THE WIDER CONTEXT: THE SERVANT SONGS
Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs. The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world.
• The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).
• This song, the second song (49:1-6), further defines the Servant’s mission. The Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a). Furthermore, God says, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth” (49:6b).
• The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the work and tenacious faith of the Servant. God has given the Servant a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5). While the Servant experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help me” (50:7, 9), so the Servant sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).
• The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering. This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he didn’t open his mouth” (53:7). “They made his gave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
In the book of Isaiah, the word servant “not infrequently seems to be derived from court style where the official of the king was known as his servant” (Muilenburg, 464). An official of this sort would exercise considerable power on the king’s authority. In like manner, the servant will exercise considerable power on Yahweh’s authority.
The identity of the servant, who seems to be an individual in some places and a group in others, has been a subject of scholarly debate—with little consensus. Jewish people tend to think of the servant as Israel, and there are a number of references in this book to Yahweh’s servant as Israel (41:8; 49:3), Moses (63:11), David (37:35), Jacob (44:1, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:5), and descendants of Jacob (65:9).
However, the prophet might have an individual in mind—such as Hezekiah, who is mentioned positively in chapters 36-39, or Cyrus, whom Yahweh chose to free Israel from bondage (44:28; 45:1, 13) (see Blenkinsopp, 210, 212; Watts, 660).
“The writer of the Servant Songs was looking for an individual who represented both Israel and the Lord, and whose work would bring salvation through suffering. This figure carries a sense of the ideal, but also a sense of theological importance that demands historical enactment. Whether or not the writer viewed this figure as messianic, the historical person who most fulfilled this idea was Jesus. In the New Testament the servant is, indeed, identified with Christ (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 15:21). The Servant Songs do not identify the servant with messianic concepts found elsewhere in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 9, 11), but the identification of the servant with Christ allowed the Church to develop a concept of a suffering Messiah, a concept essentially foreign to Judaism” (Myers, 928).
Chapters 54 and 55 continue to flesh out the work of the Servant. They call the people to rejoice, because “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (54:5). They promise that God’s “loving kindness shall not depart from you” (54:10). They invite those who thirst, “Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1). They counsel, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6). They promise, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace (55:12).
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
Verses 1-6 focus on the call and the mission of the servant. Now follows Yahweh’s promise to bring his children home (49:8—50:3).
Verse 7 is Yahweh’s promise of the total vindication of the servant. Kings and princes who once despised him will pay him homage.
These verses are clearly intended to encourage the exiles who are having trouble believing that Yahweh will soon free them from their exile and lead them back to their homeland. “The prophet wants to convince his people that the approaching political and military triumph of Cyrus over Babylon is much more than it appears to be. It is nothing less than God’s liberation of the Jewish exiles” (Hoppe, 355).
ISAIAH 49:8-10. HE WHO HAS MERCY ON THEM WILL LEAD THEM
8Thus says Yahweh, “In an acceptable time have I answered you, and in a day of salvation have I helped you; and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people, to raise up the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritage: 9saying to those who are bound, ‘Come out!’; to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves!’
“They shall feed in the ways, and on all bare heights shall be their pasture. 10They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun strike them: for he who has mercy on them will lead them, even by springs of water he will guide them.”
“Thus says Yahweh, ‘In an acceptable time I have answered you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you'” (v. 8a). Earlier in this chapter, the servant complained, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (v. 4a). Yahweh began answering that complaint in verses 5-7, and continues the answer in this verse.
“An acceptable time” and “a day of salvation” are parallel phrases that indicate historical particularity—Yahweh has answered and saved on particular occasions—has granted salvation according to a particular plan.
Some scholars (Oswalt, 297; Young, 278) link the phrase “an acceptable time” to the Year of Jubilee—a year when “each of you shall return to your own property, and each of you shall return to your family” (Leviticus 25:10).
“and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people” (v. 8b). A covenant is an agreement between two parties, outlining what is expected of both sides. Covenants between equals are typically quid pro quo agreements, where each party agrees to give something in exchange for something else—usually giving something equal in value to what they expect to receive.
