Isaiah 42 is one of the earliest and most direct pointers that we have towards the New Covenant within the Old Testament. In his opening forty-one chapters Isaiah follows the pattern of a traditional Jewish prophet. The nation of Israel and Judah are central and other nations are interesting only insofar as they relate to the chosen nation. In Isaiah 42 the Gentiles become a part of the plan. Further the victorious military Messiah briefly yields to a perfect servant. The purpose of this paper is to document some of these early glimpses that Isaiah gives us of Jesus Christ.
The first point to observe is that there can be no reasonable doubt as to who the servant is. Isaiah 42:1-3 is directly quoted at length in Mat 12:18-20 where it refers to Jesus Christ. Of course this does not prevent some commentators from reaching alternate conclusions. Barnes gives a detailed synopsis of this matter; the leading alternate contenders are Cyrus, Israel and Isaiah. All three are referred to as the servants of God either implicitly or explicitly.
However I contend that that is the exact point of the opening portion of this verse. Until this juncture scripture has shown the Jewish people, their prophets and Gentile overlords as the instruments of God's justice with varying degrees of success. Now in Isaiah 42:1 God turns the spotlight upon a 'new' servant and demands that people note the properties of Him.
As Isaiah 42:1 gives us a magnificent overview of who the servant is then Isaiah 42:2-3 gives keen insight into His modus operandi. He was not going to scream or shout or become a street brawler. Even more He was not going to break that which was already hurting or kill that which was already dying. This is a stark contrast to the military Messiah that was going to sweep all before Him. Of course the 'still small voice' of God had been seen before in the Old Testament but this is the first time it is seen as a world movement.
Isaiah 42:4 then gives us an indication as to the efficacy of the servant. He is not going to fail or be discouraged until He has set judgment over the whole earth. At first glance this verse is problematic although I believe it holds the key to seeing how the first nine verses of Isaiah harmonize with that which has gone before.
Many hold that Isaiah 42 belongs to a 'different Isaiah' because the servant of the latter chapters of Isaiah differs from the first 41. But it really doesn't. By Isa 42:13 we see the Lord going forth as a might man, issuing a war cry, and vanquishing His enemies. Most of the latter half of the chapter could be dropped into almost any of the first forty-one chapters without anyone noticing. The 'new song' that Isaiah is introducing doesn't change the previous message; it just adds a new phase to it.
Notwithstanding the above the importance of this message cannot be overstated; this is indicated by the lengths to which God goes to establish His own credentials whilst expressing it. Isaiah 42:5 gives a breathtaking description of God. He is the creator of heaven and earth and everything that comes from the earth. He is the one that gives life to the people of earth and that puts spirit within them. It should be noted that God's creatorship is not simply an issue of our faith in Genesis - it is the basis upon which God establishes His relationship to mankind. It should also be noted that this is a Gentile basis. When relating to the Jews God describes Himself as the God of their fathers or the one that brought them out of the land of Egypt. Here He is establishing Himself as the founder of the whole of mankind.
If Isaiah 42:5 establishes the credentials of God then Isa 42:6 does the same for the Messiah. He is the chosen of God and the partner of God. We also see that he has a relationship to the Jew and also to the Gentile. To the Jewish race He was being given as part of a covenant; for the Gentiles He was to be a light. It is essential to see that both missions were stated and expected to occur. One does not replace or supersede the other.
Whilst I generally prefer a literal view of scripture I think that Isa 42:7 has to be treated allegorically. It is true that Christ healed the blind but he did not participate in any prison break-outs that we are aware of. It is also suggestive that in the immediately preceding verse we read of Christ being a light to the Gentiles. I therefore side with Barnes, Clarke and Gill in concluding that the verse speaks of those that were spiritually blind and that were captives to sin. A slightly more literal view might take the 'prison' to be death or hell and to have the release viewed as the resurrection. This may well be an excellent picture of that but I consider it too vague to be called a description of it.
It is relatively common to break Isaiah 42 into two pieces: the first containing the first nine verses and the last containing the remaining fifteen. Personally I think the chapter more naturally falls into three. The first section defines the servant and runs from verses 1 to 7. The last shows the traditional military Messiah and runes from verses 13 to 25. Verses 8 to 12 then form a peon of praise to God that is centered round the introduction of the servant concept.
Viewed this way then verse eight is then a statement that the new servant theme does not detract from the unity and majesty of God and that He will not tolerate idolatry any more now than He would before. Verse nine is a statement that God has always fulfilled His promises and that He predicts the future so that we can know that the future did not come upon Him 'by surprise'.
Verses 10 to 12 are then an exhortation to a new form of global praise. It is interesting how often the islands are mentioned. Even the odd handfuls of people that are cut-off from the mainstream of world events are to know and acknowledge the new song that is going forth. Verse 11 emphasizes the depth and well as breadth of the praise. Both the city dweller and the wilderness inhabitant are to take part in the celebration.
Isaiah 42 is one of those inexhaustible portions of scripture of which any summary is inadequate by definition. Thus whilst unable to resist at least some overview of the characteristics of the servant I have attempted instead to focus upon the extent to which this passage harmonizes with the rest of the Old Testament in general and with Isaiah in particular. We have seen that that passage explicitly states that a new theme is being introduced and that the New Theme is characterized by a lack of military endeavor and by a relationship with the Gentiles. We saw too that God takes pains to establish His own credentials as the God of the whole earth and to state this is a pre-meditated extra aspect of His plans. As such this may be a chapter we have to read and absorb rather than analyse.