My sister is one of the most respectful christians I know. Although we have our differences, she has an insight into scripture and a questioning spirit that I respect and enjoy and can learn from. She challenges me and my beliefs in a intelligent constructive way, as opposed to simply wishing to convince that she's right and I'm wrong.
So what does this have to do with Isaiah 49? Well my sister asked me a question about a number of chapters in the latter part of Isaiah, the question being who was the "servant" in those chapters? My instinctual answer was to quote some verse in those chapters of Isaiah which state that the servant is Israel, the nation. Then she turned my attention to Isaiah 49, which on the surface seemed very puzzling. I had no instinctual well-rehearsed answer, and I had reason to pause and think about the answer scripturally rather than give a quick-fire response.
This article is the path of my understanding as I try to track down the meaning of the text and the answer to the problem my sister raised.
To see the problem I faced, let me quote Isaiah 49:1-8 to give some context.
(1) Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken, ye peoples, from far: YHWH hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother hath He made mention of my name; (2) And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of His hand hath He hid me; and He hath made me a polished shaft, in His quiver hath He concealed me; (3) And He said unto me: 'Thou art My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' (4) But I said: 'I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and vanity; yet surely my right is with YHWH, and my recompense with my God.' (5) And now saith YHWH that formed me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, and that Israel be gathered unto Him -- for I am honourable in the eyes of YHWH, and my God is become my strength -- (6) Yea, He saith: 'It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give thee for a light of the nations, that My salvation may be unto the end of the earth.' (7) Thus saith YHWH, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him who is despised of men, to him who is abhorred of nations, to a servant of rulers: kings shall see and arise, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of YHWH that is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee. (8) Thus saith YHWH: in an acceptable time have I answered thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee; and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to raise up the land, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages;
Now remember, my sister asked me who "YHWH's servant" was and I instinctually said, based on other scriptures, Israel. I included, in those scriptures, Isaiah 49:3 which does say "you are my servant, Israel". That should make it an open and shut case.
BUT... take a look at verse 3 and compare it with verses 5 and 6. My sister made a good point by pointing out what they say. The person who is talking seems to be the servant, since verse 3 says "He [YHWH] said to me: 'You are my servant, Israel'. But then we have this servant who is Israel doing something weird in verse 5 and 6 where it apparently states that the servant, Israel, was formed to gather Israel back to YHWH (v.5) and restore the offspring of Israel (v.6).
But, my sister would say, how can Israel gather Israel back to YHWH? How can the nation Israel restore the offspring of the nation Israel? It doesn't appear to make sense. My sister had made a good point. I had to agree. It doesn't appear to make sense. Isaiah 49 doesn't appear to be a self-help manual, helping Israel keep in the straight and narrow. There is nothing really reflexive about the verbs used in the passage. And the passage almost makes it seem as if it is someone else who is supposed to be rescuing the nation Israel, not the nation itself.
So this is the problem but what is the solution?
How am I expected to find the answer? Well, lets be blunt. I have a brain. I can read and hear and understand. I fear the Almighty and his word. I have the tools needed to work this out, and extra resources should I need them. But where do I start.
First I had to realise where I am. What am I reading? The Hebrew Scriptures. OK, that's a bit broad. Lets focus that a bit more. I'm reading the book of Isaiah. That's my first step to understanding. It is called the book of Isaiah because it is the words of Isaiah the prophet (Isa 1:1). If this is the book of Isaiah, being the words of Isaiah, the "I" and "me" could refer to Isaiah. He would simply be speaking for himself.
That would be a good place to start. But before we start there, lets ask a question. Is there any reason why he would not be speaking for himself? Could be be speaking for someone else?
Now this is a valid question because sometimes Yahweh's prophets, who are his messengers, speak for him and actually speak as though they are Yahweh? Hoshea, a prophet of Yahweh, in Hoshea 4:14 says "I will not punish your daughters....". Note that he never said "YHWH will not punish your daughters..." He speaks on behalf of the one who sent him. Is there any sign that in the first verses of Isaiah 49, that he is speaking on behalf of Yahweh? No. The chapter starts with "Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken, ye peoples from far: YHWH has called me from the womb... Since YHWH has never been created from a womb, and he doesn't really call himself from anywhere, it is fair to say that it isn't YHWH speaking.
Is Isaiah speaking for someone else? Some prophets can pretend to put themselves in other people's shoes and speak for them. In Isaiah 14:13, he speaks for the king of Babylon saying "I will ascend into heaven, above the stars of God will I exalt my throne...". In Isaiah 53:1, we see Isaiah speak again for the kings of the nations of the world spoken of in the previous chapter saying "Who will believe our report?". Is there any evidence of this around the beginning of this chapter? No. The previous verse has the Lord saying to the wicked that they shall have no peace, and we've already shown that the Almighty was not speaking in Isaiah 49:1.
Based on the plain reading of the text, it appears to be Isaiah speaking from verse 1 and into verse 2. Unfortunately, the problem is just ahead of us in the next few verses
So lets say we now see that Isaiah is speaking for himself. But what about verses 3-5? If we left verse 3 out and continued with our position that it is Isaiah who is the servant of Yahweh, then it would make sense that in verse 4 he would complain about the fact that he seems to be making no impact, even though he trusts Yah. Yahweh would then respond in verse 5 and 6 saying that Isaiah is his servant whom he has called to help restore Israel and bring back Jacob by teaching them and telling them Yahweh's message. In fact the whole chapter would make sense in this light, since the latter clause in verse 6 says that Yahweh's salvation shall be to the ends of the earth according to Jewish translations.
