Isa. 42:3-4

Dan Wagner Dan.Wagner at
Tue Dec 19 14:55:54 EST 2000

Thank you, John Barach, for this helpful post, clarifying and further
developing the idea mentioned earlier. This, combined with some other
thoughts i'm seeing, mostly in comparison with v. 4, is influencing my
thinking on the issue. 

Here is what i'm now seeing:

Verse 3: A "crushed" reed is disappointing in that when resting upon it, it
collapses. A "flickering" or "dim" wick is unable to provide the needed
light. Jesus lets them be without dealing with them aggressively. 

Verse 4: The Servant will not, Himself, "flicker out / grow dim" or "be
crushed" (same vocab as for the wick & reed!). He will succeed in
establishing justice throughout the world.

This is not because He assert Himself openly with an overt political agenda
(v. 2). Rather, it is because Yahweh's Spirit is upon Him (v. 1), and
because this spiritual power of the creator, Yahweh, is sovereign over all,
esp. over all individuals (v. 5). If the individuals have their physical
life from Yahweh's Spirit (v. 5b still), then it only stands to reason that
He is able to give Gentiles spiritual life as well (v. 6). This is by
spiritual means, primarily, of opening blind eyes and delivering them from
the darkness of sin (v. 7). Obviously, Isaiah did not think that all
Gentiles were physically blind, so that is not the point.

The NT applies this in both regards in various contexts, healing of the
physical aspect having its primary purpose to demonstrate Jesus as the
Messiah and His spiritual power to heal or open eyes as well. His kingdom
was/is a spiritual kingdom, at least for now.

Dan Wagner

-----Original Message-----
From: John Barach [mailto:jbarach at]
Sent: Friday, December 15, 2000 12:59
To: Biblical Hebrew
Subject: Re: Isa. 42:3

Dan wrote:

> The imagery that Jesus is showing mercy to meek/weak/broken 
> people (not His enemies) seems much more appropriate to both 
> contexts to me (Isa & Matt).

In Isaiah, it may be possible to take the cracked reed to be a weak
person and to read the reference to not breaking a cracked reed as
litotes: the Servant actually *heals* the cracked reed (Motyer).  But
surely one ought to have good reasons for taking this negative statement
to be litotes.  All it actually says is that the Servant will spare the
cracked reed and the smouldering wick.

But are these two metaphors simply arbitrary or is there some
significance to them?  Van Bruggen argues that we have to take the *use*
of the reed and the wick into account.  The reed is a staff for leaning
on -- and a cracked reed (as in Isa. 36:6) -- isn't going to bear your
weight.  A smouldering flax doesn't give much light and it's going to go
out and leave you in the darkness.  Neither one is good for the purpose
it's intended for.

Most of us would simply throw out the useless and undependable reed
staff and flax wick.  But the Servant won't.  Instead, he spares these
things (i.e., people) on whom he can't depend for support or light. 
That is to say, he won't act violently toward them (break, snuff out).

In response to John, yes, there's a comparison/contrast to Cyrus.  Cyrus
is going to conquer nations and subdue kings and make them like dust and
like chaff (41:2; cf. 41:25).  But the servant will not destroy ... the
poor?  That's not an explicit contrast with Cyrus.

Rather, the contrast is that the servant will not destroy those who
oppose him.  That seems to be the point of Isa. 42:2: the servant does
not raise his voice (to make himself heard above others).  It's
certainly how Matthew takes it ("He will not quarrel").  And then Van
Bruggen's imagery fits the picture: part of his un-Cyrus-like demeanour
is that he spares those on whom he can't depend, who let him down, who
leave him in the lurch.

When Matthew cites this passage he gives a context: Jesus knows that the
Pharisees are plotting against him and he withdraws.  He acts as if he's
weak.  But he's obviously not weak: many follow and he heals them.  But
then he doesn't want publicity.  In other words, he seems to have enough
power to deal with the Pharisees, but instead he acts in a weak manner.
Then Matthew explains this mysterious and surprisingly un-kinglike
behaviour: he withdraws, he heals and doesn't want publicity *in order
that* this prophecy from Isaiah might be fulfilled.

As far as NT studies are concerned, an explanation of Matthew 12:20 ("He
will not break the cracked reed") ought to show how Jesus' withdrawing
while the Pharisees plot and Jesus' desire for no publicity is a
*fulfillment* of that verse.  Many commentaries seem to see Jesus'
withdrawing as a fulfillment of Isa. 42:2 (not quarrelling), but then
they go their merry way when it comes to Isa. 42:3 (Matt. 12:20): they
make no effort to show how Jesus' retiring demeanour fulfils this part
of Isaiah's prophecy.

The point, it seems to me, is that if Jesus were indeed the embodiment
of the servant of Isaiah 42 (which is the claim Matthew is making), then
the Pharisees and the other spiritual guides in Israel ought to have
rallied to him and shone the light on him and called Israel to drop
their other agendas and follow him.

In other words, Jesus ought to have been able to rely on them, but
they're like a cracked reed: lean on them for support and you're going
to be let down.  They're going to go out like a smouldering flax wick
and leave you in the dark.  But (surprise!) Jesus lets them.  And yet
through this demeanour, through sparing those who are unworthy of trust,
Jesus the Servant will establish justice successfully (eis nikos).

Thus Matthew explains Jesus' apparently weak behaviour (although he has
so much power to heal) by citing Isaiah's prophecy about the servant who
doesn't act like other rulers, who doesn't quarrel or try to win by
sheer volume, who doesn't even avenge himself on those who let him down.
Instead this servant spares cracked reeds and smouldering wicks; he lets
them let him down.  He lets them leave him in the dark.  But in that
way, he wins the victory.



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

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