Isaiah 49: A Light for the Nations

Isaiah 49: A Light for the Nations (audio / mp3)

Isaiah 49: A Light for the Nations (study notes and worksheet / pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 49 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 49:6 – He [the Lord] says, “It is not enough for you to be My servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the protected ones of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Quick summary:

In this chapter and the next, Isaiah prophesies about the Servant of the Lord (the Messiah), His mission, and His obedience to God (the Father). Rejected by His own people (v. 4; John 1:11), the Messiah will restore Israel to the Lord and bring salvation to the Gentiles (vv. 5-6). His mouth is likened to a sharpened sword, a reference to His speaking ministry (v. 2; Rev. 1:16). The name Israel is applied here to the Messiah as the One who fulfills Yahweh’s expectations for His people (v. 3). Verses 15-16 feature one of the strongest statements in Scripture of God’s faithfulness to His people.

Take note:

In verse 1 the Servant declares, “The Lord called me before I was born. He named me while I was in my mother’s womb.” This Messianic passage speaks both to the deity and humanity of God’s Servant and strikes a common chord between Jesus and others who have been sent to proclaim salvation to mankind. Jeremiah is chosen of God in his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5), as is John the Baptist (Luke 1:15) and the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:15). The key difference here, as we learn from other Old Testament and New Testament passages, is that Messiah is the eternal Son of God, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). He existed long before John the Baptist, Jeremiah or even Abraham (John 8:58). Still, He added to his deity sinless humanity so that He would be “a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17).

The Second “Servant Song” (Isa. 49:1-13)

God’s Servant, the Messiah, is the speaker in verses 1-5. He calls not only Israel to hear His voice, but the coastlands (islands) and distant peoples because His message is for all mankind. His words are like a sharpened sword – truth that defends the righteous and destroys the rebellious. Often in Scripture God’s words are likened to a sword (Isa. 1:20; Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16, 19:15). They pierce to the very heart, discerning our thoughts and intents, bringing conviction and judgment. For those who repent, God’s word is a comfort and a mighty protector, but to those who rebel, His word is the ultimate destroyer.

Why is the Servant called “Israel” is verse 3? “This cannot refer to the nation because the Servant is to draw that nation back to God. The Messiah is called Israel because He fulfills what Israel should have done. In His person and work He epitomizes the nation” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1103).

In verse 6 Yahweh tells the Servant that He will do more than restore the nation of Israel; He will be “a light for the nations” and “My salvation to the ends of the earth.” The Servant will be “despised” and “abhorred” by people, but ultimately “[k]ings will see and stand up, and princes will bow down” to Him (verse 7). This prophecy is expanded in Isa. 53 where, in verse 6, Isaiah writes, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like one people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.” The Messiah will be rejected by His own people in His first coming (John 1:10-11), but one day all people will acknowledge Him (Phil. 2:10-11). This does not imply that all people will be saved, for the Scripture is clear that those who go to their graves rejecting Christ have chosen to spend eternity apart from Him (Rev. 20:11-15).

Warren Wiersbe adds this observation: “Our Lord could not minister to the Gentiles until first He ministered to the Jews (vv. 5–6). Read carefully Matthew 10:5–6; 15:24; Luke 24:44–49; Acts 3:25–26; 13:46–47; and Romans 1:16. When our Lord returned to heaven, He left behind a believing remnant of Jews that carried on His work. We must never forget that ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22). The Bible is a Jewish book, the first believers and missionaries were Jews, and the Gentiles would not have heard the Gospel had it not been brought to them by Jews. Messiah was despised by both Jews and Gentiles (Isa. 49:7), but He did God’s work and was glorified” (Be Comforted, S. Is 49:1).

In verse 8 the terms “time of favor” and “day of salvation” may be a reference to the Millennium, when Messiah sits on the throne of David and fulfills all remaining covenant promises to Israel. Prisoners are told to “come out” and those in darkness are commanded to “[s]how yourselves” (v. 9). The release of Judah from Babylonian captivity will foreshadow that day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and God’s people are freed from physical suffering and their struggle with sin. The apostle John’s allusion to verse 10 in Rev. 7:17 – “He will guide them to springs of living waters” – may indicate that many Gentiles will join their Jewish brothers and sisters in making Israel their homeland. In fact, the rest of this section tells us that “many will come from far away, from the north and from the west, and from the land of Sinim,” which, according to some scholars, could be a reference to Persia or China (v. 12).

It’s important to remember that the extension of God’s grace to the Gentiles requires the fulfillment of His promises to the Jews. If the Jews are not returned to their homeland, how will Messiah be born in Bethlehem? How will the temple, with its sacrifices that foreshadow the Christ, be built? How will Nazareth be the place He grows up, or Jerusalem be the scene of His teaching, trials, crucifixion and resurrection? All that Yahweh does for the Jews He does with an eye toward all humanity.

Comfort for Jerusalem (Isa. 49:14-23)

This section begins with Zion lamenting, “The Lord has abandoned me” (v. 14). It continues with some of Yahweh’s most tender assurances that He will rescue and exalt His people (vv. 14-23a). And it concludes with God stating His purpose: “Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who put their hope in Me will not be put to shame” (v. 23b). The Lord compares His love for Israel to a mother’s love for her children. Isaiah depicts Israel as a nursing child, completely dependent on the Lord who will never forsake or forget them. “Look, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands,” the Lord says in verse 16. Warren Wiersbe comments: “The high priest bore the names of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders and over his heart (Ex. 28:6–9), engraved on jewels; but God has engraved His children’s names on His hands. The word ‘engraved’ means ‘to cut into,’ signifying its permanence. God can never forget Zion or Zion’s children” (Be Comforted, S. Is 49:1).

Although dark days loom on the horizon for Jerusalem, the Lord assures the people that the best days are yet to come. “As I live,” the Lord declares, “you will wear all your children as jewelry, and put them on as a bride does” (v. 18). Zion may seem like a forgotten mother, but one day her children – the returning inhabitants of Israel – will adorn her like bridal ornaments. In fact, the land will not be large enough to hold them. We know that the exiles who return from Babylon after King Cyrus’ decree are relatively small in number, so the return mentioned in verses 19-21 probably is a reference to Israel’s return at the beginning of the millennium.

In the future, when Israel returns to the land, the Gentiles will worship God, honor the Jews and even help transport them to their homeland. What a startling turn of events from the anti-Semitism that has marred so much of human history. The Lord says the Gentiles “will bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders” (v. 22). Even more amazing, the world’s leaders will pay homage to God’s people: “Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. They will bow down to you with their faces to the ground, and lick the dust at your feet” (v. 23). What is the purpose of all this? So the Jews “will know that I am the Lord” (v. 23).

Comfort for the Captives (Isa. 49:24-26)

Isaiah closes the chapter with two poignant questions for the citizens of Judah: Can the prey be taken from the mighty? Can the captives of the tyrant be delivered? After all that Isaiah has said and all that the Lord has declared and done, some of the Jews still lament that their situation is hopeless and their future is bleak. But the Lord clearly is in command, even of the world’s most powerful rulers. Notice how the Lord responds:

  • “Even the captives of a mighty man will be taken, and the prey of a tyrant will be delivered” (v. 25). No power on earth will thwart God’s plan for Israel. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that no power in the heavens will stop Him, either. He comes into the world to invade Satan’s kingdom and to bind the strong man (Satan), thus plundering his goods by leading lost sinners into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 12:25-29).
  • “I will contend with the one who contends with you, and I will save your children” (v. 25). The Assyrians will be defeated on the hills surrounding Jerusalem – 185,000 in a single night. What’s more, the emerging Babylonians will only succeed for a while in conquering God’s people and then will be brought low. In the last days, the antichrist and his followers who oppose Israel will be cut down by the returning King of kings and Lord of Lords. The best allies of God are allies of God’s people, and the worst enemies of God are the enemies of the Jews.
  • “I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they will be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine” (v. 26). The reference to eating their own flesh could be symbolic of internal strife among the enemies of God’s people (see Isa. 9:20). Drinking their own blood is just retribution for shedding the blood of God’s servants. Sweet wine is fresh and new; a great deal is required to intoxicate someone. Therefore it is an appropriate image of the large quantities of blood that would be required of God’s enemies (see Rev. 14:10, 20; 16:6).
  • Finally, Yahweh reminds the people they should be confident in their future deliverance: “Then all flesh will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (v. 26).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry comments: “See what will be the effect of Babylon’s ruin: All flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy Saviour. God will make it to appear, to the conviction of all the world, that, though Israel seem lost and cast off, they have a Redeemer, and, though they are made a prey to the mighty, Jacob has a mighty One, who is able to deal with all his enemies. God intends, by the deliverances of his church, both to notify and to magnify his own name” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 49:24).

 Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips