Isaiah had been telling his contemporaries that their way of life was displeasing to the Lord and consequences would follow. Israel was about to taken away in exile to Babylon. The message was a serious and unpleasant one to hear. Men generally don't like to be told that God will punish them for their sin – they didn't appreciate it then and they don't appreciate it today. Men didn't want to pay any heed to what Isaiah had to say: "Lord, who has believed our report?"
Isaiah was however also given a more positive message to pass on to the people. The exile would be a harsh reality but it did not mark the end of things for God's people. God announced through Isaiah that he would intervene by raising up servants to set Israel free once more.
Cyrus, a King of Persian origin, would be the means of granting the people their political and national liberty. He would come to power and as part of his wider policy he would organise a return of those exiles who wanted to go back to their ancestral lands. Some of the Israelites would avail themselves of this opportunity and would indeed re-
The deliverance that Cyrus could bring was limited in scope – he could resolve matters on the politico/national front but he would be powerless to bring about the more radical spiritual deliverance that the people so desperately needed.
But that spiritual deliverance would be brought about – the Lord had another Servant!
Isaiah chapter 49 opens with what is known as the Second Servant Song and we saw that it was a song by which this Servant gave his testimony. Amongst other things we saw that this Servant of the Lord would enjoy the full approval of God. Indeed God would so pleased with him that he would make him the Saviour of the World.
When the Servant finished his testimony the LORD God responded to him with two messages, both of which begin with the phrase "Thus says the LORD".
The first response was in v.7 where the LORD made it plain that although the Servant was destined for such greatness the path to it would be an arduous one, full of rejection and hostility before the fruits of his ministry would be seen.
The LORD's second response begins in v.8 and is our concern this evening.
Galatians 4:4 "but when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons."
What God was promising to do for his people was truly astonishing and reading it through we would expect it to have brought much encouragement to the people who heard it – but sadly it didn't! But we'll come to that in a moment. Let's focus first on what the LORD said he would do.
The Lord intended to establish his servant as a covenant with Israel. Now covenants had played an important part in Israel's history as God had sovereignly committed himself to doing certain things for his people. A covenant in the Bible was not an agreement between equals but it was the fruit of the free will of God to do good to those who had no claim whatsoever to such a good. Covenants spoke of blessing and carried with them responsibility too.
Now something a little different was taking place here. It was not just that the Lord intended to make a covenant with Israel but that this covenant would be embodied in his Servant. To describe the great salvation work of this Servant on behalf of his people use is made of language that would have been readily understandable – the language used echoes that of the exodus deliverance that had taken place so many years earlier but we are to understand it as referring to a far greater salvation. But how else could such a salvation be described? How good God is to accommodate himself to our frailties so that we might at least catch a glimpse of the greatness of what he does for us!
The work of the Servant is said to include the following:
The giving to the desolate an inheritance,
The setting prisoners free
The giving of light to those who were in darkness
The feeding and the sustaining of his people even in the most unlikely of circumstances
The protection of his people from the elements
The transformation of natural barriers into highways so that his people could return from wherever they were.
What the Servant does for his people is terrific!
The flow of the chapter is temporarily interrupted as the summary description of the Servant's ministry is completed.
Truly his ministry is terrific – so terrific in fact that the entire created world is called upon to join in on the celebrations!
v.13a "Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!"
In case we missed the point and didn't understand what God has just said it is spelt out simply for us here:
v.13b "for the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted."
"The fly in the ointment"
Up to v.13 everything seems to be going so well. The description the Lord gives of the Servant's ministry is great and we can appreciate why everyone and everything is called upon to rejoice – what the Servant accomplishes is good news.
But then comes v.14.
"But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.""
Zion here stands for the people of Israel, God's people, and Zion is not happy!
It would seem that Zion is so caught up with her own perception of what is going on and her own interpretation of events that what the Lord has just been speaking has fallen upon deaf ears. Zion has refused to listen.
Prov.3:5 "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding."
That was what the writer of Proverbs had said but the inhabitants of Zion thought it didn't apply to them!
