From chapters 49-57 we will read the sequel to chapters 40-48. One of the words often used in these chapters is servant. Of the ten times this word occurs, nine of them refer to Israel, Jacob, or Israel-Jacob. First this servant is deaf and blind (42:18-219), then he is sinful and needing redemption (44:22, 43:25), and lastly the servant is faithful and has a mission to both Israel and the Gentiles (42:1-7, 49:1-6, 50:6-9). Last comes One who is innocent Himself, and He suffers for the sins of others. (52:13-53:12). These passages are called the servant songs and they generally refer to the pious in Israel sharing with their Lord in His mission of salvation. The final servant song points directly at the coming Messiah. In this suffering servant song we will see both the humiliation and the glory that is to follow.
God intended to rescue the Israelites from exile but the question remained, how could sinful Israel again become the servant of the Holy One? God would make a way for Israel’s sin to be atoned for and their fellowship with Him to be restored. That way would be the promised servant who would come not only for Israel but for all people. This servant was introduced in 42:1-9 but in this passage He becomes the central focus. This servants ministry would extend beyond Israel and His call would be similar to that of the prophet Jeremiah. It was not a general call but a very specific, personal call. The servant’s mission would be prophetic. The suffering servant would come out of Israel and would Himself be the true Israel. He would serve as both king and prophet, anointed with the Spirit of God and commissioned as a faithful witness to God’s purposes. In his mission to both Israel and other nations he would suffer rejection, and disgrace while being faithful, unlike the nation of Israel. His suffering would be on behalf of God’s chosen people. Jesus became the ultimate fulfillment of the suffering servant.
People stubbornly refused his message but the servant would continue to reach out to them. And, despite discouragement and suffering, the servant would continue to discharge his duty faithfully, trusting God for the outcome. God promised to reward the servant for His faithfulness. This servant would be a light to the Gentiles. As the Messiah, the servant’s mission would have a worldwide reach. We will read in the Book of Acts that Paul explained his apostolic mission to the Gentiles on the basis of this prophecy. (Acts 13:47, 26:23). The promised servant would be despised and rejected by the nations as well as his own people. Kings and princes would bow down low to pay respect and show humility before this servant. And after the servant has suffered, God will exalt him. God is faithful to his servant. God will act at just the right time to accomplish His purposes. We know that Israel returned to reestablish the land of Israel after the exile. The land was restored and the city of Jerusalem was rebuilt beginning with Cyrus’s edict. Verses 10-11 sound a lot like psalm 23. The Lord is pictured here like a Shepherd, taking care of his flock. In His mercy the Lord will lead the returning exiles beside cool waters. He promised to comfort them and tend to their needs. By making level paths the Lord will open up the way for salvation. This remnant will come from the north, that is Babylon and Persia, from the west by way of the Mediterranean Sea, and as far away as south of Egypt. God’s people had been scattered far and wide and now He would bring them together once again.
Verse 13 begins a hymn of praise in response to the salvation this servant would make possible. But even though the prophet announced cause for rejoicing, the exiles were still pondering the calamity that came upon them with the Babylonian defeat and exile. They were grieved at the destruction of Jerusalem and when the Babylonians carried them off into exile they felt deserted and forgotten. This is interesting because these people who were upset about God forgetting them, had forgotten Him! But then they realize He had not forgotten them. And they pictured His care for them as writing their names on the palms of His hands. This may well point back at the clothes the high priest wore for high holy days. If you recall, all the names of the twelve tribes were engraved on two stones that were on the shoulders of the high priests ephod. When the priest was in the temple seeing this would remind God of His covenant with them. Seeing the walls here refers to the crumbled walls of Jerusalem, meaning God has His thoughts focused on the welfare of His people. In verse 18 the Lord swears an oath on Himself. He says ‘As I Live’, meaning for as long as He lives Zion’s returning sons and daughters would remain there. They would be like splendid ornaments, like the jewels of a bride. A wedding calls for festivity and public display. God’s restoration of Israel would be on public display for all to see. Then they would all know that God is the one true and sovereign God. Once again God’s people would multiply in numbers as the population explosion would extend beyond Israel to the members of foreign nations who turn to the Lord. This expanded population would require space far beyond the boundaries of the land of Israel. The mighty rulers of these nations, some of whom had previously killed children in Israel would now aid in their return to Zion. Elsewhere Isaiah saw people of foreign nations streaming to Zion to worship the Lord. This would be a stunning role reversal…kings and queens serving the lowly exiles upon their return. This would also reveal God’s power to do the unimaginable. The godly would experience temporary disgrace in the exile but would not ultimately be put to shame like the idolaters and ungodly would be. Israel asks rhetorically will the prey…captive Israel…be taken from the mighty…Babylon? It seems that Israel expects a negative answer from this question but the Lord responds affirmatively. He would contend with the mighty, terrible Babylon. The Lord is like a mighty warrior who will fight to protect His children.
