The Big Picture and Some Details
The Big Picture: Chapters 40-42
The overarching theme of the second volume of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) is the advent of Messiah. Isaiah 40:1-11 announces and describes his coming. Chapter 41 repeats and establishes this theme. It announces Messiah’s righteousness and peace to his believing remnant (Isaiah 41:8-20). Then God in Isaiah 42:1-9 speaks of Messiah his Servant. He even addresses him directly in verses 6-7. Isaiah 42:1-16 very much resembles Isaiah 40:1-11. In both passages, descriptions of a changing landscape announce the social upheavals with respect to God’s spiritual comfort that Messiah will bring. Comparing these passages with Gospel descriptions proves their fulfillment in Christ. That is, Christ lifts the poor and needy in his speech and ministry. He also brings down the unbelieving religious elite by speaking against them.
Interwoven with the theme of Messiah as God’s true representative is the counter theme of the falsity of idols. The conflict between God’s truth and lifeless idols forms the backdrop to the whole. For example, Isaiah defends God against idols in Isaiah 40:12-26. Chapter 41:1-7 and 21-29 also concerns God’s rejection of idols and those who worship them. These idol-worshipers appear to be among the Gentile nations. However, Chapter 42, verses 8, 17, and 18-25 are also against idols. But this time, those who trust in them belong to the nation of Israel, God’s “servant,” plural (Isaiah 42: 8, 17, 18-25).
GENTILES AND ISRAELITES TOGETHER
God welcomes Gentiles to believe and receive his good news in Isaiah 42:10-12. These verses flow right into verses 13-14. Verses 13-14 describe God in metaphors. One is of a strong soldier marching out to battle. The second describes God as a woman laboring intensely to give birth. These metaphors describe God overpowering his spiritual enemies through the advent of Messiah. Isaiah 42:15-16 again picks up the theme of changes to the landscape (see Isaiah 40:3-11). These changes indicate the spiritual reality of God’s care for the blind, verse 16. Gentiles are embedded without transition in this entire section, Isaiah 42:10-16. And, God of course includes his own believing people, verse 16.
Believers Versus Non-believers
In summary, Isaiah in these chapters distinguishes between those who believe and those who do not believe. Both of these groups include Israelites and Gentiles. Chapters 40-42 reveal that God’s real enemies are those who refuse him, preferring rather to call upon their idols. Both the Gentile nations (Isaiah 41:21-29) and Israel (Isaiah 42:18-25) harbor those who shape and trust in their powerless idols. God rebukes and rejects both of these groups.
Comfort and Peace for Believing Israel and Gentile Nations Alike
When God speaks “comfort” for his people, he does not include those whose stance is arrogant hardness of heart and idol worship. God favors the poor and needy among his own people. These are those whom he blesses. (See Isaiah 41:8-20). Likewise, God also welcomes those of the Gentile coastlands (isles) who joyfully receive the good news of Messiah. (See Isaiah 42:1-13.)
In a Nutshell
In a nutshell then, the dividing line is between believers and non-believers, between God-followers and idol worshipers. There is no line between Gentiles and the sons of Jacob. God rejects the idol worshipers among his “own” people and from among the Gentiles. Conversely, God gives his singular Servant Messiah to believers from among his own people and to believers among the Gentiles. Thus speaks Isaiah, God’s prophet.
Details: Three Metaphors in Isaiah 42:10-16
I. METAPHOR ONE-GOD AS WARRIOR
13 The Lord God of hosts shall go forth, and crush the war: he shall stir up jealousy, and shall shout mightily against his enemies. (Isaiah 42:13 LXE)
- The Verse in Context
This verse appears almost out of place. If it were to be interpreted concrete-literally, it would be out of place. Isaiah 42:1-12 continuously and solidly presents Messiah joyfully and with song. Messiah is gentle and quiet. He is compassionate and just. His presence makes people glad. It seems odd, then, to abruptly find God going forth as a warrior to fight against his enemies. This segment presents no enemies, not until verse 22.
2. Great Spiritual Sense
Spiritually, however, in light of Messiah, the verse (Isaiah 42:13) makes a great deal of sense. Who are God’s enemies but the powers of darkness that wage war against God through idols that appeal to men? God’s great enemy is Satan. At what point in human history did God defeat Satan? There is only one answer: at the Cross. Christians know that the cross is the place of God’s victory over all his enemies, including death. Psalm 18 portrays God’s rescuing his Son from death after he died on the cross (see Psalm 18 at JustOneSmallVoice).
II. METAPHOR TWO-GOD AS A WOMAN IN HARD LABOR
14 For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:14, ESV)(1)
- The Verse in Context
Here again, unless the reader understands Isaiah’s metaphor, this verse may appear shocking. First, is Isaiah still using the God-as-mighty-warrior metaphor? No, I don’t believe so, contra the subject note of one study Bible. How many writers seeking to glorify a mighty warrior would compare him to a woman in labor? No…
2. Its Meaning
God does, however, acknowledge and honor women in this verse. What unites this verse with the prior verse is the theme of strong, focused effort. Giving birth is sometimes similar to a battle. But why use two so very different metaphors, if the underlying meaning is the same? The reason is that they are not the same. A warrior destroys. As verse 13 states, God will “crush…” The outcome for a woman in labor, however, is new life, a new creation. The woman brings forth something entirely new, something that was not there before.
Not just this verse, but the entire context speaks of newness.
- new things Isaiah 42:9; 43:19; 48:6
- new hymn Isaiah 42:10
- good news Isaiah 52:7
- new name Isaiah 62:2; 65:15
- new heaven and a new earth Isaiah 65:17; 66:2
Revelation 12:1-6 uses the metaphor of a woman giving birth to describe the advent of Christ and the birth of his church.
III. METAPHOR THREE-A CHANGED LANDSCAPE
15 I will make desolate mountains and hills, and will dry up all their grass; and I will make the rivers islands, and dry up the pools. 16 And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, and I will cause them to tread paths which they have not known: I will turn darkness into light for them, and crooked things into straight. These things will I do, and will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:15-16)
1. The Verses in Context
As mentioned already, these verses resemble those of Isaiah 40:1-8. All four Gospels refer to the verses in Chapter 40 in connection with John the Baptist. Therefore, the reader knows that the landscape imagery is metaphorical. That is, the mountains, hills, crooked places, and rough places indicate spiritual realities, spiritual obstacles, possibly people and powers who stand opposed to God. Plus, Isaiah 40:6 identifies grass as humanity. The best a human puts forth is no more glorious than a flower of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Finally, Isaiah 40:11 speaks of Messiah as a husbandman, feeding his flock as a shepherd (cf. John 10:11, 13-14).
2. Their Meaning
So, what does it mean in Chapter 42 when God speaks in first person and states, “I will make the rivers into coastlands and dry up marsh-meadow… I will turn darkness into light… and make crooked places straight,”? (SAAS). Is God announcing a concrete-literal landscape renovation complete with lamps and lanterns? I think most would agree that these metaphors are spiritual. The new thing that God announces will be completely different from all that has gone before. We might say in common speech that God is about to turn the world upside-down. And this is exactly what Jesus did.
So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:16 ESV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
(Matthew 5:3-6, 10-11 ESV)
The poor man [Lazarus] died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (Luke 16:22-23 ESV)
The majority of the world’s people both in biblical times and now are Gentiles. The majority of the world’s people are poor and needy. And, a very small remnant of Israel in both the Old and New Testaments (think weak, overlooked, poor, and powerless) clung to their loyalty to their one true God. For all these, the gospel of Jesus Christ, Messiah, is very good news indeed.