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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 49

Verse 1

(The beginning of Section B of Division VI (Isaiah 49-57))

There is a dramatic switch in this chapter to the development of the most wonderful prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the appearance in our world of the Dayspring from on High, the holy Messiah, the True Israel of God, namely, The Lord Jesus Christ, who in spite of every hindrance, even the rejection of his own nation, would bring God's salvation to the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike. Cyrus will be mentioned no more; the Jewish exiles' return from Babylon will be no longer the focus, which is dramatically shifted to Jesus Christ the Son of God, his mission, his characteristics, his assured success, his rejection by the Jewish nation, etc. "Whereas Section I dealt principally with the Doctrine of God, Section II treats especially the Doctrine of Salvation. Salvation comes from God only, and through the ministry of the Servant of Jehovah. It includes deliverance from the penalty of sin, and a new life of protection, joy, and peace; and it is worldwide in scope,"[1]


I. The Messiah himself is introduced as speaking in Isaiah 49:1-6, stating the purpose of his coming, his rejection by the Jewish nation, and the fact of his enlightening the Gentiles. In Isaiah 49:1, he calls the nations of the whole world to hear his voice. He announces his call to be the Messiah, and gives his qualifications for his mission (Isaiah 49:1-3). He identifies himself as "Israel" (Isaiah 49:3). For the meaning of this word see note below on "Israel." He was named even while he was in the womb of his mother (Isaiah 49:1). He was the chosen instrument through whom God chose to be glorified (Isaiah 49:3); his earthly work would appear to fail (Isaiah 49:4); his future success, however, would be glorious (Isaiah 49:5,6). He would gather in the righteous remnant of the old physical nation of the Jews; but he would also become a light to the heathen of all nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.

II. Jehovah directly promises the ultimate success of Messiah's work (Isaiah 49:7-12). Men would indeed despise and reject him (Isaiah 49:7). No matter what the Old Israel did, Jehovah would make Jesus Christ the basis of a New Covenant for all men, the basis of mankind's renewal of their lost fellowship with God (Isaiah 49:8). He would free the prisoners (from their sins) and provide light for the peoples walking in darkness (Isaiah 49:9). He would remove all obstacles from the way of the peoples who would desire to serve him (Isaiah 49:10-12).

III. A song of praise in view of the Saviour's marvelous work (Isaiah 49:13).

IV. Zion is comforted with assurances of the Father's love, and with the promise that God will never forget or forsake her (Isaiah 49:13-21).

V. God will extend salvation, with all of its blessings, to the Gentiles. Kings and Queens would bring their wealth into the kingdom of Heaven (Revelation 21:24); and all of the enemies of God's Messiah and his Cause shall be destroyed.

Isaiah 49:1-6

"Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken ye peoples, from far: Jehovah hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name: and he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me: and he hath made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he kept me close: and he said unto me, Thou art my servant; Israel, in whom I will be glorified. But I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and vanity; yet surely the justice due to me is with Jehovah, and my recompense with my God. And now saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb, to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered unto him (for I am honorable in the eyes of Jehovah, and my God is become my strength); yea, it is too light a 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."

"Made mention of my name ..." (Isaiah 49:1). This was not true of the nation of Israel, that name, having been given through Jacob in the third generation of Abraham's "seed." Gabriel, however, gave the name Jesus to the Messiah before he was born (Luke 1:31).

"My mouth like a sharp sword ..." (Isaiah 49:2). This indicated that the words which would come out of the mouth of Messiah would be the instrument of his power, the words which would judge men and angels on the last day (John 12:48). This is "the word" that hurled the suns in space, that lifted up the Cross, that stilled the sea; and it is the word that shall summons all the dead who ever lived to receive the sentence of their eternal destiny on the occasion of the final judgment.

"In the shadow of his hand hath he hid me ..." (Isaiah 49:2). God did indeed hide Jesus. He hid him from the wrath of Herod by taking him into Egypt and hid him from all of those who would have killed him until, in his own time, he would allow his crucifixion on Calvary.

