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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 49

 

 

Introduction

Commentary on Isaiah 49-55.

Chapter 49. The New Servant And The Deliverance of Israel.

Up to this point the Servant has been seen aspotentiallyall the seed of Abraham. In Abraham his seed had entered the land and God’s purpose was that through him, and them, all the nations of the world would be blessed. Israel was summed up in Abraham. They were seen as the extension of what he was. They were seen as the Servant because they flowed from him. They were the extension of Abraham. Potentially therefore all Israel could be seen as the Servant.

But this is not all the truth, for as we saw in Isaiah 42:1-4 the Servant was also seen having the Spirit on him, as bringing justice to the Gentiles, as establishing justice in the earth and as having the isles/coastlands waiting for His Instruction. Here we have the true king as described in the words of Moses, who treasures Yahweh’s word and holds it in his heart so that he is fully obedient to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 17:18-19), never turning aside from it, but rather requiring his people to walk in it. The Servant is in a real sense both priest and prophet, leading forward his people so that they too can serve Yahweh.

The ideal hope expressed here was of an Israel who under their prophet king would be a witness for Yahweh to the Gentiles.

But the practicality was different. For now it is made clear that the actual Servant does not include all who would call themselves sons of Abraham. For the Servant is seen in this chapter as having a ministry to carry out on behalf of the whole of Israel (Isaiah 49:5). Israel as a whole have failed on their part and excluded themselves from being a part of the Servant. This comes out in that here the Servant speaks, and in a striking declaration declares that Yahweh has designated him as the true Israel (Isaiah 49:3) who is to bring back the light of salvation to the remainder of Jacob/Israel, raising them up and restoring them, in addition to his work of reaching out with it the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6).

Thus the Servant is now comprised of the true seed of Abraham only, the godly who have remained faithful to Him, those who obey Him. Professed outward connection is one thing, but it is only those who are obedient to the covenant who are to be seen as truly His. Disobedience is seen as resulting in amputation from the head.

Being ‘Israel’ was a fluid concept. It was open to all who would come and submit themselves to Yahweh and His covenant. Any man could enter Israel by being circumcised and submitting to Yahweh and the covenant, even though he was previously a resident alien (Exodus 12:48-49). In the same way an Israelite could be blotted out from among Israel for gross sin (Exodus 32:33). One way in which this was represented in the Law was by the phrase ‘cut off from among the people’ (Genesis 17:14). There were a number of offences for which this was the penalty, including ‘presumptious sin’ (Numbers 15:30).

There were specially heinous crimes for which there was the death penalty for the same reason. When, for example, a man or woman ‘dishonoured’ father and mother, or flagrantly went against them, or sought to bring them under a curse, that man or woman was to be put to death. Such were to be cut off from among the people, for they were rejecting God’s appointed authority. It was a choice that they had made for themselves. By their act they had deliberately excluded themselves from obedience to covenant authority. And this applied to the dishonouring of any ‘father’, the father of a household, the father of a clan, the father of a sub-tribe, right up to the tribal father. Another way of looking at this was that any man who dishonoured any of these was thus seen as ‘cursed’ (Deuteronomy 27:16) under the covenant.

The same applied to anyone guilty of idolatry. Such a person also must be put to death (Exodus 22:20). They were to be cut off from among the people. They too were ‘cursed’ (Deuteronomy 27:15). But in Yahweh’s eyes a person was also ‘cursed’, and therefore to be cut off from among the people, for not confirming the words of the covenant (Deuteronomy 27:26). True Israel was the Israel who obeyed God from the heart, and submitted to His covenant. While outwardly none may know the true situation, if a man did not in his heart confirm the words of the covenant he was to be seen as cut off from among the people. He was ‘cursed’.

The idea of ‘God’s people’ is therefore always in tension. Outwardly it is those who appear to profess obedience to the covenant. But that was often nominal, and as we have just seen many of them were under the curse of Yahweh for their secret sins and were thus not in His eyes His people. Many were idolatrous and openly disobedient. Many did not confirm the words of His covenant in their hearts. As He could say to Elijah, ‘Yet will I leave me seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal’ (1 Kings 19:18). Yahweh always knew those who were His.

In modern times we may call such people ‘spiritual Israel’, but that would not have been a concept appreciated then. They did, however have a similar idea. In the end they knew that for Yahweh Israel was made up of those who had not ‘cut themselves off’ from Israel by their behaviour. Those who had not subjected themselves to the final ‘curse’. Those who had not been ‘blotted out’ of His book. In Isaiah’s term the true Israel was ‘the holy seed’ (Isaiah 6:13)

So when we learn here that the Servant is the one who will bring Jacob again to Him, and gather Israel to Him, who will raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel (Isaiah 49:7), we know that he cannot be seen as representing Israel as a whole. The Servant is now to be seen as representing at the very most an inner circle in Israel, the faithful in Israel, who still honoured His covenant. Yet he is still described as ‘Israel’ (Isaiah 49:3) because in Yahweh’s eyes he alone represents the true Israel. He represents the faithful core of Israel, being made up of the coming Messiah Immanuel, of Isaiah himself and of all who were faithful to His covenant and sought to bring Israel back to God. These were the Israel not blotted out in God’s eyes, not ‘cut off from Israel’. These were His Servant.

We have here a similar idea to that later enunciated by Paul (Romans 11:16-24). Here is the olive tree, which is the equivalent of the Servant. The fruitful branches remain in the olive tree, but the useless branches are cut off from the olive tree. However, if they cease to be useless they can be grafted in again. And others also can be grafted in, for He is not only to restore Israel but He is to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6). We can also compare Jesus as the true vine and His true people as the branches. While they are abiding in Him they are living branches, but once they cease abiding in Him and become fruitless they are to be cut off and burned (John 15:1-6). These words are in fact especially significant, for the vine was regularly used as a picture of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). Thus His claim to be the ‘true vine’ signified that He represented in Himself the true Israel, with those who were His branches also making up the true Israel. It is a very similar idea to the Servant.

