This chapter contains one of the most exciting and instructive messages in the Bible, especially for Gentiles. It is the plainest statement in the Old Testament that all nations will be embraced in the salvation that results from the work of Yahweh’s Servant. The first six verses comprise the second “Servant Song”, while verses 7–12 are what we might call the ‘tail piece’, in which related matters are commented upon.

Isaiah 49

Chapter 49 marks an advance in Yahweh’s  revelation, for,

  • the comparison and controversy between Yahweh and the idol-gods has been settled, and references to this now cease
  • allusions to Cyrus and the conquest of Babylon likewise come to an end, save for a brief reference in 52:11 and 12.

Now there is a return to and concentration upon the central message of consolation for Zion  (40:1–2), and the benefits of the Servant’s work.

Two lines of thought alternate, sometimes in dramatic exchange and emotion:

  1. the Servant and his work in its relation to Zion
  2. Zion, wife of Yahweh, is portrayed either in a passive, deserted and humbled aspect, or as the joyous recipient of the blessings which accrue from the Servant’s work.

The second “Servant Song” reveals his  discouraging reception by “his own”, Israel (Jn  1:11), but he is consoled by the revelation that his work will include Gentiles!

Paul and the second Servant song

The Servant himself would confine his work within  the borders of Israel. How then would his light  lighten the Gentiles? The apostle Paul’s commission  to the Gentiles would be the way by which this  saving message would be brought to the world of his  day (Acts 9:15–16). He would apply this prophecy  to himself and his work (v6; Acts 13:47).

But not only would he make known the gospel to “all nations” by spoken word, but also by example, the sufferings of Messiah would be demonstrated  (Col 1:24; 1 Tim 1:16; Gal 1:16; 3:1).

49:1–6 The second Servant song – the isles addressed! Despite having been commissioned by Yahweh, the  Servant’s work with Israel is discouraging. He is  consoled with the promise that his work will extend beyond Israel and even embrace the Gentiles.

Verse 1 “Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; Yahweh hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.”

“Listen, O isles, unto me…” Here we have a repeated summons to the world in all its extent, “isles… ye people from afar.” While the call to listen is a common prophetic summons to heed God’s words, there is something unique here. It is the Servant who assumes this prerogative; his words are to command attention! He is the “me” of verse 1. And it is significant that Gentiles are called on to listen and hearken, for this is how the faith that justifies is attained (Rom 10:16–17).

“Yahweh hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name” (cp Psa 22:9–10) This intimation from the Servant is spoken prophetically, over 700 years before he was born and had conscious existence! What is the point of him telling us this? It makes it clear that he was foreordained, foreknown and anticipated. He was to be the lynch-pin of the purpose of God. From the very beginning of his life God’s purpose devolved upon him.

Jeremiah was told by God that he was known before he was “formed in the belly” and was “sanctified… and ordained (to be) a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5), but the “goings forth” (Mic 5:2, rsv ‘origin’) of Messiah preceded creation (1 Pet 1:20; John 1:15, 30).

“made mention of my name” It was Gabriel who informed Joseph of the name of the son to be born to his betrothed: “thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Verse 1 and the Apostle Paul

Mention has been made already that Paul would be the instrument through whom the Gentiles would learn of Christ. He, too, despite his initial opposition to the Faith of Christ, was in preparation for this work and known to God. Alluding to these words when emphasising his chosen role to the Galatians, he says, “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace…” (Gal 1:15). There are other allusions in Galatians to Isaiah 49 which we will notice as we proceed!

Verse 2 “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.”

“He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword” These words are quoted in relation to the Servant three times in Revelation (1:16; 2:12 [16]; 19:15). The sharpness of the sword is its effectiveness. His words are discerning and effective: “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). Alluding to him Paul says, “the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12). He was never cowed into silence by his enemies but spoke what was right and in the best interests of his hearers. This exposure of the hearts of men did not always endear him to his hearers, often generating opposition as verse 4 indicates.

“in the shadow of his hand hath he [God] hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me” The polished arrow is rubbed free of roughness or unevenness which might deflect it in flight, and hence its accuracy. He was carefully instructed in the ways of his Father, and so honed as to never miss the mark. He was God’s sword and arrow to bring light and redemption to men. Notice how this verse emphasises what God did – “made my mouth … hid me … made me a polished shaft … in his quiver hath he hid me”. This was a critical work. Success was essential and no aspect of preparation could be neglected (cp 50:4).

Verse 3 “And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Here is a brief statement of the essentials of his commission. He was to bring glory to his Father, by submission to His will, and in particular by his obedience, even to the death of the cross, for which he would be rewarded in turn by being glorified. Jesus was always acutely aware of the need to glorify the Father in word and deed. Consider his response when informed of Lazarus’ death, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” So Lazarus rose from the dead at his word and by his Father’s power. God was glorified by the Son and the Son glorified thereby (John 11:4; 40). When facing death in Gethsemane he prayed, “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (John 17:1). Here is a prayer for resurrection following crucifixion (Acts 3:13), so enabling him to continue to glorify the Father.

The words were applied by Gentiles to the miracles Christ performed in Decapolis. Rejected by his own people he found an unexpected response amidst strangers, perhaps through the work of Legion, the erstwhile demoniac (Mk 5:19). Great multitudes came to him upon a mountain and “wondered when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see: and they glorified the God of Israel” (Matt 15:31).

We find here again that Paul, “the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10), also takes to himself these words. Appreciating his conversion and ministry, he says of his countrymen, “And they glorified God in me” (Gal 1:24).

“my servant, O Israel” Notice that the individual Servant is called Israel. The national servant had failed to bring glory to God, though this was the intention (Exod 19:5–6; Jer 13:11). But Yahweh’s purpose could not fail and so from within the ranks of the nation, and by His own involvement, a Son and Servant is brought forth in whom He will be glorified and who would enable the Divine purpose to proceed to its ultimate fulfilment.

