When studying a book of the Bible, it’s helpful to keep its context and message in view?
What’s Isaiah’s context? The Israelites have given themselves to idolatry, thereby violating their covenant with God. God punishes them by sending foreign invaders: the Assyrians and Babylonians. In accordance with their policy for conquered territories, the invading armies lead the surviving Israelites away into captivity.
What’s Isaiah’s message? Clearly, the captivity is God’s punishment upon the Israelites for their idolatry. But God is going to use Cyrus (king of Persia) to restore a remnant to the land. Couched in this event is something of far greater significance. God is going to use His Servant to deliver His people from spiritual bondage to sin.
The book of Isaiah includes four detailed portraits of the Servant. These are known as “the Servant Songs.” In the first (chapter 42), God describes His relationship with His Servant. In the second (chapter 49), the Servant describes His relationship with His God. In these two texts of Scripture, therefore, we’re listening to a personal conversation between the Father and the incarnate Son.
What does the Servant say in Isaiah 49?
(1) God called me (v. 1)
“The LORD called me from the womb.” The Servant recognizes that God has set Him apart for a special purpose – a purpose that extends back through human history into God’s eternal counsels.
(2) God named me (v. 1)
“From the body of my mother he named my name.” The Servant celebrates His special relationship with God. This “naming” points ahead to the time when the angel declares to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The name Jesus means Jehovah is salvation. It declares the Servant’s identity and mission.
(3) God equipped me (v. 2)
“He made my mouth like a sharp sword.” The Servant acknowledges that God has equipped Him to pierce as far as “the division of soul and spirit” (Heb. 4:12). He discerns man’s innermost thoughts and intentions. “All are naked and exposed before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (Heb. 4:13).
(4) God protected me (v. 2)
Apart from one incident in the city of Jerusalem, the Servant’s life (prior to the start of His ministry) is clouded in secret. What was happening? Here’s a glimpse: “In the shadow of his hand he hid me.” There’s only a shadow when the hand is closed. It denotes protection. “He grew up before him like a young plant” (Isa. 53:2). It’s easy to destroy a young plant. It’s tender, delicate, and vulnerable. Therefore, it requires attention and protection. Similarly, God watched over His Servant.
(5) God cherished me (v. 2)
“He made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me.” A polished arrow receives extra care and attention. It’s hidden away for a special purpose. Similarly, God cherishes His Servant. He keeps Him for just the right moment – the fullness of time. And then, He sets Him in His bow, and releases Him to accomplish His mission.
(6) God commissioned me (v. 3)
“And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” In the first part of the book, Isaiah speaks of Israel as the Servant. God summoned Israel to serve Him – to be a light to the Gentiles. But Israel failed miserably. In the second part of the book, Isaiah speaks of the true Servant – an individual who would be all that Israel was not. Israel proved to be a faithless son; Jesus is a faithful Son. Israel failed to bring light to the Gentiles; Jesus brings light to the Gentiles. Israel failed to glorify God; Jesus glorified God.
(7) God honored me (vv. 4–8)
The Servant declares, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (v. 4). Humanly speaking, the Servant’s ministry was an abysmal failure. By the end of His earthly ministry, how many followed Him? Very few! But He doesn’t despair. He sees things from God’s vantage point: “Yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God” (v. 4). The Servant comforts Himself in the knowledge that He’s engaged in God’s cause. He adds, “I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength” (v. 5). How?
First, God has honored His Servant by making Him a restorer of nations (vv. 5–6). See Acts 13:47. Second, God has honored His Servant by making Him a ruler of kings (v. 7). See Acts 4:26. Third, God has honored His Servant by making Him a redeemer of prisoners (vv. 8–10). See 2 Cor. 6:2.
We often feel as though all is vanity, but the Servant takes us on a journey. It begins with redemption (v. 9), and extends to provision, protection, and direction on our long journey home (vv. 9–10). In a word, He abundantly satisfies our wants as we journey home. See Rev. 7:16–17.
Quotable: “The knowledge of Jesus Christ is the most sweet and comfortable knowledge” (John Flavel).