Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-6
Today we read the Second Song of the Servant of Yahweh.
The prophet again speaks in words that apply very suitably to Jesus. Jesus has been called from all eternity to do this work of salvation. He is a “sharp-edged sword” and a “polished arrow”.
God says, “You are my servant in whom I shall be glorified” but Jesus must surely be tempted to say, with Isaiah, “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.” Surely it must have looked like that as Jesus hung dying on the cross, his mission a shambles, his enemies victorious and his disciples in total flight. On the cross, Jesus cried out with these heart-rending words: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Yet he had been chosen as a servant so that “Jacob”, i.e. Israel, might be brought back to him. And finally he will be made “glorious in the sight of the Lord” and his God is his strength.
His moments of darkness become the moment of glory. “I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” As indeed has happened. But who, standing at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday, could have seen the outcome of this ‘failure’?
Yet, that is what we celebrate during this week.
“Coasts and islands…distant peoples.” These are the lands along the Mediterranean and beyond the seas, whom we saw mentioned yesterday. The message of the Servant is for them – and hence for all of us, for me.
“Yahweh called me when I was in the womb, before my birth he had pronounced my name.” The language is similar to that of the call of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:5) and of Paul (Gal 1:15). And, as Christians, we believe that that is true of all of us. “Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ…” (Eph 1:4).
“He made my mouth like a sharp sword… made me into a sharpened arrow…” Later, the Letter to the Hebrews will compare the Word of God to a two-edged sword, which penetrates into the deepest recesses of our hearts, bringing both consolation, wisdom and discomfort for our wrongdoings.
“Israel, you are my servant.” Israel here is generally understood not of the nation but of an individual, representing the best that Israel should be. Perhaps we, too, should be less arrogant when we apply the term ‘Christian’ to ourselves, knowing how far we are from what Jesus is calling us to be.
“I said, ‘My toil has been futile, I have exhausted myself for nothing to no purpose.” As he hung on the cross, his mission apparently a failure and mocked by those bent on destroying him, these words would seem to fit Jesus so well. It will be in the Third and Fourth Songs that we will begin to see the place of all the pain and suffering in the mission of Jesus.
“Yet all the while my cause was with Yahweh and my reward with my God.” In spite of apparent failure, the cause of Jesus will be vindicated and his mission a success. “Yahweh…formed me in the womb to be his servant.” And the Servant carried out that call to the very end and with wondrous results. We, too, have been in the mind of God from eternity and been given a special call. How do I see that call at this time?
“To bring back Jacob…and to re-unite Israel” – a reference to the release from captivity in Babylon and the return to Jerusalem. But there is the wider connotation of bringing God’s people back to union with him.
And it will not be just Israel because a little further on the passages says: “I shall make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the remotest parts of the earth.” The Servant’s mission is the conversion of the whole world to his Way. Together with Gen 12:1-3; Ex 19:5-6, this verse is sometimes called the “great commission of the Old Testament” and is quoted in part by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:47. Christ is the light of the world (Luke 2:30-32; John 8:12; 9:5) and Christians reflect his light (Mt 5:14).
“You are like salt for all mankind… You are like light for the whole world.” Is that the way I see myself? Let me hear Jesus say these words to me as I watch him on the Cross during these days.