"And he said unto me, Thou art my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified ..." (Isaiah 49:3). This is punctuated differently from the text of the American Standard Version in the text above; because the semicolon that divides Israel from the previous part of this sentence is an error. In this passage, God Almighty himself named the future Messiah "ISRAEL." We have already noted that Jesus Christ is indeed the great Anti-type of Israel; and Christ himself accepted this title in John 15:1ff, where it is recorded that he said, "I AM THE TRUE VINE," the old fleshy Israel, the secular nation, of course, being the corrupt vine or degenerate vine as revealed in both Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21).


The proper interpretation of the Word of God must always take into account the Biblical pattern of using the same word for multiple meanings. See my discussion of this Biblical phenomenon in Vol. 1 of my Pentateuchal Series (Genesis), p. 15, where I have pin-pointed no less than five meanings of the word "seed." Similarly, there are no less than eight legitimate meanings of the word Israel in the holy Bible.

(1) This was the name (Israel) given by the angel to Jacob on the occasion when he wrestled with him till daylight (Genesis 32:28).

(2) This was the name that came to be applied to the posterity of Jacob through the twelve patriarchs.

(3) This was the name that Ephraim and the ten tribes who seceded from the House of David usurped and claimed for themselves only (Hosea 8:14).

(4) This was the name that applied to the kingdom of Judah, after the captivity and loss of the Ten Tribes with Ephraim in the fall of Samaria (722 B.C.).

(5) This was the "covenant name" of the righteous remnant as distinguished from the hypocritical, rebellious majority, who made up the principal mass of those deported into captivity in Babylon.

(6) In the times of the personal ministry of Messiah, the name "Israel" was reserved for a tiny handful of the fleshly nation of the Jews who were called "Israelites Indeed" by Jesus Christ (John 1:47), categorically distinguishing between them and the "sons of the devil" who at the same time they plotted the death of Christ were calling themselves "Israelites," and "sons of Abraham." (See John 8:31-50). Nathaniel, Zacchaeus, Anna, Simeon, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, the holy apostles, and that little handful of 120 people who attended that meeting in Acts 1:15 made up the total number of Israelites indeed.

(7) The name "Israel" in our own times, and reaching back to the ministry of Jesus Christ, rightfully belongs to the true followers of Jesus Christ, his church. Paul's letter to the Galatian churches refers to them in Galatians 6:16 as "The Israel of God." The apostles are reigning over the "twelve tribes of Israel," a name applied to the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:28); and the 144,000 of Revelation 7 are none other than the kingdom or church of the Messiah.

(8) The name "Israel" in this very Isaiah 49:3 refers exclusively to Jesus Christ the Messiah. This corresponds with the fact that Christ is the "head of the church which is his spiritual body," the whole body (all the church) itself being also "The Israel of God."

The significance of this meaning of Israel in this passage is very great. Without this information, commentators are simply puzzled and checkmated as regards the discovery of what the passage means. An example of this is seen in the words of Kelley:

"The elusiveness of the servant's identity is nowhere more apparent than here (Isaiah 49:3) ... He is unequivocally identified as Israel...One way out of the impasse would be to delete the word Israel, but the ancient versions will not support such a deletion ... There is no easy solution to the problem of the servant's identity."[2]

All such confusion and lack of understanding disappears instantly when it is understood that "Israel" in this passage is a God-given title of Messiah himself. After all that Isaiah had already revealed about the blindness and deafness of the fleshly nation (Israel), and of their judicial hardening, and of their being no longer the noble vine God had planted, but a "degenerate vine," it is a foolish mistake indeed to try to identify that blind, deaf, hardened, hypocrite of the fleshly nation with the "Servant" who would heal that very nation.

