Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7
Isaiah 49:1-7 comprises the second of the so-called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), a designation that I indicated in last Sunday’s commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9 to be problematic.
Rather than be restricted to these select texts, the Servant theme appears throughout Isaiah 40-53.
A significant transition takes place in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) between chapters 48 and 49, such that chapters 49-55 could have been written in a different setting than chapters 40-48. Chapters 40-48 contain repeated references to Israel as Jacob, the Persian conqueror Cyrus, the fall of Babylon, and a way in the wilderness. Chapters 49-55 never mention Cyrus or Babylon, Jacob is no longer mentioned after chapter 49, and now the focus is on the ingathering of Israel from the diaspora. It is likely that the former chapters were written in Babylon and the latter were written in Yehud following the first phase of resettlement in Jerusalem following Cyrus’ decree. It appears a community did heed the call to “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea” (48:20), and the testimony of Isaiah 49-55 is this community’s legacy.
As chapter 48 draws to a close, the identity of the Servant remains open. Cyrus is no longer a possible candidate so the role of Servant defaults to Israel. At the end of chapter 48 the voice of an individual prophet emerges for the first time in 48:16b, “And now the Lord GOD has sent me and his spirit.” The Spirit that earlier anointed the Servant of Isaiah 42:1 now commissions an individual prophet to fulfill the role of the Servant. It will be this individual who will speak as the Servant of Yahweh throughout chapters 49-53 and will fulfill the role of the Servant spoken of earlier in chapters 40-48.
Both Isaiah 42:1-6 and 49:1-8 describe the Servant as ministering to the nations (42:1; 49:6), teaching the coastlands (42:4, 49:1), caring for justice (42:3-4; 49:4), and serving as a light to the nations and a covenant to the people (42:6, 49:6, 8). Just as 42:5-9 is a commissioning speech, so too 49:1-3 functions in the same manner. The one key development in chapter 49 is that the Servant, who is clearly identified as Israel (49:3), will now have a ministry to his own kin. The Servant is commissioned to “bring Jacob back to him” (49:5) and “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel” (49:6). His ministry is not merely to liberate the nations, but to revive and restore his own people.
Israel as God’s Servant has not been faithful to its role as God’s elect nation (cf. 48:1-2). Israel as God’s Servant is called to open the eyes of the blind (42:7), but is itself plagued with the same problem: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the LORD?” (42:19).
The prophet commissioned in chapter 49 is not a replacement of Israel as God’s Servant, but is commissioned to call Israel back to be faithful to its vocation as a light to the nations. God’s Servant is to be concerned for the local as well as the global. As important as it is to reach the nations, it is oftentimes the case that it is easier to reach out to strangers halfway across the globe than to one’s own family or neighbors. The people of God are never to neglect their own kin as exemplified by Jesus’ own willingness to go to Nazareth and Jerusalem.
It appears that the radical transformation announced as a new exodus in Isaiah 40-48 was not completely realized by the Israelites who returned home to rebuild their Temple following 538 B.C.E. Many Israelites refused to return, preferring their life in Babylon to the challenging task of rebuilding a desolated homeland. The prophet-Servant of Isaiah 49-53 is charged with the difficult task of persuading a reluctant and obstinate people to embrace a dangerous mission. As evidenced in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the returnees would face opposition and oppression from within and without the Judean community. Isaiah 49-53 captures the progression of resistance the prophet-Servant experiences. He first encounters an unresponsive audience, then experiences confrontations and insults, and eventually endures violence and death.
Second Isaiah makes clear that Servanthood involves prophetic ministry in the tradition of Jeremiah and the psalms of lament. Like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), the Servant is called to prophetic ministry while in his mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1). Unlike Cyrus who wields a literal sword and bow, the weapon a prophet employs is his preaching (Isaiah 49:2; cf. Hosea 6:5; Jeremiah 23:29). Like Jeremiah, faithfulness to one’s prophetic vocation may result in rejection and opposition, resulting in the prophet to question his call to ministry (Jeremiah 20:7-18).
John Goldingay observes that the lament of the prophet in 49:4 recalls the complaint of Israel in Isaiah 40:27-31.1 In that text Israel accuses Yahweh of disregarding the “right” or justice (mispaṭ, 40:27) of Israel and for this reason they have grown faint and lost strength (koaḥ, 40:29, 31). In Isaiah 49:4 the prophet-Servant complains to Yahweh, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength (koaḥ) for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause (mispaṭ) is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”
In contrast to this self-evaluation, Yahweh is much more positive in his assessment of his Servant. In 49:3 Yahweh states that he will be glorified in his Servant, such that in 49:5 the prophet can claim, “I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” Humans do not possess the means to properly assess their own ministries and achievements; only God can do so.
This text falls on the Sunday following the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism. The glorious event of Baptism is not a time to relish in victory. Baptism initiates God’s people into service for his kingdom which will result in experiencing disappointment and opposition. Yet faithful ministry is never in vain since reward and honor rests in God alone.
1John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 370-71.