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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
Isaiah 49

 

 

Verses 1-26

Isaiah 49:1. Listen, oh isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people from far. The Hebrews reckoned among the isles, not only those of Greece, but the gentile nations generally, who are represented as waiting for the Messiah’s law, that they may submit themselves to him: Isaiah 42:4. Some however have supposed that the British isles are more especially intended, as “the people from far,” who are here invited to hearken to the Redeemer’s voice; and that our highly-favoured country was destined to become, in an eminent degree, the seat of his holy empire. In this view the prediction is invested with peculiar interest, and claims our special regard and admiration.

The Lord hath called me from the womb. A similar expression is used of Jeremiah the prophet, chap. 1:5; and also of Paul the apostle, Galatians 1:15. It denotes their having been set apart for their work by the special appointment of heaven, and alludes to the setting apart of all the firstborn of Israel by way of preëminence. The sons of Aaron were likewise set apart from their birth to the priestly office. The expression in reference to Christ evidently denotes his being, in a peculiar and extraordinary manner, set apart and devoted to the great work of making known the will of the Father. He is the great prophet whom the Lord had promised to raise up, to teach and to bless his people.

Isaiah 49:2. He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword, which according to the figure in the next words, is hidden under the shadow of a man’s left arm. This must apply to the Messiah. His preaching and his doctrine are represented by an apostle as quick and powerful, sharper than any two- edged sword: Hebrews 4:12. In another place it is said that out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations. Revelation 19:15. The sword is a weapon of war and of death; the word of Christ is also of a piercing and penetrating nature, by which he subdues his enemies, and the people are made to fall under him. Psalms 45:4-5. Oh what an effect his all-subduing doctrine had upon the hardened Jews under Peter’s sermon, when three thousand of them were at once pricked to the heart, and cried out what must we do to be saved! The gospel when brought home to the heart, furnishes matter for bitter reflection, and is like a sword in the bowels. The love also that is mixed with Christ’s word gives it a keener edge, and makes it cut the deeper. They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. Zechariah 12:10.

He hath made me a polished shaft. In the former sentence the Messiah speaks of his doctrine and ministry as a sharp sword. Here he speaks of himself as a polished shaft, or a bright arrow, the great weapon in God’s hand, by which he has smitten and wounded the cause of the grand adversary, and destroyed the empire of sin. This is effected not only by the word of Christ’s mouth, but by his mediatorial work, and his sufferings on the cross, when he spoiled principalities and powers, and triumphed over them. Then it was he wounded the head of the dragon in the wilderness, and destroyed him that had the power of death, that is the devil.

In the shadow of his hand—in his quiver hath he hid me. The hand is the proper place for the sword, and the quiver for the arrow, and these are said to have been hidden. Before the rebellion broke out in this sinful and apostate world, God had a weapon in reserve, by which he would crush the revolt in due time. Intimations had been given, ever since the fall of man, though comparatively obscure, that God had provided himself with a weapon to drive out the enemy, as Israel did the Canaanites; and at the time that Christ came the sword was drawn, and the war began. He suffered the enemy however to proceed to the greatest height before he encountered him, and he still exercises great longsuffering towards wicked men, who if they repent not will find the impending stroke the heavier when it comes.

Isaiah 49:3. Thou art my servant. Ministers, private christians, all things are God’s servants; but there is an essential difference between Christ’s being a servant, and creatures being so. His was voluntary, but this cannot be said of any created being in heaven or earth; the motto upon all besides is, ‘I serve.’ But He who was in the form of God, took on him the form of a servant; and because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same. No mere man could do this, being by necessity what he is; and no created intelligence, however highly exalted in the scale of being, could voluntarily take on him the form of a servant, seeing he never had any other form, nor ever could have in any imaginary state of existence. Christ was therefore exclusively and in a preëminent sense, the Lord’s servant; that in the economy of redemption he might act in subordination to the will of the Father, and exhibit in the midst of an apostate world an example of the most entire and perfect obedience.

