In our last essay we studied Isaiah 48. And in this essay we are studying chapter 49. This chapter begins a new, major section of the book, the first part of which anticipates salvation. In the first 13 verses we see the calling and ministry of the divine Servant.
The passage begins with a renewed call to listen. Only this time the call is issued to ”the coastlands, which as we have seen before, refers to the nations. The language of verse one strongly suggests that the servant in view is an individual, rather than the nation. Verse two tells us that this person’s mouth, that is his spoken word, is his weapon. Of course you will remember that in John, chapter one, Jesus is identified as God’s Word become flesh. Notice that the weapons are hidden, as a sheathed sword or an arrow in the quiver. But they are at the ready, if and when they are needed.
Verse three is a problem, because it says, “You are my servant, Israel.” Obviously that seems to say that the nation was the one spoken to rather than an individual; but Oswalt says this use of the term “Israel” is not a name. Rather it is an expression of function of the Servant. The divine Servant will function as Israel. That is to say, Israel, the divine Servant, will do what Israel the nation was called to do, but could not (because of her sinfulness), namely, bring the nations to God. Oswalt also claims that this rules out the possibility that Isaiah referred to himself as the servant. He says that no prophet in Israel would have thought of himself as Ideal Israel.
Oswalt interprets verse four messianically as an expression of Christ’s humanity. Jesus had very little success during his earthly ministry.
In verses 5-6 we see a shift from the Servant’s calling to his mission. First, he is to bring Jacob back to the Lord. It is true that Israel needed deliverance from Babylon. And by God’s power, Cyrus would handle that. But Israel had a deeper need. She needed to be reconciled to God; and the Messiah was the only one who could accomplish that. However, notice that the Servant’s mission is even greater than that. Second, he is to bring the whole world to God. Of course this cinches the fact that Isaiah was not thinking of himself. No human prophet could bring the world to God.
In verse seven the Lord speaks to the Servant as one who is despised, abhorred, and a slave. But in the end, kings and princes will honor him. The messianic interpretation comes easily here.
In the next paragraph, the Lord turns to the Servant’s work. In verse eight notice the verb tenses. Both the NIV and Oswalt translate them as futures. I don’t know why the NRSV translates them as in the past. But the point is that on the day of salvation, the Lord will appoint the messianic Servant to a series of tasks. The “salvation” mentioned here has two levels of meaning. One is a political deliverance from Babylon, and the other is an ultimate deliverance from sin. The Servant is to become God’s covenant to the people. That is, he somehow will embody God’s covenant with the people. Isaiah does not explain that, but we must remember that the people had broken the covenant time and time again. Perhaps this embodiment of the covenant by the Messiah is the only way it can be restored.
At any rate, as God’s covenant to the people, the divine Servant will do three things. One, he will restore the land. Two, he will apportion the desolate heritages. And three, he will call the prisoners out of the darkness. Restoration of the land is easy to interpret at the deliverance from Babylon level. A return to Judah would accomplish that. It is much more symbolic at the end time level. The symbolism is heavy at both levels when we think about apportioning desolate heritages. The idea is to reinstate the division of land to the tribes and families, as originally done by Joshua, and as envisioned in the Jubilee Year (Lev. 25:8-55). The calling of the people out of darkness is vivid at both levels.
In the middle of verse nine Isaiah begins to speak of the return to Judah following deliverance from Babylon. He uses three fairly familiar images. The first is the image of flocks grazing. The flocks will have plenty to eat, even along the “bare heights” (v. 9). The second image is provisions like those given during the Exodus. The people will have plenty of food and water; they will be protected from the sun and wind, and the Lord will have compassion on them (v. 10). And the third image is that of an easy, well-graded highway (v. 11).
These verses are important, because they demonstrate that the divine Servant’s ministry is not limited to setting the people free. He also will guide and protect them along the way. Verse 12 confirms the second level of salvation. We saw a very similar message back in 43:5-6. People will come from all over the civilized world. Remember, this chapter began with a call to the “coastlands,” the nations. The city of Syene has been identified with the modern city of Aswan at the southern edge of Egypt. Therefore, at the time it represented the southernmost edge of the civilized world. Thus we have the south, north and west named. Those “far away” represent those in the east, providing all four points of the compass. Therefore the return of the Jews to Judah would merely be a foretaste of a massive return to God from the whole world.
Here in verse 13, as we have seen at other places in the book, the good news expressed calls forth universal praise led by nature, which according to Romans eight, itself looks forward to its redemption (Rom. 8:19-22).
The discussion of the Servant’s calling and work is followed in verse 14 by a cry from Zion that none of it matters, because God has put her away and forgotten her. Then in verse 15 the Lord replies with the powerful image of a mother’s love. He has not forsaken nor forgotten them. The truth is even some mothers forsake their children, but the Lord never forsakes or forgets. Psalm 27:10 makes the same point, “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”
Verse 16 uses a different image. The Lord declares that he has their names inscribed on the palms of his hands. It was a common practice for slaves to have their master’s names inscribed on their hands. This image is the opposite. The master, the Lord, has the names of his people inscribed on his hands.
Modern translations show a translation problem at the beginning of verse 17. The NRSV reads, “Your builders outdo your destroyers.” And the NIV reads, “Your sons hasten back.” Oswalt says that the Hebrew words for “builders” and “sons” differ only by one vowel, ands he thinks the lord was making a play on words here. In effect he was saying to Israel, that the “builders” of the ruined walls would be the “sons” that Israel thought were gone forever. The important thing here is in the second part of the verse. The destroyers will leave.
In verse 18 the Lord calls on Zion to lift her eyes and look around. The builders, the sons, are coming. And she will wear them like an ornament. Indeed, as verses 19 and 20 say, not only will those who “swallowed you up” (the destroyers) be gone, but there will be so many sons taking their place that even the desolate parts of the lands will be overcrowded. A new generation born during the “bereavement,” the Exile, will appear. Verse 21 declares that Israel will be astonished at the numbers. She who will be thinking of herself as a barren mother will suddenly wonder where so many children came from.
Verses 22-23 answer the question of where the children came from. The Lord will do it. He will bring them from all over the world. He will raise a banner, an ensign (the NRSV translates it “signal”) to the nations. The banner will call on the nations to bring Israel’s children, who are her builders, home. You may recall that back in 5:26 the Lord raised a banner to call the nations to punish Israel. Now he will raise a banner to call them to bring Israel’s children home. Interestingly, back in 11:10-12 the Lord identified the coming Messiah as the banner that calls God’s people from the nations.
Clearly, as Oswalt observes, the Lord intends by this picture much more than the return from exile. The end time is in view. The nations, including their kings and queens, will come and bow down to Israel in homage. Whereas Israelites once served as nursemaids for the nations, it will be the other way around on that glorious day. And Israel will learn from this that the Lord is God and that those who wait for him will not be disgraced.
The grand promises of verse 22-23 raise an incredulous response. The rhetorical question in verse 24 is asking, “Is this possible?” And the Lord answers in verse 25. “Yes, it can happen, because I will make it happen.” From a human perspective Israel can overcome neither Babylon nor sin. But God can do it. He will enable Cyrus to defeat Babylon, and his divine Servant will overcome sin. In verse 26, using graphic imagery that is not to be taken literally the Lord declares that the oppressors will receive severe judgment. Then the whole world will know that the Lord is Israel’s Savior.