Isaiah 49 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Isaiah 49
Pulpit Commentary
Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.
Verses 1-12. - JEHOVAH'S ATTESTATION OF HIS SERVANT'S MISSION. Jehovah called his Servant from the womb; mentioned him by name; made his mouth a sharp sword; held him in his hand; caused him to be a polished weapon; appointed him his Servant; assured him of a right and a recompense; appointed him, not only to restore and recover Israel, but to be a Light to the Gentiles, and to give salvation to the ends of the world (vers. 1-6); chose him (ver. 7); will help him (ver. 8); through him will both deliver the captive everywhere (ver. 9), and cause joy to break out in every part of heaven and earth (vers. 11-13). It is quite impossible that these things can be said of aught but a person, or of any person other than him in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed (Genesis 22:18). Verse 1. - Listen, O isles (comp. Isaiah 41:1; Isaiah 42:1, 4, 6). Since the beginning of ch. 43. Israel alone has been addressed. Now that the mission of the Servant of Jehovah is to be treated of, all the world must be summoned to hear, for all the world is directly interested. Ye people; rather, ye peoples, or ye nations. The Lord hath called me from the womb. Isaiah could not have said this of himself, for his "call" took place when he was of mature age. But Christ was designated for his office from the womb (Luke 1:31-33). He was also still "in the womb of his mother" when the name of Jesus was given to him (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31).
And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;
Verse 2. - He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that "the Word of God" generally "is... sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow" (Hebrews 4:12). Christian experience testifies that tiffs keen, searching, cutting power attaches in an especial way to the sayings of Jesus, which pierce the heart as no other words can do, and rankle in the soul, which is quite unable to forget them. The imagery recurs in the Revelation of St. John (John 1:16; John 2:12, 16; John 19:15, 21). In the shadow of his hand hath he hid me. Either keeping him safe from the malice of his enemies, or reserving him until, "in the fulness of time," it would be fitting to reveal him to the world. And made me a polished shaft, A weapon even keener than a sword, smoothed and polished, so as to make it pierce the deeper, and kept hid in God's quiver until the time came when it could be launched with most effect against the hearts of ungodly men.
And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
Verse 3. - Thou art my Servant, O Israel. That the literal "Israel," is not intended appears plainly from ver. 5. The Servant himself is addressed as "Israel," because he "would stand as a new federal head to the nation" (Kay), which would be summed up in him, and also because he would be, in a truer sense than any other, an "Israel," or "Prince with God." In whom I will be glorified (comp. John 13:31, "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him"). He who is "the Brightness of the Father's glory" sets forth that glory before men, and causes them to glorify him, both with their tongues and in their lives.
Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.
Verse 4. - Then I said, I have laboured in vain; rather, and I, for my part, had said. The Servant had momentarily desponded, seeing the small results of all his efforts to reclaim Israel, and had felt a natural human regret at so much labour apparently expended in vain; but his despondency had been soon checked by the thought that God would not suffer any "labour of love" to be wholly in vain, but would give it the recompense which it merited. The verse brings strongly out the true humanity of the "Servant," who feels as men naturally feel, but restrains himself, and does not allow his feelings to carry him away. Compare with this despondency the grief exhibited by our Lord on two occasions (Matthew 23:37; John 11:35), and the depression which extorted from him the memorable words, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (Matthew 27:46). My work; rather, my reward, or my recompense.
And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength.
Verse 5. - And now, saith the Lord, etc.; rather, and now the Lord hath said - he that formed me from the womb to be a Servant to him, that I might bring back Jacob to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him; for I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God is become my Strength - he hath said - It is a light thing, etc. The whole of ver. 5, after the words, "and now the Lord hath said," is parenthetic. (On the service which our Lord continually rendered, while on earth, to the Father, see Luke 2:49; Luke 4:43; John 4:34; John 6:38; John 17:4.) The Revelation of St. John shows that in heaven he is still engaged in carrying out his Father's behests. Though Israel be not gathered. This reading, as Mr. Cheyne remarks, "entirely spoils the symmetry of the verse." The practice of writing fresh copies of the Scripture from dictation is answerable for the double reading of לֹא and לו both here and in other places. Yet shall I be glorious. The "Servant" would receive glory even by such a partial conversion of the Jews as took place through his ministry. It is never to be forgotten that all the original twelve apostles were Jews, that Matthias was a Jew, that Paul and Barnabas were Jews, and that the original Church was a Church of Jews (Acts 2:41-47). All that was truly spiritual in Judaism flowed into the Church of Christ, as into its natural home, and the Jewish element in the Church, if not numerically great, was yet the predominant and formative element.