Isaiah 49:4. I have laboured in vain. A complaint like this is often made by Christ’s servants, and no wonder; but it is not a little remarkable that it should be made by Christ himself, seeing that his mouth was like a sharp sword, and never man spake like him. Yet Isaiah foresaw that only a remnant of the Jewish nation would embrace his doctrine, and by the greater part he would be rejected and despised. He was no loiterer in the vineyard, and sought not his own ease; he laboured hard, and more fervently than any of his servants. He went everywhere preaching the word, and stretching forth his hands all the day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people. Human depravity is of itself sufficient to defeat the most benevolent intentions, and the most ardent exertions, for the recovery of man from his apostasy; and he who attempts it will find that he has to contend, not with flesh and blood only, but with principalities and powers, with spiritual wickednesses in high places, and with all the prejudices and enmity of the carnal heart, so that the weapons of his warfare can only become mighty through God. Feeling an unfeigned love to the souls of men, our Lord was grieved for the hardness of their heart; feeling also for the dishonour cast on God’s holy name, in the violation of his righteous law, and the subsequent rejection of the overtures of mercy, he utters the pathetic lamentation, I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought.

Isaiah 49:5. Yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength. The great errand of the blessed Saviour was to gather Israel into his fold, and to bring Jacob back again to God; to restore sinners to his favour which they had forfeited, and bring them to a state of allegiance to the moral governor of the world. Yet the greater part of the tribes of Jacob did not return, nor was Israel gathered by his ministry, though unto Shiloh should the gathering of the people be. Many however did believe on him in the days of his flesh, many more believed after his death and resurrection, and more still shall believe in the latter day; and so, eventually, all Israel shall be saved. Meanwhile the Redeemer comforted himself with the assurance of the divine approbation, and found in that an ample recompense for all his labour, and for all the ignominy which he had endured. I shall be glorious, says he, in the eyes of the Lord, however lightly esteemed in the sight of men. The love which accompanied his obedience, as the Lord’s servant, and the great love he bore to men, rendered him highly acceptable in the sight of God, whether Israel were gathered or not. In the great work of mediation he was governed by a supreme regard to the divine glory; he loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; he abated not the claims of the divine law, but fulfilled all righteousness; and in making intercession for transgressors, he attempted not to palliate the enormity of their guilt. In the work of preaching the gospel he was faithful to the souls of men, and faithful to him that appointed him, even as Moses was faithful in all his house. God therefore became his strength; he did not fail, nor was he discouraged; he set judgment in the earth, and the isles are still waiting for his law.

Isaiah 49:6. It is a light thing that thou shouldest raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the preserved of Israel. This is mentioned as a reason for the extensive promise given, in reference to the salvation of the heathen world. The redemption of one soul is matter of unspeakable importance, much more the conversion of innumerable multitudes from among the Jewish nation: yet all this in God’s sight is but “a light thing.” Light in comparison of the infinite dignity of the Saviour, of the unutterable importance of his mediation, and the reward he was to receive for his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. If God is to be manifest in the flesh, to become incarnate, and dwell amongst us, it is becoming the majesty of his character that he should have an unlimited sphere of action, and the opportunity of filling the whole earth with his glory. It was not a light thing for him to take upon him our nature, to obey and suffer in our stead, to be crucified and slain: and what therefore can be an adequate recompense for such humiliation, for such obedience, and such a sacrifice offered in our stead. But on any other hypothesis than that of Christ’s being really and truly the Son of God, possessing essentially all the attributes of supreme divinity, there is neither truth nor consistency in the prophet’s statement.

I will also give thee for a light to the gentiles. This implies the dreadful darkness in which the nations were involved, dwelling in the land of the shadow of death, as in Isaiah 9:2. They were conversant it is true, with many of the arts and sciences, and had acquired much learning; but with all their wisdom they knew not God. Living without hope of future blessedness, and without God in the world, they knew not the way to heaven and glory, nor of deliverance from the wrath to come. Sinful man is by nature in a lost condition, like the benighted traveller who has missed his way, or the lost sheep that has wandered from the fold; but Christ is given for a light to the gentiles, to chase away the darkness of error, sin and superstition, which had long brooded over them, and to shed abroad the light of life by his gospel among all nations. This blessed promise is in course of fulfilment: the sun of righteousness has arisen upon a benighted world, and the light is diffusing itself abroad in all directions.

