Friday

5 January 2018

Isaiah 49:1-13

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (v. 6)

Psalm: Psalm 97


Background

The book of Isaiah is often understood as being made up of three main sections, and this passage comes within the second. The first 39 chapters contain warnings about God’s impending punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, but by the second section, that punishment had most likely already come. Now the tone is gentler and more hopeful, speaking words of comfort. The Israelites were probably a people living in exile, having been forcibly taken from their homeland by the Babylonian rulers. The words of this passage, then, were delivered not to an individual, but to a whole nation – a nation that was suffering, and feeling alienated from its God.

The passage is also the second of the ‘Servant Songs’: four pieces of poetry in this second section of Isaiah, written about a servant of God. The identity of this servant is much debated. Verse 3 seems to suggest that it refers to Israel itself, though verses 5-7 might distinguish him from Israel. The Christian Church has typically seen these songs as messianic prophecies, pointing forward to Jesus.

In verses 5 and 6, reference is made to both Israel and Jacob; in Genesis 32:28, Jacob was given the name Israel. Both names were often used interchangeably, to refer to the nation that bore his name – Israel. The “tribes of Jacob” refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, named after the sons of Jacob. One of the images often used for the longed-for end of exile and return to the homeland was the regathering and bringing home of the scattered tribes.

Again, in Christian tradition, the idea of restoring Israel and her 12 tribes has often developed into a metaphor for the coming of Christ, or for his second coming and the ushering in of the kingdom of God. Sometimes, this has also led to the idea of the Church as a ‘new Israel’.

The passage also stands in a prophetic tradition, which saw Israel as a gathering place, to which all the nations would come and worship, and through which God would be made known.


To Ponder

  • Which parts of this passage do you think are particularly significant for a Christian understanding of who Jesus is? Could this form part of a manifesto for the Church as the Body of Christ? What would be missing?
  • How do you feel about the idea of the Church as a ‘new Israel’? Is this a positive or a problematic image for you? Why?

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.