Verse 4 “Then I said, I have laboured in vain [Heb tohu, emptiness, no purpose] I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with Yahweh, and my work with my God.”

In this verse two contradictory sentiments meet. First of all there is despondency at the lack of response: “He came to his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11); but this is met with a confidence that God is endorsing both his judgment and his work! This certain knowledge enables him to dispel the gloom and despair, and his Father is soon to add another dimension to the success of his labours!

Fulfilment

When we observe the ministry of Christ we notice that it was not all plain sailing. There was opposition to his forthright words. Especially was this the case from those who felt most threatened, described by John as “the Jews”, the rulers. Yet the common people heard him gladly.

In John 6 the popularity of Jesus reached a peak following the feeding of the 5,000. Then they desired to take him by force and make him a king. But after his speech the following day in the synagogue in Capernaum, their mood changed, and failing to understand his sayings, we read that many “went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). Thus the effectiveness of his work began to wane, so it seemed, and opposition grew. Following this incident a delegation of scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem and confronted him (Matt 15:1). In response he departed “unto the coasts of Tyre and Sidon” where he was accosted by “a woman of Canaan”. She revealed the faith in him that “his own” lacked! In the face of her persistence he said, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour” (v21–28). From there he descended to the east of Galilee, to Decapolis, where again he received an overwhelming response from Gentiles (v29–31)! So though the “children of the kingdom” were not responding, another nation, a “foolish nation”, was reaping the benefits (Deut 32:21). And so the sentiments of verse 6 were emerging in substance and fact!

Verses 5 and 6 Notice how the body of verse 5 is in parenthesis, and the essential message, the astounding Divine revelation is found in verse 6. It is set out accordingly.

Verse 5 “And now, saith Yahweh (that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, though Israel be not gathered, [rsv ‘and that Israel might be gathered to him’] Yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of Yahweh [rsv for I am honoured in the eyes of Yahweh], And my God shall be my strength)

Verse 6 And he said [rv ‘Yea he said’], It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.”

There is a preamble before we are told what God’s will is so far as the scope of work is concerned. Yes, there was disappointment at Israel’s failure to recognize him as their Messiah, but this did not signal failure. In the Divine economy this sad reality would not limit the saving grace of God, which would see the salvation of God go forth to those in darkness in Gentile lands. And this is the theme of the remaining verses of this chapter. In any event it was God’s will from the beginning that all nations would partake of the blessings promised the patriarch of Israel, Abraham: “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal 3:8).

Verse 5 “And now, saith Yahweh” What He actually says is in verse 6, where these words are repeated, on account of the ‘interruption’, the words in parenthesis.

“that formed me from the womb” The Servant is reminded of his preparation; every single experience of his life “from the womb” had been a sharpening of the sword and a polishing of the arrow for the purpose of regathering Israel. Evidence to the contrary, the despondence he expressed (v4), was not ultimate reality.

“yet shall I be glorious [rsv ‘I am honoured’] in the eyes of Yahweh” The restoring of Israel to God would ironically involve him being rejected and slain by Israel! This “obedience unto death” at the hands of “his own”, would in fact glorify God and be accomplished by His strength! So the despondency of rejection would in fact be a crucial element, not only in “bringing Jacob again to God”, but also the Gentiles.

“and my God shall be my strength” (rsv “and my God has become my strength”) It seems from the conjunction of ideas there that God has “become his strength” as a consequence of him honouring Him. Because Jesus accepted the sufferings obedience entailed and laid down his life willingly, God raised him from the dead: he honoured God and God became “his strength” in raising him from the dead (Acts 2:24).

Verse 6 “And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob… I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest …”

“And he said” This recapitulates the opening words of verse 5 and introduces us to what the Servant was told. Two tasks were laid before him. In the first place he was to “raise up” (restore those prostrate under the burden of sin) Jacob and “restore” (bring back those alienated and distanced from God) the “preserved of Israel”. Added to this is a far more expansive work, the redemption of the Gentiles! The restoration of one nation compared with the redemption of the world is a “light thing”. So instead of despairing, he is greatly encouraged by the revelation that his work will meet with a success he could not have imagined!

Paul’s quotation in Acts 13:47

In the synagogue in Antioch Paul’s preaching to a mixed audience led to opposition from the Jews, because of the intense interest shown by Gentiles. Paul explained that the hope of Israel should be preached to Gentiles as well, and that he had been expressly called for this purpose. To validate that claim he actually applies Isaiah 49:6 to himself: he said to the Jewish opposition: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken unto you; but seeing ye put it from you… lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us [Paul and Barnabas], saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:46–47). This was an enormous claim but accords with the commission given him in Acts 9:15–16.

Perhaps this claim was disputed by his hearers, for we have a specific application of Isaiah 49 by Paul to his work among the Galatian (Gentile) ecclesias in the epistle bearing this name. Reference has already been made to these passages. As in the case of the Lord, Paul’s work among the Jews constantly met opposition. His Galatian experience graphically illustrates this point. He, too, experienced the despair of his Lord and he cites the words of Isaiah 49:4 in Galatians 2:2, “And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles… lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.” See also Galatians 4:11.

Simeon, the just and devout, and Isaiah 49:6

This aged man had been told he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s anointed. The Spirit directed him into the Temple at the very time Mary and Joseph had come there “to do for Jesus after the custom of the law”. Taking the babe in his arms he blessed God, and willed that he should now depart in peace for his eyes had seen “thy [God’s] salvation”, in the form of an innocent babe. With an insight transcending his contemporaries he forecast the expansive scope of the work the infant would accomplish, citing again Isaiah 49:6, that he would be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel” (Luke 2:25–35).