The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 42:1

Isaiah 42:1

The next Old Testament reference to examine in this series is the opening verse of the poem in Isaiah 42:1-9, one of the Deutero-Isaian poems (the “Servant Songs”) which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by Jews (and early Christians) in the first centuries B.C./A.D. That it was so applied to Jesus is clear from the direct citation (of vv. 1-3) in Matthew 12:18-20. However, verse 1 is also integral to the Baptism episode in the early Gospel Tradition.

This study will proceed in three parts:

    • A brief examination of the original meaning and context of Isa 42:1
    • Allusions to Isa 42:1 in connection with the Baptism of Jesus, and
    • The citation in Matthew 12:18-20

Isaiah 42:1 in Its Original Context

A literal rendering of the Hebrew text of verse 1 is:

“See, my servant, on (who)m I grab hold,
my chosen (one whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him,
(and) he will bring out judgment for the nations.”

Traditionally this marks the first of the ‘Servant Songs’ in Deutero-Isaiah, with the specific mention of “my servant” (yD!b=a^). However, the servant-motif was introduced already in 41:8ff, and, in certain respects, can be seen as rooted in the opening poem of 40:1-3ff (cf. my recent notes on this passage, in connection with the first study [on Isa 40:3] in this series). Therefore, it is necessary to consider 42:1-4 in its wider context of the initial Deutero-Isaian poems. These poems introduce a number of key themes that will be built upon and developed subsequently:

    • The message of good news for God’s people (spec. the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem), regarding the promise of their (imminent) restoration and return from Exile.
    • A corresponding announcement of the coming Judgment against the Nations.
    • This Judgment-message is centered on the contrast between God (YHWH) and the peoples of earth, a contrast which involves humankind’s worship of false deities (= idols) in place of YHWH.

A similar judgment had already been leveled against the people of Israel/Judah, fulfilled through the Assyrian/Babylonian conquests and exile. Now, this penalty has been paid, and the time of exile has come to an end. God’s people will be restored, and it is time for the day of YHWH’s Judgment to turn to the other nations.

All of these themes run through the poems of chapters 40 and 41. Some commentators would treat chapter 40 as a Prologue, with the main Deutero-Isaian work beginning with chap. 41. There is some validity to this division of the text. In any case, as one examines the opening sections of chapter 41, we find a clear juxtaposition between an impending judgment against the nations (“islands”, vv. 1-5a), primarily due to their foolishness in worshiping other deities (dismissively designation as mere ‘images’, vv. 5b-7), and the restoration of God’s own people Israel/Judah (vv. 8-10ff).

The wording in 41:8-9 is significant, and has a bearing on a correct understanding of 42:1ff; it reads (inclusive of v. 10a):

“But you, Yisrael, my servant,
Ya’aqob, you whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my (be)loved,
you whom I have grasped from (the) ends of the earth,
and you (whom) I have called from her extreme (border)s,
and said to you, ‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you’
do not be afraid, for I (am) with you,
do not look away, for I (am) your Mighty (One)…”

Clearly, the wording of verse 8 resembles that of 42:1, identifying the people of Israel, collectively, as the “servant”, “chosen one”, and beloved of God. One might well take for granted that the “servant” in 42:1, otherwise unnamed, is still to be understood as Israel. The LXX makes this explicit, by including reference to Jacob and Israel, after the pattern in 41:8. In all of the other references to God’s “servant” (db#u#) and chosen one, in chapters 41-45 (42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4), this figure is identified with the people of Israel (in a collective sense).

Another set of themes that run through chapters  41-45 involves the role of Cyrus, the Persian ruler. He is called the “anointed (one) [j^yv!m*]” of YHWH, and, in his own way, function’s as God’s servant. He will be the one, at the practical historical level, who will enable the Judean people to return from their Exile. His conquests of the Babylonian empire (see chaps. 46-47ff) make it possible for God’s people to return. The Persian conquests thus mark the beginning of God’s Judgment against the nations (cf. above), but they also signify the inauguration of a New Eranot only for Israel/Judah, but for the other nations as well. The nations have the opportunity to turn to YHWH (and away from their false deities/idols), joining the restored Israel/Judah in worshiping the one true God.

Some have felt that Cyrus is the “servant” in 42:1ff, but this is unlikely. A much stronger argument can be made that the figure of Moses, as Prophet and the one who leads the people out of their exile, is in view. I discuss this at length in a supplemental note on this passage.

There are, in fact, two main lines of interpretation which can possibly serve as a valid explanation for the identity of the “servant” here. The first is that it refers to a prophet in the pattern of Moses—a “new Moses,” if you will. This figure will function as a judge and lawgiver for the nations, establishing a new era of order and justice that properly reflects the rule of YHWH, Creator and Sovereign over the world. His activity as judge and lawgiver is described in vv. 1-4. He represents the new covenant between God and the people (Israel), a binding agreement that restores the original Sinai covenant, and is characterized by a renewed adherence to the Torah (i.e., the Law of Moses). At the same time, he serves as a “light” to the nations, conveying to them the same Law and Truth of God.

The second possibility is that the “servant” is, as in the other references (cf. above), the people of Israel, in a collective sense. Only here it refers to the time after the people have been restored, and are residing once again in the Land, with a new covenant in place between them and YHWH. As a sign of this ‘new covenant,’ the people have received God’s Spirit, just as we see described in 44:1-5 (cf. my earlier note on 44:3). According to this line of interpretation, the “people” (<u*) in verse 6 must represent the peoples of the earth (taken collectively), parallel with the “nations”. Restored Israel embodies the covenant for the other nations/people, functioning as a “light” that shines the truth of God’s Torah to them as well.