So the true people of God are always in God’s eyes those who are responding in faithfulness, and they alone. That is why those who do not ‘confirm all of the words of the Law to do them’ are under His curse (Deuteronomy 27:26). They are no longer His people. (The same is true of the church. There is an outward church to which men outwardly belong, but His true church consists only of those who truly believe in Him and are responsive to His word in their hearts).

The Servant is also to be seen in another way, for he is not only to be given as a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6), but is also to be given as ‘a covenant to the people’ (Isaiah 49:8). Just as He brought light to the Gentiles, so would He bring the covenant to His people. Now there is only one who, in this section from 40-55, is stated to be connected with the everlasting covenant given to the people, and is to be a witness given to the peoples, and a leader and commander to the peoples, and that is the coming ‘David’ (Isaiah 55:3). He is the one who represents the covenant to all who wish to respond to it. Thus the servant is here closely aligned with the coming ‘David’ (for this use of ‘David’ as signifying also his seed compare 1 Kings 12:16), the one who will establish Yahweh’s everlasting covenant with His people.

Furthermore much else about the Servant demands such a royal figure. In Isaiah 42:4 he is to set ‘judgment’ in the earth, and the coastlands/isles are to wait for His Torah (law, instruction) in a context where he is similarly given as a covenant to the people (Isaiah 42:6). He is to have jurisdiction over the world. It does not matter whether we see ‘judgment’ as signifying ‘right religion’ or as meaning ‘the application of God’s law’, for both were the same to Israel. They were seen as a people bound by the Law, and the king was seen as the one who above all was to keep that Law and was to administer it and face them up with it (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).

It is to the Servant that Israel are to gather (Isaiah 49:5). It is he who will raise them up and restore them. Kings will arise at his presence and princes pay homage (Isaiah 49:7). He will be exalted, and lifted up and be very high (Isaiah 52:13). All this fits in with the idea of the coming king who is to be an ensign to the people (Isaiah 11:10), who is to rule the everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 9:7), who is have the Spirit upon him and is to rule in righteousness and judge and reprove all for whom he is responsible (Isaiah 11:1-4), and who is to be the highest of the kings of the earth (Psalms 89:27).

He is, however, also to be the prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6 compare Isaiah 42:2-3), in whose day the wolf will dwell with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). So while he will have supreme power there is to be nothing martial or overbearing about him. His final aim is to establish all creation in harmony.

Indeed if we take the book as one whole, (and it is one whole whatever its antecedents might be), this must be so. It is inconceivable that this great figure should not be connected with the equally great prince of peace who is coming. Later Israel would not connect the two, but that was mainly because they turned the prince of peace into the great man of war who would rise up and give them a special status above all others. Their general idea of peace was that everyone else was to be subdued to them. On the whole they did not want a suffering martyr but a great hero (although there were, of course, always exceptions). The peace they sought was their own. But there can be no doubt really that the Servant in Isaiah 42:1-4 and here reflects echoes of the Spirit-filled king who will judge the poor with righteousness and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth. So both king and faithful people were involved in the Servant, who is a corporate figure similar to the ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7 who is at one point the king coming to God on behalf of his people (Daniel 7:13-14), and on the other represents the people as a whole, who are seen as ‘human’ as compared with the wild beast empires.

In ancient times king and people were seen as bound up in each other. Regularly the king could represent the people in religious ceremonies, acting as their representative, and even as their substitute, before the gods. And this representative status was certainly true of the Davidic king. When the king did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh, the nation was blessed. When he did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh the nation was punished. (That is the principle behind the books of Kings). He was ever seen as representing Israel. He was their very life (Lamentations 4:20). They felt bound up in him. In a very real sense therefore he would be seen by Israel as being in his own person ‘Israel’. So they would certainly have conceived of him as being addressed as ‘Israel’.

It is in fact impossible to avoid the idea that in certain places in the Servant passages the Servant has in the end very much the attributes of the coming king. We can indeed go further. We can in such places say that he is the expected king, the great representative of Israel who speaks in Israel’s name and by whose activity Israel will be judged. But he is a king uniquely in Israel’s image. He is the studier and dispenser of the word (Isaiah 42:1-4; Deuteronomy 17:18-20). His purpose is to bring Yahweh’s word home to the people. And he is not seen as alone, for a king is never alone, he represents his obedient people. Others too assist him in his task. Thus king and faithful people are seen as acting together as one in the Servant, but with the king taking a prominent role.

Abraham was originally the type of the coming king and pointed towards His coming. He too was one and yet many (Isaiah 51:2). His tribe and his later seed were all seen as bound up in him. That is why on a careless reading of Genesis we can think of Abraham as a solitary nomad travelling around with his family and a few sheep. But to the writer, and to the discerning reader, ‘Abraham’ is seen as including the thousands of his ‘household’ who travelled with him. They were ‘Abraham’.

The very idea of a king is that he is king over his people. When the idea is at its best king and people go together. A king without a people is like an army without men. It is meaningless. When Abraham travelled around Palestine he was not alone. We may get that impression when we first start reading the narrative but we soon discover that it was not so. He was accompanied by his family tribe. Where he went they went. Often when we read ‘Abraham’ we must read ‘Abraham and his people’. It was simply assumed. Abraham summed them all up in himself. When ‘David’ smote the Philistines, it is immediately pointed out that it is David and his men (2 Samuel 5:20-21). When Sennacherib came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them (Isaiah 36:1), and claimed, ‘forty six cities of Judah I besieged and took’ was he to be seen as alone? Of course not. It was assumed that his people came with him. The one represented the whole. Every one responded to his command. All were spearheaded in the king.

We are certainly therefore to see here that the Servant here is both the coming king and those who were faithful in Israel, just as the ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7 represented both the prince (Daniel 7:13-14) and his people (Daniel 7:27). Wherever the king goes his faithful people go with him. Whatever the king does his faithful people do with him. So when God speaks to ‘Israel’ here He is speaking to the king. He is also speaking to his faithful followers. Concentration and emphasis is on the one who represents the many.

