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God Comforts -- The Servant Song in Isaiah 49

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

This week, we ask a foundational question: what is better -- to be a king or to be a part of bringing a king to the Lord? In our passage, we learn about the true servant who fulfilled every role Israel failed. But not only will this servant pave the way for Israel to return to God, but also for every nation on earth to do the same.

Living Up to Expectations

I'm trying to think of the last show I watched or book I read in which family expectations didn't play some sort of a role. I can't. Can you? In some of my very favorite fiction, those sorts of expectations play key roles as plot drivers.

In The Lord of the Rings, expectations pepper the entire plot, but probably not any more heart wrenching than the relationship between the brothers Boromir and Faramir and their father, the king. Faramir can never live up to his father's expectations, and yet he makes the heroic choices no one else could. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the expectations on the Pevensie children shape every story -- even from the very beginning with Edmund's failure and redemption and little Lucy being the one to save them all.

(In my favorite "I didn't see that coming" example, in the Ocean's Eleven movies, we find out that Matt Damon's character (Linus) is living in the shadow of successful criminal parents. It really has nothing to do with the story at all, which makes it funny.) (I feel obligated to acknowledge Great Expectations here, but I don't feel obligated to stir up those memories.)

How about you? What are your favorite examples of characters trying to live up to expectations? Are they redemption-arc stories? Are they tragic failures?

A lot of people call this something like "living in my father's shadow" or "my sister's shadow". In other words, based on a person you're related to, other people have expectations for your behavior or aptitude or success that you may or may not be reaching. That's why for a long time there were designations like PK (preacher's kid) or DK (deacon's kid) that people cared about (hate to break it, but people don't care about that like they used to). Stop for a moment and try to imagine what it must be like being the child of Michael Jordan or Billy Graham or Paul McCartney or Harrison Ford. Some extreme advantages, sure. Probably some extreme challenges.

But then there's also the "I raised you better than that" version of expectations. We all know (or are) people who have made choices that did not line up with the way we know they were taught in their childhood home. We've talked about this repeatedly in our Sunday School lessons -- parents cannot live their children's lives, but they can do their best to teach and model biblical living.

What about you? How have you done with expectations?

In Isaiah, we look at Israel, now personified as the child of God. Israel has failed in her expectations. And yet, God still offers comfort. Not only does He still love her, but she still has the chance to do and be all He has for her. (Admittedly, there's more to it than that, but let's start here.)

Where We Are in Isaiah

Here's the outline I introduced last week:

Part 1: Israel should be motivated by God's grace (40-55)

A. God graciously delivers His people (40)

B. God graciously chose Israel (41-48)

1. Salvation is through God alone, not idols (41-44)

2. God's plan for Israel's salvation is inscrutable (45-46)

3. God will still punish the idolaters (47)

4. Israel should trust and believe God's plan (48)

C. A servant will be Israel's model and salvation (49-55)

1. God will send a servant to deliver Israel (49-52)

2. The servant's suffering will lead to Israel's deliverance (53-55)

Now it's time to add the next layer of meaning onto this outline. Chapters 41-55 focus on two different "servants":

  • The first servant is the people of Israel. They are repeatedly described as fearful and blind and rebellious, and yet God has chosen them to be His servant. In chapters 41-48, all but one reference to "servant" applies to Israel the nation.

  • The second servant is an unnamed person who is obedient and faithful and who suffers unjustly. God promises to use that servant to bring Israel and the nations back to Him. In chapters 49-55, all but one reference to "servant" applies to this individual.

(Of course, we know that the second, unnamed servant is Jesus, and so we understand a whole lot better what's going on here. But let's set that aside for a moment and try to explain these chapters as if we don't know God's plan in Jesus.)

God intended Israel to be His servants. If we understand this, everything else will make a lot more sense. In the Old Testament, several individuals are referred to as "servants of God" -- Abraham (Gen 26:44), Moses (Num 12:7), David (2 Sam 3:18), Hezekiah (2 Chr 32:16), and Zerubbabel (Hag 2:23) (and Nebuchadnezzar, but that's for another day). As descendants of Abraham, they inherited Abraham's unique call to bless the nations in the name of God/Yahweh. This was bestowed on Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

"Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine, and you will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites.”

As priests, they were to be literally "a servant nation", ministering to the world on God's behalf and mediating between the nations and God. They were to be His witnesses, His messengers of reconciliation. They utterly failed to do so.

