Four “Servant Songs,” located in chapters 42 through 53, are prophetic in nature and give details about the character and purpose of the Messiah. Last week, we examined the first servant song in Isaiah 42, in which the Lord identified the Messiah as “My Servant,” with a quiet and patient demeanor, one who would bring truth, justice, and comfort to the weak and oppressed, who would be a light to the gentiles, and would open mankind’s eyes to the reality and grace of God. That first servant song ended with assurance that the Messiah was sure to come, because God had promised. The second Servant Song, Isaiah 49:1-13, concentrates on the Messiah as a light to the gentiles:
1 Listen, O coastlands, to Me, and take heed, you peoples from afar!
The Lord has called Me from the womb; from the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.
2 And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, and made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me.
3 And He said to me, “You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
4 Then I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain; yet surely my just reward is with the Lord, and my work with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, So that Israel is gathered to Him (For I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, And My God shall be My strength),
6 Indeed He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”
7 Thus says the Lord, The Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One, to Him whom man despises, to Him whom the nation abhors, to the Servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise, Princes also shall worship, because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel; and He has chosen You.”
8 Thus says the Lord: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth, to cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
9 That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ They shall feed along the roads, and their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.
10 They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them; for He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them.
11 I will make each of My mountains a road, and My highways shall be elevated.
12 Surely these shall come from afar; Look! Those from the north and the west, and these from the land of Sinim.”
13 Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth! And break out in singing, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people, and will have mercy on His afflicted.
The Servant Will Be a Light to the Gentiles
The Messiah will come in human form (1)
“Listen, oh coastlands, to me, and take heed you peoples from afar!” These are words of prophecy from the Messiah, given to Isaiah. His introduction, with reference to “coastlands” and “you peoples from afar,” means the entire world and confirms again that the Messiah would be sent not just to Israel, but to the whole world.
“The Lord has called Me from the womb; from the inward parts of My mother.” The Messiah would be a human being, born as others are born of a woman (although virgin born, Isaiah 7:14). He will be an individual human being, as distinct from the nation of Israel or a spiritual or political movement that would come to dominate the world.
There is no evidence that this idea of an individual Messiah, both fully God and fully human, was a tradition of the Israelites. The Messiah that Isaiah revealed is not the one the Israelites necessarily sought, and certainly a Messiah that would rescue or redeem the gentiles as well as the Israelites was not anticipated, and, in fact, was not wanted.
Cultural ideas come into play, as they always do. In that culture and era, every nation worshipped its own gods and sought dominance of other nations. When a nation conquered another, the triumphant nation’s gods were seen as stronger. There was an idea among the Israelites, consistent with this cultural trend, that the Messiah would be a prophet, perhaps with supernatural powers, who would lead them to political and military dominance. It was not a well defined idea and tended to bend toward defeating whatever foreign powers happened to be threatening the nation of Israel. But the point is, the Messiah Isaiah repeatedly described was not the Messiah they were looking for. The emphasis of the Messiah as a human being did not jibe with the Israelites’ attitude that God’s influence in the world would grow militarily.
He will be an effective teacher (2)
“And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword.” The Messiah will speak effectively and thereby conquer with His teaching (indicated by the term “sharp sword,” and instrument of battle). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul refers to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit . . . and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
The two statements in this verse, “He has hidden Me,” refer to the timing of the Messiah’s advent; before His appearing, He was hidden with God the Father, ready to be sent at the right moment.
He will glorify the Father (3)
This verse is the only place where the Messiah is referred to by the name Israel. It emphasizes both His human origin as a child from among the Israelites and divine origin as the chosen one of Israel. People will see the splendor of the Father through the Messiah, and Jesus’ entire ministry was aimed at glorifying the Father.
Sent to save Israel, he will be rejected (4-5)
“I have labored in vain.” In view here is the Messiah’s first advent, when the people of Israel rejected Him. It would have appeared, at the time of His death, that He had labored in vain. His own people, to whom He had come to save, had rejected Him and His message. Nevertheless, the Messiah did the work of the Father, His purpose being “to bring Jacob back to Him” (5). Ultimately, this purpose will be accomplished in His second advent.
He will save all mankind (6)
While the Messiah’s chief purpose was Savior for Israel, He also was given “as a light to the Gentiles” Israel’s mission had always been to bring the nations to a knowledge of the true God, which they never accomplished. The Messiah, however, in His first advent, became the light of salvation to the entire world. The song repeats the theme in verse 6 that ultimately the remnant of the people of Israel (the “preserved ones of Israel”) also will be restored to their God.
Those who despised Him will worship Him (7)
The Messiah was despised and suffered humiliating treatment in His first advent. This is a theme Isaiah repeats a number of times (50:6-9; 52:14, 15; 53:3). Yet in His second advent, kings and princes shall recognize Him as Messiah and worship Him. Isaiah addresses this again in 52:15: “Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.”
A covenant to all people (8-13)
Here is another repetition that the Messiah would be sent as Savior not just to Israel, but to all people.
“I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth.” There may be interplay of ideas here, because the passage refers both to “the people, to restore the earth” and to the people of Israel “to inherit the desolate inheritance.” In a roundabout way, God’s message is one of inclusiveness for both His chosen people, who will be restored to their inheritance in the second advent, and the gentiles, who received the offer of salvation through faith at the first advent.
The term “salvation” in verse 8 is yeshuah, meaning “Jehovah saves.” It also is the proper name Joshua or Jesus. (Matthew 1:21: “and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”).
Verse 9 repeats the theme we already have seen in the earlier chapters of Isaiah, that the Messiah frees the prisoners and those who are in darkness. These are metaphors for revealing spiritual truth and freedom from the bondage of spiritual darkness.
“They shall feed along the roads, and their pastures shall be on all desolate heights. They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them; for He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them” (9-10). In the kingdom to come, ruled by the Messiah, people will enjoy peace, comfort, safety, and all needs met. The allusion here is to a flock of sheep; well fed, protected, and free to graze peacefully anywhere.
“Surely these shall come from afar; Look! Those from the north and the west, and these from the land of Sinim” (13). “Sinim” is the ancient name for China and can be understood here as meaning the Far East.
This servant song is difficult to outline point by point in the order it is given because the text intermingles the promises of the Messiah to the people of Israel and to the gentiles. Mixing the promises the way they are intermingled in the song is a literary device used to emphasize the role of the Messiah as the Savior not just for Israel, but for all mankind.
In my own mind’s eye, I can imagine Isaiah in the temple court singing or chanting this servant song to his listeners. I am not sure how his audience would have reacted. There was probably a lot of puzzlement or bewildered shaking of heads. They expected a Messiah for themselves exclusively, to rescue them, the people of God, from the oppressive nations around them and to establish His rule, through the nation of Israel, over the entire world.
But I don’t think the Israelites ever bought into the idea of a Messiah who would offer salvation to all mankind. At Jesus’ first advent, that was still the attitude of the people of Israel. In their eyes, He failed because He did not eject the Roman occupiers. Instead, they rejected Him because He revealed their hypocrisy, and His teaching was critical of their own legalism and lack of devotion to their God.
Yet Isaiah’s prophecies, and the servant songs, are right on the mark. The remnant or preserved ones of Israel will turn to Him, and the Messiah will, indeed, rule the world from Jerusalem.