Isaiah 49 – The Messiah’s Mission
This chapter is full of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the words quoted could not possibly have their complete fulfillment in any other save in our Savior. (Alan Redpath)
A. The Messiah declares His mission.
1. (1-2) The call and the preparation of the Messiah.
“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.
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.”
a. Listen, O coastlands, to Me: As the context will show, these words come prophetically from the Messiah, the Servant of the LORD revealed in previous chapters. Here, He commands the coastlands – the distant lands of the Gentiles – to listen to Him.
b. The LORD has called Me from the womb: The Messiah, later revealed as Jesus Christ, was called from the womb. Actually, as shown in Micah 5:2, Jesus was called even before He was in Mary’s womb, yet here He starts at the point which any man could most readily relate to.
c. From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name: This was fulfilled in Luke 1:31, where the LORD, through the angel Gabriel, declared the name of Jesus before the conception in Mary’s womb.
d. He has made My mouth like a sharp sword: This means that the very words of the Messiah have power and authority. While some might need to brandish a weapon to show their authority, the Messiah needs only to speak.
e. In the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, and made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me: The Messiah prophetically proclaims that He is like a carefully made and polished arrow in the service of the LORD, ready to be used at the right time. This probably has reference to the “hidden” years of Jesus, when He lived in obscurity, as a polished shaft waiting in the quiver of the LORD.
2. (3-4) The Messiah’s confidence in the LORD.
“And He said to me,
‘You are My servant, O Israel,
In whom I will be glorified.’
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.’”
a. You are My servant, O Israel: Since the rest of the context of this chapter indicates that this passage speaks of the Messiah, it is best to regard Israel as a reference to the Messiah. How can the LORD speak of the Messiah as Israel? First, because the Messiah comes from Israel, and is a representative of the nation. Second, because the Messiah fulfills the name Israel, which means, “governed by God.”
i. “On the surface, the statement ‘You are my servant, Israel,’ explicitly identifies Yahweh’s Servant as the nation Israel. But if that were the case, an apparent contradiction would arise in verses 5-6, in which the Servant’s task is to bring Israel back to Yahweh and to the land…the view that ‘Israel’ is a title of the individual messianic Servant harmonizes most satisfactorily with the passage and context.” (Lindsey)
b. 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”: The translators of the New King James do not believe these words belong in the mouth of the Messiah, because they do not capitalize the pronoun my, as they would if they believed it spoke of the Messiah. Yet these words can be set prophetically in the mouth of the Messiah, because surely Jesus was tempted by the discouraging thought that all His work was in vain and for nothing. Yet He triumphed over such temptation by declaring, my just reward is with the LORD.
i. When we consider what – and who – the Lord Jesus had to work with on this earth, we certainly must believe that one of the great temptations He faced was discouragement. This passage shows that even though He ministered in difficult and discouraging circumstances, He never gave in to discouragement, but always put His trust in the LORD.
3. (5-7) The Messiah blesses Israel and the nations.
“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),
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.’”
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.”
a. To bring Jacob back to Him: This shows that an important aspect of the Messiah’s mission was to bring Israel back to the LORD. This shows that ethnic Israel has an enduring place in God’s plan, and that plan will be fulfilled when all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).
b. It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles: Though part of the Messiah’s mission is directed to Israel, He also has a mission to the Gentiles. What will the Messiah do for the Gentiles? That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth. The Messiah would not simply bring salvation; He would be…salvation to the ends of the earth.
i. “Israel has light but needs restoration, while the Gentiles need both light and salvation.” (Grogan)
c. Thus says the LORD…to Him whom man despises, to Him whom the nation abhors: The LORD speaks to His Messiah, and reveals that He will be One whom man despises, and whom His own nation abhors. This is an important – yet lightly noted – prophecy of the rejection of the Messiah, by mankind in general and by Israel specifically.
d. Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship: Yet in the end, the Messiah will not be despised or abhorred. He will receive the worship and honor He deserves, because He is the chosen of the LORD.
4. (8-12) The glory of the Messiah’s ministry.
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;
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.
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.
I will make each of My mountains a road,
And My highways shall be elevated.
