There are times in life when our experiences raise questions that cut to the core:
Has my life made any kind of real difference in the world?
Where is God in the midst of this mess?
Here in Isaiah 49, we find the people of Israel wrestling with these core questions of identity – who are we, in light of our experiences? Where is God? What is our hope? What is our purpose now?
I believe that in the story of the people of Israel, we are invited to see ourselves, to listen for where our questions, our challenges, our experiences connect. And likewise, the scripture invites us to listen to God’s response to them and to us.
It would be nice if Isaiah had been written down like a screenplay, indicating who was doing the talking at each point throughout the passages. For we notice right away that while it’s clear that the servant in v 1-4 are the people of Israel collectively, 5-12 seem to be talking about someone else. In earlier chapters, we’ve seen that the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways; naming the Persian king Cyrus as one of God’s servants (explicitly in 45:1,13, implicitly elsewhere). John Watts (Word Biblical Commentary), locates this chapter shortly after the time of Cyrus, when the first exiles have returned to Jerusalem, but found it a pile of rubble and were struggling to rebuild. The work of restoration is hard, and done in the face of opposition and setbacks. Yet God is not without servants, called and empowered to move forward God’s purposes in the world. Watts believes the evidence points to Cyrus’ successor, the Persian ruler Darius who came to power around 521 BCE. This portion of Isaiah, then, would be referring to around the same time as the events related in the Biblical book of Ezra (Ezra 5:6, when the people petition Darius for permission to complete the rebuilding of the Temple in 520 BCE).
Yet with that in the background, it’s powerful simply to read through these passages and listen:
The tension between calling and when it seems like it’s been for nothing.
In the first four verses, we hear Israel remembering her calling; God has chosen them: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” From before they existed, they understand that this has been God’s plan [and worth remembering that God’s choosing of people is a choosing for service, for purpose]. But what does it mean when they feel “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Can I get an ‘Amen’? Being ‘chosen’ doesn’t mean that it’s all going to go our way. Whether it’s because of our own stubbornness, or the choices and resistance of others, there are going to be tough times, times that make us wonder if it’s all been for nothing; “dust in the wind” as Kansas (or Ecclesiastes) might say.
And yet, like we so often find in the Psalms, Israel holds on to this hope: If God has called them, then God will uphold the promise of blessing. “surely my cause is with the LORD and my reward with my God.”
To which we hear the response of the LORD in the words of another servant.
This servant too has been called from birth and given a purpose:
- To bring back Jacob and Israel (that is, to restore those who were lost and scattered)
- To be given as a light to the nations, so that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth
God honors this servant and gives them strength. The kings and nations and princes will notice God’s work and respond. The LORD is faithful, the Holy One of Israel has chosen, has answered, has helped his people.
God commissions this servant to the people
- to establish the land, to apportion (resettle) the desolate heritages
- To call out those who are imprisoned and in darkness, (to freedom and to light)
- to provide for those who are hungry and thirsty
- to lead them along a road that leads home, bringing the lost home from every direction and from far away.
Indeed, God’s purposes call forth a chorus of joy from all creation – For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
Historically, we’re talking about the promise of the return and the establishment of the exiles. But to those with New Testament ears, we see how these notes of promise and hope are taken up by Jesus as *the* servant of God, called to fulfill the deepest sense of these longings and these promises.
As N.T. Wright has argued; while geographically the remnant from the exiles did return home and rebuild, they didn’t shake their sense of exile, the questions of identity and calling and purpose. From the Qumran community to the multiple threads of Judaism asking questions of identity and calling – merely being “home” was not enough. Something was missing, and they had different answers and expectations as to the answer. The writers of the Gospels were clear – Jesus has come to declare the end of the exile, the fulfillment of God’s promises. To borrow briefly from the opening of Paul’s letter in 2 Corinthians 1:20 “For in him [Jesus] every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.”
It’s worth noting that in this section, Israel’s own efforts aren’t what ultimately bring about God’s purposes. It is this other servant that God is working through at this time. But Israel isn’t left out. Contrary to how Israel feels forsaken and forgotten (v. 14), the work of this second servant is precisely to regather and restore and heal God’s called people.
In other words, just because we’re not always at the center of getting things done, doesn’t mean we are forgotten or unimportant in God’s eyes, or that our work doesn’t matter, our identity is lost.
In dramatic, emotional terms, God says that even if it were possible for a mother to forget the child she bore, God would not forget them. They are written on the palm of his hands. God knows that the people are feeling insecure and vulnerable because the walls of Jerusalem are as yet unrepaired.
But in the midst of their labor, while it can feel uphill, challenged, wondering if it’s worth it, God reminds them: “your builders outdo your destroyers.”
Or perhaps as Martin Luther King Jr. would put it: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
There is hope. God is at work – for all the kings and tyrants that seem so strong, their power will be shown to be temporary, fragile, compared to the purposes of God.
One day, the workers, working in desolate places, feeling alone, will look around at the children born in exile and wonder where all these people came from – they will find that they are not alone, that they do not work alone, that there is a future and a hope.
At these things, we catch a glimpse of God’s bigger purpose.
“then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me will not be put to shame” – 49:23c
But God’s desire is not just that the people of Israel remember who God is…
“Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” – 49:26b
In God’s actions to redeem Israel, we glimpse God’s wider purpose that Israel serves as a light to the nations; that the world can see how God is faithful. Again, in the deepest sense, we see how this becomes a foundation for God’s purpose that all creation be drawn back to God.
Do you see yourself as among the servants of God?
Who do you identify with more in this chapter? The people of Israel? Darius? Someone else?
What speaks to you most about how God responds in this chapter?