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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 49

B. God’s atonement for Israel chs. 49-55

In the previous section (chs. 40-48), Isaiah revealed that God would redeem His servant Israel from Babylonian captivity by using one of His servants, Cyrus. Israel’s sin had resulted in her going into the furnace of Babylon for a period of refinement.

In this section, the prophet revealed that God would also deal with the more serious problem of sin in Israel that had resulted in her captivity. He would do this by using another Servant of His, the Messiah. This Servant would not only take care of Israel’s sin problem but that of the whole world. Thus Isaiah passed from dealing mainly with physical deliverance to dealing with spiritual salvation, and from Cyrus to Christ.

Verse 1

Using the same terminology with which the Lord had appealed to Israel to listen to Him (cf. Isaiah 41:1; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 46:12; Isaiah 48:1; Isaiah 48:12), someone called the world’s population to pay attention to what he had to say. He claimed a divine calling from his birth; God had commissioned him to announce what he would reveal (cf. Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31-33; Luke 1:41; Luke 2:21; Galatians 1:15). There was more to announce than just that Yahweh would redeem Israel from Babylonian captivity (cf. Isaiah 48:20). Who is the speaker? What follows, which this description of Him corroborates, is that the Servant Messiah is speaking, not Israel, [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 187.] or the believing remnant in Israel, or Cyrus, or Isaiah. Several of the Messiah predictions, including this one, refer to His mother (cf. Isaiah 7:14; Genesis 3:15; Psalms 22:10-11; Micah 5:2).

"When Assyria was coming to prominence Isaiah predicted the coming of the King, the virgin’s Son [Isaiah 7:14]. Now that the world power is exercising its might and will take God’s people captive, Isaiah announces the Servant of the Lord as the true Deliverer. Thus the two epochs point us to the Messiah, first to His Person and then to His work." [Note: Young, 3:268.]

Verses 1-7

The Servant’s calling 49:1-7

"The first [biographical Servant] Song was a word from the Lord to the world about his Servant: ’Your plight is known, my Servant will deal with it’ [Isaiah 42:1-4]; but the second [autobiographical] Song is the Servant’s testimony how that world-wide task devolved upon one who was already commissioned to minister to Israel." [Note: Motyer, p. 384.]

"If . . . the first song can be viewed as contemplating the ministry of Jesus the Servant in prospect from the perspective of his baptism, this second song seems to be looking back on that ministry from its close." [Note: Grogan, p. 285.]

Verses 1-12

1. Anticipation of salvation 49:1-52:12

This first segment focuses on the anticipation of salvation. Israel needed to believe the promises of God concerning the coming salvation. The possibility of a restored relationship between Israel and her God becomes increasingly clear as this section unfolds. Likewise, the cosmic dimension of this salvation becomes increasingly obvious. The section reaches its climax with the announcement that God has won victory and the people are free (Isaiah 52:7-12).

"These chapters present God’s Servant, Messiah, in three important relationships: to the Gentile nations (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 50:3), to His Father (Isaiah 50:4-11), and to His people Israel (Isaiah 51:1 to Isaiah 52:12)." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 54.]

Verses 1-13

Comfort through the Servant 49:1-13

Isaiah began this pericope by clarifying the calling and ministry of the Servant. He referred to this Servant earlier (Isaiah 42:1-9), but now he reiterated and reinforced what he had revealed in preparation for further revelation about this key figure. [Note: See F. Duane Lindsey, "The Commission of the Servant in Isaiah 49:1-13," Bibliotheca Sacra 139:554 (April-June 1982):129-45.]

Verse 2

Cyrus’ calling was to liberate Israel with the sword, but this speaker’s calling was to announce words from God, piercing, incisive words that would cut like a sword (cf. Isaiah 1:20; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 19:15).

"His is an office of the mouth, his task a declaration of the Truth; for he is a prophet par excellence, and his word is the Gospel . . ." [Note: Ibid.]

The Servant would be available for His Master’s use whenever needed. He would not be prominent at all times but would be protected and hidden until summoned into use. Both the sword and the arrow were offensive weapons, the former used at short range and the latter at longer range. Likewise this Servant’s words would be instruments that would defeat enemies. Jesus Christ was the embodiment of this word from God (cf. John 1:1-4; John 1:14-15).

Verse 3

Yahweh called His Servant Israel. Israel would indeed prove to be an instrument of God by which He demonstrated His glory, but in the context, the Servant appears to be an individual. Messiah was Israel, in that, He was the personal embodiment of ideal Israel, what the nation should have been but never attained. Furthermore, He was the Prince with God that neither the nation nor its namesake ever fully became. When God referred to His Servant as Israel He was referring to the Servant’s function, not His identity. Throughout this book we have seen that the nation Israel was not able to carry out her function of being a light to the nations because she was blind, deaf, and rebellious. God would provide an individual to do what the nation had failed to do.

"Faced with Israel’s failure, God does not wipe out the nation; he simply devises another way in which Israel’s servanthood could be worked out: through the ideal Israel." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 291.]

This description eliminates Isaiah or any other simply human prophet as the possible Servant in view (cf. Isaiah 49:5-6).

Verse 4

In spite of the Servant’s calling it would appear, even to Himself, that He was less than successful (cf. John 1:10-11). If the previous verse describes a more than human Servant, this one presents a fully human Servant. When Jesus Christ died it appeared that He had accomplished very little. Most people regarded His life as a waste. He even prayed on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).

"God does not approach the arrogance and oppression of the world with greater arrogance and greater oppression. Rather, he comes with the humility, the vulnerability, and the powerlessness of a child." [Note: Ibid.]

Nevertheless, the Servant’s work would please God, if not men. Man’s justice gave Messiah the Cross, but God’s justice gave Him the crown. The Servant would commit His work to God and would trust Him for a just reckoning.

This verse clarifies that feelings of futility and faith in God need not be mutually exclusive. The Servant trusted God for the final outcome of His ministry, though as He was carrying it out, it appeared to be ineffective. The Apostle Paul took the same view of his ministry (cf. Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

". . . despondency arises through listening to ourselves and our self-assessment etc., instead of looking to God, recalling his purposes, living according to our dignity in him and rediscovering in him our source of power." [Note: Motyer, p. 387.]

Verses 5-6

The Servant’s calling would be more than bringing Israel back to God in repentance and revival, a calling we have yet to see, since this was not Israel’s response to Jesus’ earthly ministry. It would include bringing the light of the knowledge of God and His salvation to people all over the world (cf. Isaiah 5:26). The preaching of the gospel accomplishes both of these goals only partially. They will be fully attained in the Millennium when all Jews and Gentiles will turn to the Lord (cf. Philippians 2:10-11).

Clearly the Servant cannot be Israel in the light of these verses, neither can the believing remnant within Israel. Neither group has saved or can save the world. No merely human Hebrew prophet, including Isaiah, could be the savior of the world either. Cyrus’ calling was to restore Israel to the land of Judah, but Messiah’s calling, from His very birth, was to restore Israel and the Gentiles to God. Indeed, it was to be salvation (cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:46-47). The Servant marveled at God’s grace in choosing Him for this calling and affirmed His dependence on God to accomplish such a great salvation (in the parenthetical statement in Isaiah 49:5).

Watts understood this servant to be Cyrus. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 187.] He interpreted "the nations" to be the other nations of Palestine. He believed the Book of Isaiah was written about the time of Ezra (ca. 435 B.C.). [Note: Idem, Isaiah 1-33, p. xxx.] Thus he believed the writer of Isaiah was looking back on history, not forward in prophecy.