The first three verses of chapter 50 are considered to be a disputation. God was not forced to give Israel up. That meant He could take the nation back as His people if He wanted. God was not at fault for the people’s problems. It was their sin that brought about their exile. The people had not responded to God’s repeated call to trust Him and repent of their sins. They were deaf and stubborn. The Lord had come and called the people through the prophets. He asked if His arm was too short to rescue His people. Did they think He had no power? God was fully able to rescue Israel and Judah from the Assyrians and Babylonians, but He had to first deal justly with His peoples sinfulness. And then He reminded them of what He had done by parting the Red Sea and making the ground dry. Later He did the same thing with the Jordan River. Dressing the skies in darkness and cloths of mourning were associated with the terrible day of the Lord. This also brings to mind the ninth plague in Egypt, the plague of darkness. And there were the three hours Jesus hung in the cross when everything went dark.
Verses 4-11 is the third of the four servant songs. Here the faithful and suffering servant portrays an ideal Israel. This is the image that was realized in Jesus Christ. The Lord, who never grows weary, sends the servant with good news to comfort those who are weary. And the servant was obedient. But he was mistreated terribly. What happened to this servant, written in verse 6 points directly to the suffering of Jesus. He is the true suffering servant. In that time people often struck the back of a fool. Jesus suffered this humiliation. Pulling someone’s beard was a sign of contempt and disrespect. This happened to Jesus too. The shame and spitting was also intended to diminish someone. Jesus endured this for us as well. Even though the servant would be disgraced and put to shame he would calmly wait for God’s vindication. By setting his face he was showing that he was determined to do God’s will. God vindicates those who suffer for doing His will. Vindication is an act of God by which He exalts those who have been wrongly disgraced. He strikes down the wicked, self exalted, and arrogant. Having confidence in God’s vindication has the effects of removing fear and it bolsters faith. God is on his side so no one will be able to declare him guilty. This foreshadows the New Testament understanding of justification. (Romans 8:31-35).
The fear of the Lord…reverence and awe…is the beginning of wisdom. The test of whether or not an individual fears the Lord is how they respond to God’s righteous servant. The same idea is present in Jesus’ claim that no one can come to the Father except through Him. Those who trust in the Lord have great hope for the future. Isaiah warns that people who are spiritually complacent are those who are unresponsive to God. Though they may have comfort and security now, there will come a time of great torment. This may be accompanied by weaping and gnashing of teeth.
Chapter 51 speaks to everlasting salvation for Zion. It is a call to trust in the Lord. The chapter has three units, each beginning with the words, listen to me. They are three oracles, linked by the same speaker, the Lord, and the same addressees, the faithful exiles. The common theme is comfort as a result of their coming salvation. His reference to the rock and the quarry are a reference to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham became a great nation. The exiled community had greatly decreased in number and they needed to have faith that God could restore them again to a healthy and thriving population. The salvation spoken of here will one day reestablish conditions like those in which the first humans lived in ..the garden of Eden. The work of the servants will prosper because justice will be the rule in God’s kingdom on earth. The nations will receive the Lord and His revelation. God is strong enough to crush His enemies and rescue His people, just like when He rescued His people from slavery in Egypt. The wicked will die in great multitudes on the day of the Lord’s judgement. But, beyond simply knowing God’s Word, He desires for His people to internalize, treasure, and obey it. As one of my seminary professors used to say, we are to read, study and inwardly digest God’s Word. Those who choose to do this may well find themselves scorned, insulted, or mocked.
We are reminded that God does not sleep and the prayer in verses 9-10 calls on God to act immediately to save His people. They recall that the exodus from Egypt was an act of redemption that displayed God’s power as He made a path of escape for His people. Even though the people accused God of forgetting them, God will never forget His people. That meant they could not forget Him, because the One who created the world also created Israel. The exile was brutal and God’s people would not soon forget. God reminded them that He was their covenant God…I AM the Lord. He wanted to assure them, of the truth of His Word, and the reliability of His actions. Israel was the Lord’s covenant community. He didn’t want them to forget that. But He also wanted them to be done with their past and look forward to God’s future for them. Back in verse 9 Israel used the words wake up wake up to speak to the Lord. Now, in verse 17 the Lord uses them for Jerusalem. Israel’s problems were not the result of God being slow to act. The people were slow to believe God’s promises. The Lord will appropriately measure out His judgement and those who fall under that judgement must figuratively drink from His wrath. (Mathew 26:39). Verses 19-20 refer to the desolation of the land and the destruction of the people. Children have fainted and lay in the streets. They lack food and water, and fear has nearly destroyed them. They resemble animals caught in a net that have struggled to set themselves free. The people are in a drunken stupor, but not from wine. This is a cup of trembling, the terror of God’s judgement. Israel’s oppressors will instead be made to drink the cup of wrath or fury. God would be the defender of Israel just like He was when Assyria besieged Jerusalem.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W