First the Servant Himself speaks in verses 1-6. Two messages to the exiles follow in verses 7-12, drawing out implications of what the Servant has said. The movement is from the Servant Himself to the people of God who are associated with Him. With the return of the Servant the sharp rebuke of the previous chapter gives way, once more, to comfort. Strangely, although the sinfulness of God’s people is crying out for remedy, the Servant does not address them directly at all. He speaks to the world at large (v. 1).
A polished arrow (vv. 1-6): But who is the Servant? Verse three says His name is Israel. But how can this be, since, as we have already seen, a key aspect of His mission is to restore Israel to a proper relationship with God (v. 5)? We are forced back to the conclusion we reached in chapter 42, that He is a figure who embodies all that the nation of Israel was called to be, and therefore one who is truly worthy of the name – God’s perfect Servant. He is far greater than Jeremiah, or any other Old Testament prophet for that matter. He is prophet par excellence. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we shall just have to wait, because for the moment He is hidden in the shadow of the Lord’s hand, and concealed…in His quiver like a polished arrow (v. 2).
A new people of God (vv. 7-13): As we move on to verse 7, however, the word Israel reverts to its normal sense, and the focus shifts back again from the Servant of God to the people of God, the surviving remnant of the nation. After the repetition of previous promises in these verses we discover new things here; the whole passage is nuanced by its close relationship to the Servant Song which follows. Of course, neither of the expressions is new to us; they were both used with reference to the Servant Himself in 42:6 and, as we saw there, they refer to God’s intention to extend His salvation to all peoples, to bless the whole world that He has created. Isaiah underlines the fact that God will achieve this great goal through the Servant Himself and through His restored people. As they are brought back into right relationship with God, God’s people become one with God’s Servant in His worldwide mission.
This means that the very idea of the people of God begins to undergo a kind of metamorphosis. Those whom God restores to Himself become a sign of His commitment to extend this same blessing to all people. The shout of praise then, in verse 13 is the “Hurrah!” of mission accomplished – a cause of rejoicing to the whole earth. But by the time we reach that point the theme of comfort for the people of God is no longer focused narrowly on the captives in Babylon. They may be its most immediate point of reference, but it reaches beyond them to embrace all people. And the key to all this is the Servant of the Lord, Israel is to understand that its entire future in God’s purposes is intimately bound up with Him.
Isaiah 49:1-13 Reflection Questions:
Why do you think the Servant addresses the world at large and not directly to His own people’s concerns?
Why do you think the New Testament Jewish people had a hard time with God offering salvation to the whole world (Gentiles)? Do these attitudes happen today?
Why do you think that the exiles found these sweeping visions from Isaiah difficult to grasp?