Prophet Isaiah at a writing desk

Studying Isaiah 49 1-13

This week, we’re looking at the “light to the nations” – reading the second servant song in second Isaiah, along with the first part of chapter 49: Isaiah 49:1-13. We will pick up the rest of the chapter next week. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Once again, we’re reading in second Isaiah; here are a few things we already know about the larger context of our text:

  • It’s the larger book of the prophet Isaiah; in particular, the second part, second Isaiah. We think it was addressed to the Judean exiles in Babylonia around the time of the early return from exile, so, we have in mind a time around 538 BCE.
  • It’s a work of prophecy – speech that relays to its audience a message directly from God.
  • The overall message of second Isaiah is one of comfort and redemption: God hasn’t forgotten you-all, still loves you, and is absolutely going to redeem and restore you.
  • The prophet speaker-author is using poetic forms, with dramatic or heightened images and turns of phrase. Formal, beautiful, memorable, remarkable speech.

Our text includes one of the four “servant songs” of second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). Those have been struggled over interpretively in various ways, when it comes to the identity of “the servant”: all Israel? The prophet? This particular song is one where the alternation between or the blurring of “Israel” and “the prophet” is really noticeable.

[Here comes my standard, I-know-I-sound-like-a-broken-record “reading Isaiah as a Christian” disclaimer: Christians historically and often still today like to say, “Jesus, obviously” when it comes to the identity of the servant. It’s a good thing to remember that’s obvious to Christians largely because Christian readers make Christian assumptions. Me, too; but let’s remember that assumptions are not the same thing as “objective facts,” assuming there are such things. Texts mean different things to different people, great texts (like the Bible) legitimately have multiple readings, and we ought to be able to see those multiple readings without having to say “this ONE THING is what this text REALLY means and everyone else is wrong.” On the other hand, just because the author of second Isaiah and the first readers of second Isaiah almost certainly did not have Jesus in mind doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to see Jesus in the text. Texts can say more than their authors intend, and more than their first readers get out of them. We need to own all that, though, as our specifically situated reading, not The Reading. Let’s try to read like people who are trying to love our neighbors as ourselves. (And if you want to read about how I try to read Isaiah as a Christian in more detail, feel free to go here and here.)]

We’re reading the first part of the chapter this week, the second part next week. The selected “text of the week” leaves out verses 14-17, which speak directly to Zion, personified as a woman and specifically as a mother. The author (whom I’m appreciating a lot) of our curriculum includes some discussion of verses 14-17 this week. To me, those verses are part of the context for the text next week. Either way, we’ll need to pay attention to them. Here, though, let’s note that there is a lot of motherhood in this chapter. Starting with verse 1. The motherhood seems to mean something.

One challenge may be spotting and sorting out the rather rapid changes in voice and topic through the speeches. As I read it:

  • the servant [all Israel, represented by the prophet] is talking about himself in verses 1-6, with
  • verses 3-6 a conversation with God, in which
  • verses 5-6 introduce the [now individual prophet] servant’s immediate mission.
  • Then in verses 7-8 God addresses Israel.
  • Then in verses 8-12 the [individual prophet] servant relays God’s speech
    • to the [archetypal individual prophet] servant,
    • which also concerns Israel.
  • Then in verse 13 the [exultant human prophet] servant addresses creation.

Indeed, this text is in the lectionary. Isaiah 49:1-7 is the reading for Tuesday of Holy Week EVERY YEAR, and also the first reading on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year A. Isaiah 49:8-16a is the first reading for the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A [which would be vulnerable to being bumped by Lent], or the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Proper 3, Year A. The lectionary seems determined to get that reading in there, one way or the other. If we don’t know “a light to the nations” is in the Bible, we might not have been paying good attention in church.

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CLOSER READING: Verse 1 is a dramatic call to attention. Why does the servant address the coastlands [sometimes translated “islands”]? Where is the prophet? [Babylonia? Jerusalem? Somewhere else?] Who are we meant to be thinking the prophet is addressing here? [The known world? The coast of the Mediterranean Sea? The banks of the Euphrates? Somewhere else?] Wouldn’t it be nice to know that?? Not even Rashi says anything about this.

Verse 1, second part, includes the first of two references to God’s VERY long game – the servant is called even before birth; and in the womb. These in utero references act like an envelope in this part of the text, enclosing – womblike – the conversation God has with the servant.

They come before the announcement of the gift of the light to the nations. Which corresponds to the prophet’s loud general announcement at the beginning of verse 1. Making the dramatic announcement the even bigger envelope.