Surely these shall come from afar;
Look! Those from the north and the west,
And these from the land of Sinim.”
a. In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You: The LORD God extended His help and preservation to the Messiah all through His earthly ministry. Yet if there is any specific time that this promise was fulfilled, it was as Jesus died on the cross and trusted in the promise of resurrection.
i. It is beautiful to imagine Jesus comforting and strengthening His soul with these promises as He anticipated and endured the ordeal of the cross. He could know, based on this promise, that the LORD would hear, help, and preserve Him.
b. And give You as a covenant to the people: Jesus, the Messiah, doesn’t merely bring a covenant; He isa covenant to the people.
c. That You may say to the prisoners, “Go forth”: Jesus’ ministry set people free from bondage and imprisonment.
i. Jesus set the demon possessed free from the bondage of chains and demonic torture (Mark 5:1-15).
ii. Jesus set the sick and diseased free from the bondage of their infirmities (Luke 13:16).
iii. Jesus set the righteous dead captive in Hades free from their place (Ephesians 4:8).
iv. Jesus sets those in bondage to sin and the law free (John 8:33-36, Galatians 3:22-23).
d. For He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them: In an immediate sense, this refers to God’s supply and sustaining of the exiles returning from Babylon to Judah, through the unseen hand of the Messiah. In the larger sense, it speaks of mercy and the provision of God for people as they return to Him in the last days, as they shall come from afar.
e. I will make each of My mountains a road: The mountains in the way of the returning exiles – both in near and far fulfillment – would seem to defeat the purpose of the LORD. But they will not.
i. Notice it says each…mountain (or, as in the King James Version, all … mountains). “There is no exception in that great, but little word, all. There is nothing in life – no obstacle, no loneliness, no trial, no sorrow – which may not be a way into God’s richest blessing. There is no situation of entanglement, nothing that you can possibly conceive, but this can be part of God’s way to make His mountain a way of deliverance.” (Redpath)
ii. Notice it says My mountains. The mountains in the way are still the LORD’s mountains, allowed there for a purpose. And the purpose is not to torment you, or because He hates you. There is a loving, wise purpose for every mountain, and God wants to make each of My mountains a road.
iii. “[When you make] the commitment of your life to Jesus Christ without reservation, then you can go to meet your mountains and meet obstacles in Jesus – not to meet them outside Him, but in Christ. If you do that, then the mountain between you and God’s land of blessing becomes the way into it.” (Redpath)
f. And these from the land of Sinim: Some identify Sinim with a place in Egypt; others identify it with China. The idea is that God will bring back the captives (particularly in the far fulfillment) from every conceivable place.
i. “‘Sinim’ is probably Aswan, near the southern border of Egypt…. This assumes that ‘Sinim’ is derived from sewenim…. If the Masoretic Text is correct, a long standing interpretation connects Sinim with China.” (Wolf)
ii. Grogan gives another perspective on Sinim: “It is most likely that Isaiah was being consciously obscure. Even unmapped places are known to God, and even from them he will gather his pilgrims.”
B. The LORD’s faithfulness to Zion.
1. (13-14) The LORD is praised for goodness to Zion – and an objection is raised.
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.
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
And my Lord has forgotten me.”
a. Sing, O heavens! For the LORD has comforted His people: It is simply assumed that the people the LORD has comforted will praise Him; here, the LORD calls for creation itself to add their voices in praise for all the Messiah has done.
b. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me”: In the midst of this great praise for the Messiah and His saving work, Zion – speaking of the highest hill in Jerusalem, and the place of God’s people by association – Zion objects. Zion believes, “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.”
i. The rest of Isaiah 49 and Isaiah 50 will answer this question. Because of their captivity in Babylon, Zion wonders “Does God really care about us?” God will answer, with strength and insight, this question that many have asked since.
2. (15-18) God does care, and the LORD proclaims His love and faithfulness to Zion.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
And not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget,
Yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.
Your sons shall make haste;
Your destroyers and those who laid you waste
Shall go away from you.
Lift up your eyes, look around and see;
All these gather together and come to you.
