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“Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. 2 And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me; 3 And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. 4 Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God. 5 And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength. 6 And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.”
This chapter brings us to the second of the servant passages (the first in 42:1-7). After nine chapters (40-48) mainly focusing on God’s power, His ability to predict the future, and the condemnation of idols, we are now reminded that God will deliver His people Israel, as well as the Gentiles, from their sinfulness and idolatry. This will be accomplished through God’s servant and is the main theme for the next 5 chapters.
It is also important to understand that the One who was the speaker in chapter 48:12-17, Jehovah the Redeemer (the Son of God), is still speaking as this chapter begins. In these six verses we have a conversation between God the Father and God the Redeemer (Son). Pull up a chair, as we listen in on a conversation between two persons of the Tri-unity.
Jehovah the Redeemer Speaks (the Son)
At the end of chapter 48, vs. 18-22, God lamented over what could have belonged to Israel if they would just have listened. Now, His attention is temporarily drawn to the Gentiles, “O Isles,” of the world. Listen (emv shema), is the same word used in Deuteronomy 6:4 and is in the imperative. God the Redeemer demands a response from the peoples of the world. The gospel was always intended for the entire world (Genesis 12:3) and it is of utmost importance that both Jew and Gentile listen. This servant has been uniquely set aside by God for His task. From the womb God has called him.
Continuing to speak, God the Redeemer says He is protected by God – “in the shadow of his hand” and “in his quiver hath he hid me.” Until the moment on the cross when He took the wrath of God in our place, Jesus was always protected by God, during His ministry as well as before – Matthew 2:13-14. When Jesus was being crucified He cried out, “…Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46. The perfect Lamb of God was forsaken by the Father so we might have the possibility of redemption. Never in eternity past had this happened, never in eternity future will it happen again.
The servant has been specially made for His task – “made my mouth like a sharp sword” and “made me a polished shaft.” Some commentators see these attributes as references to Jesus returning in judgment and appeal to scriptures such as Revelation 1:16, 2:16, and 19:15, but these references do not fit the context of the text. And are better understood through Hebrews 4:12. He will speak the Word of God which will penetrate hearts (Hebrews 4:12), and He will “fly” a straight course like a specially prepared arrow, i.e. He will not veer off the path He has been sent to walk.
In preparation for His ministry the scriptures tell us, “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God,” Hebrews 10:5-7. God specially prepared Jesus’ body through the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:20-23) so He would have no sin (Isaiah 53:9b; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jehovah the Lord GOD Speaks (the Father)
Now, God the Father speaks of the servant being His servant. Servant is used of three different entities in the book of Isaiah – individuals such as Isaiah, (Isaiah 20:3), the nation of Israel, (Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1,21; 45:4; 48:20), and the Messiah, (the 4 servant passages).
On first glance it seems as if this verse is identifying the servant as Israel. This can’t be correct for several reasons. First, the context is that the “me,” God’s servant, has been identified as Jehovah the Redeemer and is the speaker earlier (Isaiah 48:12 and on); and in this verse, God the Father is identifying God the Redeemer as the servant. Second, this servant would “raise up the tribes of Jacob,” (verse 6), so this rules out the servant being the nation of Israel, as Israel will be redeemed by the servant. Third, the servant is identified as an individual, “me” and “I,” which precludes the servant from being the nation of Israel.
So, if the servant isn’t the nation of Israel, how should we understand the servant being called Israel? Jakob Jocz provides an excellent explanation.
“The fates of Israel and the Messiah seem to coincide to such a degree that it is often impossible to distinguish the one from the other. Matthew reveals the same outlook when he identifies the fate of the whole of Israel with that of the child-Messiah. Edersheim is specially emphatic on the question of identification, and speaks of the Messiah as the Representative Israelite; in other words, Messiah is Israel par excellence. In the life and experience of the Messiah is Israel’s history re-enacted, but with a difference. Where Israel failed, the Messiah succeeds; what Israel was meant to be, the Messiah is – the perfect Servant of God.”1
When Israel was given the Mosaic Covenant, (Exodus 19:1-6), they were to be a “kingdom of priests” if they kept the covenant. A priest represented people before God. If Israel was to be a nation or kingdom of priests, who would they represent before God? The only other people group in the world – Gentiles. But, Israel did not keep the commands of the covenant, so God raised up One who would – Messiah the Redeemer. He was perfect and became the High Priest for both Jew and Gentile (Hebrews 4 and 7).
Correctly interpreted, this verse speaks of Messiah embodying and fulfilling the call and purpose of the nation of Israel to be a “kingdom of priests.” In essence, “Israel” in this verse is a name for Messiah.
Jehovah the Redeemer Speaks (the Son)
God the Redeemer now speaks in verses four and five. The purpose of the servant’s coming was to bring Israel, and the world, into the kingdom through repentance and faith. It is not that the servant failed, rather, it is that the primary intended recipients of His work failed to recognize and embrace Him and His work. He did not accomplish His task when He came, as the Jews rejected Him. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not,” John 1:11. His reception by the nation of Israel waits for the second coming, Zechariah 12:10. Ultimately, the LORD will determine justice based on the servant’s work.
There is a possible inference to the virgin birth – “formed me from the womb” – in the opening statement of verse five. As mentioned earlier, He was called and formed to be God’s servant.
Even though Israel would not receive her Messiah (the rejection of the servant, Messiah, is further developed in the next two servant passages), God looks favorably upon the servant (Messiah) and upholds him.
“Though Israel be not gathered” does not refer to the ultimate end of the nation being without hope, as they will be “gathered” in the future as promised by the prophets as well as Jesus in the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24-25). This speaks of the nation of Israel rejecting her Messiah so they can’t be gathered at this time, the first coming of Jesus, into the blessings of the Messianic kingdom. The Lord the Redeemer will be “glorious in the eyes of the LORD,” though, as He will accomplish what God has promised as far back as Genesis 12:3, which states “all families of the earth shall be blessed.” Jew and Gentile will be redeemed by Him.
Jehovah the Lord GOD Speaks (the Father)
We now have God the Father telling God the Son, the Redeemer servant, that He will use Him to bring Israel back to Him and it is “a light thing.” This task is “not enough” for the servant of God. The greater task is that God will use the servant to also bring pagan, idolatrous heathen (Gentiles) to Himself, that His salvation goes throughout the world.
In this servant passage we have an amazing portion of scripture. Not only are we able to “listen” to a conversation between God the Father and God the Son, we are also given a number of foundational truths of the word of God in this section. The deity of Messiah, the plurality in unity of God (from all of scripture we know this is a Tri-unity), the virgin birth, the perfect life of Messiah, and redemption for Jew and Gentile through Messiah are touched upon.
“Listen” to this portion of Scripture! Embrace its teachings! Whether Jew or Gentile, accept God the Son (the Redeemer), Jesus, as the payment for your sins!
1. Jakob Jocz, A Theology of Election: Israel and the Church, S.P.C.K., 1958, p. 106