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(1) Listen, O isles . . .—The argument against idolatry has been brought to its close, and a new section opens, and with it there is a new speaker, the mysterious “Servant of the Lord,” (Isaiah 42:1), at once identified with Israel (Isaiah 49:3), in fulfilling its ideal, and yet distinguished from it, as its Restorer and Redeemer. “Isles” as before stand vaguely for “far off countries.” The invitation is addressed to the heathen far and wide.
The Lord hath called me from the womb.—The words indicate a predestined vocation. (Comp. Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15; Luke 1:41; Galatians 1:15.) Admitting the thought of a Divine order working in human history, the idea of such a vocation follows in inevitable sequence.
(2) He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword.—The words indicate at once the spiritual nature of the “Servant’s” victories. It is his speech that wounds and heals, his words that go like winged arrows to their mark. The description finds an echo in Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 19:15; Ephesians 6:17. The “shaft” is “polished,” as piercing without impediment. It is “hid in the quiver,” reserved, in the drama of the world’s history, and in each crisis of the Servant’s life, till the “hour was come,” the appointed “fulness of time” (John 2:4; John 7:6; Galatians 4:4).
(3) Thou art my servant, O Israel.—Not that the “Servant” is merely the nation, but that he fulfils its ideal. “Israel” had begun with being an individual name. It should be so once more in the person of Him who would be truly “a prince with God.”
In whom I will be glorified.—Better, in whom I will glorify myself. The words find a conscious echo in John 13:31-32; John 17:1-5.
(4) Then I said.—The accents of disappointment sound strangely on coming from the lips of the true Servant; but the prophet had learnt by his own experience that this formed part of the discipline of every true servant of God, in proportion to the thoroughness of his service, and therefore it was not strange to him that the ideal Servant should also taste that bitterness. We find in the prophet of Anathoth a partial illustration of the law (Jeremiah 20:14). We find its highest fulfilment in the cries of Gethsemane and Golgotha, The sense of failure is surmounted only, as here, by looking to another judgment than man’s, and another reward (better than “work”). (Comp. 1 Corinthians 4:3.)
(5) Though Israel be not gathered.—Better, and that Israel be gathered to Him. The negative, as in Isaiah 9:3, comes from an error of transcription; for “yet” read and. The Servant falls back upon the greatness of the work committed to him, that of restoring Israel, and is certain that sooner or later it will be accomplished. Comp. the argument of Romans 9-11
(6) And he said.—The words are repeated from “saith the Lord” of the preceding verse, where they had been followed by a long parenthesis. The Servant becomes conscious of a higher mission. All national barriers are broken down. He is to be the bearer of a message of peace to the whole race of mankind, and has “other sheep not of this fold” (John 10:16).
(7) To him whom man despiseth.—Literally, to one despised of soul, where “soul” may either stand for “men” as in the Authorised version, or imply that the contempt enters into the soul of the sufferer. (Comp. Psalms 105:18.) The point of the words lies in the fact that the doer of the great work is to be despised by the world’s judgment or by his own people, by proud rulers (comp. 1 Corinthians 1:27); and yet he, and no other, will accomplish it.
(8) In an acceptable time.—Literally, in the season of good pleasure. The message is borne in on the soul of the servant as the secret of confidence and strength. It will be his work to be the link in a new covenant with the people, an idea afterwards developed by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31), and reaching its fulfilment in Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20.
To cause to inherit the desolate heritages.—The prophet may have thought of a literal fulfilment such as was probably in part accomplished by Zerubbabel. We, seeing the prediction in the light of its fulfilment, look to the spiritual inheritance.
(9) That thou mayest say to the prisoners . . .—Comp. Isaiah 42:6-7. Here, perhaps, the thought of the deliverance of Israel is more exclusively prominent; but the words have obviously a yet wider and higher application.
(10) Neither shall the heat . . .—The word is the same as the “parched ground” of Isaiah 35:7, and stands, as there, for the mirage of the scorching desert.
(11) My mountains . . . my highways . . .—The pronoun asserts the universal lordship of Jehovah. The whole earth is His.
(12) From the west.—Literally, from the sea, which commonly has this meaning. In Psalms 107:3, however, it clearly stands for the south, and is probably used in that sense here. In this case “from far” stands for the south, probably for the distant Ethiopia, where Jewish exiles had already found their way (Zephaniah 3:10).