The preposterous proposition inherent in such an identification was duly noted also by Kelley:

"If the servant, therefore, is interpreted collectively (that is, of the fleshly nation of Israel), then one is confronted with the strange anomaly of the nation effecting its own spiritual renewal. Even Muilenburg, who believes the reference here (Isaiah 49:3) applies to the nation collectively, admits that Isaiah 49:5,6 constitute the most serious obstacle to the collective view."[3]

Of course, such an identification of the servant as Israel in the collective sense as the whole nation is not merely "a serious obstacle" to that viewpoint, it is overwhelming proof of the error of that viewpoint.

"I have labored in vain ..." (Isaiah 49:4). These words from the Messiah himself indicate that Jesus' work with the nation of Israel would be, in one sense, frustrating, unsuccessful, and in the large measure useless. The discouragement which our Lord surely encountered was first mentioned in Isaiah 42:4, but here it surfaces again. Thus Isaiah follows the pattern he announced in Isaiah 28:10,13, the same being proof that our human author here is not some "2nd Isaiah," but Isaiah himself. Regarding the apparent failure of Jesus' mission to "the physical Israel," only 120 were gathered together as his disciples after the resurrection.

These marvelous prophecies of that "Ideal Servant" reveal that Christ alone offers salvation to men. The ancient idolaters who bowed down to images made by men fed their soul upon ashes and wasted themselves in degrading and worthless activities; but, "Even so, in philosophical circles today, Bible-rejecting agnostics demonstrate a similar blindness to the great truth that the mechanism of the Universe demands a Mechanic to fashion it, and the equally great truth that neither the ancient idolaters nor our modern unbelievers can answer the all-important question: "How can I be saved"?[4]

Isaiah 49:5 speaks of the mission of the Servant to bring Jacob back to the Lord and to restore Israel; but in Isaiah 49:6, it is revealed that God considered such an achievement on the part of Messiah "too light a thing," that is a work not sufficiently great to be the full task of Messiah, and that his complete work would involve also his bringing light to the heathen nations of the Gentiles. "It would have been an insufficient reward for the `Ideal Servant' to have received only the conversion of Jews as a result of his labors; therefore, God gave him for his recompense the gathering in of the Gentles also, and made him the means of salvation even to the uttermost parts of the earth."[5]

Isaiah 49:6 reveals that Messiah's mission to the Jewish nation did not include the restoration of all of the rebellious nation, but "the restoring of the preserved of Israel, thus being a reference to the "righteous remnant" only.

The recognition on the part of the Apostles themselves appeared, not at first, but eventually, that there was "no distinction" between Jews and Gentiles, nor even between Jews and barbarians. The Great Commission was "to all creation," and "to every creature," and "all nations."

Verse 7

"Thus saith Jehovah, 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, and they shall worship; because of Jehovah that is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee. Thus saith Jehovah, In an acceptable time have I answered 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 raise up the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages; saying to them that are bound, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and on all bare heights shall be their pasture. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them will lead them; even by springs of water will he guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted. Lo, these shall come from far; and, Lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim."

The speaker in this passage is Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel; and it should be noted that God here speaks of that Ideal Servant, Messiah.

"Man despiseth ... the nation abhorreth ..." (Isaiah 49:7). Here is the prophecy that natural, secular Israel will despise and reject the Son of God when, at last he comes from heaven to redeem the world from sin.

"A servant of rulers ..." (Isaiah 49:7). "This means that the rulers of that day would look upon him with the same disdain with which they looked upon any servant whom thy considered to be far beneath themselves and unworthy of any particular interest on their part."[6]

All of that, however, would be erased in the glorious success God here promised to give his Ideal Servant Messiah. Kings and princes would honor and worship him; all obstacles to those who would serve him shall be removed.

"I will give thee for a covenant of the people ..." (Isaiah 49:8). "The paradox of Israel sent to redeem Israel is insoluble in Old Testament terms, since no prophet or king or priest was ever big enough for the title. It is part of the powerful thrust of the Old Testament toward the New Testament in which Jesus Christ stands forth as the sole worthy and rightful bearer of the name Israel."[7] Christ alone is the mediator of the new covenant; he only is the means by which men on earth may come unto God. He only is the "Way, the Truth and the Life; and no in an cometh unto the Father except by him" (John 14:6).