Verse 7

Yahweh, Israel’s Redeemer and Holy One, assured the Servant-who the Israelites and the Gentiles, whom He came to save, would despise-that eventually even rulers would bow before Him. This would happen because Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, who had called Him, was faithful to fulfill what He had set out to accomplish through His Servant. Again, the success of a servant of the Lord, any servant of the Lord, is due to the Lord because He enables the servant to be successful (cf. Isaiah 48:15). Watts’ interpretation was as follows:

"This oracle accurately predicts the rapid, if violent, rise of Darius [I, Hystaspes] to power in Persia and claims credit for Yahweh who chose him for the office." [Note: Idem, Isaiah 34-66, p. 188]

This verse distinguishes two aspects of the Servant’s ministry: the first characterized by rejection and humiliation (cf. Isaiah 49:4; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12), and the second marked by acceptance and glorification. The first advent of Christ fulfilled the first aspect and His second advent will fulfill the second aspect. All that Israel had experienced-being despised, abhorred, and used-the Servant would experience (cf. Isaiah 49:25-26). And all that God intended Israel to be-admired, respected, and served-the Servant will become.

". . . to be the chosen of God does not mean glory along the way, but it does mean glory at the end of the way." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 295.]

Verse 8

In response to the Servant’s feelings of frustration (Isaiah 49:4), the Lord promised that at the appointed hour of salvation, He would support and enable His Servant (cf. Psalms 22:19-21). Watts interpreted this servant too as Darius. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 188.] He would make the Servant a covenant of the people, namely, He would make a new covenant with His people that the Servant would embody (cf. Isaiah 42:6; Jeremiah 31:31; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 37:26; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8-12). The Servant would fulfill God’s covenants with Israel.

"To speak of the Servant as the covenant means that while, as we know, it is through his work that covenant blessings become available, it is only in him, in the union of personal relationship, that these blessings can be enjoyed. Prophets preached the covenant and pointed away from themselves to the Lord; the Servant will actualize the blessings and point to himself." [Note: Motyer, p. 391.]

The Servant would restore the land, make the Israelites inherit desolate areas, and (Isaiah 49:9) free captives. The terms used in this verse recall the relief that came to the Israelites in their Jubilee Year (cf. Leviticus 25:8-22). The salvation in view will appear in the Millennium, which the Jubilee Year anticipated. Then too the Servant will represent Israel.

The Apostle Paul quoted this verse in 2 Corinthians 6:2. To him the present day was the day of salvation that Isaiah predicted. I take it that Paul meant that the day of salvation had begun because Christ had died on the cross, not that everything that will mark that day had arrived. Clearly God has not yet restored the land to Israel. The day of salvation will come to its glorious climax in the future Millennium.

Verses 8-13

The Servant’s ministry 49:8-13

Isaiah now announced more about the work of the Servant (cf. Isaiah 42:5-9). He will enable people around the world to return to God, similarly to how the Israelites would return to Jerusalem after the Exile. The response to God’s saving work will be universal joy (cf. Isaiah 42:10-13).

Verse 9

Part of the salvation to appear in that favorable time will involve the liberation of captives, physical and spiritual (cf. Isaiah 61:1-4). God’s sheep will enjoy feeding, even on the roads and formerly barren heights of their land (cf. Isaiah 17:2; Isaiah 40:10-11; Isaiah 41:18; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 63:11). This is a picture of abundant pasturage, and it represents millennial blessings.

Verse 10

The picture continues along the lines of the Good Shepherd providing for and protecting His flock, compassionately leading them and supplying all their needs (cf. Exodus 12:21; Exodus 17:6; Psalms 23; Revelation 7:16-17).

Verse 11

God will also make His mountainous barriers as flat as a road so His people can come to His habitation. He will also build His highways so they will be thoroughfares for His people (cf. Isaiah 11:16; Isaiah 19:23; Isaiah 36:8; Isaiah 40:3-4; Isaiah 42:16; Isaiah 62:10).

Verse 12

People will come from all over the world to worship God (in Jerusalem) at that time (cf. Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 43:6). What Isaiah described was more than just the return from exile in Babylon. Sinim may refer to Aswan in southern Egypt, which marked the southern border of the civilized world in Isaiah’s day. Some older commentators suggested that "Sinim" may be a reference to China. [Note: See Delitzsch, 2:267; Young, 3:294; and The New Scofield . . ., p. 755.]