However, covenants between God and humans are not covenants between equals, but are covenants between a superior (God) and an inferior (humans). God initiates these covenants and dictates their terms—in every case terms favorable to the humans. God established a covenant with Abram in which he required Abram to leave his home and family to go to a land that God would show him. In return, God promised, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3). This was the foundational covenant for the Hebrew nation.
Now Yahweh has given the servant “as a covenant of the people” (v. 8b). Given that Yahweh always specifies covenant terms favorable to the humans, this conveys the sense that Yahweh will bless the people through the work of the servant.
“to raise up the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritage” (v. 8c). The people have suffered a lengthy exile in Babylonia. Now Yahweh is preparing for their return to their homeland.
When Israel first entered the Promised Land, God outlined in great detail how the land would be apportioned among the various tribes (Joshua 13-19). That land was given in perpetuity. However, following their lengthy exile—an exile sufficiently lengthy that it will be the children and grandchildren of the original exiles who will return to a land that they have never seen—the problem of apportionment must be revisited. The servant will be responsible for reapportioning the heritage that has stood desolate for so long.
“saying to those who are bound, ‘Come out!’; to those who are in darkness” (v. 9a). The servant is to call prisoners out of their darkness. This has a double meaning. The servant is to announce freedom to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. The servant is also to call sinners out of the darkness of sin into a holy light.
“‘Show yourselves'” (v. 9b). When the prisoners/sinners emerge from the darkness of their prison/sin, they will be seen by others. It can be a frightening proposition for people accustomed to darkness to come out into the light—to expose themselves to public view. It will take faith for them to show themselves. By doing so, they will not only demonstrate their faith, but will also act as witnesses to those who observe them. There are few things that compel attention more dramatically than a prisoner/sinner who has emerged from darkness and who can say, “This is the Lord’s doing!”
“They shall feed in the ways, and on all the bare heights shall be their pasture” (v. 9c). There are several things worthy of note in this portion of verse 9 and the following verses. We have been hearing allusions to the return of the exiles to the Promised Land—land that was promised to the ancestors of the exiles long ago—land that their ancestors occupied for many years—land that they forfeited through their sin and lack of faith.
Now we hear of a journey—the journey that the exiles will take to return to their homeland. This journey is reminiscent of the Exodus which led to the original occupation of the Promised Land by Israel. Yahweh is promising the Promised Land to the Jewish exiles once again, and is also promising to lead them there.
This journey is more than geographical. It is spiritual as well. The prisoners are coming out of a dark exile (v. 9a), but they are also emerging into the light from the darkness of sinful lives. The Lord is present to guide them both geographically and spiritually.
The metaphor of verses 9c-11 is that of a shepherd leading a flock of sheep. These verses are reminiscent of Psalm 23, where David spoke of the Lord making him to lie down in green pastures and leading him beside still waters. Now Yahweh promises to provide for these exiles as they return to their homeland. They will find food along the road, and will find pasture even on barren heights that would not normally provide sustenance. This is the promise of a miraculous provisioning.
“They shall not hunger or thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun shall strike them” (v. 10a). Not only will Yahweh provide food and water for the journey, but he will also protect them from exposure to the elements. This is an important provision for people crossing significant expanses of desert wilderness. On a journey of this sort, a large group of people would normally expect to bury a number of its members along the way—victims of heat, wind, exertion, accidents, starvation, and dehydration. This group, however, will be different, because its members enjoy Yahweh’s protection.
“for he who has mercy on them will lead them, even by springs of water he will guide them” (v. 10b). It is not the worthiness of the exiles that accounts for the favor that Yahweh will show them. It is Yahweh’s nature, his compassion, that causes him to lead them safely through the desert to their homeland. It is his pity that causes him to guide them by springs of life-giving water.
Note again that this journey is more than geographical. It is also spiritual. The exiles will return to their homeland, but, more importantly, they will return to Yahweh.
ISAIAH 49:11-13.I WILL MAKE ALL MY MOUNTAINS A WAY
11 “I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted. 12Behold, these shall come from far; and behold, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.