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Verse 6. - It is a light thing. God rewards his servants according to their works. He is supremely just. He was not content that even Nebuchadnezzar should be insufficiently rewarded for the service that he rendered against Tyre (Ezekiel 29:18), and he therefore gave him Egypt in addition as his recompense (Ezekiel 29:20). It would have been "a light thing" - "too light a thing" (Kay, Cheyne) - to have rewarded the labours of Jesus with the conversion of the Jews only. God therefore gave him as his recompense the gathering in of the Gentiles also, and made him a means of salvation even to the uttermost ends of the earth. The preserved of Israel; i.e. the "remnant" that had not perished through previous judgments. I will also give thee for a Light to the Gentiles (comp. Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 34:1; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 55:5, etc.). Greeks Ἕλληνες were brought into contact with our Lord himself shortly before his crucifixion (John 12:20). He wrought a miracle for a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:25-30). His apostles, after a little time, understood that the gospel was for the world at large, and declared that in Christ there was no difference between Jew and Greek, nay! between Jew and barbarian. Christ had died for all - had come to be a Light to all, would have all come into his Church and obtain salvation through union with him. That thou mayest be my Salvation. Christ is called "Salvation," as the Bearer of salvation - he through whom alone can any man be saved (Acts 4:12). So he is called "Peace" (Micah 5:5), as the Giver of peace.
Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.
Verse 7. - His Holy One; i.e. "the Holy One of Israel." To him whom man despiseth; literally, who is despised of souls. This is the first place in the prophecies of Isaiah where this note of the Messiah is brought forward. It is found earlier in the Psalms, as especially in Psalm 22:6, et seq., "I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people;" and later on it is expanded into a chapter (ch. 53.). Whom the nation abhorreth; rather, whom mankind abhorreth. The term used is goi, which points to the Gentiles rather than to the Jews. Mankind at large dislikes a "Holy One," since he is a perpetual reproach to it (see Isaiah 30:11; and comp. Plut., 'Republ.,' 7:2, ad fin.). It is not the Jews only who exclaim in such a case, "Away with him! away with him!" (John 19:15). There is such an antagonism between sin and holiness, that the ungodly everywhere and in all ages detest the godly and virtuous. A servant of rulers; or, a slave of despots; treated as a slave, i.e. by such irresponsible rulers as Herod (Luke 23:11) and Pontius Pilate (John 19:1, 16). The "King of kings" bowed himself to a slave's death. Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship (comp. Psalm 72:10, 11; Isaiah 52:15; Isaiah 50:3, 10, 11, etc.). According to a tradition - which, however, cannot be traced back to any very ancient source - the Magi who came to worship our Lord at Bethlehem were "kings." The prophecy is, however, to be regarded as having its main fulfilment in the coming to Christ of so many kings and princes, since his ascension into heaven (comp ver. 23). And the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee; rather, the Holy One of Israel, that hath chosen thee. Kings will rise from their thrones, and prostrate themselves before Messiah, convinced that Jehovah is faithful in the performance of his promises, and has chosen the Son of Mary to be the Redeemer so long announced as about to appear on earth.
Thus saith the LORD, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages;
Verse 8. - In an acceptable time; literally, in a time of good pleasure; i.e. the time fixed by my good pleasure from the creation of the world. Heard thee... helped thee. The Father "heard" and "helped" the only begotten Son through the whole period of his earthly ministry (Luke 2:40, 52; John 3:2; John 8:28; John 12:28; John 14:10, etc.). I will give thee for a Covenant of the people (comp. Isaiah 42:6, and the comment, ad loc.). To establish the earth; rather, as in ver. 6, to raise up the earth, to lift it out of its existing condition of meanness and degradation. To cause to inherit the desolate heritages; i.e. to cause the desolate heritages of the earth - the places devoid of trite religion - to be possessed, and as it were "inherited," by those who would introduce into them the true knowledge of God. As Israel inherited Canaan (Deuteronomy 3:28; Joshua 1:6), so would Christian nations inherit many "desolate heritages," where ignorance and sin prevailed, with the result that light would penetrate into the dark regions, and, ultimately, all flesh see the salvation of God.
That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places.
Verse 9. - That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth, "The prisoners" here are not the captives in Babylon, but the servants of sin throughout the world. Christ would say to them, "Go forth." He would summon them by his messengers to repent and be converted, and quit the service of sin, and "go forths" from the kingdom of darkness, and "show themselves" as lights of the world (Matthew 5:14; Philippians 2:15), walking "as children of the light" (Ephesians 5:8). It is a narrow exegesis which confines the prophet's forecast to the mere return of the exiles to Palestine, and their re-settlement on their ancestral estates. They shall feed in the ways, etc. The returning "prisoners" are now represented as a flock of sheep (comp. Isaiah 40:11), whom the good Shepherd will "lead" and "guide" by ways in which they will find sufficient pasture, which shall not fail them even when they pass over bare "hill-tops" (see John 10:11-16; John 21:15-17).
They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them.
Verse 10. - They shall not hunger nor thirst (cf. John 4:14; John 6:35). God's grace is sufficient for his faithful ones. They are content with the sustenance which he awards them, and neither "hunger" nor "thirst." Neither shall the heat nor sun smite them; rather, neither shall the glowing sand nor the sun smite them (see Isaiah 35:7). To those who walk at noonday over the "glowing sand" of the desert, the heat which "smites them" seems to come as much from below as from above, the white ground reflecting the sun's rays with a force almost equal to that wherewith the rays themselves beat down upon them from the sky. The Lord's faithful ones, in their passage through the wilderness of life, shall be free Item these fearful trials. "The sun shall not smite them by day, neither the moon by night" (Psalm 121:6) He that hath mercy on them; or, that hath compassion on them - that sympathizes with their sufferings, and pities them in their trials (comp. vers. 13 and 15). Shall lead them (comp. Psalm 23:2; Isaiah 40:11). The Oriental shepherd for the most part goes before his flock.
And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.
Verse 11. - I will make all my mountains a way. No obstacles shall prevent the return of the wanderers. Mountains shall he as roads, and as highways lifted up.
Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.
Verse 12. - These shall come from far. The nations shall flow in from all sides to the Redeemer's kingdom (Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 60:1-5, etc.). They shall come from the north and from the west; literally, from the north and from the sea, which generally means "the west," but which, in one enumeration of the points of the compass (Psalm 107:3), is certainly "the south." They shall also come from the land of Sinim by which most recent interpreters understand China. But it is highly improbable that an ethnic name which was not known to the Greeks till the time of Ptolemy (A.D. 120) should have recoiled Palestine by B.C. 700. And if "the sea" means "the south" in the preceding clause, the Sinim may be these of Phoenicia (Genesis 10:17), who were among the furthest inhabitants of Asia towards the west. In any case, the reference is, not to the dispersed Jews, but to the remote Gentiles, who would pass from all quarters lute the kingdom of the Redeemer.
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.
