Isaiah 42 shows how God is active in the world through the one called the “servant.” The servant is described as quiet and gentle, which are not only character traits, but are nothing less than the means by which God’s justice makes its way into the world. This “servant” is originally meant to describe the nation of Israel, which is why God goes on to say a few verses later, “I have called you in righteousness… I have given you as a light to the nations.” Israel (and by extension, the Church today) will not establish God’s justice by conquering anyone who gets in their way. Instead, Israel is called to allure the world into the love and presence of God by way of sweetness and meekness.
So, while Isaiah 42 is originally addressed to the people of Israel, it makes all the sense in the world that this “servant” eventually becomes associated with Jesus. How could we possibly avoid making that connection? Isaiah 42 turns out to be the perfect description of the quiet and gentle character of Jesus. Matthew 12 makes this connection explicitly, and the timing of the connection by Matthew is quite significant. In Matthew 12, Jesus is becoming more and more aware of the opposition building up against him. He has ruffled a lot of feathers and religious leaders like the Pharisees will do their best to make him regret it. “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is 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 wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until be brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.'” (Matthew 12:5-21)
On one level, Matthew is attempting to make sense of why Jesus is always silencing the people he heals (a frequent conundrum in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). So by bringing Isaiah 42 to bear on the present situation, it would seem that Jesus requests silence from those he has healed because that’s who the “servant” is. He’s not one to raise his voice and go out of his way to be noticed. If he gets less attention for it, that’s just fine with him.
On another level, Jesus, perfectly embodying the gospel of Isaiah 42, is not only exemplifying the virtue of silence himself, but actively inviting others into that same silence. By silencing the crowds, Jesus is growing the movement of “servants” who participate in God’s work not by talking more, but by talking less, as if to say, “Come, be quiet with me; let us be quick to listen and slow to speak. Let this be what marks our new community.”
And on yet another level, Matthew is showing us how we can expect Jesus to respond to his growing opposition. Evil is building up and putting Jesus in its crosshairs. And when that evil finally makes its decisive move against him, he will respond in the way of Isaiah 42, with quiet and gentleness. He’s inviting us to exist in the world, to participate in God’s work, in the exact same way. Are we up for it?