One who brings justice to the gentiles.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 December 2019

Isaiah 42.1-4, Matthew 12.14-20.

After Jesus cured the man with the paralyzed hand, this happened.

Matthew 12.14-20 KWL
14 Going out, the Pharisees took a meeting about this—so they could have Jesus destroyed.
15 Jesus, who knew this, left there, and a great crowd followed him; he had cured them all.
16 Jesus had rebuked them, lest they reveal what he might do
17 so that he might fulfill the word from the prophet Isaiah, saying,
18 “Look at my servant whom I chose, my beloved. My soul approves of him.
I put my Spirit in him, and he’ll bring justice to the gentiles.
19 He won’t struggle or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He won’t split a broken reed, won’t extinguish smoking linen, till he can issue justice in victory.
21 Gentiles will put their hope in his name.” Is 42.1-4

Since Matthew quotes Isaiah and says Jesus fulfilled it, Christians presume this particular part of Isaiah is a messianic prophecy; that it’s specifically about Jesus. I may as well translate it too, instead of just translating Matthew’s translation of it:

Isaiah 42.1-4 KWL
1 “Look at my slave. I support him, my chosen one. My soul is pleased with him.
I put my Spirit upon him: Judgment goes forth to the gentiles.
2 He doesn’t cry out, doesn’t stir things up; his voice isn’t heard in the street.
3 He doesn’t break up crushed reeds, nor put out a dimming wick.
Judgment is issued to promote truth. 4 Likewise he doesn’t fade nor break down till he brings judgment to the earth.
The border lands await his instruction.”

Y’notice there are minor differences. No, not because I translated it differently; it’s because either Matthew was quoting a bad copy, or paraphrasing. (I prefer to think he was paraphrasing.) Matthew simply laid his ideas on top of Isaiah, same as Christians still do… and really shouldn’t.

Anyway, because Christians don’t understand what fulfillment means, again we assume the Isaiah passage is about Jesus. It’s actually not. It’s about Israel. The LORD specifically said so in the previous chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah 41.8-9 KWL
8 “And you, my slave Israel, Jacob whom I chose, my beloved Abraham’s seed:
9 I seized you from the land’s end, called you one of its chiefs, and told you,
‘You’re my slave, my chosen. I don’t reject you.’ ”

No, he didn’t switch from Israel being the servant he meant, to Messiah being the servant he meant, in the course of a few verses. He was still telling Isaiah about Israel. He’s gonna put his Spirit on Israel and use the nation to promote justice among gentiles. True, Israel isn’t currently doing the best job of promoting justice towards anyone but fellow Israelis. But I don’t figure this prophecy is describing the present day anyway.

The LORD has big plans for Israel—and for Jesus as Israel’s king. So it’s entirely likely this prophecy refers to Israel when it’s finally following its Messiah during his millennium, after his second coming.

Meanwhile Matthew jumped the gun a little, ’cause though Jesus was starting his kingdom it hasn’t come yet. (Keep praying for it!) So in what way did Jesus fulfill this Isaiah passage in the first century?

Matthew’s bible quotes.

In Matthew we see a series of Old Testament quotes which bible commentators sometimes call “fulfillment citations” or “formula quotations.” No, not a formula as in a ritual or magic spell: “Jesus has to fulfill all these prophecies or he’s not really Messiah!” It’s about the Old Testament prophets formulating an idea of what the future, eternal Messiah would be, and Jesus expressing this full idea perfectly. Matthew saw these concepts in the Old Testament, so he made a particular point of quoting ’em. His gospel isn’t the only gospel where this happens; John quotes Old Testament too. But it’s especially obvious in Matthew… especially because sometimes Matthew isn’t the strongest at quoting the Old Testament in context.

This Isaiah 42 passage is an obvious example. It’s not about Messiah; it’s about Israel. But Jesus is an Israeli, and king of Israel, so it’s about him too; just not specifically about him. And Matthew figured that was close enough. Fulfillment, as it’s practiced in the bible, can really stretch a passage to fit. Sometimes far more than we’re comfortable with in the present day, but that’s because we don’t recognize this is only a loose connection. The ancient Jews did. Later generations of gentile Christians, like the early church fathers and the medieval scholastics… not so much. Today’s preachers?—they’re really sloppy about quoting anything in context, bible included, and claim all sorts of connections where there aren’t really.

For Matthew, he figured this Isaiah passage is a suitable description of Messiah, and was just itching to put it in his gospel somewhere. So he put it here. In 12.14 the Pharisees were plotting to destroy Jesus, and rather than confront them again, in 12.15 Jesus simply left. Well, in Isaiah the LORD describes his slave as not stirring things up; seems that’s exactly what Jesus did. So it fits, so in it went.

As for bringing judgment and justice to gentiles… well that doesn’t happen in this part of Matthew. It does in other parts, like when Jesus went to gentile provinces and rescued a demoniac or fed the 4,000. Jesus brought the gospel to gentiles too, and later poured out his Holy Spirit upon them in Acts. They were always meant to be included in his kingdom. That too is hinted in the Prophets, and gets fulfilled in Jesus.

I don’t know that Matthew inserted or brought up this idea in the best way… but what do I know? Seems to have done the job.

Scriptures for Advent.