Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7
Is the second Sunday of Epiphany too early for disappointment and frustration? In a new year, just after celebrating Jesus’ birth and then baptism, we are confronted with prophetic frustration and impatience. As the Book of Isaiah continues to develop the idea and mission of God’s servant, chapter 49 opens with a juxtaposition of an expanding audience for God’s work, and the servant’s dissatisfaction at a lack of progress in that work. Our reading concludes with God taking seriously the servant’s exasperation and providing encouragement for a discouraging ministry.
In the previous chapter, God commanded the Holy Community to flee from Babylon, and while they were on their way, to sing joyfully to the ends of the earth that God had redeemed his servant Jacob (Isaiah 48:20). In the beginning of Chapter 49, the servant orders the islands and the far-away peoples to hear the song of freedom that the redeemed community has begun to sing. In chapter 49 and after, Babylon and Cyrus are out of the picture. The good news of the redemption song has expanded beyond the salvation of Judahites from captivity and exile. Now, the song will be good news for all the world, not just those who were captured by Babylonians generations earlier. But who is leading the song?
In the previous chapter, the servant was identified as Jacob, and here, the servant is identified as Israel (Isaiah 49:3). But does that settle the matter? Unsurprisingly, interpreters differ on this point. Many commentators, (for example, Oswalt, 1998, following Delitzsch, 1969 and Westermann, 1969) argue for a single human as the servant, reading against the appositive identification of the servant as Israel in the text. They argue that God knowing the name of the prophet before birth (Isaiah 49:1) supports a reading of the servant as an individual. Indeed, the naming of a special individual before birth is not unique, even in Isaiah (7:14). Rashi, the 11th century French sage, argues that the servant in view here is Isaiah, and that God named him “Isaiah”in order to prophesy “salvations” to the people. Christian interpreters will see deep continuity between the description of the servant and the pre-birth naming of Jesus (Matthew 1:21-23). Nevertheless, Israel as a unified people were also thought of as God’s singular child (Exodus 4:22) whom God knew before they, as a people, were born (Isaiah 44:1-2). Thus, this passage could speak of an idealized Israel who works through national and international redemption, or an individual—Isaiah, Jesus or someone else—who announces God’s salvation to those near and far. The most useful prophecies are always polyvalent, and the number of the one(s) who sing(s) freedom can certainly be multiple. Indeed, I hope it is!
Whoever the servant is, in Isaiah 49, the servant’s mission and identity seem to be somewhat concealed by God, who is waiting for just the right moment to deploy the chosen one. The servant’s mouth is like a sharp sword, but it is hidden in the shadow of God’s hand. The servant is like a purified/chosen arrow that remains concealed with all the rest of the less-than-chosen arrows in the quiver (Isaiah 49:2).
This intentional delay of God deploying the servant to maximum effectiveness causes frustration and even despair for the servant. God’s servant laments that the labor and strength that could have been used to fulfill the promises of God have only resulted in vanity, nothing and ephemerality (Isaiah 49:4). What good is it if the servant has been named before birth if the song of freedom dies on their lips? If the worldwide choir does not join the song chorus of redemption, of what use have the servant’s exertions been? The servant knows that God holds the just outcome and rewards for the servant’s work. As in the Psalms, Isaiah’s expressions of lament and despair are followed by confessions of trust and hope.
It is at this moment that God steps in to redirect the servant’s attention away from the fruitlessness of previous efforts and toward the call of God on the servant’s life. First, the speaker re-identifies God as the one who selected the servant from before birth to receive God’s honor and strength for their mission.
Then God clarifies the task of the servant. The servant’s task will not be limited to only the restoration and raising up of Jacob, so that all of Israel will be gathered together. Rather, as if that were too small a thing, the servant will be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation will reach the ends of the earth. God’s song of freedom and redemption will indeed reach the islands and peoples far away after all. God’s words are to be an encouragement to the servant, whose lonely singing of the song of salvation thus far has been a solo act. And yet, God wants the servant to know that it is not time for the big finale just yet.
God’s success through the servant will not be unalloyed. Verse 7 points to a deeply unhappy situation of the servant. The servant despises his own soul (or is despised by others), is abhorred by a mass of people, and is a servant to rulers (not just kings). Again, this situation was endured not just by Jesus (though it certainly was), but also by Isaiah himself, and repeatedly throughout history by the people Israel. The identity of the servant does not have to be singular for this passage to be deeply meaningful.
Despite all the suffering, God promises vindication. Kings and princes will pay homage to the despised one, because the faithful, Holy God has indeed chosen the servant. Failure or delay in the song of freedom catching on in the Holy Community and beyond will only delay, and by no means prevent, the spreading of the good news. In the meantime, God encourages God’s servant(s).