Inside the private conversation between the servant and God, God fashions a secret weapon: a sharp sword, a polished arrow, hidden away. Verse 3, then, gives the servant an identity – note this seems to be the naming referred to in v1: Israel, in whom I [the Holy One] will be glorified.

Verse 4 seems to call this calling into question, maybe with an expression of regret, or of repentance? The words the servant chooses could remind us of the early chapters of Genesis: the emptiness of the tohu va bohu that precedes creation, the vanity that is the Hebrew name (Hevel, Abel) of the first, doomed, child of Eve, mother of all living. [I think the poet wants us to catch that.] But then comes the affirmation, literally my justice is with the HOLY ONE, my wages/work with my God.

Verse 5 is open to a couple of readings, depending on translation. NRSV has the HOLY ONE forming the servant in the womb for the purpose of bringing Jacob back to the HOLY ONE. Robert Alter translates it this way, too. But here is the JPS version:

And now the LORD has resolved—
He who formed me in the womb to be His servant—
To bring back Jacob to Himself,
That Israel may be restored to Him.
And I have been honored in the sight of the LORD,
My God has been my strength.

Isaiah 49:5 (JPS)

It’s a question of who is the subject of the verb “to bring back,” and it could go either way.

The striking imagery of God calling this servant in the womb and having this formative conversation – which may also reframe the entire exile as taking place in something like a womb – is the first, dramatic, reference to mothering in the chapter. If we count the word “compassion” or “mercy” or “pity” as another one of those, which we probably should, since it is womb-like in Hebrew, we get a couple more womb references in verses 10 and 13. Then, in verse 15 the HOLY ONE will use the comparison to a mother to establish that God’s steadfast love is unforgettably certain, and then the rest of the chapter will be all about Zion’s children. [Not counting the last bloodthirsty verses.] In other words, the mothering theme here seems prominent and intentional, with God being the supremely creative and re-creative mother.

If we understand the servant to be the prophet, speaking to Israel and bringing Israel back to God, then the “light to the nations” becomes the dramatic impact of the redemption of Israel. Verse 7 speaks to that: the leaders, the kings and princes, of the whole globe, who despise Israel now, will be completely turned around because of this redemption and divine faithfulness and being chosen.

If we are coming along hundreds of years later, however, and noticing how well this all applies to Jesus, then the light and the salvation speaks to us of the new life found in Christ. Christians have been reading it that way a long time: Paul quotes v8 that way when he writes to the Corinthians, for instance (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Verses 8-12 seem to address the prophet, on the topic of Israel. Establishing the land and apportioning the desolate heritages sounds like something Joshua would have done. The references to covenant and prisoners sound more like Moses. As do the references to food and water on a long journey. Which we probably imagine as being through the wilderness.

That brings us to “the north and west” and “Syene” or possibly “Sinim”. Where are these people in verses 8-12 coming from?? Not, obviously, from real life Babylonia to real life Judea, because if they were, they would be coming from the east.

More likely, according to me, we’re meant to think of these people as coming from “Egypt” – north, west, and south (Syene/Sinim). That explains why they are being led by a prophet who is set to do things Moses and Joshua did.

In other words, verses 8-12 are a poetic proclamation of a second Exodus. It’s a dramatic reinterpretation of the return from exile as original, creative, people-birthing liberation.

No wonder the prophet is moved to call all creation to shout out with a ringing cry of joy and exultation.

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One last thought: The overall theme of the quarter is “partners in a new creation.” Last week, the text dealt with the destruction of an oppressor – a precursor to new creation. This week, we have a dramatic proclamation of liberation – another precursor, in a way – with some heavy undertones of maternal creation, and a journey out of bondage, led by a providential servant, who is a “secret weapon,” and who gathers and brings back Israel – or, we might say, “the people of God” – as a light to the nations. That light seems to be the servant, and the people, and the redemption, all at once.

There is a challenge as well as a promise in those words, it seems to me. The promise – which seems to be the point of the text – is that redemption will be visible; it involves a restoration so dramatic that it makes others notice it and pay attention, and even recognize what’s going on as the work of God. The challenge, which seems implicit, is that the people of God have an obligation to look and act the part. To shine like light. It’s one thing to say “we’ve a story to tell to the nations,” It’s another thing to tell that story. The story we tell – really, the story we are – ought to ring true.

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Get text notes by email …

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a view of contemporary Aswan, Egypt

Images: Valentin Bousch, The Prophet Isaiah, 16th century stained glass window [detail], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Nile in Aswan, © Vyacheslav Argenberg /, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. NB: Commentators suggest “Syene” or “Sinim” is Aswan. The Nile there has a lot of islands, apparently. As in, “Hear, O islands!” possibly.

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