To many of us this idea is, to quite an extent, foreign. We start as individualists. We think individually. We strike out individually. We opt out individually. And no one thinks the worse of us for it. We start with ourselves and work up and outwards, opting in and out as we choose. We are individuals who are part of a larger group, but we do not always submit to the group. We consider that we have a right to be ‘ourselves’. But in ancient days men saw things differently. They saw themselves as part of a larger unit to which they were irrevocably bound and committed in a way that we would not admit today. They did not see themselves as individuals. They saw themselves as part of a family, which was part of a sub-tribe, which was part of a tribe, which was part of a nation over which was a king. And they were an essential part of that group. Thus the meanest man saw himself in a very real sense as being bound up in the king, like a little finger is part of the body. They did not question that commitment, they accepted it fully. The king represented them totally. He was their very breath. And this was especially so as he was ‘the anointed of Yahweh’ (Lamentations 4:20). They were bound up in all he did. The little finger did what the head said and was part of the whole, for attention was focused on the king. But in return he was what they were.

(Of course individualism would out. Men did rebel. It was in the nature of man. But woe betide him if the rebellion failed. He was seen as having broken the unity. He was utterly to be condemned. No one would have questioned the fact. He must be cut off. The only way to survive in such circumstances was to be successful and form a new unity in which all were bound).

So potentially the Servant, because he is Abraham, is all ‘the seed of Abraham’, and that includes the kings who came from his loins. But in reality he is the faithful seed of Abraham, for they alone are his true seed, the rest are cut off because disobedient, and above all he is the faithful king. In essence he is the one to whom that seed pointed. In the end the seed of Abraham comes to prime fulfilment in the coming King Who alone fulfils Abraham’s destiny. He replaces Abraham as the focal point. We could call him the new Abraham who is greater than Abraham. It began with Abraham, it will end with the prince who is the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6), the Abraham beyond Abraham. He will have fulfilled Abraham’s destiny. The faithful are God’s Servant, and have their part to play in His service, but in the end there is only One Who really fulfils that service, the one to whom all points, the only One who was ever truly obedient. All in the end flow from Him.

Note on the Servant Songs.

‘The Servant Songs’ is the name usually given to the songs in Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-9; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12. These are seen by the majority of scholars as originally standing on their own, and regularly seen as indicating a unique individual. They are then seen as later incorporated into the larger text of Isaiah 40-55.

We have no quarrel with that idea, and indeed there is much to be said for it. It seems to us very conceivable that in his ‘retirement’ and contemplation Isaiah received the vision of the coming Servant, based on the king of whom he had already written in 7-11, but with a new recognition that the way for the king was not to be easy.

We may see him as first writing poems about the accession and triumph of the coming king, establishing justice and taking Yahweh’s Instruction to the world, and taking Yahweh’s light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 9:2). But even in this he recognises the important part that was to be played by the words from his mouth (Isaiah 49:1-6; compare Isaiah 42:3).

Then, remembering Moses’ description of the true Yahweh-approved king in Deuteronomy 17:18-19, he saw that such a king could, in the light of the present condition of Israel, only reach his throne after having seen off the many who despised Yahweh’s Instruction, as a result of Yahweh’s action on his behalf (Isaiah 50:4-9), and he foresaw that this would inevitably result in humiliation before his final vindication.

He would know that as a uniquely born prince (Isaiah 7:14), not directly born through the earthly seed of the king, Immanuel was never going to be in a position of simple accession. It would be clear that his accession could only come about through God’s working. This conception of the new prince as coming with Yahweh’s instruction and being for a time rejected for it may well have caused him to write Isaiah 50:4-9, for in these days at the court of the evil king Manasseh he no doubt saw much evidence of the humiliation of those who were faithful to Yahweh in the court of the king. There may indeed have been one particular incident that sparked off his thinking.

As he contemplated further, this apparently then, as a result of his deep sense of sin (Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 64:6), led on to his recognition that there had to be one who was Israel’s representative, one who could therefore be addressed as ‘Israel’ (Isaiah 49:3), and who could in himself bear the sins of Israel. He would wholly fulfil his position by himself bearing the sins of Israel through suffering and initial rejection (Isaiah 53:2-9; Psalms 22), followed by death as a guilt offering, and then by resurrection (Isaiah 53:10-12; Isaiah 25:8), the latter vindicating first himself and then those of his people who were responsive to Yahweh’s covenant (Isaiah 53:10-12; Isaiah 26:19) so that he could finally rule over the everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 2:3-4; Isaiah 4:5-6; Isaiah 26:1-4; Isaiah 27:2-6; Isaiah 32:1-7; Isaiah 33:20-21; Isaiah 55:3; Isaiah 55:9-13; Isaiah 65:17-25). And he would know that he could do this because he would be no ordinary man, but would be Yahweh’s ‘sole man’ (Isaiah 50:2), the ‘one’ who was coming, ‘the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Then afterwards, inspired by God as he contemplated further, Isaiah recognised in all that was happening that Yahweh would fulfil His work promised through Abraham His servant (Isaiah 41:8), and incorporated these songs into his wider view of the Servant in the way in which we now have it. This incorporation of the one into the other explains both the connection of the two ideas, and the tension that arises between them.

End of note.


Verses 1-6

The Words of The Servant (Isaiah 49:1-6).

Isaiah 49:1

‘Listen to me, O coastlands/isles,

And hear you peoples from afar,

Yahweh has called me from the womb,

From the inner parts of my mother he has made mention of my name.’

These are the first words represented as being by the Servant. Compare Isaiah 41:1. There the coastlands/isles were to witness the rise of the Servant. And it was followed by ‘beholding the Servant’ (Isaiah 42:1). But they had also witnessed that Israel did not live up to being the Servant. So now, having seen the failure of that Servant, they are spoken to by the new Servant. And he has a new task. He is to be concerned with the restoration of Israel, as well as with the purpose of fulfilling the destiny of the Servant towards the nations. He is to take on himself the whole world.

