GOD’S SERVANT Isaiah 49–53
“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 you may bring My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).The portrait of Jesus found in these chapters of Isaiah is unmistakable. The description of His vicarious suffering is one of Scripture’s clearest explanations of the meaning of Jesus’ death.
The commission of the failed servant nation (49:1–4) is taken up by an Individual who will redeem and restore Israel (vv. 5–26). Equipped by Yahweh, this Servant will rely fully on the Lord (50:1–11). God will redeem Israel, as He cared for her in the past (51:1–52:12). But this will be accomplished only by the Suffering Servant’s death (v. 13–53:12).
Understanding the Text
“I have labored to no purpose” Isa. 49:4.
The image in Hebrew is striking, if somewhat indelicate. As God’s servant Israel is compared to a distended and supposedly pregnant woman. She struggles in labor, but instead of a child, produces nothing but gas! What an image of futility. God chose Israel, intending to display His splendor through her. Israel had failed completely in her role as a servant. Yet, as Isaiah developed the servant theme, we see that even so God will display His splendor in His Old Testament people. That splendor will not be seen in what they have done, but in what the Lord has done for them! It’s the same with you and me. Our efforts to earn salvation are useless. Yet God has chosen to display His splendor and beauty in us. His splendor is not seen in what we do, but what God does for us in Jesus Christ. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?” Isa. 49:5–26 The Servant of God will redeem Israel, and also will lead Gentiles to submit to the Lord. While the emphasis in Isaiah 1–35 is on judgment, here the emphasis is clearly on the deep love God feels for both Gentile and Jew. Through His servant God will give the gift of salvation to all. Love has caused God to engrave His plans for the redeemed on the very “palms of My hands” (49:16). This reference may not be to the nail prints Jesus bears today in His hands. Yet what a reminder. God was willing to pay the price of His deep love. We sense that love as we read Isaiah’s words: Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you (Isa. 49:15). “The Sovereign Lord helps me” Isa. 50:1–11. According to Isaiah, one thing alone would enable God’s Servant to succeed where Israel failed. Where Israel rebelled, this Servant would be totally obedient. The words of this passage awaken a deeper appreciation of Jesus and the life He lived on earth. He committed Himself to help His fellowman by obeying God completely. Only by relying on the Lord—by opening His ears and not being rebellious—was He able to win our salvation. Isaiah’s major passages dealing with the Servant of the Lord are called Servant Songs. They speak primarily of Jesus and the life He lived here on earth. But they apply quite directly to you and me. We who have been redeemed are called to be God’s servants, as Jesus was (cf. Matt. 20:26–28). This passage tells us much about our own servant lifestyle. We are to sustain the weary (v. 4a). To do this we must listen closely to the Lord (v. 4b), and obey rather than rebel against what He says (v. 5). The path of obedience is difficult, often exposing us to ridicule and even persecution (v. 6a). But we, like Jesus, must remain committed, and trust the Lord to vindicate us in the end (vv. 7–8). “Look to Abraham, your father” Isa. 51:1–52:12. The past is always intended to give us comfort. We can look back on times of pain, and on tragedy. But we can also find evidence of God’s love. History is in fact designed to give God’s people hope when things seem most desperate. Isaiah paused in his look ahead to the day of God’s Servant, to direct the thoughts of his hearers back to their roots. The saints (51:1) were urged to remember Abraham. God kept His promise to Abraham and from one childless man He produced a vast people (v. 2). Surely the Lord will “comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins.” You and I have roots too. Ours grip that historic moment when Christ died, only to be raised again. God who promised Jesus’ resurrection, and who has kept His promise to give us new life in Him, will surely bless us as well. Christians do debate the meaning of the promises in Old Testament books like Isaiah. Are they intended literally, to be fulfilled in the Jewish people when Christ returns? Or are they intended spiritually, images of the blessings that are ours now in our Lord? Whatever our interpretation, we can agree on the application of passages like this one. What God has done in the past—His utter faithfulness to His promises—gives us hope for tomorrow. Joy is destined for Zion’s people, and when the Lord returns they will: Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem (Isa. 52:9). For ancient Jew and modern Christian both, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ’Your God reigns!’ ” (Isa. 52:7) “He was crushed for our iniquities” Isa. 52:13–53:12. Just how clear is it that these verses speak of Jesus Christ? When I was in the Navy one of my friends was a Jewish sailor named Gershom Magin. I remember one day asking him to listen to me read a passage of Scripture, and challenging him to tell me if it was from the Old Testament or New Testament, and who it was about. I then read Isaiah 53. Immediately Magin said, “That’s in the New Testament. And it’s about Jesus.” Gershom couldn’t believe it when I showed him that the passage was in the Old Testament, and that it was written about Israel’s Messiah. The description was just too powerful and too clear for there to be any doubt that the prophet is speaking about the Saviour, dying on a cross some 700 years after his own time.
Holy of Holies(Isa. 52:13–53:11)
There’s something awe-inspiring about holy places. Moses was told to take off his shoes; he was standing on holy ground. The Jerusalem temple was holy; only by passing the altar of sacrifice could one approach. And then, inside the temple, beyond its outer room, was the holiest place of all—the holy of holies. There only the high priest might go, and then only once a year, bearing the blood of a sacrifice offered for his own sin and for the sin of the people. No one rushes boldly, thoughtlessly, into any truly holy place. It is with just this same sense of awe that we must open the Old Testament to Isaiah 52:13–53:12. This is holy ground: the Great Architect’s blueprint of history’s ultimate holy of holies. Here we see with total clarity the plan and the purpose of God in Christ’s sufferings—and here we sense the anguish Jesus knew. Read the verses. See the Servant of God, so battered and disfigured He hardly seems human anymore. Live with Him as He is despised and rejected by men. Watch Him take up our iniquities and be pierced for our transgressions. See the blood flow as His life is crushed from Him, as from a sin offering. And realize that He chose this fate, that by His wounds we might be healed. Why did Jesus die? The answer is here, in the Old Testament’s holy of holies. He died to pay for our iniquities, that we might be saved. Reading these ancient words we can only bow our heads and worship. They bring us into the very presence of our God. They themselves have become holy ground.
Read this passage with reverence and awe.