IN THE FIRST SIX VERSES OF Isaiah 49 the Servant of the Lord speaks. Who is he? He is unnamed, but we can draw some inferences from the description provided by the text. Like the prophet Jeremiah, he was called by God before he was born (Isa. 49:1; cf. Jer. 1:5); like him, he meets opposition that drives him to despair, though he faithfully perseveres (Isa. 49:4; cf. Jer. 4:19–22, etc.). God has made his mouth “like a sharpened sword” (Isa. 49:2), which rather suggests prophetic ministry.
But what is most striking about this Servant is something that at first appears to be a striking confusion. God addresses him in these terms: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Isa. 49:3, italics added)—so the Servant is Israel. Yet the Lord calls this Servant “to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself” (Isa. 49:5, italics added)—which distinguishes this Servant from Israel and represents him as Israel’s savior. Why?
As in Isaiah 42, this Servant embodies all that Israel should have been. This Servant is an ideal Israel, God’s perfect Servant—and thus a figure different from empirical Israel, and one that is able to save empirical Israel. In part, the identity of this Servant is still hidden at this point in the book: “[God] made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver” (Isa. 49:2), says the Servant. God does insist, however, that it is “too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Indeed, even when the Lord uses this Servant “to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself” (Isa. 49:5), surely this envisages something more than a return to the land or to Jerusalem. After all, the servant Cyrus accomplishes that for Israel. This Servant, however, brings Israel to God; the restoration is not so much to a place as to the living God.
Isaiah 49 is too long and complex to permit an adequate summary here. But I draw attention to two themes. First, in Isaiah 49:8–12, the “returning” people are not Israelites only, but Gentiles, and the return is primarily to God. Israelites would return from the north, but these come from everywhere. Second, although God has promised some fine things, Zion (standing for the people of God) complains that the Lord has forsaken and forgotten her. But God replies with moving commitment: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast …? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isa. 49:15). In stagnant, discouraging times, remember God’s long-range commitments, and reflect on Romans 8:31–39.