So in these words he speaks to the wider world. The ‘coastlands/isles’ are the world across the sea, while the ‘peoples from afar’ are all the nations not closely associated with Israel. The message is for the whole world because all have an interest in it.

Firstly he identifies himself. He was called from the womb and mention was made of his name by God even from the inner parts (bowels) of his mother, so closely was his destiny connected with God and His will. In Isaiah there is only one of whom this is true, ‘an ‘almah will be with child and will bear a son, and his name will be called Immanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14). He was named even before he was in the womb. There was only One other Who was accorded this privilege, ‘you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21), and Matthew links Him with this prophecy of Immanuel. In contrast Maher-shalal-hashbaz was named after he had left the womb, for he was but a sign to Israel (Isaiah 8:3).

Earlier Israel as the Servant had been ‘formed from the womb’ (Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 44:24) and had from the womb been ‘borne’ by Yahweh (Isaiah 46:3) but they were not described as ‘called’ from the womb or ‘named’ in the womb. God had a purpose for them from the beginning, but they were not called or named while in the womb. Here then is someone very special who has a special destiny, he is ‘called’ from the womb’, and significantly ‘named’ while in the womb prior to his birth because of his destiny. In Isaiah there is only one such, Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:6-7). For Immanuel was to come forth from his mother as one already named by God. Immanuel was not just a name given to him after he was born, it was a name intended to be pregnant with significance in his very birth, a significance which proved that Yahweh had uniquely set him apart. Indeed a direct contrast is made with Israel, for they were ‘called a transgressor from the womb’ (Isaiah 48:8), whereas He from the womb was called ‘God with us’ (immanu el). We are immediately therefore taken back to the coming greater David.

This interpretation is supported by the reference to His mother. Israel is never described as being born from a mother but ‘formed from the womb’, with the one who did the bearing being indefinite. In their case it means ‘each from his very beginning, as part of the whole’. But the birth of God’s chosen one is regularly connected specifically to His mother (Isaiah 7:14; Genesis 3:15; Psalms 22:9), and surely here has Isaiah 7:14 especially in mind. Such a reference stresses the individual nature of the Servant here, even though he incorporates in himself his people. Ultimately the Servant is Immanuel.

Isaiah 49:2

‘And he has made my mouth like a sharp sword,

In the shadow of his hand has he hidden me,

And he has made me a polished shaft,

In his quiver has he kept me close.’

His mouth is His powerful weapon, a sharp sword with which He is able to smite men with His words and discern their inner thoughts (compare Revelation 1:16; Revelation 19:15; Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17). He needs no earthly sword. He will win with words. This is no ordinary king. He does not require weapons of iron, He uses powerful words.

‘In the shadow of His hand He has hidden me.’ ‘In the shadow of His hand’ parallels ‘in his quiver has He kept me’. The latter speaks of the quiver as enclosing the arrow, and the former must therefore be connected with the sword. It is telling us that the sword, which is His mouth, is sheathed in the shadow of God’s hand. There it is completely preserved and when it comes forth, it comes forth from God’s hand. It is evidence that His words come from God. He does not speak of Himself, but what Yahweh would say, that He will speak (see Isaiah 50:4 and compare John 7:16-18). But it is not only the sword which is in that scabbard, He too is in that scabbard. He too therefore is the preserved of God and revealed as God’s weapon.

A polished shaft/arrowhead is one that has been made deadly accurate. It will not swerve from its main course. Thus is He set to move forward with accuracy and speed, He is kept safe and close and polished in the Almighty’s quiver. He is powerfully armed with all that God has provided for Him, and He does not just use the weaponry, He is the weaponry.

Isaiah 49:3

‘And he said to me, “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’

The Servant is now addressed as ‘My Servant Israel’. The one who stands here has taken over the mantle of Israel. Israel had proved faithless. Thus they had to be replaced by one who would restore Israel. This one has been selected out to represent Israel and fulfil Israel’s destiny as the Servant so as to bring glory to God. He stands in the place of Israel. He is the ‘Israel’ who acts in Israel’s name. As Immanuel He has been chosen so that He may restore Israel, and more, be a light to the Gentiles. And He will do it along with those who are His faithful people. Typical of His true people will be that they cry, ‘Glory to the Righteous One’ (Isaiah 24:16). He sums up Israel in Himself, and the true Israel follow His bidding. By this God will be glorified.

‘In whom I will be glorified.’ The purpose of the Servant is that he might bring glory to God by the carrying forward of His purposes. God was not glorified in Israel. Israel had brought shame on His name. And so He appoints one to act in Israel’s name, to do what Israel has failed to do.

When Jesus came He laid great stress on this, and on His own responsibility to fulfil Israel’s destiny. He spoke of Himself as ‘the true Vine’ (John 15:1). He summed up Israel in Himself. He declared of Himself ‘I have glorified You on earth, I have finished the work that you gave me to do’ (John 17:4). He saw Himself as the Servant, Who had come ‘to serve and to give His life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45), and He saw Himself as having satisfactorily completed that task. But He also told His disciples that they must let their lights shine before men that they may see their good works and glorify their Father Who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16). They too were to be the Servant (compare Acts 13:47).

Isaiah 49:4

‘But I have said, “I have laboured in vain.

I have spent my strength for nothing and for what is worthless.

Yet surely my judgment is with Yahweh,

And my recompense with my God.” ’

Here He identifies Himself with the Servant in the past. He looks back at the past efforts of the Servant. The Servant had achieved little. Even Isaiah’s words have been in vain up to this point (Isaiah 6:9-13). Almost nothing has been achieved. But it cannot continue so, for Yahweh passes judgment in His favour, and His God will recompense Him for His efforts. Thus He knows that as the Servant He will have a powerful and effective future.

Isaiah 49:5

‘And now says Yahweh,

Who formed me from the womb to be his servant,

To bring Jacob again to him,

And that Israel be gathered to him (Or ‘and Israel is not gathered’),

For I am honourable in the eyes of Yahweh,

And my God has become my strength.’

He both identifies Himself with the Servant mentioned previously, ‘formed from the womb’ (Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 44:24; Isaiah 46:3), and distinguishes Himself by His task. Israel/Jacob were formed from the womb that they might be mightily blessed and be witnesses to the nations (Isaiah 44:1-4; Isaiah 43:10). But they had failed miserably. The first task of the new Servant is to fulfil the Servant’s task and bring Jacob back to Him again, and gather Israel to Him. This is a question of restoring the disobedient to obedience. The whole of Jacob has been in rebellion, categorised as transgressors (Isaiah 46:8; Isaiah 48:8). They must be sought with a view to bringing them back to God. It is puerile just to see this as a question of restoring exiles, unless we include in it that they are repentant exiles. God is not seeking to people a land, but to establish a witness to the nations. He has the whole of Israel/Jacob in mind. They have to be brought back to Yahweh, to be restored to Him, and must be if they are to fulfil the Servant’s task.

And He can do this because unlike Jacob/Israel He is honourable in Yahweh’s eyes, and His God is His strength. This stresses the dishonourable and weak state of Jacob/Israel. It is also questionable whether to Isaiah a prophet would be spoken of in these terms. Isaiah had seen himself in the light of the holiness of God and had been appalled. He was therefore unlikely to describe a prophet as honourable. But it would be different with the miraculously born child (Isaiah 7:14) Whom God would raise up Whose destiny was to be the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6). He was truly honourable.

The strict reading in MT is ‘but Israel is not (lo’) gathered’. An alternative reading is ‘And that Israel be gathered to him (low)’ , an ancient correction (qere). The point in the strict MT reading would signify that while it is His task, it is not yet accomplished, but the whole context points to the correction as being correct.

Isaiah 49:6

‘Yes, he says,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant,

To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel,

I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles,

That you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.” ’

‘Raise up the tribes of Jacob’ is in parallel with being ‘a light to the Gentiles’ which confirms its moral significance. It is not just a matter of restoring exiles to the homeland, but of bringing them back to the light. ‘Restoring the preserved of Israel’, also has the same significance. Yahweh has preserved some of His people so that they might be restored to Him by the Servant (they will then again become part of the Servant). They are those remaining after God’s judgments (Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 6:13), even though at present in rebellion against God and battered down. They need to be raised up and restored. This is His first task.

But in view of Whom He is this is but a light task. It is too small. He is therefore also set to be ‘a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.’ He will bring light to the nations who are in darkness, illuminating their minds and revealing the truth about Yahweh. Thus He will not only deliver Israel, but also the ends of the world, bringing them too into the everlasting kingdom, He Himself being their salvation (see Isaiah 53).

Note the parallel ‘you should be my servant’ with ‘that you may be my salvation’. He is to be both the Servant and the Deliverance. The deliverance is wrapped up in His person. He is to be the Saviour of the nations. He is thus more than a king, He is more than a prophet, He is the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).


Verses 7-13

The Triumph of the Servant Out of Humiliation (Isaiah 49:7-13).

Isaiah 49:7

‘Thus says Yahweh, the redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,

To him whom man despises, to him whom the nation abhors,

To a servant of rulers.

Kings will see and arise, princes, and they will worship,

Because of Yahweh who is faithful,

Even the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.’

The Servant is now put in true perspective (compare Isaiah 49:4). Initially he will despised by men, he will be hated by nations, he will be a servant of rulers. This depicts both the humiliation of Israel and the humiliation of the coming One as described in Isaiah 53:1-4. But such humiliation only came on Israel when they sought to serve Yahweh only. It was their very distinctiveness that marked them out for such treatment, just as it would be the uniqueness of the Servant in chapter 53 which would bring on Him ignominy and shame. While they joined with others in their idolatry Israel would be welcomed. They would simply blend in with others. But once they turned from idols and put forward God’s Instruction, all would change. The world would turn on them because of their ‘peculiarity’, just as the Servant in chapter 53 would be treated in the same way because of His unique message and way of living. His life would be an offence because men had turned into their own way.

So Yahweh, the Redeemer of Israel, is the One Who has raised up this Servant to carry out His task of redemption. And it is the One Who is still Israel’s Holy One, will Who now speak to Him Who is despised by men (compare Isaiah 53:3; Isaiah 50:5-6) and abhorred by the nation (Isaiah 50:5-6), a servant of rulers (in a position where He has to submit to earthly rulers because He has not yet attained the authority which should be His).

Note the contrast between the Holy One and the despised One, One is in heaven and the other on the earth, One is set apart in holiness and glory, the other is walking in humility as a hated One and a mere servant. It is the Servant of the Holy One Who walks in humility and humiliation (compare Philippians 2:5-11). Men will despise Him because He seems so unimportant, (Isaiah 53:3 - and because He will be a despised Galilean), the nation will abhor Him because they feel uneasy at Him and dislike His message. Rulers will see Him as a common servant, to be treated as such because they reject His authority. Note also again the contrast. He is the exalted Servant of Yahweh, but rulers will see Him as but a common servant.

But Yahweh will turn the tables for Him. In the end kings will arise in His honour, princes will pay Him homage. And this will all be because of Yahweh’s faithfulness to Him, He Who as the Holy One of Israel has chosen Him. This anticipates Isaiah 53:12, but also keeps in mind Isaiah 49:23, and Isaiah 60:3; Isaiah 60:14-16.

Here again then we have blended King and people. Every nation saw itself as honoured when its king was honoured, that was also why they were to blame for his behaviour. It was why when the king was evil in the sight of Yahweh the people shared his ignominy. He could not do it unless they were willing. And when the king did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh, the effect passed on to the people. But the major impact came first through the behaviour of the king.

