Commentary on Isaiah 49:8-16a
Isaiah 49:8-16a, the Old Testament lectionary text for this Sunday, is part of a larger poetic unit comprised of all twenty-six verses of chapter 49.
This poem contains two of the most powerful symbols of Isaiah 40-55: (1) the servant of Yahweh, the primary subject of a number of powerful poems, among them Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and (2) the deeply moving portrayal of Zion as an abandoned woman. Isaiah 49 can be divided into two equal parts, verses 1-13, which deal with the servant, and verses 14-26, whose focus is Zion’s misery (verse 14) and the prophet’s vision of her restoration (verses 15-26).
The poem was almost certainly composed during the period of the Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE). Thus the descriptions of the “desolate heritages,” the people in prison or living in darkness, the journey across mountains and plains in verses 9-10, as well as the anguish of Zion in verse 14, are all images that need to be understood in light of the pain of the people whose lives have been devastated by war and their deportation to Babylon. Living in Babylon, the people were surrounded by the symbols of their captors’ might and, thus, the signs of their own defeat and helplessness. In response to the alienation and vulnerability of exile, the prophet offers the poem of Isaiah 49, in which distance is overcome by intimacy, and helplessness is met by the comforting presence of God.
In verses 8-12, the poet juxtaposes what is apparently the exiles’ own view of themselves as “prisoners” and the people “who dwell in darkness,” images of isolation and hopelessness, with Yahweh’s responsiveness to their plight. The prophet piles on verbs to reassure the people that God’s power and protection remain with them: God “answers,” “helps,” and, “keeps.” On top of all of these verbs, we find the tantalizing and ambiguous promise: “I have given you as a covenant to the people.”
Although, it is difficult to interpret exactly what is meant by the phrase “covenant to the people,” it is certainly significant that the language of covenant is used to characterize the relationship between God and the people once again. A powerful metaphor used throughout their long history to describe the bond between Israel and her god, the word “covenant” must have been difficult to utter in exile, when the signs of its reality had been obliterated: the temple and their very existence as a nation. Indeed, we find in the Hebrew Scriptures evidence that the people understood their own journey into exile as a result of their breaking of the covenant between themselves and God (see Isaiah 39: 1-8 and 42:18-25 for just two examples of this interpretation of the exile in the book of Isaiah alone). Brokenness and alienation are not going to have the last word, however. While the outward signs of the covenant are tragically broken, the prophet boldly asserts that new signs are on the horizon. The exiles, depicted as prisoners, will be freed, and journey home in safety (verses 9-10). God will gather up the alienated and vulnerable and return them to the familiar comfort of home.
The mid-point of the chapter is verse 13, a song of praise offered to God for the joyful return of the exiles. The poem might very well end there, with all of this jubilation, but then the voice of Zion, previously unheard, interjects. She says only four words in Hebrew, translated into English as: “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (verse 14). Distance and desolation take center stage again in the form of a lone female.
The prophet meets the profound alienation and vulnerability of Zion with a powerfully intimate image of universal appeal: a mother nursing her child (verse 15). Implicitly, the prophet identifies God as the mother, nursing anguished Zion, and then says that a mother’s nurture of and compassion for her children is much more limited than God’s. Using the same verb that Zion has used in her complaint, God says: “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” The persistence of God’s memory is highlighted with the striking picture of verse 16a: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Forgetfulness is simply not possible when one’s hands are covered with reminders. Once again, alienation is overcome by intimacy.
There are so many forms exile can take, and it is up to the preacher to emphasize one particular type of exile or another. Some might focus on exile as a result of relationships torn asunder by abuse or addiction, selfishness or greed. Many in contemporary society experience the pain of dislocation and distance from God and from one another, and the witness of this text is that God is able to bridge the chasms that divide human beings both from the divine and from the warmth of community.
It is also important to consider the calling to the servant, Israel, to be a “covenant to the people” and a “light to the nations.” Christians are called to pay attention to the very physical reality of people in the world who are in exile as a result of war, natural disasters, poverty, or unjust political systems. This calling is linked to the compassion of God, who feels the suffering of others as keenly as a mother might feel the suffering of her children. Yahweh works to bring the people who are far away (verse 12) back into the safety and joy of a covenant relationship, and the mission of the Church is to reflect this divine effort at reconciliation in a world characterized by exile even to this day.