26 January 2012

Isaiah 49:1-23

"I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (v. 6)


This passage is both exciting and frustrating to read. Its backdrop is a shifting scene in world politics as Cyrus the Persian emperor is about to displace the old superpower of Babylon and create new possibilities. The exiles, who have lived away from their homeland for 40 years, are addressed throughout Isaiah 40-55 with visions and promises of a new Exodus and challenged to make a new beginning with God. 

This particular section is one of the 'servant passages' and the prophecy is on the lips of the servant. But who is this servant? Scholars are divided on this question: is it Israel, is it the prophet, or is it some leader in the community? Many people have understandably seen aspects of the Jesus that seem to be exemplified in the servant (especially in Isaiah 53 where the servant's suffering is linked to redemption). The frustration of not being sure who is envisaged here should not, however, stop us sensing the excitement in this reading. 

The servant, who has been called from before birth, has been prepared for God's purpose (verses 1-3) and, despite a sense of futile labour (verse 4), has his calling re-affirmed. The servant is sent "to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him" (v. 5). This promise of restoration is, however, extended in an exciting and unexpected way. For in God's plan Israel is not only to be re-gathered and restored but to undertake a new covenantal role: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth". God's people are to be the vehicle for all to know God's love and saving grace. 

The rest of the passage should be read in the light of this new and exciting purpose. It is for this outcome that a dispirited community is called to lift its eyes. God is (again) taking a people crushed and low in esteem and offering them a rich and fruitful future in God's own purposes. The images speak to the deep sense of rejection and poor self-image that exiles might feel: prisoners in darkness will come into the light; king and princes will bow down, honour and serve these former slaves; builders will work so fast they will overtake those who demolish; the bereaved will be overwhelmed with the joy of their multitude of children. This is powerful language that speaks to the dejected state of the hearers. 

Perhaps the prophet can communicate so effectively because of the identification between the prophet, the servant and the people. Only those who empathise deeply with the marginalised can speak a word of hope. 

To Ponder

Why do you think this moment in Israel's story is chosen to present a larger vision of the purpose of the covenant?

What aspects of Jesus do you see in this passage?

What images in the passage speak to you at this moment?