From the land of Sinim.—The region thus named is clearly the ultima Thule of the prophet’s horizon, and this excludes the “Sinites” of Canaan (Genesis 10:17), and the Sin (Pelusium) of Egypt. Modern scholars are almost unanimous in making it refer to the Chinese. Phœnician or Babylonian commerce may have made that people known, at least by name, to the prophet. Recent Chinese researches have brought to light traditions that in B.C. 2353 (and again in B.C. 1110) a people came from a strange western land, bringing with them a tortoise, on the shell of which was a history of the world, in strange characters “like tadpoles.” It is inferred that this was a cuneiform inscription, and the theory has been recently maintained that this was the origin of the present Chinese mode of writing. (See Cheyne’s “Excursus,” 2 p. 20, and an elaborate article on “China and Assyria” in the Quarterly Review for October, 1882.) Porcelain with Chinese characters has been found, it may be added, in the ruins of the Egyptian Thebes (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, 1st ser., iii. 106-109). All recent discoveries tend to the conclusion that the commerce of the great ancient monarchies was wider than scholars of the sixteenth century imagined. The actual immigration of Jews into China is believed to have taken place about B.C. 200 (Delitzsch in loc).
(13) Sing, O heavens.—As in Isaiah 44:23, all nature is invited to join in the chorus of praise for the deliverance of Israel.
(14) But Zion said . . .—In the midst of all that Jehovah was doing for his people they were still showing their little faith, and thinking of themselves as forsaken. They shared the misgivings which were felt even by the Servant, but they did not rise out of them as quickly as He did into the full assurance of faith.
(15) Can a woman forget . . .?—The love of Jehovah for His chosen ones is more than that of a father, more tender and unchangeable even than the maternal love which exists often in the most depraved. Even that may perish, but not so His pitying affection.
(16) Behold, I have graven thee . . .—The words point to the almost universal practice of tattooing. A man thus “engraved” the name of his god, or the outlines of his home, or the face of her he loved, upon his hands or arms. So, by a boldly anthropomorphic figure, Jehovah had “graven” Jerusalem on His hands. He could not open them, i.e., could not act, without being reminded of her. The “walls” may be either those of the earthly city lying in ruins, or those of the heavenly Jerusalem.
(17) Thy children shall make haste.—A various reading adopted by the LXX., Targum, and Vulg., gives thy builders. They rush to their work of restoration; the destroyers and ravagers go forth.
(18) Lift up thine eyes.—The daughter of Zion is called on to gaze on the returning exiles. They shall be her gems and her girdle as the bride of her new espousals. A distant parallel is found in the story of the mother of the Gracchi pointing to her children as more precious jewels than those of her wealthy rival.
(19) Shall even now be too narrow.—Literally, with a vivid abruptness, thou shalt be . . . The over population of the future is contrasted with the depopulation of the past (Isaiah 3:6; Isaiah 4:1).
(20) The children which thou shalt have . . .—Better, the children of thy bereavement (i.e., born when Zion thought herself bereaved) shall yet say . . .
(21) Who hath begotten me these . . .?—Better, who hath borne . . .? The widowed daughter of Zion cannot believe that these crowding children are her own, and asks, Who then is their mother? She, the widowed one, the prisoner, dragged hither and thither, could not claim them.
(22) The Gentiles . . . the people . . .—Both words are used of the heathen. They are summoned by the uplifted signal of Jehovah to do their work as nursing fathers, carrying the children in their bosom (Numbers 11:12).
(23) Kings shall be thy nursing fathers . . .—As a rule kings gave their children to be brought up by their nobles (2 Kings 10:5). Zion should have kings themselves and their queens to rear her children. They shall bow down to her, the true Israel, the true Ecclesia, as the dwelling-place of Jehovah.
(24) Shall the prey be taken . . .?—The question is asked by Zion in her little faith. The next phrase, “lawful captive,” literally “captive of righteousness,” may mean, (1) as in the Authorised version a captive whom the conqueror had a right to take, or (2) one who was righteous and yet had been given into captivity. Neither meaning is quite satisfactory. A conjectural emendation gives the captives of the terrible one, which fits in with the parallelism of the next verse.
(25) I will contend . . .—The pronoun is specially emphatic. The question of Isaiah 49:24 is answered in the affirmative, because Jehovah is the deliverer.
(26) I will feed them that oppress thee . . .—The words are, of course, symbolical of the utter collapse, the self-destructive struggles of the enemies of Zion, i.e., of the company, or Ecclesia, of the redeemed.
The mighty One of Jacob.—Same word, and that a rare one, as in Isaiah 1:24.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 49". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12