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Have you ever been to someone’s house, let us say for dinner, and while you are at the table someone makes some mysterious remark and everybody starts laughing and winking, and giving meaningful glances to each other? And you are thinking, “Huh, must be an inside joke.” So, you smile and nod, but really, you have no idea what is going on. What do you do next? What I do is ask one of the family members, like my friend, “Hey, what was all that about?” Then she fills me in on the joke, and I can laugh, too.

That feeling, that situation, has a parallel here, with this passage.

This is the second of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah’s book (Isaiah 42:1–7 is the first “Servant Song”). Like the first song, the emphasis is on God’s Servant who will bring light to the nations. Still, there are some mysterious lines in here that sort of make sense … but not really, for you and me. We need some help to figure out Isaiah’s meaning.

And the best way to find out is to ask those who were on the inside.

After Jesus rose from the dead, He spent forty days teaching His followers how the whole of the Hebrew scriptures pointed to Himself. So, now you and I are going to consult the writers of the Greek scriptures to fill us in on what Isaiah was talking about here, to understand the full meaning of the mystery.

For Isaiah was no longer focusing on King Cyrus. Now he was talking about a much deeper deliverance and a much more profound restoration with God.

The Servant’s Call

Isaiah wrote these words in the first-person voice, speaking as the Servant, with a call to listen—not just Jewish people, but all people, everywhere.

Listen to me, O coastlands;
    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born;
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
    in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:1-3 (NRSV) 
Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea (Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer)  | By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, , Public Domain

The Servant has the authority to call the whole world to listen to Him, having been commissioned from before birth for this very purpose.

Scripture Gives the Inside Intel

In reading through the above three verses, the identity of the Servant slowly begins to emerge.

Neonatal Calling

His words speak poetically of being called from the body of His mother, which could recall to mind the promise of the seed of the woman way back in the beginning of Genesis and moving all the way forward to the virgin Mary.

Named by God

He was specially named by God before He was born, just as the angel told Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.”

Sharp Sword

His words would be like a sharp sword, which is the same imagery the writer of Hebrews used, and the apostle John used to illustrate the living and active power of Jesus’ words.

Polished Arrow

His ministry would be like an arrow, far reaching, as Jesus described to His followers just before He rose up into heaven, that the gospel would spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Hidden in God’s Hand

And God would keep His Servant hidden until the appropriate time, just as the apostle Peter taught concerning Jesus in his first letter.


And God would be glorified in His Servant, as Jesus displayed when He was transfigured before the astonished eyes of Peter, James and John; as Jesus prayed for, the night before He was crucified; and as upwards of five hundred believers witnessed in the days after Jesus’ resurrection.

Quoted at Jesus’s Circumcision

The prophet Simeon quoted from this passage as fulfillment of prophecy when he blessed Jesus as a baby in the temple, when Mary and Joseph had brought Him up to Jerusalem for His dedication.

Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus | By Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain

Two Mysteries

But there is this curious phrase “My Servant Israel.” What does that mean? Commentators provide four possibilities.

The Nation of Israel

At first glance, this might make sense. That is to say, until we read what Isaiah wrote next.

And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:5-6 (NRSV)

The nation of Israel was not going to bring back itself. As well, the Servant speaks as a single person.

Prophet Isaiah

Perhaps, except how would Isaiah restore all Israel, and further than that be the light of salvation to the entire world?

True Israel 

Various writers of the Greek scriptures indicate God called the nation of Israel to be light for the nations, to show the mercy and grace of God, and to share God’s perfect law. Sadly, Israel often was not any of the these things.

However, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the image of a grape vine was used to signify the nation of Israel. So the apostle John recorded Jesus saying He is the “true vine”. The Servant is “true Israel.” He is all that the ancient nation was meant to be.

Spiritual Israel

The apostle Paul and Barnabas also quoted from this passage to explain they had been commissioned by God to bring God’s light to the Gentiles. The role of Israel was to be the source of an international movement, and it was. The gospel was spread by a few Jewish followers, beginning in Jerusalem and spreading to every part of the earth!

In Isaiah's second Servant Song, two mysteries when solved reveal the identity of Isaiah's prophetic oracle.

#Isaiah49 #ServantSong #SecondServantSong
Conversion of Paul | By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – [2], Public Domain

Rejected Then Rewarded

Now we get to another mysterious saying:

But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord
    and my reward with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4 (NRSV)

During His crucifixion, Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It is the first line of Psalm 22, written prophetically to show both the rejection of Messiah and the reward that was to come in His resurrection.

Mission Faithfully Accomplished

Jesus knew from birth that His task was to restore the nation of Israel; and, beyond that, God’s redemption would reach worldwide. This is how the apostle John began his gospel. Jesus is the Light come into the world. Later, Jesus would Himself say,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12 (NRSV)

The message of God’s salvation is for all people

Though despised during His sojourn on earth, the Lord will not fail in His mission.

Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
Kings shall see and stand up;
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

 Isaiah 49:7 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

As the apostle Paul so confidently proclaimed,

Therefore God exalted him even more highly
    and gave him the name
    that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11 (NRSV), emphases mine)

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