In our day men and women refuse to listen to the gospel. The gospel is such good news that the whole of the universe rejoices except for sinners who can't see anything good about it at all. As Christians there are sadly times when we shut our ears to what God is saying and prefer to go with our perception and our own understanding of what is happening to us.
Are you in danger of that? You know what the gospel says but your own experience seems so different – so you stop allowing the Word to direct your thinking, perhaps you compartmentalise your life, yes the Bible has a place but not a significant one, you don't allow it to determine your thoughts any longer and little by little you marginalise it until it has hardly any real influence at all.
In the light of such declarations of deliverance Zion ought to have been thrilled but chose depression. But the LORD doesn't give up!
More Explanations vv.15-
Already what he has just been explaining about the ministry of his Servant on behalf of his people is testimony to the fact that he has neither forgotten nor forsaken them but he gently and patiently reasons with his silly, discouraged people.
As he speaks he invites his hearers to reflect – part of our problem is our reluctance to think seriously!
he compares himself to a nursing mother and declares that even were such a mother to forget her child (something unnatural and unlikely) he would not forget his own. v.15
he describes what his total commitment to them is like v.16. The people were familiar with the notion of names beings engraved on the religious attire of the High Priest as he ministered as a representative of the people – but here something more profound is being spoken of. The High Priest could remove his garments etc when he ceased ministering, the names could be put off – but here the LORD using poetic imagery speaks of their names being engraved on his very hands – in other words they could not be put off and so could not be forgotten, they were always before him!
he emphasises how speedy will be the turnaround in their fortunes – from being desolate and in ruins the builders will have their work cut out doing the rebuilding v.17. And the land that had seemed so sparsely populated because of the removal of so many into exile will soon seem overcrowded. (Now we're used to thinking of overcrowding as a negative thing but here the idea is of rich blessing!) There are so many new inhabitants that the people will wonder where on earth they have all come from! There is a hint here of the great and glorious expansion of the people of God as the 'natural children' of Israel are supplemented by the adopted children of the Gentiles.
Looking just at her own immediate circumstances things might look bleak but with the eyes of faith a new reality comes into view:
v.21 "Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?"
The scale restoration of Zion that is portrayed here is remarkable – it happens quickly and unexpectedly and it is joyfully compared to a mother welcoming her children back home or to a bride getting ready for her marriage.
If the scale of the restoration is great so is its honour vv.22-
Further objections v.24
Before the chapter is brought to a close two further objections are anticipated and answered.
Is it possible that a people which is held captive by a much greater power might be delivered?
Is it right that a people justly held captive be set free?
You feel like crying out "Oh stop and think people of God!" Didn't he already deliver you from the hands of a mighty power in the past? When you were captives in Egypt didn't he powerfully intervene and compel Pharaoh to set you free? The language used earlier in this very chapter seems to echo the experience of the delivered people being led and kept through their wilderness return to the Promised Land. He who worked so mightily in the past can he not do so again?
But the people are depressed and forgetful – it sounds too good to be true -
How great and merciful God is! He continues to care for his people!!
Yes, it is possible for the prey to be set free – I can and will do it! Salvation is of the LORD:
v.25 "I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children."
Power is not lacking in the LORD and he will do what he chooses. But what about justice? The people deserved to be held captive, their emprisonment was just – was it right for them to be delivered? Was God flaunting his own principles in doing so?
Isaiah doesn't provide a detailed answer to that question here though he does hint at an answer as he describes just who God is:
v.26b "Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Saviour, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob."
The inclusion of the word Redeemer is significant here. A redeemer is one who pays the price in order to secure the release of what is held be that an object or a person. The payment of a price speaks of the full acquitting of the debt – justice is met, deliverance is right in such circumstances and not at all to be compared with theft.
This theme which is only hinted at here by Isaiah will be taken up and developed more fully in the NT where God's honour as a just and holy God is fully upheld.
As we conclude this evening let the apostle Paul have the last word:
For there is no distinction:
Let us rejoice – our God is great and glorious and he has secured for us a wonderful salvation in Jesus Christ.