by Sam E. Stone
Isaiah prophesied about 700 years before Jesus came to earth. With powerful, persuasive, and poignant phrases he clearly described the Messiah and his kingdom. This month’s lessons consider several of his inspired messages. Today’s text (Isaiah 49) contains another of the “Servant Songs.” It shows Christ’s mission to the people of Israel, while (at the same time) offering encouragement to all believers.
The remainder of the book has two key emphases—the Servant of the Lord and the glorious future awaiting Israel. Previously Isaiah called for the rebellious people of Israel to believe that God has not cast them off. Cyrus would deliver them from Babylonian captivity, but no longer is he seen as their ultimate deliverer. Rather the Servant of the Lord will free them (and us) from the captivity of sin.
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations. The prophet uses poetic language to include nations of the world. As with Jeremiah (1:5) and the apostle Paul (Galatians 1:15), this language describes the servant’s call before he was born (note v. 5). He made my mouth like a sharpened sword. A similar description is used of Scripture itself in Hebrews 4:12—”The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.”
This picture is also found in Revelation (1:16; 2:12, 16). “The very Word of God alone can pierce through the dividing walls of man’s stubborn defenses and bring the light of life” (Fitch). The Servant is also compared to a polished arrow. Arrows are used to describe God’s judgment upon people (Deuteronomy 32:23, 42). When Isaiah declares, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor,” it obviously does not refer simply to the nation of Israel. The Servant has a mission to Israel (Isaiah 49:5). Evidently it refers to the Messianic servant who represents the ideal Israel through whom God will be glorified.
The nation had labored to no purpose and spent (its) strength in vain. Similarly, Christ (the Suffering Servant) would encounter obstacles and even appear to be defeated by death. Often it seemed that Jesus’ words fell on deaf ears (see Mark 4:12; Matthew 11:15-17). As a people, Israel had been unable to bring “salvation to the ends of the earth” but, in this case, the Servant remains confident of God’s final and complete vindication. What is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.
Responsibility/Isaiah 49:5, 6
He who formed me in the womb to be his servant. Even before Jesus’ birth, his task was clear. He was to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself. The Jewish people had been chosen by God to play a significant role in the salvation of mankind. Despite their rebellion, the Lord wanted to bring them back to him. My God has been my strength. The Lord is the eternal source of strength for all believers. Just as his power saved the Israelites from the Red Sea and protected David from his enemies, so he is able to provide for all of our needs today.
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant . . . and bring back those of Israel I have kept.” God tells his Servant that the seemingly impossible task of restoring the people of Israel to him is actually not large enough for someone with his power! “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.” Centuries before the church began, God indicated that it would include non-Jews. The disciples were slow to understand this, however (see Acts 10). “That you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” This text has been called “the Great Commission of the Old Testament.” Along with Genesis 12:1-3 and Exodus 19:5, 6, it shows the universal reach of the gospel.
The Messiah is the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel. Contrast this with the fact that he will be despised and abhorred by the nations. (Paul also draws this contrast in Philippians 2:1-11.) His enemies will one day bow before him, recognizing his authority. The Servant is described in words reminiscent of the dialogue in Psalm 2. From being despised as a slave, the Servant will be honored as Savior of the entire world. Salvation is found in no other (Acts 4:12).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.