Verses 13-26. - ZION COMFORTED IN HER DESPONDENCY. While the future is thus glorious, both for the "Servant of the Lord" and for his people Israel, the present is gloom and misery. Zion - not here the city, but the people of God - desponds and says, "Jehovah has forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me" (ver. 14). This burst of grief, though arising from weakness of faith, is forgiven by the compassion of God, and "afflicted" Israel is "comforted" and consoled through the remainder of the chapter (vers. 15-26). Verse 13. - Sing, O heavens (comp. Isaiah 44:23). Heaven and earth are called upon to rejoice and "break forth into singing"

(1) because of the glory that awaits the Redeemer (vers. 5-12); and

(3) because of the gracious intentions of God with respect to Israel (vers. 16-26). O mountains The majesty of mountains seems to have deeply impressed Isaiah. Throughout his writings they are continually introduced as the grandest of the works of God (comp. Isaiah 2:2, 14; Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 13:4; Isaiah 14:25; Isaiah 22:5; Isaiah 30:25; Isaiah 34:3; Isaiah 37:24; Isaiah 40:4, 9, 12; Isaiah 41:15; Isaiah 42:11, 15, etc.). He expects them to be especially ready to sympathize with man. Such a feeling would be natural to one accustomed to the hill-country of Palestine and the lofty heights of Hermon and Lebanon, but could scarcely have been developed in an exile of the time of Cyrus, born and brought up in the dead level of Babylonia. Hath comforted... will have mercy. Both verbs designate the same action, which is really future, but in God's counsels is already accomplished. The perfect is thus, once more, that of prophetic certitude.
But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.
Verse 14. - But Zion said. "Zion" is here the "daughter of Zion," or the people of Israel, as in Isaiah 51:16. The meaning is a rare one. The Lord hath forsaken me (comp. Isaiah 40:27). It is not surprising that Israel - even faithful Israel - sometimes desponded, or perhaps despaired, during the long and weary time of the Captivity. Even the "Servant of the Lord" knew moments of despondency (see above, ver. 4, with the comment).
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
Verse 15. - Can a woman forget?.... yea, they may forget. In the siege of Samaria by Benhadad, King of Syria, a mother, we are told (2 Kings 6:28, 29), boiled her son for food. In the last siege of Jerusalem similar horrors are reported (Joseph., 'Bell. Jud.,' 6:03, 4). Mothers have even been known in England who have forced their tender and innocent daughters to commit deadly sin. Yet will I not forget, The love of God surpasses that of either father or mother. "When my father and my mother forsake me," says David, "then the Lord will take me up" (Psalm 27:10). "God is love" (1 John 4:8) in his very essence; and his infinite love is deeper, tenderer, truer, than finite love can ever be. Still, that which is nearest to it upon earth is, doubtless, the love of a mother for her children (see Isaiah 66:13).
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
Verse 16. - Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands. The prophet has passed here from the living Zion, Isabel, to their material home, Jerusalem. The metaphor which he uses is no doubt drawn from the practice, common both in ancient and in modern days, of burning or puncturing figures and other mementos upon the hand, the arm, or some other part of the body, and then rendering the figures indelible by rubbing in henna, indigo, gunpowder, or some other coloured substance. Pilgrims in the East have almost always such marks put upon them when they have accomplished their pilgrimage. English sailors are fond of them, and few are without some such mark on their breast or limbs. The meaning here is that God has the thought of Zion as constantly present with him as if her image were indelibly marked on the palms of his hands. (On the anthropomorphic representation of God as having "arms" and "hands," see the comment on Isaiah 40:10.) Thy walls. It is the city, Zion, the emblem of the people, that can alone be "graven" or "portrayed." This city has, of course, walls. God bears them in mind perpetually, since he is about to cause them to be built up (Nehemiah 3, 4.).
Thy children shall make haste; thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee.
Verse 17. - Thy children shall make haste; i.e. "thy exiled children shall hasten, when the appointed time comes, to return to Zion, and rebuild its temple and towers and walls." At the same time, thy destroyers and they that have made thee waste, who are regarded as still carrying on their devastations, shall leave thee and go forth of thee.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold: all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith the LORD, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament, and bind them on thee, as a bride doeth.
Verse 18. - Lift up thine eyes round about and behold (comp. Isaiah 50:4, where the same phrase occurs in connection with the conversion of the Gentiles). All these gather themselves together (comp. ver. 12). Thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament (comp. Zechariah 9:16). The restored Church, receiving adhesions from the nations on all sides, will be like a bride who puts on her ornaments, and is thereby made glorious to look upon (Isaiah 61:10, ad fin.). The entire Church, not any one part, is designated as the "Bride" of Christ in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:29, 32; Revelation 21:2, 9; Revelation 22:17).