As I live,” says the LORD,
“You shall surely clothe yourselves with them all as an ornament,
And bind them on you as a bride does.
a. Can a woman forget her nursing child: Though bizarre accounts of unspeakable cruelty surface from time to time, everyone knows that a woman will never forget her nursing child. Yet the LORD says, Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. The LORD’s affection for His people is greater than the devotion a woman has for her nursing child.
b. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands: This has an obvious and beautiful fulfillment in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. As Jesus told Thomas in a post-resurrection appearance, look at My hands (John 20:27). When we see the nail-scarred hands of Jesus, we see how He has inscribed us on the palms of His hands. With such love, how could God ever forget His people?
c. Your walls are continually before Me: The walls refer to the walls of the city of Jerusalem, which figuratively speak of the health, the strength, the prosperity, and the security of God’s people. God is always mindful of the condition of His people, despite the objections of a doubting Zion.
d. Your sons shall make haste…. you shall surely clothe yourselves with them all as an ornament: The LORD will bring back the exiled and captive sons of Zion to the Promised Land, and this will be an ornament for God’s people. The LORD’s love and faithfulness for Zion are also shown by His promise for their future. It isn’t just demonstrated by the past and the present, but also by His future plans for them.
i. This promise was partially fulfilled in the return of the exiles from Babylon but will be ultimately fulfilled in the regathering of Israel in the last days.
3. (19-26) God does care, and He promises and affirms blessing for Zion.
“For your waste and desolate places,
And the land of your destruction,
Will even now be too small for the inhabitants;
And those who swallowed you up will be far away.
The children you will have,
After you have lost the others,
Will say again in your ears,
‘The place is too small for me;
Give me a place where I may dwell.’
Then you will say in your heart,
‘Who has begotten these for me,
Since I have lost my children and am desolate,
A captive, and wandering to and fro?
And who has brought these up?
There I was, left alone;
But these, where were they?’”
Thus says the Lord GOD:
“Behold, I will lift My hand in an oath to the nations,
And set up My standard for the peoples;
They shall bring your sons in their arms,
And your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders;
Kings shall be your foster fathers,
And their queens your nursing mothers;
They shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth,
And lick up the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the LORD,
For they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me.”
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty,
Or the captives of the righteous be delivered?
But thus says the LORD:
“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away,
And the prey of the terrible be delivered;
For I will contend with him who contends with you,
And I will save your children.
I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh,
And they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine.
All flesh shall know
That I, the LORD, am your Savior,
And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
a. For your waste and desolate places…will even now be too small for the inhabitants: As the LORD brings the sons of Zion back to Israel, they will fill the land in a glorious way.
b. There I was, left alone; but these, where were they? The great blessing of the returning sons of Zion – in both near and far fulfillment – will come as an astounding surprise. God’s blessing will seem to come from nowhere. Though the promise seems too good to be true, God confirms it with an oath to the nations. God will rescue Israel from both their immediate and ultimate captivity.
i. Kings shall be your foster fathers: “Calvin and most expositors believe that the text teaches that one day the greatest in the nation will love and care for the children of the Church. This text has usually been made to serve as proof of the legitimacy of the church state (or state church); however, the prophet does not have the Church in mind here, but future Israel.” (Bultema)
ii. Clarke on They shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth, and lick up the dust of your feet: “These expressions therefore of the prophet are only general poetical images, taken from the manners of the country, to denote great respect and reverence: and such splendid poetical images, which frequently occur in the prophetical writings, were intended only as general amplifications of the subject, not as predictions to be understood and fulfilled precisely according to the letter.”
iii. “Lick up the dust of thy feet refers to the great honor which the great ones of the world will give Israel. It is mainly on the basis of this phrase that there is the practice of kissing the pope’s feet.” (Bultema)
c. Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away: Babylon, the mighty empire, had taken Zion captive. But even they shall be taken away. God will show His strength and love for Zion by giving unto Babylon what Babylon gave unto Zion, even though they thought it unlikely, as shown by the question of Isaiah 49:24.
i. This was true for Zion when freed from the Babylonian captivity; it is even more true for those set free from captivity to Satan. Jesus spoke of spoiling Satan in Luke 11:21-22: When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils.
ii. “The pictures of eating their own flesh and drinking their own blood draw on the horrors of siege conditions. The reality is that those who oppose the Lord and his people experience the self destructiveness of sin – a recurring feature of the wars of the Lord.” (Motyer)
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org