Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7
One week after the Baptism of Our Lord, the lectionary texts from the Old Testament sit us squarely in the promise and pain of servanthood.
Whether we accompany the psalmist (Psalm 40:1-11) or gather to listen to the servant of Second Isaiah in this second of the so-called “servant songs” (49:1-7; cf. Isaiah 42:1-9 [one of the lectionary readings last Sunday]; 50:4-9; 52:13—53:12), we encounter variously themes of divine calling, proclamation, suffering and failure, and faith amid despair. This text resumes Second Isaiah’s depiction of the servant, a complex and debated figure who the prophet often identifies with Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) but occasionally, as here, described as an individual with a mission to Israel (esp. 45:1-2, 5-6; cf. 48:16). Many Christian readers may also be captivated by how the poetry is suggestive of the servanthood of Jesus Christ.
Whereas God called us to attention in Isaiah 42:1-9, the servant now steps forward to speak (49:1-4). Summoning an audience from distant lands (“coastlands,” “peoples from far away”)—terms that anticipate the reach of God’s salvation (“to the end of the earth,” 49:6)—the servant implores everyone to hear how God claimed and prepared him to serve God’s purposes. He opens with language reminiscent of Jeremiah’s call narrative: “before I was born…while I was in my mother’s womb” (49:1; cf. Jeremiah 1:5). The pairing of God’s work in the servant’s life with concealment continues as the servant describes God’s formation of him as a “polished arrow” with a “mouth like a sharp sword” that God kept hidden with God’s hand and tucked away in God’s quiver—ready for the right moment (49:2). By means of the servant, God prepares for the day when God will be glorified (49:3). The servant, in turn, is enveloped by the inescapable presence of God.
“God said to me…” (49:3) yet reverberating, the servant stammers “But I, I said…” and becomes despondent (49:4). In words laden with exhaustion and defeat, the servant laments that his efforts have already been futile: “in vain … for nothing … vanity.” Far from inspiring the coastlands to extol God’s glory, the servant’s cascade of negatives evoke emptiness (letohu, e.g., Isaiah 40:17, 23; 44:9; cf. Genesis 1:2), vapor (wehebel, e.g.,
Isaiah 30:7; Job 7:16; Ecclesiastes 1:2), that which is ephemeral and unreliable—in sum, utter weariness from laboring on God’s behalf in the world. Present-day readers, overwhelmed by global violence, war, economic oppression, and ecological devastation, may empathize with the servant’s discouraged grief. Yet, even with all that eludes him, the servant finds something to which he still holds—”yet surely, my cause is with the LORD” (49:4).
As if on cue, God speaks, but not before the servant reiterates God’s claim on him in the womb and reveals his mission to “bring back…gather” Israel, to return Israel home from exile (49:5). Though the servant’s own strength is “spent” (49:4), his introduction of God conveys fresh vitality: “my God has become my strength” (49:5). When God speaks, however, the words are startling. The restoration of Israel is “too light, trivial” for “my servant”—it is but one small task given the servant’s role as “a light to the nations” (49:6; cf. 42:6) When we recall that Second Isaiah often identifies the servant as Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20), God’s claim insists the community look beyond their own release and restoration to that of the whole world.
The reading ends with a climactic vision that weaves together the servant’s suffering and the reach of God’s salvation to the edges of the earth (49:7). The one “chosen” by God—indeed, God’s delight (42:1)—will be “deeply despised” and “abhorred” by the very nations to which he goes as God’s light. The one formed by God as God’s “servant” will be a “slave” of rulers. The description intensifies the theme of the servant’s suffering that reaches its fullest expression in 52:13-53:12, the fourth “servant song” (esp. 53:2-9; cf. 50:6; 52:14). God assures the servant, however, that it is precisely because of the one God “hid” in the shadow of God’s hand that kings will one day “see.” The servant will startle the powerful from their thrones into postures of worship and respect. And this will be so because God is faithful. In the end, the servant’s vindication and God’s glorification is ensured not by human agency—as potent and faithful as that may be—but by God’s character.