Isa 42:1 and the Baptism of Jesus

It seems most likely that there is an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ Baptism. This is clearest in the Synoptic narrative (Mk 1:9-11 par), where we find two components that relate quite strongly to Isa 42:1:

    • The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus, and
    • The wording of the heavenly Voice

Here is the heavenly declaration in Mk 1:11 par:

“You are my Son, the (one) loved (by me); in you I think well [i.e., think well of you]”
su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n soi eu)do/khsa

The other Synoptic accounts generally follow the Markan version, though Matthew (3:17) does formulate the declaration differently:

“This is my Son, the (one) loved (by me), in whom I think well”
ou!to/$ e)stin o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n w!| eu)do/khsa

Luke’s version (3:22) is identical with Mark’s, except that in a small number of textual witnesses, the Voice quotes Psalm 2:7b [LXX] instead.

The LXX of Isa 42:1 indicates how the Baptismal declaration is more closely related to our verse than might seem at first glance. For Hebrew yD!b=u^ (“my servant”), the Greek reads o( pai=$ mou (“my child“), since pai=$ can also refer to a (young) servant. Clearly, it is not too far a step from “my child [pai=$]” to “my son [ui(o/$]”, especially if Psalm 2:7 was also in view. The second part of the verse is perhaps closer to the Baptismal declaration in the original Hebrew yv!p=n~ ht*x=r* (“[whom] my soul favors”), rather  than the Greek (“my soul has received [i.e. accepted] him”). However, the similarity of thought seems clear enough.

An allusion to Isa 42:1 finds definite confirmation in the Johannine version (1:34), in which John the Baptist makes the declaration, substantially at the same point where the heavenly Voice speaks in the Synoptic version. There is, however, a text-critical question here, with two variant readings, and strong arguments can be made for each of them. The reading in the majority of textual witnesses is:

“And I have seen, and have given witness, that this (one) is the Son of God [o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=]”

However, in other manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2 etc), the reading instead is:

“…that this (one) is the (one) gathered out (by) God [o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=, i.e., the chosen one of God]”

A few other versions have the conflate reading “…that this is the chosen Son of God”. Whatever the original reading, it is most likely that the expression o( e)klekto/$ (“the [one] gathered out”, the chosen one) relates to Isa 42:1, since the LXX translates yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”) specifically as o( e)klekto/$ mou.

How was Isa 42:1 understood as applied to Jesus? Almost certainly, it reflects a Messianic interpretation of the verse. That is to say, the “servant” is a Messianic figure, one who was anointed, like the ancient kings and prophets, with the Spirit of God. There are two Messianic figure-types that may be in view here, both of which were applied to Jesus by the earliest Christians. The first is the anointed Prophet figure-type, one of which was patterned according to the figure of Moses (cf. above), while the other was patterned after Elijah. For more on this, cf. Part 3 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The other Messianic figure was the royal Messiah from the line of David (i.e., the Davidic Rule figure-type, Parts 68 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). The application of Psalm 2:7 to Jesus was well-established (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5; cf. also Rom 1:4; Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). As discussed above, there was probably an allusion to it in Mk 1:11 par (it is explicitly quoted in Lk 3:22 v.l.). The role of the “servant” in bringing judgment and justice to the nations (vv. 1-4ff) better fits the Davidic ruler type; however, the emphasis on the presence of the Spirit, and the parallels with Moses (cf. the supplemental note), rather suggest a Messianic Prophet figure. During the period of his Galilean ministry, Jesus was identified as a prophetic Messiah, much more than as a royal/Davidic Messiah. This will be discussed further in the next study.

The Quotation of Isa 42:1ff in Matthew

Isa 42:1 is quoted directly only in Matthew’s Gospel, at 12:18-20, where the Gospel writer cites verses 1-3. It is worth noting the context of this citation in the Matthean narrative. At the place where it occurs, it serves as a kind of summary of Jesus’ early ministry work in Galilee. It covers the Synoptic material in Mark 1:14-3:19 par, but also a considerable amount of other traditional material (such as the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7), much of which is shared by Luke (and customarily designated as “Q” material).

Of special importance are the healing miracles performed by Jesus, which were done with the power of God’s Spirit. The conflict episode that follows in 12:22-32 deals specifically with the question of the source of Jesus’ healing power. Isa 42:1ff may have been quoted primarily as prophetic proof of his empowerment by the Spirit. But other Gospel themes are alluded to in the passage as well. Perhaps most notable, in light of the healing miracles, is the idea that the servant will provide justice and relief for the oppressed (v. 20a): “a bruised reed he will not break down, and smoking flax he will not quench”.

Of great significance to early Christians, especially during and following the early mission to the Gentiles, is the repeated emphasis on bringing judgment (and justice) to the nations (vv. 18b, 20b). Though this theme is not especially prominent in Matthew (compared with Luke-Acts), the Gospel writer very much had it in view, referencing it both in the Infancy narrative (2:1-12), and in the closing words of the Gospel (28:18-20). The quotation of Isa 42:1-3 sets very near the midpoint of the Matthean Gospel.

In closing, we may say that Isaiah 42:1ff exerted an influence on the Gospel Tradition that was many-faceted, reflecting a Messianic interpretation of the passage, as well as the range of Messianic beliefs that were current in the first centuries B.C./A.D. As I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed,” virtually all of these Messianic traditions were applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. Evidence for this can be seen throughout the New Testament, but a number of important strands were already present (and relatively well-fixed) in the early Gospel Tradition. It is significant that several of these were established in the Tradition at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.


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