Isaiah 49:9 regards the release of captives and the enlightenment of those in darkness; but the interpretation of this is spiritual, as indicated in Jesus' own words in Luke 4:17-20, where it is clear that the captives are those bound in sin, and the ones "in darkness" are those who do not know the Lord.

"I will make all my mountains a way ..." (Isaiah 49:11). All of these verses in this part of the paragraph speak of the aid and support God will provide for Messiah and his Church.

Isaiah 49:12 reveals that the disciples of Messiah shall come from "afar," from the north, the west, and from the land of Sinim. This place name is not satisfactorily identified. Kidner believed it was "Aswan in Egypt on the Nile, where a Jewish colony existed from the 6th century B.C."[8] Others have supposed the name refers to China. It stands here as a symbolical name for all the distant places on earth that have heard and obeyed the gospel of Christ.

Verse 13

"Sing, O heaven; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for Jehovah hath comforted his people, and will have compassion upon his afflicted."

This little gem was called by Barnes, "A song of praise in view of the glorious results of the work of Messiah."[9] The appearance of this outburst of praise in the midst of a long list of prophecies is similar to the appearance of the proleptic songs interspersed throughout the prophecy of Revelation, thus exhibiting the same characteristic found in other authentic portions of God's Word.

Verse 14

"But Zion said, Jehovah hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, these may forget, yet will not I forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee on the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. Thy children make haste; thy destroyers and they that make thee waste shall go forth from thee, Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold; all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith Jehovah, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all as with an ornament, and gird thyself with them like a bride. For, as for thy waste and thy desolate places, and thy land that hath been destroyed, surely now shalt thou be too strait for the inhabitants, and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away. The children of thy bereavement shall yet say in thine ears, the place is too strait for me; give place to me that I may dwell. Then shalt thou say in thy heart, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have been bereaved of my children, and am solitary, an exile, and wandering to and fro? and who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where were they?"

"Jehovah hath forsaken me ..." (Isaiah 49:14). This verse expresses the extreme discouragement and depression that were doubtless felt by the exiles in Babylon; but the same feelings of frustration and sorrow were felt by the Son of God Himself, the True Israel of God, during his earthly ministry, a fact already mentioned in Isaiah 49:4, above, and suggested in Isaiah 42:4. One of the cries of Jesus Christ from the Cross, "My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me"? (Matthew 27:46) is proof of this.

"Can a woman forget her sucking child ..." (Isaiah 49:15)?. God here declared that such is possible; and every day's newspaper is the proof of it, as new-born infants are deserted in parking lots and filling stations; but Jehovah here declared that his devotion to his children was and shall forever be invariably dependable and constant. The saddest things on earth today must surely include the failure of mothers to love and preserve their own children. Shakespeare made one of his characters, Lady Macbeth, declare that, "I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his toothless gums, and dashed his brains out!"[10] There have also been instances of human cannibalism in which basic instincts were similarly contradicted, as in 2 Kings 6:18,29. Despite such rare exceptions, however, "The nearest thing on earth to God's unfailing love is the love of a mother for her children."[11] The essential message of these verses is simply that, "God's parental love surpasses that of any human mother."[12]

"I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands ..." (Isaiah 49:16). The custom of pagan worshippers of tatooing the name or symbol of their heathen god upon their bodies might have suggested this statement; but it was a far greater reality for God to engrave the names of his children upon the palms of his hands. The vast difference between the heathen ethnic religions, and the true religion appears in the fact that in pagan worship, it was the worshipper who was engraved; but here it is God who engraves himself! The so-called studies in "Comparative Religions" never seem to catch on to this point. In the pagan religions, it was always man who made the sacrifice; the fairest maiden was bound over to the dragon, and the boldest warrior went out to give his life for the people. A man, such as Prometheus, was bound to the rock forever in order to procure fire for the people; but in Christianity, God himself, in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, makes the supreme sacrifice and dies upon the Cross for the sins of the world.