But verse 3 says that Yahweh said to the writer/speaker, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will glorify myself." It seems like the one speaking is called "Israel". How do we interpret this? We have already said that the speaker can't really be Israel the nation because the rest of the passage would make sense. So, so far, this leave Isaiah alone in the running. But that is if we go with the interpretation that what Yahweh said applied directly to Isaiah.
There is another interpretion that what Isaiah is saying was spoken to him, but not about him. The Almighty did say to Isaiah "You, Israel, are my servant" in Isaiah 41:8. Yahweh was refering to the people. So it could be that when the verse says "and He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel" it doesn't mean "he said about me that I am his servant" but rather "he has said to me that Israel is his servant".
There also is the idea that Isaiah, the speaker, is actually being called Israel, in the sense that he is personifying Israel. If the verse really did mean that the speaker was Israel, then it would have to mean that Isaiah was personifying Israel. But the text following doesn't really expand on the meaning of this, if it is true. But if it is the case that Isaiah is being called Israel, then just as Israel is Yahweh's servant, then so is Isaiah. Thus we have two servants. To expand on this idea, let me quote a good friend of mine:
"Let us look at the concept of Mosheh ben Amram [widely known simply as "Moses"], and his role to Par'o [Pharaoh]. YHWH stated that Mosheh would be El [deity, "god"] unto Par'o (Exodus 7:1), but of course, we know that Mosheh was merely a man. Why would he El [deity] unto Par'o [Pharaoh]? Because He was acting in YHWH's place, but this does not mean that He was actually El [the Deity]! Take the example of lawyers in our time, they act on behalf of a business, or a family, or a person, and thus they basically become the person, but they are not really the person. Here we see a similar concept - Israel is the servant, and the prophets act on their behalf."
So we have Isaiah acting on behalf of Israel and thus being called "Israel".
One of the best interpretations for me has Israel speaking from verse 1-3. This is because of numerous times in the previous chapters where YHWH says that he formed Israel from the womb (Isaiah 44:2; 44:24; 46:3) and also the amount of times Yahweh says that he called Israel, even by name (Isaiah 41:9; 43:1; 45:4). This would explain why Yahweh calls Israel his servant again in chapter 49 v 3. But at the phrase "But I said: 'I have laboured in vain...", the speaker is now Isaiah who is frustrated. Onwards from verse 4 to verse 6 is most likely Isaiah speaking. This interpretation appears to account for everything and explains all of what is said in the verses.
With this interpretation, some may complain saying, "How can Isaiah be said to be a light of the nations according to verse 6?" The more important question is what the phrase "light of the nations" means? It simply means a source of truth or instruction or joy. Isaiah, through his prophecies, was definitely this, since the knowledge of his prophecies from that time to now has become almost worldwide, indeed, a light of the nations.
Now so far you have seen me focus on Isaiah and Israel as possible candidates for what is going on in Isaiah 49. There is a reason for that. If you look in the whole context of Isaiah 40-66 you will see Isaiah talking and Israel being talked about. Thus we know for sure, based on the text, that they are in the context of what is happening in these verses.
But one figure that is generally absent from the text of Isaiah 40-66 is the promised Davidic king who we these days refer to as "Messiah" . You will find the hebrew word "Mashiach", which means "anointed one" from which the word "messiah" is derived from. But it is only used once and it is linked with Cyrus, king of Persia, as it is written "This is what YHWH said to his anointed [mashiach], Cyrus" (Isaiah 45:1). In Isaiah 55, there is also talk of a prince and commander and the "sure mercies of David", but it is only in passing. It is not emphasized, nor is it a point of focus for the whole theme of these chapters.
Thus we have no strong evidence to say that this is some Davidic descendant talking. If we were going to suggest that it was this messiah talking, then there would have to be clear signs around Isaiah 49 verse 1 and, unfortunately for christians and messianics who use these verses, there are no such signs. It is another occurrence of taking an idea that is not in the text and putting that foreign idea into the text. It is called eisegesis, something notoriously common amongst these big lists of messianic prophecies that some christians put up as proof of Jesus' messiahship and deity, like the list of 300 so-called "messianic prophecies" I deal with on my website.
Despite what people may say about my interpretations of Isaiah 49:1-8 and who is talking, one thing is evident: There is nothing in the written text to suggest that somehow the "Messiah" is starting to speak. It may be the servant of YHWH, the nation Israel, who is starting to speak, based on the text surrounding Isaiah 49. It may be the servant of YHWH, the prophet Isaiah, who is starting to speak, based on the fact that he was the one prophecying, based on the text of the book of Isaiah. It may even be both, based on the text.
It is because the future Davidic king, the anointed one, the "messiah", is generally absent from the text that the notion that he is speaking is rejected. If it is crime to stay with the text and allow it to speak for itself as much as possible, the text being the inspired word of Yahweh through his prophet, then I would much rather be guilty of that crime, than adding concepts the the text that are not there.
1. This will be a problem for people who accept the christian translation which translation the verse like the KJV saying, "that you mayest be my salvation to the ends of the earth". The problem with this translation is that the "you" is not in the hebrew.
2. Jews and other likeminded people prefer to refer to him as Moshiach or Mashiach because of the fact that the word "Messiah" has been used so much by christians, that christian preconceptions have grown around the word making seem like a christian notion.
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