The reference of these verses to the ministry of Jesus and then to His resurrection glory is apparent. Beginning in humility and ending in glory He too would reveal Himself as the triumphant Servant (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12).

What must now also be seen as significant is that although up to this point the use of the designation ‘Israel’ has been prolific in almost every chapter from chapter 40 onwards, the contrast here in Isaiah 49:3; Isaiah 49:5-6 are the last mention of Israel as such in this section up to chapter 66. It is henceforth only used genitivally, as for example when describing God as ‘the Holy One of Israel’. The people will from now on be referred to as ‘Zion’ and Jerusalem, or as ‘Jacob’. This must be seen as significant and surely has the purpose of preventing the too close identification of the One now spoken of as ‘Israel’ with the failing people of God. Israel has reached its ultimate in this distinctive Servant. The term can no longer therefore be applied in this context to the failing people. For from now on we have the contrast between God’s failing people and God’s humiliated but triumphant Servant.

The seeming exception in Isaiah 63:16 is not really an exception because there Israel the Patriarch is in mind. (See on that passage). So all this may be seen as confirming that once ‘Israel’ had come to its culmination in the One Who represented it as only He could, and once He was called ‘Israel’, Isaiah was determined not to use it for any other, lest He Who is the only true representative of Israel be in some way diminished.

Isaiah 49:8-9

‘Thus says Yahweh,

“In an acceptable time (‘a time of favour’) I have answered you,

And in a day of salvation have I helped you,

And I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people,

To raise up the land, to make them inherit desolate heritages,

Saying to those who are bound, ‘Go forth’,

To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves’.”

Yahweh now speaks to the Servant again. When the acceptable time comes, the time of God’s favour, when the day of salvation is about to dawn, Yahweh will answer Him and help Him. He will preserve Him and give Him for a covenant of the people. That is, He will cause Him to stand before the people as a guarantee of Yahweh’s covenant with them, the everlasting covenant, the sure mercies of David (Isaiah 55:3). And the purpose of this will be so that He might raise up the land and cause them to inherit desolate heritages. The land will be restored and He will make ‘a way in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 43:19-20). The heritage of each family will cease being desolate, and they will walk in well-watered ways. The Servant is acting for God on behalf of the people. He is doing the work of God. The result is that the land that they had inherited would become fruitful again. Out of their despair would come full restoration at His hands. And the ones who are to inherit will be called out of bondage and out of the darkness of prison houses, and told to go out and show themselves so that all might see that they have been delivered. It is a picture of triumphant salvation by the One of the many. The whole picture is of an ideal future.

To a certain extent some of this was fulfilled by men like Nehemiah and Ezra, Zerubbabel and Joshua, Haggai and Zechariah. They caused His returning people to inherit. But none of them became a light to the Gentiles, and for His salvation to the ends of the earth. That awaited the coming of Jesus, Who came into the world and restored those of His people who would hear the new covenant, releasing those who were bound by sin or in darkness, and easing the way for all to prosper under God. He came as a light into the world that men might not walk in darkness but might have the light of life (John 8:12). And in the end it was He alone Who could be for salvation to the ends of the earth, although we must include within His ministry His Apostles whom He appointed. They too were the Servant. If we ask which of the people of Israel alive in 1st century AD fulfilled these promises there can only be one answer. It the world was initially turned upside down by Jews, and those Jews were Jesus Himself, and the Apostles and their followers, and it was with a salvation centred on what Jesus had done. This is not just an interpretation, it is a unique fact of history. These were the first century fulfilment of the Servant.

This is now followed by a glorious picture of the new Exodus as God’s people travel home to Him.

Isaiah 49:9-12

‘They will feed in the ways,

And on all bare heights will be their pasture,

They will not hunger, nor thirst,

Nor will the heat nor sun smite them,

For he who has mercy on them will lead them,

Even by the springs of water will he guide them,

And I will make all my mountains a way,

And my highways will be exalted,

Lo, these will come from far,

And lo, these from the north and from the west,

And these from the land of Sinim.

The exiles of Israel will come from all parts of the world to have their part in this glorious salvation. It is for Israel both near and far. But note that this is not people returning in unbelief. They are responding to the call of the Servant. And God will be with them and will make the way pleasant for them. The mountains of the world belong to Him, and all its highways. And His mountains will all provide passage for His people, none will be insuperable, and they will walk in exalted highways, not those walked by unbelievers.

While it is a new worldwide Exodus, they will not this time have to come through a wilderness but across land abundant with food and pasture. There will be no hunger and thirst. No heatstroke or sun will smite them. For the One Who has mercy on them will be the One Who leads them, and He will guide them by springs of water. The way through the mountains will be made easy, and the lowly highways will be raised up. No up and down experiences for these. And they will come from far, from north and west and from the land of Sinim. Sinim is to us unidentified, (although connection with a tribal area of China has been suggested), but it is noteworthy that none were to come from the east. Babylon and the east are not mentioned, perhaps because Babylon was now seen as having been destroyed (47). These are the worldwide exiles which have resulted from the continual ravages of Assyria.

The later early returning exiles from Babylon would have opened their eyes at these words as they struggled back along the weary way, constantly searching for water, as would many who returned from other exiles. But that is not really the point behind the description. It rather speaks of spiritual welfare and blessing, and the help of God in whatever way they walk. And it was all a preparation, a foundation for what God would do in the future. The point being made is that God’s salvation will be made available wherever they are. The journey is really the journey back to Him. But of course it had to result in a return of the faithful to Jerusalem, for it was from there that His word had to go out to the nations (Isaiah 2:1-4).

It was therefore no mere coincidence when Luke pointed out that there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews from every nation under heaven (Acts 2:5). The exiles had returned. And it was from those of them who responded to Jesus Christ that God’s salvation was to be taken out to the ends of the earth. But the message was helped on by Jews of the Dispersion who came to Christ in many countries around the world, as well, of course, as by the new Israel of God. Thus His people came back to Him in all parts of the world. And the idealistic final picture behind all this is of all God’s people coming to the everlasting kingdom through the work of the Servant, and being provided for and helped on the way (Isaiah 35:10).

Isaiah 49:13

‘Sing, O heavens, and be joyful, O earth,

And break forth into singing, O mountains,

For Yahweh has comforted his people,

And will have compassion on his afflicted.’

Once again the whole of creation is called on to declare its joy at what God has done for His people, and to wonder at His goodness and compassion on those who through affliction (Isaiah 48:10) have been brought back to Him. Both the heavens and the mountains, the exalted parts of creation, are to sing, and especially the mountains, for it is from them that the Good News is to be declared, while the whole earth is to be filled with joy. For Yahweh has brought about what He promised in Isaiah 40:1, and has revealed His great mercy on them.

The book of Isaiah began with Yahweh calling on the heaven and earth as witnesses in Isaiah 1:2. There they were to witness the failure and disobedience of Israel. In Isaiah 44:23 heaven and earth then rejoiced at Yahweh’s offer of forgiveness of sins, and His potential blotting out of their transgressions, and the redemption of those who were truly His people. Now the same occurs again because of the Servant’s work on behalf of His people, restoring them and giving them hope.


Verses 14-26

The Despair of the People And Their Final Hope (Isaiah 49:14-26).

The picture now reverts. Yahweh’s call to them was to be His Servant, but instead they are sitting moaning on the ground. Here the picture is of Jerusalem in despair because of her present state and because so many of her children are so far from her in exile in different parts of the world, taken their by various invaders or having fled there for refuge. But God assures her of His love for her and that her children will return. And she is given the picture of her children returning in droves and reaching out and possessing the land. The picture is one of full restoration to the nation of their dreams, a guarantee that one day all will be put right in the everlasting kingdom. And that will be in the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17).

We should note here that this is not the picture of a totally deserted Jerusalem needing to be inhabited. It is a picture of an inhabited and walled Jerusalem seeking to be delivered from her oppressors and longing for the return of its exiles, which fits Isaiah’s period perfectly.

Isaiah 49:14

‘But Zion said, “Yahweh has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” ’

Notice the change of description of God’s people to ‘Zion’. It is vivid. The picture is of Zion/Jerusalem sitting pathetically ringing her hands and looking round at her desolation. She is deserted and forsaken. She considers that she has no future. In Isaiah 41:27 Zion had been addressed and had been told to behold Yahweh’s words through Isaiah. Now their failure to do so is made apparent.

So, in contrast with the greatness of the Servant, is the plaintiveness of the people as a whole, now no longer the wondrous vision of ‘Israel’, the strong Servant, but the sad picture of ‘Zion’ the self-pitying, the petulant (compare Isaiah 40:27). You might get the impression here from what she says that Zion was totally without blame and that God had behaved dreadfully. They may even have felt that. In spite of all that they had done in forsaking Yahweh they were still unwilling to accept the truth about their own sinfulness and what they deserved. They had forsaken Him and forgotten Him, pushing Him to one side. And now they claimed that it was all His fault. Once we start to blame God it is a sign that we are totally wrapped up in ourselves and in our sin.

Isaiah has gradually been building up to this use of ‘Zion’. Previously it has mainly been ‘the daughters of Zion’ because Zion was seen as their abode, but as in Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 41:27 Zion has gradually been personalised to represent its people. Zechariah will even use it of His people in far off countries (Zechariah 2:7). The use now fluctuates between meaning the people and meaning the place.

Their complaint is seen to be folly. Yahweh is the great covenant God, the One Who could say, ‘I am the One Who is there’ (Exodus 3:14), Who had proved His faithfulness through the generations, and Who mightily delivered them from Sennacherib. And yet they say that He has forsaken them, overlooking the fact that it is they who have failed to fulfil their part in the covenant, and it is they who have forsaken Him. They are like a man who deserts his wife and home for a good time, and, finding himself alone in a bedsit, having broken his marriage vows, blames is wife for letting him down. Then they add, ‘the Sovereign Lord has forgotten me.’ This is an equally foolish statement. They were claiming that He was so high and mighty that He had no time for them, when it was they who had had no time for Him. Their present state was all their own fault.

Isaiah 49:15-16

“Can a woman forget the child who looks to her breasts for food,

That she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?

Yes, these may forget, yet will I not forget you.

Behold I have engraved you on the palms of my hands,

Your walls are continually before me.”

Yahweh’s reply is magnificent. Would a nursing mother forget her child, her own born son? Yes, that is even possible. It has happened. But on no account will Yahweh forget the people of Jerusalem. For Jerusalem is His daughter (Isaiah 1:8). She is engraved on the palms of His hands so that its walls are continually before Him. Note the implication that the walls are still standing. He has not forgotten Jerusalem. He had already proved it by His treatment of Sennacherib and Assyria.

Such statements as this built up the myth of the inviolability of Jerusalem. But while God would never forget Jerusalem, with all that it symbolised as the centre of His people’s worship, (a centre later transferred to heaven along with the resurrected Jesus, to the Jerusalem which is above - Galatians 4:26), it did not mean that He would not allow it to be taught a vivid lesson.

Isaiah 49:17

‘Your children hurry, your destroyers and those who made you waste will go forth from you.’

She need not be concerned. Her children who have been exiled around the world are in a hurry to return, and they will hurry to her, while those who ravage her will depart. She will be left secure. The promise is a general one, it covers any who seek to lay her waste. All her enemies without exception will depart and leave her alone, for when her children return it will be to the everlasting kingdom. For ‘laid waste’ see Isaiah 49:19. It is speaking of the lands around which are part of Jerusalem. It need not refer to the actual destruction of the city.

Some MS and versions have ‘your builders’ instead of ‘your children’ but Isaiah 49:18 refers back to it and supports ‘children’.

Isaiah 49:18

‘Lift up your eyes around and see, and behold.

All these gather together and come to you.

“As I live,” says Yahweh,

“You will surely clothe yourselves with them all, as with an ornament,

And gird yourself with them, like a bride.”

Zion is to cease moaning with her eyes cast down and is to look up, and look around. And then she will behold. Then she will see her children gathering to her. And if only she will believe (‘see’) she will be able to take them all and wear them as an ornament, and decorate herself with them like a bride decorates herself with jewels. All that was needed was the eyes of men and women with faith in Yahweh who would recognise what God could do.

Isaiah 49:19

‘For as for your waste and desolate places,

And your land that has been destroyed,

Surely now you will be too restricted for your inhabitants,

And those who swallowed you up will be far away.’

This could refer to any period when invaders had come in and ravaged the land. It would happen again and again. But she need not fear. For when her children return they will be so many that they will spread abroad and inhabit the land. The small amount she now possesses will be too restricted. And no one will be able to prevent it because those who ‘swallowed her up’ and so restricted her will be far away. Final triumph is guaranteed. The Assyrians had for a while left Judah with only a small area around Jerusalem. But Yahweh would expand it and ensure that it was inhabited.

Isaiah 49:20-21

‘The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears,

“The place is too restricted for me. Give me more space that I may dwell there.”

Then you will say in your heart, “Who has begotten me these?

Seeing I am bereaved of my children, and am alone,

One who is made bare (uncovered), and wandering too and fro?

And who has brought up these?

Behold I was left alone. These, where were they?” ’

She feels that she has been bereaved of her children, but those very children will yet return, and they will be so many that they will complain that there is not enough room and will require more space, filling the land to overflowing, and inhabiting it. And in amazement she will ask where these children have come from, even doubting that they can be her own. Note the sad description of her state, alone, without anything worthwhile and wandering helplessly and aimlessly about. And now she complains about her children having left her. When she was left alone, where were they? Thus when she does see her multiplicity of children she is pictured as being resentful. The idea is of a dissatisfied and discontented woman so as to bring out Judah’s present state.

The picture is one of hope out of despair. Who could have believed that stricken Jerusalem and its immediate environs would grow until it would contain almost the whole land of Israel. And yet that was what happened in later centuries. But even more astounding was the growth of ‘Zion’ when it began to take in the multitude of Gentile Christian converts to form the new congregation (ecclesia) of Israel, the ecclesia which we translate as ‘church’. And the growth will be greater still when the multitude that no man can number are gathered to the new Jerusalem.

Isaiah 49:22-23

‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh,

“Behold I will lift up my hand to the nations,

And set up my banner to the peoples,

And they will bring your sons in their bosom,

And your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.

And kings will be your nursing fathers,

And queens your nursing mothers,

They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth,

And will lick the dust of your feet,

And you will know that I am Yahweh,

And those who wait for me will not be ashamed.” ’

Yahweh’s response is positive. Here God depicts the return of exiles from all over the world, as described in Isaiah 49:20-21, as a triumphant march in response to God’s beckoning with the hand and the raising of His banner (compare Isaiah 11:11-12). It is in total contrast with the flight from Babylon of lovers of Babylon depicted in Isaiah 48:20. These return in triumph. The nations respond by bearing God’s people in their hearts and on their shoulders, kings and queens care for them and nurture them, and all fall down before them and lick the dust of their feet. This is not of course to be taken literally. It is a picture of triumphant progress towards the everlasting kingdom. The licking of the dust is a sign of defeat for their enemies, the bowing down a recognition that they are God’s chosen. They bow down to them because their King reigns supreme. The action of the kings and queens evidence, firstly, that God’s people are superior to all royalty except the son of David, and secondly, that all authority is subject to them and will take the greatest care of them (see Isaiah 14:2).

Then they will have learned that Yahweh is indeed the One Who is, the Lord of history, and that those who wait in expectancy on Him will never be put to shame.

The idea is, of course of the final triumph of the people of God. God’s people can be sure that whatever their present tribulations in the world one day it is they who will be honoured because of the Servant’s work on their behalf. One day they will enjoy the honour of all.

Isaiah 49:24

‘Shall the prey be taken from the mighty,

Or those rightfully captive (‘the captives of the just’) be delivered?’

The question comes back in astonishment. Shall the prey be taken from the mighty? Shall those rightfully captive be delivered? Is this possible? They deserve to be captives, as what Isaiah has said previously has demonstrated, and their captors are mighty. They have no deserving, nothing to their credit, and they are weak. Will then God deliver even such as these?

Isaiah 49:25-26

‘And thus says Yahweh,

“Even the captives of the mighty will be taken away,

And the prey of the terrible will be delivered,

For I will contend with him who contends with you,

And I will save your children.

And I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh,

And they will be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine,

And all flesh will know that I Yahweh am your deliverer,

And your redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Yahweh comes back with His reply. He will indeed fight for them, for He is the Mighty One, not only of princely Israel but of lowly Jacob. He will take away the captives from the mighty, He will deliver the prey of the terrible, He will contend with their contenders, and save their children. He will deliver them from all evil. Indeed the mighty and the terrible will rather fight each other, ‘eating each others flesh’, a vivid way of saying slaughtering each other, ‘drinking their own blood’, that is, satiating themselves with their bloodthirsty activities with each other. (Note how this gives a background to the meaning of ‘eating flesh and drinking wine’ in John 6 as signifying the slaying of Jesus).

It need hardly be pointed out that this partially ‘contradicts’ Isaiah 49:23, which suggested a bloodless coup, but not really, for none are to be taken literally. They are varying pictures of God’s saving activity and God’s judgment through time.

Then not only Israel will know (Isaiah 49:23) but all flesh will know that their Deliverer and Redeemer is Yahweh. And that He is the people of Jacob’s Champion. He is ‘The Mighty One of Jacob’ (compare Isaiah 60:16; Genesis 49:24), the Mighty Warrior Who fights on their behalf. Note that ‘Jacob’ is used and not ‘Israel’. After the naming of the Servant as ‘Israel’, that name as used for the people is being avoided.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 49:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-49.html. 2013.

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