Isaiah 49:1-7 and the Servant’s Mission

Listen to me O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.

Isaiah 49:1, ESV

This monologue by the Servant of the Lord begins with no indication that the speaker has changed, except that someone other than the LORD is now speaking. Is it Isaiah? Or Israel? Or Cyrus? We will gradually discover that this is the Servant of the Lord who is introduced in Isa 42, who speaks in Isa 48:16, and whom Christians recognize as their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Isa 42:4, the coastlands waited for his law– and now he speaks to them. The universal scale of the message is due to the servant’s unique qualifications (Isa 49:1-3) and the universal scale of his mission (Isa 49:6). He is named Jesus while in the womb, because he will save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21).

He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.

Isaiah 49:2

The servant is the Lord’s secret weapon, hidden in the Lord’s eternal plan until the right moment. A sharp sword for close combat, and a polished arrow for long range, he is effective in any battle. David built his kingdom with a sword, but the son of David judges the wicked with his mouth (Isa 11:4). Cyrus conquered with a sword, but Jesus simply annouces the arrival of his kingdom and commands obedience (Matt 4:17). Like God, he creates and destroys by his words. The sword he brings creates war within households, because his gospel demands absolute allegiance (Matt 10:34-37). In Revelation, Jesus uses the sword of his mouth to make war against heretics (Rev 2:15-16), and at his coming he will kill the lawless one with his breath (2 Thess 2:8). Christians continue Jesus’ kingdom building work by wielding the word of God as a sword (Eph 6:17, c.f. Heb 4:12, 2 Cor 10:5).

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

Isaiah 49:3

Jesus is the righteous remnant of Israel, the heir of its blessings and responsibilities. He can be called Israel for the same reason he is called David (e.g. Hos 3:5): He is the son and heir of the man named Israel. He is also the head and source of the renewed kingdom of Israel. He inherits and fulfills the calling passed from Abraham to Israel, to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). He glorifies God (John 17:1-4), and when his people abide in him they also glorify God (John 15:5-8).

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4

The servant has poured out all of his strength, and it looks like it was all for nothing. But the Lord will always enforce justice, and so the righteous servant expects a reward from God. The Lord Jesus preached and did good to people his whole life, and what did it profit him? Few truly believed in him, and only a few friends stood with him during his execution. But the Lord raised him to eternal life, and gave him all authority in Heaven and Earth. Likewise, we should trust that our labor is not in vain, because the Lord will reward all of our work.

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength–

Isaiah 49:5

Bringing true repentance is a spiritual task that Cyrus is unfit for, but this is what the servant was born to do. The Lord’s spirit (Isa 42:1) and the sword of the servant’s mouth (Isa 49:2) perfectly equip him for this task. The servant is now confident that the Lord will give him the success he deserves. Don’t miss the paradox between this verse and verse 3: The servant is Israel, and the servant is born to bring back Israel. This implies that Jesus is the beginning of a renewed Israel that can be distinguished from the nation of Israel. Jesus is Israel, he is on mission to Israel, and he himself fulfills the mission of Israel.

he says– “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6

Far from failing in his mission to Israel, Jesus was overqualified! Jesus began his ministry with the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15:24); and after his death, resurrection, and ascension he expanded his ministry to grant repentance even to us gentiles (Acts 11:18). Paul and Barnabas see Isa 49:6 as a command to them: since the Jews aren’t listening, they must do Jesus’ work of bringing salvation to the gentiles (Acts 13:46-7).

Light and darkness are recurring images in Isaiah, and the extended descriptions in Isa 8:16-9:7 demonstrate their complex meanings. Darkness is the aimlessness that comes from ignoring the Lord’s teaching, and it results in the further darkness of judgment (Isa 8:16-22). Light is the opposite of this, and will be seen in a kingdom of peace, justice, and prosperity under a divine son of David (Isa 9:1-7). Jesus is this light of revelation and salvation for Israel and for the ends of the earth (Luke 2:32).

Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Isaiah 49:7

Jesus was hated by his own nation of Israel, and he was a servant of Rome. Then he rose to eternal life and ascended to the right hand of God as king of kings. The kings of the earth will either submit to him willingly, or be conquered on the last day. The kingdom of light will fill the earth, and its enemies will be cast into outer darkness.

1 thought on “Isaiah 49:1-7 and the Servant’s Mission

  1. Pingback: Isaiah 49:9-13 and the Christian Life | Hapax Blogomena

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