certainly no historic individual of that age can possibly be the subject of the picture.

He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
2. The Servant’s unobtrusive manner of working. Not by clamorous self-assertion in the high places of the world, but by silent spiritual influences his great work shall be accomplished. Comp. the striking application in Matthew 12:17 ff. This feature of the Servant’s activity can hardly have been suggested by the demeanour of the prophets of Israel; and for that reason the prophecy is all the more wonderful as a perception of the true conditions of spiritual work. It reminds us of the “still small voice” in which Elijah was made to recognise the power of Jehovah (1 Kings 19:12 f). nor lift up] sc. his voice.

A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
3. His gentleness towards the downtrodden expiring good in men.

the smoking flax] R.V. marg. the dimly burning wick. The metaphor (like the preceding) involves a litotes: the meaning is that instead of crushing the expiring elements of goodness he will strengthen and purify them. It is an interesting question whether these rudiments of religion are conceived as existing in the heathen world or in the breasts of individual Israelites. The former view is no doubt that to which the national interpretation of the Servant most readily accommodates itself, and is also most in keeping with the scope of the passage as a whole. But in later sections a mission in and to Israel is undoubtedly assigned to the Servant, and a reference to that here cannot be pronounced impossible.

unto truth] i.e. probably, in accordance with truth. The rendering of R.V., however, “in truth,” may be right.

He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.
4. His constancy. The words fail and be discouraged correspond in the original to “dimly burning” and “broken” in Isaiah 42:3. (See R.V. marg.) The former is used of the failing eyesight of Eli (1 Samuel 3:2); cf. Ezekiel 21:7 (R.V. marg.).

for his law] his instruction (see on ch. Isaiah 1:10), his revelation of the truth. It is doubtful whether the verb of this clause should be rendered “shall wait” or “do wait.” If the latter be correct, the remarkable thought may be expressed that already the best of the heathen are dissatisfied with their religious systems and long for a purer faith.

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:
5–9. Jehovah’s promise to Israel, based on the preceding description.

God] in the Heb. hâ-’çl, the God,—the God who alone is truly God, who has created and sustains all things.

spread forth] or “made firm.” The word means to beat out into a thin surface, and probably (as in the noun “firmament”) combines the ideas of density and extension (cf. ch. Isaiah 44:24; Psalm 136:6). By a strong zeugma this verb is made to govern a second object, that which cometh out of it, which here probably denotes “vegetation” (see on ch. Isaiah 34:1).

breath and spirit are here nearly identical, the divine principle of life breathed into man at his creation; Genesis 2:7.

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. called thee in righteousness] i.e. in accordance with a stedfast and consistent purpose. See Appendix, Note II, and cf. ch. Isaiah 45:13.

and will keep thee] R.V. marg. (“form thee”) derives the verb from a different root; if this sense be taken, it is necessary to read the words in close connexion with what follows: “I will form and appoint thee for a covenant &c.”

for a covenant of the people] The expression occurs again in ch. Isaiah 49:8, and is one of the most difficult in this prophecy. The idea is necessarily a pregnant one, and it is nowhere developed in such a way that we can be sure of the exact meaning. The notion of a “national league” must be dismissed, because the Heb. běrîth, unlike the German “Bund,” nowhere means “confederation.” To take “people” in the sense of “humanity” is also unsuitable because of Isaiah 49:8, which clearly limits the reference to Israel. Looking at the phrase by itself two constructions are grammatically possible: (a) We may render it, “a covenant of a people,” or “a covenant people,” after the analogy of Genesis 16:12, where Ishmael is called “a wild ass of a man” (cf. “Wonder of a Counsellor” in ch. Isaiah 9:6). This, however, is somewhat strained. (b) The most natural, and on the whole probably the most satisfactory rendering is, “a nation’s covenant,” i.e. the covenant upon which a nation is constituted, the conception implied being that Israel’s future national existence must be based on a new covenant between it and Jehovah (ch. Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 31:30-32). The difficulty is thus reduced to the pregnancy of the statement that the Servant is or shall be this covenant. It is probably to be explained in accordance with such expressions as “thou shalt be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). As “blessing” there means “cause of blessing,” so here “covenant” may be equivalent to the ground or (as most commentators explain) the mediator of a national covenant. The idea at all events must be something like this: the Divine ideal represented by the Servant of the Lord becomes the basis of a new national life, inasmuch as it expresses that for the sake of which Jehovah enters into a new covenant relation with His people.

for a light of the nations] The ultimate destiny of the Servant; see on Isaiah 42:1.

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 subject of this and the following verb might be either Jehovah or His Servant, and the point is not quite settled by ch. Isaiah 49:8. The latter, however, seems more probable from Isaiah 49:6. The reference is no doubt to the Servant’s work on Israel. The “blindness” spoken of is spiritual (see Isaiah 42:18-20); imprisonment is a metaphor for the Captivity (Isaiah 42:22); although a spiritual application may be included here also.

I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.
8. my glory … another] (Cf. ch. Isaiah 48:11)—the glory of true deity, which would be forfeited if Jehovah were unable to predict the future, or if His predictions should fail (Isaiah 42:9).

Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.
9. the former things] the things formerly predicted. The reference probably is to prophecies just fulfilled in the successes of Cyrus. The new things are the substance of the present prophecy, the exaltation of the Servant, the redemption of Israel, and the conversion of the heathen. (see Introd., p. xxi.)

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.
10–13. The mention of “new things” in Isaiah 42:9 suggests this “new song,” in which the creation is called to celebrate Jehovah’s redemption of His people. The expression is common in the Psalms (Psalm 33:3 Psalm 40:3, Psalm 96:1, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 144:9, Psalm 149:1; cf. Revelation 14:3). These Psalmists probably borrowed the term from our prophet, whose use of it bears the stamp of originality. It is a song “such as has never been heard in the heathen world” (Delitzsch). see ch. Isaiah 24:14-16.

from the end of the earth] means (as in Genesis 19:4; Jeremiah 51:31) “from end to end.”

ye that go down to the sea] seafarers, cf. Psalm 107:23. There is some awkwardness in the following words: and all that is therein (lit. “and the fulness thereof”), which are naturally parallel to “the sea” and not to “those who go down to it.” The harshness is removed by a plausible emendation of Lowth, who reads the whole clause in accordance with Psalm 96:11; Psalm 98:7 let the sea roar and the fulness thereof (יִרְעם for יו̇רְדֵי).

the isles] see on ch. Isaiah 40:15. The mention of the sea and its coasts before the land is one indication of the prominence which the western lands have in the mind of this prophet.

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.
11. the wilderness and the cities thereof] The “cities,” like the “villages” of the next line, are those in the oases, occupied by the settled Arabs; the former are probably the great centres of the caravan trade, like Tadmor and Petra. Kedar (see on ch. Isaiah 21:16) is sometimes referred to as a tribe of nomadic, tent-dwelling Arabs (Psalm 120:5; Song of Solomon 1:5; Jeremiah 49:28 f.); here they are villagers, what the modern Arabs call ḥaḍarîya (connected with the word ḥâc̨çr, used here) as opposed to the wabarîya or nomads (Delitzsch). In Jeremiah 2:10 Kedar stands, as here, in opposition to the Mediterranean countries.

the inhabitants of the rock] (i.e. “the rock-dwellers”). R.V. has “the inhabitants of Sela,” which would probably be Petra. It is difficult to say which translation is preferable. It should be mentioned that the identification of Sela, in any O.T. passage, with Petra is resisted by many scholars (see on ch. Isaiah 16:1).

sing] Rather, exult,—a different word at any rate from that used in Isaiah 42:10.

Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare his praise in the islands.
12. glory and praise: the same words as in Isaiah 42:8.

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 reason for the universal exultation; Jehovah takes the field against His enemies. The gracious side of His intervention is reserved for Isaiah 42:16.

The Lord shall go forth] The technical expression for the initiation of a campaign (2 Samuel 11:1; Amos 5:3 &c.)

as a mighty man (or, hero) … a man of war] Similar representations in ch. Isaiah 28:21, Isaiah 59:16 f.; Exodus 15:3; Zechariah 14:3, &c. Jealousy (better, zeal) means “passion” in very varied senses. Here it seems equivalent to the “battle fever.” see ch. Isaiah 9:7.

he shall cry, yea, roar] He shall raise His battle cry, yea, shout aloud.

he shall prevail] R.V. “he shall do mightily”; lit., he shall play the hero. The form occurs elsewhere only in Job (Job 15:25, Job 36:9).

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] Lit. “I have been silent from of old.” The period of silence perhaps goes back further than the Exile; it is the time during which Jehovah has permitted the oppression of His people by the heathen.

I have been still] Lit. “been dumb”; but “still” expresses the idea better; it is abstinence from action, not from speech, that is meant.

refrained myself] Cf. Genesis 43:31; Genesis 45:1.

now will I cry out] The verb does not recur in the O.T. In Aramaic it is used of the bleating of sheep. Here it denotes the convulsive utterance of uncontrollable emotion, “like a travailing woman.”

destroy and devour at once] Render with R.V. gasp and pant together; “together” uniting the three ideas.

14–17. Jehovah rouses Himself from His inactivity. The passage, which obviously continues the figure of Isaiah 42:13, is exceedingly bold in its anthropomorphism; it is Jehovah’s battle-song.

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. Jehovah’s breath of anger will make the fairest and best watered regions an arid waste. Cf. ch. Isaiah 40:7; Isaiah 40:24, and note the contrasted image in Isaiah 41:18 f. For herbs, read herbage. The word islands is used in a peculiar sense, of dry land as opposed to water.

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.
16. The prophet hastens on to the gracious issue of God’s interposition, the homebringing of the captives through the trackless desert.

the blind here are hardly the spiritually blind, those who cannot discern God’s purpose (as Isaiah 42:18); what is meant is that the travellers cannot see their path, just as the desert is the region of “darkness” because it has no track (cf. Jeremiah 2:6; Jeremiah 2:31). For knew and have known, render know, with R.V.

crooked things straight] crooked places a plain (cf. ch. Isaiah 40:4).

these things … forsake them] Better: These are the things I have determined to do (perf. of resolution) and not leave undone.

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. The confusion of the idolaters, through the “revelation of the glory of God” (ch. Isaiah 40:5), the Babylonians being those specially referred to (cf. ch. Isaiah 46:1); they shall be utterly ashamed (as ch. Isaiah 41:11).

Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see.
18. look and see are distinguished as in 2 Kings 3:14; Job 35:5, &c.; the former is to direct the gaze towards, the latter to take in the significance of an object.

18–25. An expostulation with Israel for its insensibility to the privileges it has enjoyed. The passage is of considerable interest for the light which it throws on the sense in which the title “Servant of the Lord” is to be understood. The discrepancy between the description in Isaiah 42:1-4 and that here given is at first sight perplexing. There the Servant is spoken of as the perfect and successful worker for God, here he is addressed as blind and deaf and altogether unfit for Jehovah’s purpose. Yet it is extremely unnatural to suppose that the writer applies the term to two entirely different subjects. To suggest, as the prophet’s meaning, that the inefficient Servant is to be replaced by another, who shall accomplish the work in which the former has failed is perhaps the least satisfactory of all explanations, and misrepresents the teaching of the prophecy. That the subject here addressed is Israel in its actual present condition is beyond dispute; hence Isaiah 42:1-4 must also be regarded as in some sense a description of Israel. The contrast, in short, is not between the false servant and the true,—the one a nation and the other an individual,—but between Israel as it really is and Israel according to its idea. Indeed it would seem that what the prophet wishes his people to lay to heart is just this contrast between its ideal calling and its actual accomplishments; and this is more intelligible if the ideal has been already depicted, and is still present to the writer’s mind.

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. Israel is the blind and deaf nation par excellence, because no other nation has been so tested by the opportunity of seeing and hearing (see on Isaiah 42:21). my messenger that I send (R.V.)] Cf. ch. Isaiah 44:26, where “messengers” is parallel to “servant.”

as he that is perfect] R.V. has, “as he that is at peace with me.” The meaning of the Heb. měshullâm (a proper name in 2 Kings 22:3; Ezra 8:16, and often) is uncertain. Many take it as the equivalent of the Arabic “Moslim,” = “the surrendered one” (Cheyne, Comm.). It is no objection to this that it is based on an Aramaic use of the verb; but the idea seems hardly suitable, inasmuch as it implies a state of character which the actual Israel does not possess. Probably a better rendering is the befriended one (sc. by Jehovah), after the analogy of Job 5:23. Another possible translation would be “the requited one” (see R.V. marg.), but it is difficult to attach any definite meaning to the expression in this context.

blind in the last clause should no doubt be deaf, as is read in some MSS.

Seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not.
20. seeing many things] Render with R.V. in accordance with the consonantal text, Thou hast seen many things; the form has been quite needlessly changed by the punctuators. The idea of the verse is that the great historical facts of revelation have been within the cognisance of Israel, but it has failed to apprehend their true import. Cf. ch. Isaiah 6:9 ff.

The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.
21. The verse reads: It was Jehovah’s pleasure, for His righteousness’ sake, to magnify instruction (or, Revelation) and glorify it. (see R.V.) Righteousness is to be understood exactly as in Isaiah 42:6; and the verbs “magnify” and “glorify” are subordinate to “was pleased,” expressing that which Jehovah was pleased to do. (see Davidson, Synt. § 83, R. 1.) The only question is whether the reference is to the past revelation in law and prophecy, by which Israel has failed to profit; or to the future glorification of religion by its diffusion among the nations (Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 42:6). The last is probably nearest the truth. The verse is not an explanation of the “many things” that Israel has seen and failed to see, but introduces a new thought. It expresses the great purpose which Jehovah had cherished with regard to Israel—to make it the instrument of extending the knowledge of His will to the world. This is the true “glorification” of the Tôrâh of Israel (Isaiah 42:4).

22 ff. shew how this design has hitherto been frustrated by the necessity of imposing chastisement on Israel, till it should learn its true mission.

But this …] Rather, But it. snared in holes] This is no doubt the sense, although a change of pointing seems necessary in the verb, making it a passive (read hûphaḥ for hâphëaḥ). The metaphor is for the captivity, but it is only a metaphor; the prophet does not imagine that a large proportion of the exiles were actually incarcerated in dungeons.

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.
Who among you will give ear to this? who will hearken and hear for the time to come?
23. The question expresses the prophet’s wish that now at last some of the people should begin to realise the significance of their relation to Jehovah, and prepare themselves for the great deliverance.

will give ear to this] i.e. to the substance of the present exhortation,—the contrast between the ideal calling of Israel and its present position, its failure to realise its mission, and (especially) the reason of that failure (Isaiah 42:24 f.).

for the time to come] in contrast to past disobedience. It is evident that the prophet expects the mission of Israel to be realised by a conversion of the nation. The process of that conversion is powerfully described in ch. 53.

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, 25. The enigma of Israel’s history is that Jehovah its God has given it over to its enemies,—a truth which the nation as a whole has never yet laid to heart.

for a spoil] A better reading (which is probably that intended by the consonantal text) is to the spoiler. (Cf. ch. Isaiah 10:13.)

did not the Lord] The whole of this answer is regarded by Duhm and Cheyne as spurious. Its removal gets rid of an awkward alternation of persons, and enables us to read Isaiah 42:25 as a continuation of the question in the first part of Isaiah 42:24. But Duhm goes too far when he objects to the substance of the answer, on the ground that so explicit a confession of sin is improbable before ch. Isaiah 43:1 ff. The two last clauses are to be translated as relatives, and in whose ways they would not walk (so R.V.), and whose law they would not obey.

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. Therefore should be simply and. the strength of battle] the violence of war, which (as in ch. Isaiah 9:18 ff. etc.) is compared to a fire. he knew not] i.e. “understood it not;” hardly, “heeded it not.” Israel felt its calamities keenly enough, but did not comprehend their significance, as a visitation from Jehovah. Note the contrast in ch. Isaiah 43:2.

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