Several months ago I started a series on the recent book by Ben Witherington III, Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics. It has been a rather interesting time since the last post on the book, and I have not had the time or mental energy to dig into it. But today we return to look at Isaiah 49:1-13. Chapters 49-55 in “Eschatological Isaiah” are among the most significant passages for us as Christians.
Hear the NIV translation of verses 1, 3-6:
Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
In this passage we read the words of a prophet, called and commissioned by God before he born. The servant is called to represent Israel (v. 3) and to bring Israel back to God. This servant may be the prophet, writer of this portion of Isaiah (although not the Isaiah who prophesied to Hezekiah), but it isn’t entirely clear. And, Witherington argues, there is a clear eschatological focus, at least in part.
We must stress that the nation is not replaced by the individual servant, indeed the individual servant is supposed to help restore the nation Israel to her place as God’s chosen servant. The dialectic between the one and the many is maintained when it comes to the servant, but what is new here is that it becomes clear that these passages are not simply talking about the collective entity Israel as God’s servant. No, there is now clearly an individual servant as well on the scene and active. We are not told that this new individual servant is Second Isaiah himself, but this may be the case, in part. It all depends on whether the prophet here is speaking about both the immediate and the eschatological horizon, or just one or the other. The problem of course with the identification of the servant with Second Isaiah is that when one gets to Isaiah 52–53, Second Isaiah can hardly be chronicling his own demise after the fact, and suggesting that that oracle comes from a later redactional hand is probably artful dodging of the issue.
It is the eschatological focus of these chapters that is of the most significance for us as Christians. The possibility of an immediate servant at the time of writing (around the time of the return from exile) is less important and does not eliminate the long-term horizon of the passage. Luke (in 2:25-35) records Simeon taking the infant Jesus into his arms and citing the promise of this passage of Isaiah
Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A Light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.
Simeon continues to Mary “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul – to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.“
Jesus is a light of revelation to the Gentiles.
Jesus also connects his mission with the servant in Isaiah 49-55. One example is seen in Mark 10 where Jesus describes leadership in the kingdom of God, servant leadership extending even to Jesus himself.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mk 10 42-45
While no specific quote here there is a clear allusion to a revolutionary style of leadership that will transform the world and one that is part of Isaiah 49:7 as well as additional passages in chapters 49-55 to be considered soon.
But the New Testament use of the servant in Isaiah is not limited to a “this” is “that” identification of Jesus with the servant. In fact, Paul can see himself as the servant in places. In particular, Paul sees in his mission (with Barnabas) a fulfillment of Isaiah 49 where salvation includes Israel, but extends also to the ends of the earth. He and Barnabas are called … “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”” (Acts 13:47) Paul himself is made a light for the Gentiles.
The promise remains. Things will change in ways the confound human ways and God himself – the Holy One of Israel – is the active agent behind this change.
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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.
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The links to books above are commissioned links from which I receive a small return. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.