22 March 2016

Isaiah 49:1-7

“Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” (v. 7)

Psalm: Psalm 71


As ever with the Old Testament prophetic writings, we tend to see two tiers of meaning here - the meaning for then and the meaning for all time. Isaiah was writing to a people living in exile, whose fates were at the whim of the ruling powers. They were conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled the religious and political leaders, and those with power and influence in society. And then the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, and their method of rule was very different. They allowed their subject peoples to live according to their own traditions, in their own lands, albeit under imperial rule.

Isaiah had a message of partial comfort for the people of Israel - not that they would be free or independent, but that they would at least be allowed to go home and rebuild their ruined cities and temple. We might imagine the Israelites hearing his words, hearing the promise that Israel will once again claim her land and heritage from the "peoples from far away" (v. 1), but still feeling that the "victory" is somewhat hollow, and that her strength is spent for nothing.

Would they also have heard their own glory proclaimed in the second half of the passage? The servant referred to there, who will bring Jacob (or Israel) back, could be Israel. She has been despised and humiliated, but will one day be great again. Or it could refer to the Emperor of Persia, Darius, who continued the policy of allowing the exiles to return. He came from comparatively humble origins, but became the most powerful ruler in the region, so would fit the description in verse 7.

As 21st-century Christians, however, we read it with different eyes. This is Holy Week, and we are turning our attention more and more to the cross - the place of Christ's humiliation and victory. We see him despised and yet a Redeemer. We see him dying not just to restore Israel, but to be a light to all the nations, so that his salvation might reach to the end of the earth.

To Ponder

  • Isaiah sees the political events of his day as part of God's actions. Kings and emperors defeat or liberate Israel, but it is God who is in control. To what extent is it possible to hold such a perspective as we look at the world in which we live?
  • Where do you see God active in world events? To whom (if anyone) does God say, "I will give you as a light to the nations" (v. 6)?
  • How might you and/or the Church help those displaced from their homelands today? What message of hope can we offer?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.