The background for this part of Isaiah 49 is the Sabbath years, and the Jubilee that God wrote into the law for ancient Israel.
Crop rotation was an unknown concept in ancient times, but when God instituted the Sabbath Year, He did it so that the land could benefit from resting, and the soil would be replenished. People were not to work the fields or have organized harvests, but whatever the land produced naturally, anyone could harvest to get enough to have a meal from. The idea was that every person living in Israel would be God’s guest at God’s table, the poor, the sojourner, everybody.
A Year of Rest
Not only did the land rest, but so did the people and farm animals. The normal activities that go with farming and animal husbandry, except for taking care of their animals’ basic needs, were prohibited—animals were not to be worked and servants were not to be worked either.
During the Sabbath Year all debts were to be canceled and all those of Israelite descent who were enslaved were to be given their freedom. At the Feast of Tabernacles, when all the Israelites came in to Jerusalem to celebrate the final harvest and give thanks for God’s provision in the wilderness, would also have a Bible conference. The people would receive special instruction from the priests, teaching them God’s word in an organized way. The whole rest of the year would be consecrated as holy, dedicated to the Lord.
God would see to it that everyone would be provided for, they would have enough food and resources to live on so their faith would be strengthened in trusting God in this. Even when the sixth year did not produce a large harvest, the seventh year was to be given to God. Every seventh year, the Israelites’ faith was to be bolstered by this Sabbath rest for the land, the animals, and all the people.
Jubilee for the Land
The Jubilee—the Sabbath of Sabbaths—was to occur every seven-times-seven years, in other words, the fiftieth year. God intended the Year of Jubilee to be a blessing for everyone. All land was to be returned to its ancestral owner as their holy inheritance from the Lord. Everyone was to eat at God’s table for a year and enjoy the work of God’s hands, to look around at what God had done for them and say “It is all good” with grateful hearts.
But God’s people did not take the Sabbath Year seriously. When Israel and then Judah were deported, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the land would finally be able to have the Sabbath rests for all the years that Israel had ignored God’s command and denied the land its furlough. The people had denied their land seventy Sabbath years, and so they would live in exile for seventy years.
A Time of Favor
Thus says the Lord:Isaiah 49:8 (NRS, Emphasis mine)
In a time of favor I have answered you;
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages
The time of God’s favor, refers back to the Jubilee God intended for God’s people, the keeping of God’s covenant with them, given during the time of the Exodus. The people’s inheritance of land would be reapportioned, and their blessing of abundant crops and children would all be returned to them.
The immediate fulfillment of this promise came in the return of the exiles from Babylon. There would be a great procession into Jerusalem, reminiscent of Joshua’s day, when God removed all obstacles, and gave every provision needed to enter and rebuild.
Covenant of Grace and Peace
God would also give the Servant as a covenant to the people, the fulfillment of a deeper, spiritual promise. When God gave Moses the law, God promised to bless the people if they would obey God’s commands; but disobedience would bring terrible consequences. This was a conditional covenant, one of law.
Technically, God’s covenant of law, or works, is still valid today. God’s nature, God’s character, is unchanging and God’s word is also unchanging. But through the Lord Jesus Christ, God established a new, unconditional covenant with God’s people, because Jesus fulfilled every requirement of God’s first covenant of law. You and I can enter into God’s new, unconditional covenant of grace, of peace and restoration, by Jesus’s good works when we receive Him as our Lord and Savior by faith.
Ancient covenants were routinely ratified in blood. Similarly, all of God’s covenants were accompanied with sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood, including the new covenant of grace that Jesus presents. God the Son, Jesus became the sacrifice for all time, in union of purpose with God the Father, and thereby became the source of salvation.
God will give God’s people an inner ability to obey the Lord through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within them. Believers will enjoy the sweet freedom of forgiveness and cleansing, a brand new life that is filled with God’s love and power, as well as an intimate communion with God that will never go away. Our hearts will find a new direction, to live for God’s pleasure and to enjoy the Lord.
Just as Joshua led the people of the Exodus to the promised land, and Ezra and Nehemiah led the people back to their promised land, so the Servant would lead the people into their spiritual inheritance.
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”Isaiah 49:9-10 (NRSV)
to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways;
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them
and by springs of water will guide them.
The imagery of sheep being tended by a good shepherd would have called to mind Psalm 23 for Isaiah’s audience.
But the imagery expands to include far more than just Israel in exile
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,Isaiah 49:11-12 (NRSV)
and my highways shall be raised up.
Look, some shall come from far away,
some from the north and from the west,
and some from the land of Syene.
This is a worldwide ingathering.
Some scholars see this ingathering as the beginning of the millennial kingdom. Christians also see this as the ongoing work of the Savior Jesus, bringing people to salvation across the centuries since His resurrection. Seen this way, Isaiah is describing the Holy Spirit freeing these people from the captivity of sin, saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
This worldwide gathering of God’s people will lead to worldwide praise!
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;Isaiah 49:13 (NRSV)
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
Jesus is God’s new, living covenant of compassion
I think of the many time of worship I have shared with the saints, our voices filling the room with holy music. Shouting for joy is the only appropriate response to such a great salvation! Singing is a regular feature in Isaiah, a response of cosmic elation, where all creation voices praise.
God encouraged God’s Servant, and through God’s Servant brings comfort and encouragement to you and me, the Lord’s beloved people. May we spread that encouragement to all those around us, to the praise of God’s grace.