The Messiah would be a light for the nations of the world
Isaiah 42:1-7 is the second of four passages in Isaiah that describe the “Servant of the Lord.” The first came in Isaiah 41:8-20, where the servant was clearly called Israel. Commentator John Oswalt notes:
The identity of this “servant” [in Isaiah 42] has been the source of endless controversy. The differences between him and the servant Israel [in chapter 41] are striking. The servant Israel is fearful and blind, yet God loves him and will deliver him so that he can be God’s evidence to the nations that he is indeed God. But this Servant, who only appears here in chapters 40-48 and but three times in chapters 49-50, is of a different sort. He is always obedient and responsive to God, his mission is to bring justice to the nations for God, and he is to be a “light” to the nations and a “covenant” to the people (of Israel, see 49:6). In contrast to the promises of divine blessing constantly being given to the servant Israel, this servant receives no benefits through his ministry but only increasing difficulty. In sum, whoever this is, it is not the nation of Israel; it is another figure altogether.1
…The further description of the ministry of this Servant in 42:6-7 confirms that this is not the nation but someone who will function for the nation and indeed for the world. Where Israel was blind and deaf, captive to the powers of this world, this Servant will give sight and freedom.2
Matthew’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as this very servant. Matthew reaches a turning point in chapter 12. In light of opposition from the leaders of Israel, by the end of this chapter, Jesus disengages from them – at least in Galilee, for there will be later confrontations in Jerusalem. But here, Jesus “withdrew” (verse 15) from the Pharisees and commanded those he healed to “lie low” and not make it known that he healed them. This was not to be the time to stir up messianic expectations. Matthew (12:17-21) goes on to say that this is a fulfillment of certain verses in Isaiah 42:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
This is not the full servant passage. This part, quoting from Isaiah 42:1-4, emphasizes that Jesus is God’s servant, chosen by Him, filled with the Spirit, yet humble, going “undercover” so to speak, in his role as Messiah, and – twice in this passage – bringing God’s rule to the world of the Gentiles as well! This stands in contrast to the rejection by the Jewish leadership by the chapter’s end.
Matthew does not continue the passage, since he wants to emphasize the “undercover” nature of Jesus’ messiahship at this point in his ministry. But further on in Isaiah 42:6, we read that the servant will be “a light for the nations.” This actually helps us to understand what kind of justice (Matthew 12:18, 20) God will bring to the Gentiles (the nations of the world), and what kind of “hope” Isaiah says they will have. As the following New Testament verses show, the servant’s light will provide revelation, life, and direction or guidance. God’s justice is not judgment but setting things right, as they were meant to be, and that means knowing God (revelation), experiencing life, and being instructed in how to best live flourishing lives. No wonder the nations will hope for this! Consider these verses:
He came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:27-32)
Luke emphasizes light as revelation, revealing God to people who did not know Him before as Israel did.
Then we have John 8:12:
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Here, light means having life. Though in the immediate context of John 8, Jesus is speaking to Jews; we know that elsewhere in John, Jesus’ intention is to reach beyond Israel to the world. The “light of life” is for all who will believe.
And finally, we have Revelation 21:23-24:
The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
John here is explicitly talking about the nations of the world. The Lamb – Jesus – shines his light on the nations, and by that light, they “walk” or conduct their lives. We are reminded of Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” What a great hope for anyone, Jewish or Gentile!
1. John N. Oswalt, “Isaiah,” inThe NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), Kindle Edition, locations 10201-10208.
2. Ibid., locations 10213-10215.