Verse 13

Isaiah concluded by calling on the whole created universe to rejoice because the Lord had comforted His people (cf. Isaiah 40:1; Isaiah 47:6) and had shown compassion on His formerly afflicted nation (cf. Isaiah 42:10-13; Isaiah 44:23; Isaiah 45:8; Isaiah 52:8-9; Isaiah 55:12-13). This is rejoicing over deliverance from sin, not just exile. When the Servant completes His work of salvation, the whole creation, not just humankind, will experience liberation from the effects of the Fall (cf. Romans 8:19-22).

God’s remembrance of Zion 49:14-50:3

This pericope focuses on God’s salvation of the Israelites through the future ministry of the Servant. Isaiah used the figure of Zion being the wife of Yahweh to present the Lord’s relationship with His chosen people.

"The Lord assures them of His love by comparing Himself to a compassionate mother (Isaiah 49:14-23), a courageous warrior (Isaiah 49:24-26), and a constant lover (Isaiah 50:1-3)." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 55.]

Verse 14

Having heard the promises that precede, promises that God will bring the whole world to Himself, Israel, personified as Zion, complained that the Lord had forgotten about her. What about the special relationship that He had promised she would always have with Him? That appeared to be over. Isaiah often used Zion when he spoke of Jerusalem or the Israelites in the future, as here.

"The sense of anticlimax at Isaiah 49:14 could hardly be stronger. Reminiscent of the ’Why do you say, O Jacob?’ of Isaiah 40:27 after the assurances of Isaiah 40:1-26, the complaining voice of Zion contrasts sharply with the world song over the work of the Servant [Isaiah 49:13]." [Note: Motyer, p. 392.]

Verses 14-26

Zion’s prominence before God 49:14-26

God had not forgotten Israel. Even though He would leave her for a time, He would re-gather all her children from all over the world to Himself. Therefore she should continue to trust in Him.

Verse 15

God’s response to His "wife’s" complaint was to assure her of His unfailing commitment to her. Human mothers may possibly neglect the children they cared so much for that they nursed, though this is unnatural. They may even stop showing compassion to the children they carried in their wombs for nine months, though this is inconsistent. Yet Yahweh would never, ever forget (abandon) His chosen people (cf. Psalms 27:10).

"This is one of the strongest, if not the strongest expression of God’s love in the Old Testament, and is often compared with Jeremiah 31:20." [Note: Young, 3:285.]

Verse 16

Some servants inscribed the names of their masters on their hands in Isaiah’s day, but masters did not write the names of their servants on their hands. Yet Yahweh had written (lit. engraved, cf. Ezekiel 4:1) the name of Zion on His palms so that He would not forget her, but be reminded of her frequently. The profile (skyline) of the city was constantly in His thoughts.

Verse 17

Isaiah saw the builders of Jerusalem’s breached walls hurrying to rebuild them after their destroyers had departed. In other words, Jerusalem would not be in a vulnerable condition for very long, relatively speaking. The builders were the sons that Zion thought had been denied her. The Hebrew word translated "builders," bonayik, is almost identical to the word translated "sons," banayik, and may have been deliberately ambiguous to communicate both ideas. Originally only the consonants, which are identical, appeared in the text.

Verse 18

Zion was to look around her. Her builder-sons would gather around her. They would be to her as jewels are to a bride, her prized glory and adornment. The Lord swore on His life that this would be so. Only a relatively few Israelites responded to Cyrus’ edict and returned to rebuild Jerusalem. The majority decided to stay in Babylon. Thus this prediction must be looking into the future.

Verse 19

Jerusalem’s waste and desolate places would one day be full of people. Her destroyers would be gone and in their place would be so many inhabitants that the land would overflow with people.

"The city’s growth is cited as an unmistakable sign of Yahweh’s grace." [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 189.]

Verse 20

The Israelites who had once been far away would return, but would complain about the difficulty of finding room to live, because so many other Israelites would have returned.

Verse 21

Zion would then say to herself: "Where in the world did all these children of mine come from? I thought all my children were dead and gone and that I was an old, forsaken widow. But now my children surround me." Her many children will not simply be the product of her own fertility, but a supernatural gift from God (cf. Genesis 18:12-14; Ruth 4:13-17).

