Isa. 42:3

John Barach jbarach at
Wed Dec 13 19:14:42 EST 2000

B-Haverim --

In Isa. 42:3 we have the proclamation that YHWH's servant will not break
a crushed reed or extinguish a smouldering flax wick.  Most of the
commentaries that I have consulted take this statement to mean that the
servant will not act harshly toward people who feel crushed or people
whom the world regards as worthless (crushed reeds and smouldering wicks
aren't good for anything).  Many go further and say this statement is
litotes: the servant will actually *heal* such people and provide them
with fresh life.

This passage is quoted in Matthew 12, where the Pharisees are deciding
how to destroy Jesus.  Jesus knows about their plotting and withdraws. 
People follow him and he heals them, but he warns them not to make him
known.  And all of that, says Matthew, he did in order that Isaiah's
prophecy might be fulfilled.

Jakob van Bruggen in his commentary on Matthew 12 critiques the standard
interpretation of Isaiah 42 given above.  The standard view doesn't take
into account the purpose of the reed and the wick.  The reed is a staff,
but if you lean on a "crushed reed" it'll break and might even pierce
your hand (Isa. 36:6; Ezek. 29:6-7).  The oil lamp is designed to give
light, but if the wick is smouldering, then the lamp is about to go out.

Both, says he, are images of things that are going to let you down.  You
expected that you could trust them and be helped by them, but they'll
disappoint you.  And the point of Isa. 42:3, then, is that the servant
(contrary to expectation) will spare those who leave him in the lurch. 
Verse 2 says that he won't shout or lift up his voice (i.e., shout down
those who oppose him) and verse 3 says that he won't destroy or put an
end to things that threaten to let him down.  Both verses draw attention
to the (surprisingly) meek demeanour of the servant in the face of
opposition (v. 2) and betrayal (v. 3; i.e., being let down).

(He goes on to connect the image of the bruised reed and smouldering
wick, then, to the Pharisees who are plotting to betray Jesus ... and
Jesus withdraws and *lets* them plot against him.)

I'd appreciate any comments on the viability of Van Bruggen's exegesis
or on the passage in general.



John Barach (403) 317-1950
Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church (URCNA)
113 Stafford Blvd. N.
Lethbridge, AB
T1H 6E3

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