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"Behold! My Servant"
The first four verses of chapter 42 are quoted by the apostle Matthew to describe Jesus (Matthew 12:18-21), and the chapter continues in its description of this Messiah to come (verses 6-7; compare Luke 2:32; Luke 4:18). Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states: "The law of prophetic suggestion leads Isaiah from Cyrus to the far greater Deliverer, behind whom the former is lost sight of. The express quotation in Matthew 12:18-20, and the description can apply to Messiah alone (Psalm 40:6; with which cf. Exodus 21:6; John 6:38; Philippians 2:7). Israel, also, in its highest ideal, is called the 'servant' of God (ch. 49:3). But this ideal is realized only in the antitypical Israel, its representative-man and Head, Messiah (cf. Matthew 2:15, with Hosea 11:1)" (note on Isaiah 42:1). Some statements in Isaiah 42 refer to Jesus' first coming, some to the second.
Verses 2-3 refer to His gentleness at His first coming and toward those who are humbly seeking Him at His second coming. But verses 13-15 show another side of Jesus—His power and wrath toward evildoers during the Day of the Lord.
Returning to Christ's gentleness in verse 3, His not breaking a bruised reed appears to mean that upon those who are lowly and hurt, having already suffered punishment, Jesus will not add to their punishment. Indeed, just the opposite, He will take special care of them and restore them to health and happiness—and even grant them spiritual vitality. "Smoking flax" in the same verse is rendered "dimly burning wick" in the RSV and NRSV (see also JFB Commentary). This appears to represent those who at one time had a fiery zeal but are now as a mere smoldering candle wick about to go out—their faith and hope in God's deliverance is almost gone. Jesus will not quench what is left in them. Again, just the opposite, He will rescue them, not only restoring their faith and zeal, but through the granting of His Spirit giving them such a fiery zeal for God as is otherwise humanly impossible.
Verse 4 says He would bring law to the world (compare 2:2-4). Verse 21 of Isaiah 42 says one of His responsibilities would be to "magnify the law and make it honorable" (KJV). In Christ's famous Sermon on the Mount, far from doing away with God's law as many argue, He explained the spiritual intent behind God's law and actually made it even more binding—showing that God's law is to regulate even our thoughts, not merely our actions (see Matthew 5:17-48).
Isaiah 42:14 shows that the punishment on Israel is painful to God, as is often the case when parents have to discipline their children. To God it will have been like birth pangs—ending with His at last "delivering" them. Rabbinic teaching refers to the time just before the Messiah comes as the "birth pangs of the Messiah." Verses 15-16 show the miraculous way in which Christ will lead the exiles back from their captivity. It has also been suggested that this is representative of Christ leading spiritual Israel, the New Testament Church, ever since its inception to ultimate deliverance in the Kingdom of God. That may well be, as the Church is paving the way, so to speak, for the return of physical Israel and eventually all of mankind, which must be grafted into Israel as well (see Romans 11).
In Isaiah 42:18-20, the "servant" and "messenger" of God is Israel—now spiritually blind and deaf. This is clearly illustrated in the remainder of the chapter. The people sit in captivity and punishment because of their disobedience. In the ancient Babylonian captivity, Christ's coming to magnify the law was yet future. Now He has already come and still the people do not heed. This has been the cause of the Israelites' suffering through the ages. And it will culminate in the worst time of suffering ever. Yet even in captivity, the people will not at first repent and turn to God.