Verses 22-23

Sovereign Yahweh further promised that the Gentiles would be responsible for ushering many of the Israelites back into their land. Even Gentile kings and princesses would carry Hebrew children back to their ancestors’ homeland. An amillennial interpretation follows:

"We are not to look for a literal fulfillment of this promise. It rather refers to a conversion of the Gentiles, who as converted bring to Zion [heaven, in his view] the converted sons of Israel." [Note: Young, 3:290.]

God would raise His hand and an ensign (banner, signal), Messiah, to summon the nations to do this (cf. Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 11:12; Isaiah 13:2; Isaiah 30:17; Isaiah 62:10). They would show an uncharacteristic concern for the welfare of the Israelites and would even bow down before them in submission. Young interpreted this as follows:

"Even the highest and most powerful rulers of the heathen nations will reverence the Church [the new Israel, in his view] and devote to her all their wealth and power." [Note: Ibid., 3:291.]

Previously the Israelites had to bow before the Gentiles. The "times of the Gentiles," the times of Gentile supremacy over Israel in the world, will have ended (cf. Zechariah 12:2; Zechariah 14:2-3; Luke 21:24; Revelation 11:2; Revelation 19:17-19). The times of Gentile supremacy in the world began when Nebuchadnezzar removed Israel’s sovereignty, in 586 B.C., and will conclude when Jesus Christ returns at His second advent and restores Israel’s sovereignty, in the Millennium. This will prove that Yahweh is the true God since He predicted this reversal of Israel’s fortunes and will bring it to pass. Those who believe His promises will not be embarrassed or disappointed, because He will fulfill them.

"All the nations are flowing to Jerusalem to bow at her feet, yes, to beg mercy for the wrongs done, and yes, to bring back with apology those who had been dragged away, but also to try to learn something of this amazing God who has been able to lift his people from barren widowhood to being the laughing grandmother of nations." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 310.]

The prophet now turned from emphasizing the children who will return, to the oppressors who will be destroyed.

Verse 24

Isaiah addressed an objection that some in his audience evidently entertained. Is it possible that Yahweh could really overturn the power of the mighty nations that scattered the Israelites and kept them from their land? Of course! God had already rescued Israel from one mighty man at the Exodus. Typically, mighty men and tyrants tenaciously cling to their prey and captives.

The Masoretic Text presents the tyrants as righteous. If accurate, the meaning would be: "Can a captor who has every right to his captives be deprived of them?" The answer (Isaiah 49:25) would be: "The Lord will do what is right to redeem His people as well as exercise His power to do so."

Verse 25

Yahweh replied that He would indeed save the Israelites’ descendants from their tyrannical captors even though that would be humanly impossible. He is stronger than they.

Verse 26

The Lord would cause these Gentile oppressors to consume one another, "reduced to their last extremity." [Note: Michael Dahood, "Textual Problems in Isaiah," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960):404-5.] This will happen when the nations fight one another at Armageddon. Jesus Christ will return from heaven, the assembled armies will turn on Him, and He will defeat them with a word from His mouth. This will open the way for Israel to return to her land as the honored of the earth in the Millennium (cf. Daniel 11:40-45; Revelation 16:14; Revelation 19:19-21). These events will demonstrate to everyone that Yahweh is Israel’s Savior, Redeemer, and the Mighty God of Jacob.

Are these descriptions just impressionistic pictures of Gentiles coming to Christ for salvation, or should we look for a more literal fulfillment of these promises? Amillennialists say they are figurative descriptions of Gentiles coming to salvation through Christ. Premillennialists say they describe a literal return of Israelites to their land with an accompanying exaltation of the physical descendants of Jacob in the earth. One of the cardinal rules of hermeneutics is that if the interpreter can understand something literally it should be taken that way unless other indications in the text or context point to a non-literal interpretation. Amillennialists concede that it is possible to take these prophecies literally, and that if one does, he or she will come out a premillennialist. But they say that a literal fulfillment was not intended, and that these predictions are being fulfilled spiritually through the church. Premillennialists view this chapter, and most of chapters 50-57, as revealing Messiah’s restoration of Israel to her land at the beginning of the Millennium.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 49". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.