God will restore Israel to their place as His servants. The overall structure of this section addresses that sad reality and gives us clues as to the unnamed servant. Chapters 41-48 identified Israel as fearful, failed servants. How can they become right with God again? Does the "grace" highlighted in this section simply mean that God will overlook their sin? No -- God will deal with it; He will deliver them from their sinful rebellion and restore them to their place -- this is described in chapters 54-55. What sits between the description of failed Israel and restore Israel? This unnamed servant (often described as the "suffering servant"). (We cover that specific passage next week, so I'm not saying too much now.)

This is fleshed out on a small scale when we look at the one reference to the suffering servant in the first section: 42:1-9. (Note: there are a lot of parallels between our passage this week and this passage in chapter 42; they serve almost identical functions.) Chapter 41 asks the impossible question: how can Israel be God's servant after they have failed God so miserably? The answer comes in chapter 42: through the ministry of this unnamed servant.

Yes, Israel failed. But she can still be restored.

God will use the ministry and suffering of this unnamed servant to restore Israel and the nations. This is how everything ties together: there are four primary sections referring to the unnamed servant (often called the "Servant Songs") -- Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-12, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12. Those passages follow descriptions of Israel's failures and lead into descriptions of Israel's deliverance and rejoicing.

How in the world could a single, unnamed servant accomplish all of that?

There is something incomparably and incomprehensibly amazing about this individual.

Anyway, our passage this week is one of these "servant songs". We will address another next week, so we don't have to go into every detail this week. Just know that we've shifted gears, so to speak. Isaiah is now sharing the words of this amazing, unnamed servant who is everything that Israel failed to be.


Part 1: Included (Isaiah 49:1-4)

49 Coasts and islands, listen to me; distant peoples, pay attention. The Lord called me before I was born. He named me while I was in my mother’s womb. 2 He made my words like a sharp sword; he hid me in the shadow of his hand. He made me like a sharpened arrow; he hid me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I myself said: I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and futility; yet my vindication is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God.

Let me do a quick overview of meanings:

  • "Coasts and islands" and "distant peoples" is really just a poetic way of saying that this message is for the entire world.

  • "Before I was born" and "in my mother's womb" are basically used here to establish the servant's credentials. They are not primarily about "when life begins". However, this and the parallel passages in Jeremiah 1:4-5 and Galatians 1:15 certainly indicate that when we are in the womb, we are people as far as God is concerned.

  • "Words like a sharp sword" means that the servant ministers with words. Remember, the Bible is the "sword of the Spirit" (Eph 6:17) that cuts like a blade (Heb 4:12). Incidentally, Jesus happens to have a "sword" is His mouth (Rev 2:16) -- hmmm.

  • "Hid in the shadow" and "in his quiver" refers to a long-established divine plan. This servant was always God's plan for reconciliation, but he has a specific, well-prepared place in history.

  • "Sharpened arrow" is similar to the sword image, but more directed. This servant has a clear, specific, divinely-sanctioned role in God's plan for the redemption of the nations. God Himself has "aimed" for a specific target.

Verse 3 gets into the crux of the "servant" imagery. As I said, there are two servants in these chapters -- rebellious Israel, and faithful unnamed servant. But in verse 3, we see that the servant is actually playing the role that God intended for Israel. There is an excellent Bible Project video that explains what this means:

To make a long story short, Jesus fulfilled the human side of every covenant, taking our place as our covenant representative, enabling us to "vicariously" fulfill the covenant in Him. Jesus is Israel in this sense -- the Israel that should have been -- which is why the Gospels identify the ways in which Jesus' life basically mirrors Israel's experiences in Egypt, in the desert, in the Promised Land. (Yes, I know that this video gives away the identity of the servant, but was I really keeping you in suspense?) By "being" Israel, by fulfilling God's every expectation for Israel, Jesus enables what we might call a second chance.

Interestingly, your Lifeway material interprets verse 4 per Israel's actual experiences, particularly their defeat and exile. Israel's labor accomplished nothing for them; they lost everything. Personally, I don't think that's what this passage refers to. Rather, I think this is about the unnamed servant's (okay, fine, let's just call Him Jesus, shall we?) . . . this is about Jesus' commitment to God's plan.

I'm going straight to the Garden here (Matthew 26) -- Jesus was in a true crisis mode. His life was about to end. His ministry had earned Him execution. And yet even then He could say "Not my will but Yours". He was committed to The Plan. Somehow, after all of that suffering and death, He trusted that God's Plan would result in the salvation of many. Think about it: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28 -- in a section often titled "Suffering and Service"!). This was the plan.

Now, you ask, but what does this mean to the people in Isaiah's day? It has to mean something to them, right? And it does. It meant the same thing to them as it does to us. (They were confused as to the identity of this suffering servant, see Acts 8, but more on this next week). Jesus looked at the condition of the people and saw how desperate The Plan appeared. He also knew how much worse it would get. And yet He would never waver in His commitment to God or His part in God's Plan. He knew that God would raise Him up (which happened quite literally).

This "unnamed servant" -

  • has a worldwide mission

  • was called to this mission before he was born

  • speaks the words of God

  • fully trusts in God

Kinda sounds like Jesus.

What Does This Mean for Us?

Here are two things for you to do. First, as a Bible exercise: compare these verses with the first servant song in 42:1-9. How are they similar? How are they different? Second, consider yourself as a servant. Israel failed, but Jesus fulfilled. And now we are in that role. Just as Israel was God's "kingdom of priests", now we are (1 Pet 2:9). How are you doing as God's ministering servant in the world? Your service in the church. Your service in your community?


Called (Isaiah 49:5-7)

5 And now, says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him so that Israel might be gathered to him; for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God is my strength—
6 he says, “It is not enough for you to be my servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the protected ones of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, to be my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
7 This is what the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, says to one who is despised, to one abhorred by people, to a servant of rulers: “Kings will see, princes will stand up, and they will all bow down because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel—and he has chosen you.”

Now, here's where the rubber really meets the road.

Try to answer this question: in what ways did Israel fail as God's servant?

Certainly, there are the moral and religious failures. There was also their failure to make any positive impact on the world around them. Jesus is going to fix that.

We find out with certainty that Isaiah has not been talking about Israel the nation, but rather about an individual servant who will restore Israel -- to gather/bring back Israel/Jacob to God in the strength of God.

But it gets better! Jesus' mission was not only to restore Israel to God but to be a light to all the nations of the earth. Even Jesus' Jewish disciples still didn't fully understand this because the clearly-stated worldwide mission of God had to be explained multiple times to them.

Matt 28:19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.
Acts 1:8 you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Paul and Barnabas quoted this verse in Isaiah to defend their work among to Gentiles to the skeptical Jews in Antioch.

But isn't this exactly what God said to Abraham? "All people on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen 12:3)?

The result of this mission is spelled out in verse 7. The servant will be despised and rejected (we will talk more about this next week!!), but will also serve kings. And those kings will see the truth of God through the ministry of this servant, and they will submit themselves to God (I believe that means salvation).

Isn't that what life is actually all about? What's better: to be a king, or to be a part of bringing a king to the Lord? Do we want to make an impact on the world? That's how we do it.

I have two illustrations to choose from: the election, and Veteran's Day.

The Election. Our country is divided -- far more divided than perhaps some pundits thought. One response has been to call everyone who voted differently than you stupid and seek to find ways to disenfranchise them in the future. (Democrats will think I'm talking about Republicans. Republicans will think I'm talking about Democrats. I know who I'm talking about.) Let's call that a poor response. Christians cannot think that way about other people, certainly in a country like America.

What if instead we prayed for cool heads to be put in positions where they can be listened to, a semblance of cooperation achieved, and a healthy respect earned and reciprocated?

What if further we prayed for the souls of these leaders and for Christians to be placed around them, sharing the truth of salvation in Jesus with them?

Veteran's Day. One of the most noble things I've heard was a veteran who said (speaking about someone with anti-military political views), "I fought for their right to treat me like $#%. And I would do it again." Members of our military serve all around the world, literally protecting the lives of people they don't even know, fulfilling the physical part of this role of the suffering servant in Isaiah. That sort of physical service is part of what Isaiah is talking about here. And for that reason, we must always hold our military up in prayer and be thankful to the veterans we know for their service. Seriously, do that.

But we can all still have some fun with the old stories . . .

In doing so, we should also acknowledge what our church planters and missionaries are doing around the world. Certainly, not all of them are in physical harm's way, but some of them are. We need to pray for them and show our thanks to them when we meet them!

This upcoming week, let's focus on veterans. And my challenge to us is that we begin to be mindful of our military and our missionaries every day. [Warning: when talking about missionaries and military, don't get into an argument about which one is more important! That's about as tone-deaf as it gets. Yes, what our missionaries do has an eternal impact that our military cannot, but our military has made possible and kept safe so much missionary activity. Remember that God sent the first missionary activity on the bones of the Roman Empire kept safe by Roman soldiers. This is a both/and argument.]


Part 3: Vindicated (Isaiah 49:8-13)

8 This is what the Lord says: I will answer you in a time of favor, and I will help you in the day of salvation. I will keep you, and I will appoint you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land, to make them possess the desolate inheritances, 9 saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” and to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They will feed along the pathways, and their pastures will be on all the barren heights. 10 They will not hunger or thirst, the scorching heat or sun will not strike them; for their compassionate one will guide them, and lead them to springs. 11 I will make all my mountains into a road, and my highways will be raised up. 12 See, these will come from far away, from the north and from the west, and from the land of Sinim.
13 Shout for joy, you heavens! Earth, rejoice! Mountains break into joyful shouts! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

What is the result of the servant's activity? Vindication. This is not about a butler taking care of the needs of the masters, or the nanny making the family's life better. It's not that kind of service. This is a supernatural, earth-changing ministry. It's even more than a return from exile; this is life changing in ways that are inexplicable.

Again, your Lifeway material applies this to Israel's experience in exile, and I'm not saying they're wrong (the phrase "possess the desolate inheritances" has a strong return-from-exile vibe). This can be a poetic and uplifting way of describing the day the Jews leave exile and return to the land of their fathers. Yes, that would be a great day!

But I also see the direct connection with Jesus. What is the ultimate "day of salvation"? It was when Jesus provided salvation to us on the cross. Now, this is interesting. For a moment, you'll remember that God abandoned Jesus and did not answer His cries for help. But that was a necessary part of Jesus keeping the covenant on our behalf. In fact, Peter would go on to say that God did not abandon Jesus . . . in the grave. Accomplishing salvation was that entire experience (those three days, as it were), and God did raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus proclaimed victory even over death itself.

Certainly, these verses apply in some way to the return from exile. But this is one of many passages in which God has multiple layers of fulfillment in mind. The most immediate fulfillment, return from exile, would be somewhat disappointing. Their return was very difficult. Their rebuilding was very challenging. Their temple was very disappointing.

Read Revelation 21 and 22 and see the full and complete fulfillment of this passage.

But you can see plenty of other allusions in here. You have the good shepherd, carefully leading his sheep. You have the way being prepared -- fulfilled in John the Baptist (see Matt 3:3 in reference to Isa 40:3).

About this "way" -- this is symbolic of the "ease of travel". Without cars and planes, traveling over mountains is very tiring and dangerous. But in God, the work will be completed allowing this travel to be easier (or, in the case of salvation, possible). God will do the work allowing people to return to Him, and then the ministry of the suffering servant will be possible.

[Note on "Sinim" -- we're not sure what this refers to. The Dead Sea Scrolls read "Syene", which is a location in Egypt near Aswan. Because the previous line includes north and west, this probably means somewhere east or south (I say south because travel from the east would be over land north or south). Why not just say "south"? Good question.]

See how all of this is tied together? Let's start with Lifeway's take that this refers to Israel the nation. They are discouraged because they are in exile. But God will make possible their return (which He did through the Persian kings). (For example, Ezra and Nehemiah did such good jobs serving the kings that they aided their return and rebuild.)

But in a more absolute and complete sense, let's put the Plan for Salvation here: things were looking very bleak for rebellious humanity. Jesus would come to the earth to fulfill their broken covenant, a seemingly impossible task. But His obedience and self-sacrifice would provide the "way" for salvation, enabling all who would come to Him to be saved (out of every tribe and nation).

In both scenarios, the result is celebration. The ultimate celebration is in heaven. (Even Lifeway acknowledges only a partial fulfillment of these verses in the return from exile.) Last week, we enacted our traditional annual All Saints Remembrance. This passage is the comfort for us during those remembrances. This is true comfort, knowing that God has had compassion on us and will continue to do so.

Let's ask some big-picture questions here. Where are you in this image?

  • Do you feel trapped in exile? Maybe you need to come to Jesus for salvation.

  • Do you feel forsaken and abandoned by God? Know that God has not abandoned you. Spend some significant and intentional time with Him in prayer; let Him remind you of His love for you.

  • Do you feel despised by people? Ask yourself why. If it's because you are choosing to be a selfless servant, then ask God to show you how your experiences fit into His plan for salvation. If it's because you've brought this on yourself, then ask God to restore you to Him and give you help in being restored to those people.

  • Do you feel scorched and hungry and thirsty in this life? Ask God to have compassion on you and take care of you (and be willing to listen).

You see, in the next verse (14), the viewpoint shifts back to the rebellious people of Israel, and they acknowledge that they feel abandoned. But God definitely tells them that He has never forgotten or abandoned them. Just as in the story of the prodigal, it was not the father who left, but the son. The son simply needed to return.

This passage should be a great encouragement to us. On the one hand, it reminds us of what has been accomplished in our salvation. But on the other hand, it reminds us that Jesus is the one who accomplished everything -- we can trust Him.

Comfort and compassion are good words right now. Share them a lot with the people around you. And also be the vessel of God's comfort and compassion on them!


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