13“Sing, heavens; and be joyful, earth; and break forth into singing, mountains: for Yahweh has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted.”
“I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted” (v. 11). On a wilderness journey, travelers can expect to be confronted by many obstacles. Mountains can present a serious challenge to people who have no mountaineering experience. Wadis and canyons can be equally challenging. Ordinary travelers must decide whether to try to cross such obstacles or to find a way around them.
These exiles will be at a real disadvantage, because they will include large numbers of women and children who will be especially vulnerable. However, Yahweh promises to turn his mountains into a road and to raise up highways for the exiles to use. Yahweh can do this, because the mountains and roads are his. He who created the mountains and roads can raise or lower them at will.
“Behold, these shall come from far; and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Sinim” (v. 12). Jewish people will come, not just from Babylonia (east of the Promised Land), but also from the other three points of the compass—from the north and west—and “from the land of Sinim,” which is probably Aswan in southern Egypt, far to the south. This will be a great ingathering of Jewish people so that they can once again claim their inheritance in the Promised Land.
“Sing, heavens; and be joyful, earth; and break forth into singing, mountains” (v. 13a). It is not just the freed exiles who will rejoice, but all of nature—the heavens, the earth, and the mountains. The cause of rejoicing goes beyond the freeing of the exiles to the restoration of things as God has created it to be—the setting right of a world that has been out of kilter.
“For Yahweh has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted” (v. 13b). We heard of Yahweh’s pity or compassion in verse 10b. Now we hear of it again. It is clear that Yahweh has taken no pleasure in the disciplining of his people, but has suffered in their suffering.
ISAIAH 49:14-16a. I WILL NOT FORGET YOU
14But Zion said, “Yahweh has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.”
15“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet I will not forget you! 16Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”
“But Zion said, ‘Yahweh has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me'” (v. 14). Zion refers to Mount Zion upon which Jerusalem is built—or to Jerusalem itself. In this verse, it could be the exiles who are complaining that Yahweh has forgotten them. That would be reminiscent of the complaints of their ancestors in the wilderness (Exodus 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 14:2; Deuteronomy 1:27; Psalm 106:25). Complaint would also be the understandable response of people who had suffered exile for many decades.
But Goldingay understands this to be the complaint of Jerusalem-Zion—the complaint of a city that has been stripped of its people. He says, “Instead of telling Jacob-Israel ‘you are free to go home,’ (chapters 49-55) tell Jerusalem-Zion ‘your children are on their way back home'” (Goldingay, 285).
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” (v. 15a). In human experience, no bond is more powerful than the bond between mother and child. We have come to expect that mothers will make extraordinary sacrifices for their children, because that is what we have experienced. We have come to expect that a mother’s love will be constant, even if the child proves unworthy, because that is what we have seen.
Yahweh draws upon the image of a mother’s love to reassure Zion of the constancy of his love. It has seemed otherwise to the exiles, because the period of their disciplining has been so lengthy. But Yahweh has not forgotten them—has not abandoned them—will not refuse to act with compassion.
“Yes, these may forget” (v. 15b). While it is difficult to imagine a mother abandoning or forgetting her children, it does happen. There is an occasional mother who has no feeling for her child. There is an occasional mother who murders her baby.
“yet I will not forget you” (v. 15c). But Yahweh promises that, even though some mothers fail to love their children, Yahweh will not fail to love Zion. As great as we expect a mother’s love to be, Yahweh’s love is even greater.
“Behold, I have engraved you in the palms of my hands” (v. 16a). Our hands are ever before us. A mark on another part of our body might be hidden from our view, but a mark on the palms of our hands would serve as a constant reminder. This verse is a poetic way of expressing the constancy of God’s love for his people.
“your walls are continually before me” (v. 16b). The breaking down of walls has served as a metaphor for the disciplining of Israel (2:15; 5:5; 22:5; 25:12; 30:13), and the rebuilding of walls will serve as a metaphor for Israel’s restoration (54:12; 60:10, 18). In this verse, Yahweh reassures his people that their disciplining and restoration are constantly before him—constantly on his mind.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Hoppe, Leslie J., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan