When God chose Israel as his own special people, they were supposed to proclaim him to the surrounding nations. They were supposed to live according to his precepts. Their godly lives would make the rest of the world want to live the same way.
Instead, they rebelled. They adopted the ways of the surrounding nations: the idolatry, the greed, the pride, and the tendency for the strong to oppress the weak. In Isaiah’s time, Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom and deported its people. And it was knocking on Jerusalem’s doorstep.
Isaiah predicted that Assyria would not destroy the southern kingdom, but that later, Babylon would. Where, then, did that prediction leave the special relationship God had established with Israel? Who would fulfil the task of calling the nations to God?
The Servant’s call
Isaiah began to give his answer in 42:1-9, the first of four Servant songs. God had called a special Servant. It could not be the blind and deaf nation of Israel, who had so long refused the task. It could only be Jesus. This Servant addresses the nations of the world in Isaiah’s second Servant song, Isaiah 49:1-6.
Calling them to listen to him, he immediately reveals some key facts about himself:
- He is human, to be born from the womb, but called and named before his birth.
- He is an offensive weapon against sin: a sharpened sword hidden in the shadow of the Lord’s hand and a polished arrow concealed in the quiver. In other words, his coming is not at first an act of aggression.
- God gives him the name Israel, the nation having proved itself unworthy of it.
The Servant’s frustrationBut before he can redeem the world, the Servant has to redeem Israel. It seems like too much for him. In verse 4, he complains that he has labored in vain and accomplished nothing.
Isaiah could only anticipate Jesus. We can look back on his earthly ministry. When would he ever have expressed such despair?
From a human perspective, he had every right to feel that way as he prepared to ascend into heaven after his resurrection.
- His twelve closest followers understood little or nothing about his mission. One of them betrayed him.
- He preached to thousands during his ministry. Many followers eventually turned away, offended by some of the imagery he used (John 6:66).
- After the resurrection, he gathered a crowd of only 500.
- Only 120 of them showed up at the prayer meeting on Pentecost. The entire fruit of three years of ministry.
The Servant’s hope
But in the last half of that same verse, the Servant acknowledges that his reward is in the Lord’s hand. God decides what is successful and what is failure. The human perspective counts for nothing.
Looking at what appears to be a dismal failure to return Israel to the Lord, the Lord declares it too small a task. He also calls Servant to be a light to the Gentiles and who will bring salvation to the whole world. If he was despised by the nation of Israel, kings of Gentile nations will bow down to him in worship and adoration.
That will be the easy part. The hard part remains to persuade the nation of Israel.
Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Isaiah 49:13-14 NIV
We in the church have been grafted on to Zion. Too often, we echo Zion’s mindless complaint that God has forsaken us. Isaiah has two more Servant songs to explain how he intends to accomplish his work of redemption.
Isaiah. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Jesus separating sheep from goats. Source unknown.
Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Christ Enthroned. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons