Readers of Isaiah have often designated four texts as "Servant Songs"--songs that describe God's "servant" and the work for which the servant is commissioned (see Introductory Issues). This is the first of those four songs.
The term "servant" is used often in Second Isaiah, usually referring to all Israel, God's servant people. The four so-called "servant songs" should not be read in isolation from those other texts, so the "servant" is always understood to be a symbol or representative of Israel. Still, in the four traditional servant passages, the servant is commissioned for particular work in ways that suggest that a particular individual might be meant. That individual is never identified, so he too might simply be Israel personified (or perhaps the prophet). Attempts to apply the text to a known historical individual in Israel's history have been unconvincing. The New Testament will apply some of these texts to Jesus, making the case that Jesus comes as the personification of Israel, chosen to do God's work in the world. This first "Servant Song" provides part of the background for the introduction of Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11).
The servant's work in this text is to bring forth "justice" and "teaching" (or "Torah") to all nations throughout the earth. The expanse of the servant's mission is an example of the striking universalistic outlook of the second part of Isaiah.
Surprisingly, the emphasis here is not only on what the servant will do, but also on what he will not do. The servant will not cry aloud and he will not quench "a dimly burning wick." Somehow, the servant will bring about God's justice gently rather than with noise and earthly power. We learn in 43:17 that the quenched wick image refers to the destruction of Pharaoh's soldiers at the exodus. Now the new exodus, which is both like the old one and different from it, will be accomplished without the same kind of destruction. The New Testament uses this message of quiet justice to point to Jesus' efforts to halt people from making him known (Matthew 12:17-21).
42Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org