Isaiah 49:17-18 depict the return of the children of Zion and also the return of "her destroyers," Babylon, Assyria, etc., as coming "unto thee," that is, returning to the true worship of the God of Israel. As Hailey declared, "If there was any fulfillment of this prophecy upon the return of the Jews from Babylon, it was only minimal; the full realization was under the messianic Servant."[13]

Isaiah 49:19-20, declare that the best days of Israel (the New Israel) are ahead of her, when her new family will overflow all bounds.

"The New Testament applies such promises not to `the present Jerusalem,' but to `the Jerusalem which is above,' (Galatians 4:25-27); see also Isaiah 54:1, to the universal church in heaven and on earth. The ruins of the city (the literal Jerusalem) were indeed rebuilt in the 6th and 5th centuries; but these prophecies transcend the modest scale of those events."[14]

The meaning of Isaiah 49:19 is simply that, "The growth of the Church would necessarily spread itself far beyond the limits of Palestine, and would ultimately require the whole earth for its habitation."[15] That this is indeed the meaning of the passage appears in the fact that there was no sudden rush of populations into Palestine after the return of the captives from Babylon.

Significantly, there appeared to be astonishment on the part of Israel at this great increase of "her children" following her bereavement; but the note of joyful appreciation for this great increase, which should have been Israel's reaction, is totally missing from the prophecy. Why? The answer is that Israel did not appreciate it; in fact they resented it and opposed it with every weapon of opposition that they could muster. They hounded the missionaries all over Europe, contrived the death of James, and would doubtless have destroyed the Church of God if it had been in their power to do so.

Verse 22

"Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and set up my ensign to the peoples; and they shall bring thy sons in their bosom, and thy daughters shall be carried on their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am Jehovah; and they that wait for me shall not be put to shame."

This paragraph is a prophecy of the great prosperity throughout history of the holy Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the New Israel of God, which replaced the Old Israel without any reservation whatever, and which is identified with the True Israel who is Christ, the head (in heaven) of the New Israel (his spiritual body). The kings and queens of the civilized world shall accept Christianity (See Revelation 21:14); and that promise about the peoples coming and bowing clown to Israel and licking the dust of their feet probably did nothing more for the Old Blind and Deaf Israel than to feed their arrogant egotism; but what the promise meant was that the bowing down to Israel referred exclusively not to Old Israel at all, but to the world as a whole worshipping the True Israel, Jesus Christ.

Verse 24

"Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive be delivered? But thus saith Jehovah, 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. 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, Jehovah, am thy Saviour, and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob."

Here is God's dogmatic promise to deliver Israel from Babylonian captivity. He will feed the captors with their own flesh, and make them drunk with their own blood. This language seems to be metaphorical with the meaning, "Not that the Babylonians would literally resort to cannibalism, but that they would destroy themselves through war and internal strife."[16]

It will be remembered that Cyrus' siege of Babylon went on for quite a long time before Babylon was captured; and Rawlinson explains how this prophecy was fulfilled during that interval:

"The prophecy meant that disunion would break the power of Babylon and render her an easy prey to the Persians. Recently discovered inscriptions clearly show that this was the case. Nabonidus had alienated the affection 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 (from the Cylinder of Nabonidus)."[17]

Despite the application of these last two verses to the breaking of Babylonian power and the delivery of the captives, there is a much more universal prophecy here of the ultimate victory of the New Israel, the Church of our Lord, over a more powerful enemy than Babylon, namely, Satan himself. As Clarke accurately stated:

"These last two verses contain a glorious promise of deliverance to the persecuted Church of Christ from the "terrible one," Satan, and all his representatives and vicegerents, and persecuting anti-Christian rulers. They shall at last cease from persecuting the Church of God, and destroy one another."[18]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 49". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.