The Glorious Servant of the Lord
As Isaiah leads us along, increasingly he lifts our thoughts beyond our immediate problems to more distant, more luxurious certainties. He opened the second major section of his book with “Comfort, O comfort my people” (40:1). Now we read, “Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar” (49:1). The prophetic horizon is broadening.
Isaiah now presents the second of his four Servant Songs. The suffering Jews needed more than release from Babylon. They needed a savior greater than Cyrus. We all need a spiritual liberation and an everlasting Savior. Isaiah is deepening our awareness of this. In chapter 42 he introduced to us the servant of the Lord. This mysterious hero now reappears, along with our hostile response to him.
Isaiah wants to fix our attention on the servant of the Lord, who embodies God’s loving intentions towards us. We should melt in delighted wonder that he gives us such a gift as his servant (49:1-4).
The servant of the Lord, set apart from birth and uniquely equipped for his mission, is a prophet. He is the voice of God on earth, and he demands a hearing from the entire world. But unlike Cyrus, the weapons of his warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). His word is a sharp sword. He himself is a polished arrow. He is a dread weapon in the hand of God. But he compels the attention of the world by God’s improbable gospel strategies. Hidden until the time is right, he emerges in history to conquer not by military might or cultural imperialism but by the force of truth. This is Jesus.
But there’s a problem here. In verse 3 the servant is identified as “Israel in whom I [God] shall be glorified.” Then in verses 5, 6, as we’ll see, this same servant is the one who restores Israel to God. How can Israel restore Israel?
A clue appeared already in 48:1 where Isaiah confronted the “house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel . . . but not in truth or right.” Isaiah understood that those demoralized Jews in exile, whose failed historic mission was obvious to the nations, no longer lived up to their name. God’s purpose was to bless them that the world would be drawn to him (Psalm 67). But Israel failed, and by now their failure makes a mockery of their ancient identity as the Israel of God. Is the purpose of God therefore defeated? No. God provides a substitute Israel, who does live up to the name. Jesus Christ is our substitute not only in his death but also in his life. He is everything to us (I Corinthians 1:30, 31). His only failure was our failure, and our only success is his success.
So the Israel of verse 3 is Messiah, the servant who embodies all that historic Israel should have been. He is the Israel in whom God will be glorified. We can’t make sense of the Old Testament without Christ. He’s the one on whom all lines converge. All the persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament, including the nation of Israel itself, find their truest meaning in Christ. The Old Testament has obsolescence built into it. It points beyond itself, both because of the human failure its story tells and also because, even at their best, the figures moving through the pages of the Old Testament were only meant to prepare for something greater. The incompleteness of the Old Testament demands resolution, a breakthrough. On every page it cries for Christ. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the Old Testament uses the name Israel for the Messiah. We should expect it, because the whole Bible is all about Christ. If we understand the signals the Old Testament itself is sending us, we’ll read it that way. Why shouldn’t we? The apostles did, and they were good theologians. Better than we are.
Verse 4 reveals something of the psychology of Messiah. Jesus Christ, the very center of God’s purpose unfolding in history, struggled at times with feelings of failure: “I have labored in vain.” Does that surprise us? It shouldn’t. His earthly mission 2,000 years ago did not come across as one continual triumph. Unlike the human conquerors strutting across the stage of history, adored by the envious, Jesus was despised and rejected. At times he felt frustrated (Matthew 17:17). In the end he was abandoned: “My God, my God, who have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But unlike historic Israel, this true Israel did not turn away from God in cynical unbelief. In all his setbacks he trusted God: “Yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” Jesus saw the joy set before him, he clung to it by faith, and that faith preserved him in his arduous mission.
Far from failing to renew historic Israel, Christ has been given an even greater task. He is the divinely appointed Savior of the whole world (49:5, 6).
Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and there is no other. He is God’s appointed “light for the nations.” Every wisdom and philosophy and moral code outside Christ lies in the deepest, outermost darkness as to salvation. But to enter into the light of Christ is to have your gloom lifted and your confusion replaced with truth and delight. He is your breakthrough to seeing everything in a new light. And this God-appointed mission, to bring the light of God into our natural darkness, will succeed with worldwide impact. Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).