For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away.
Verse 19. - The land of thy destruction; or, of thy overthrow - i.e, where thou wert overthrown by Nebuchadnezzar - shall even now be too narrow, etc. This must not be understood literally. Palestine, after the return from the Captivity, was at no time over-populated; and when the conversion of the Gentiles took place it caused no influx of fresh settlers into the Holy Land. The object of the prophet is simply to mark the vast growth of the Church, which would necessarily spread itself far beyond the limits of Palestine, and would ultimately require the whole earth for its habitation.
The children which thou shalt have, after thou hast lost the other, shall say again in thine ears, The place is too strait for me: give place to me that I may dwell.
Verse 20. - The children which thou shalt have, after thou hast lost the other; literally, the children of thy bereavement; i.e. the Gentiles who shall replace those many faithless Israelites who refused to return when Cyrus issued his edict, and became lost to the Church of God. The place is too strait for me (see the comment on ver. 19).
Then shalt thou say in thine heart, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? and who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where had they been?
Verse 21. - Who hath begotten me these? The Jewish Church is astounded at the influx of the Gentiles, and asks, "Where did they come from? Who has made them my children? Who has trained them?" That they are not her natural children she is sure, since she knows that she has been for a long time "bereaved and unfruitful" (Cheyne) - a captive, and a "wanderer" (Kay). It is certain that the Jewish Church did not at first altogether welcome the incoming of the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-3; Acts 15:1-11; Galatians 2:11-14, etc.). But the guidance of the Holy Spirit surmounted the difficulty (Acts 15:28).
Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
Verse 22. - I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles. The new children - the new converts - are to come from the Gentiles; the fresh "sons" and "daughters" will be carried by the nations in their arms, and by the peoples upon their shoulders. It is usual to expound this and parallel passages (Isaiah 60:4; 66:20) of the return of the Jews to their own land by favour of the Gentiles, either when the decree of Cyrus went forth, or at some still future period. But perhaps the children intended are foster-children, actual Gentiles, whom their parents will bring to baptism. In the Assyrian sculptures, mothers are constantly represented as carrying their children upon their shoulders ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 1 p. 480).
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
Verse 23. - Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; or, thy foster-fathers... thy foster-mothers. Kings and queens (sultanas) shall put themselves at the disposal of the Church, to nourish and cherish such of the Church's children as may be entrusted to their care. They shall bow down. They shall not seek to lord it over the Church, but shall acknowledge in the officers of the Church a spiritual authority superior to their own, before which they shall "bow down," as Theodosius did. They shall even be willing, when they are conscious of guilt, to "lick the dust" under the Church's feet, or subject themselves to deep humiliation, that they may be restored. They shall not be ashamed that wait for me. Such as wait patiently and trust in the fulfilment of all these gracious promises shall escape shame, for the promises will assuredly be fulfilled.
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered?
Verse 24. - Shall the prey be taken, etc.? The incredulous among the exiles thought it well-nigh impossible that Babylon should be forced to disgorge her prey - the captives whose labours were so valuable to her. Babylon was mighty. By the laws of war she had a rightful claim to her captives. How was she to be induced or compelled to give them up?
But thus saith the LORD, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
Verse 25. - The captives of the mighty shall be taken away. The answer to the questions of ver. 24 is that, if Babylon is mighty, God is mightier. God will "take away" the captives, and "save" his "children."
And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, as with sweet wine: and all flesh shall know that I the LORD am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob.
Verse 26. - I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh (comp. Isaiah 9:20). Civil disunion is intended, which will break the power of Babylon, and render her an easy prey to the Persians. The recently discovered inscriptions clearly show that this was the case. Nabonidus had alienated the affections of his subjects by changes in the religion of the country, and during the course of the war with Cyrus, many Babylonian tribes went over to the invaders, and fought against their own countrymen (see the 'Cylinder of Nabonidus;' and comp. Sayce, 'Ancient Empires of the East,' p. 357). The mighty One of Jacob (see the comment on Isaiah 1:24).

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