Isaiah 49:7. To him whom man despiseth, whom the nation abhorreth. The prophet affectingly describes the different degrees of that contempt which the Lord Messiah should meet with in this sinful world. He is not only despised, but despised of men; not only abhorred, but abhorred of his own nation, and ignominiously made a servant of rulers. It greatly aggravated Job’s affliction that he became the song of fools, and was scorned by such menials as he would scarcely have set with the dogs of his flock. David also complained of being made the song of the drunkard, and earnestly deprecated the reproach of the foolish. What then must it have been for the unveiled brightness of the Father’s glory, for immaculate purity and innocence itself, to be made the subject of public obloquy; for him whom all the angels are commanded to adore, to be treated with scorn and contempt in a world which he had himself created, and by sinful beings whose salvation he came to seek. Yet he was abhorred as the vilest of men; he was charged with blasphemy, was condemned as a malefactor, as one unfit to live, a nuisance in society, while the infuriated multitude cried out, away with him, away with him, crucify him, crucify him. Oh what unparalleled abasement—what love that passeth knowledge! But for all this the blessed Saviour shall be crowned with glory and honour, shall have a name that is above every name, and to him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.

Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship. Kings shall rise from their seats, in token of respect and homage, as was the ancient custom on the appearance of some superior personage. Lot rose up from his seat when the angels presented themselves at the gate of Sodom, and bowed himself with his face to the ground. Abraham did the same, when they approached his tent in the plains of Mamre. In like manner shall the exalted Saviour be reverenced and adored: “yea, all kings shall fall down before him, all nations shall serve him.” Princes also shall worship: persons of the highest rank, as well as in the lower stations of society, shall esteem it their highest honour to give him the glory due unto his name. Already the kings of the earth are admonished to serve the Lord Messiah with fear, and to rejoice with trembling; to pay their homage to the Son, lest he be angry, and they perish from the way. Psalms 2:11-12.

Isaiah 49:8. I will give thee for a covenant of the people. In the great work which the Messiah was to undertake, he looked for succour from above, and was heard in an acceptable time. Assistance should be afforded him: “in the day of salvation have I helped thee.” And though not spared from sufferings, he should not be overwhelmed by them: “I will preserve thee.” His sufferings should also be followed with the most blessed effects: I will give thee for a covenant of the people. He was originally given of the Father as a Saviour, to become a sin-offering, to die the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; and having borne our sins in his own body on the tree, the original grant is now renewed and enlarged, as the reward of all his sufferings. Covenants are at all times the sign of peace and friendship; and by Christ’s being given for a covenant of the people, it is intimated that he should be the centre of union between God and man, so that sinners of every description should look to him as the way of peace and reconciliation; and in doing so they shall, for his sake, find acceptance and eternal life. His being given “for a covenant” seems also to imply, that Christ should be the sum and substance of all the blessings promised to his people. He is the head of the covenant, in contradistinction to the first Adam, the federal head of all his posterity. He is also the Mediator, in contradistinction to Moses, who was the mediator of the legal covenant. Considered as the testator of the new covenant, the shedding of the blood of Christ would be its confirmation, and give it force, as to the actual bestowment of all its blessings.

Isaiah 49:9. That thou mayest say to the prisoners, go forth; to them that are in darkness, show yourselves. This is an allusion to the year of jubilee, which was proclaimed throughout the land of Israel, when all that were in bondage were set at liberty. On the coming of Christ, a similar enlargement, but of a much higher character, should take place. The year of my redeemed is come, said the blessed Saviour; the day of vengeance is in my heart, to comfort all that mourn. The coming of Christ and his kingdom is the grand jubilee of the world. Sinners of every description, both Jews and gentiles, are all under sin, enslaved by their passions and abominable idolatries, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and are under the dominion of the god of this world. Nor is this all; sinners are likewise in bondage under the curse and condemnation of the law, and so are prisoners to divine justice. Having sinned against God, they are under an arrest of judgment, and are bound over to an appearance at the great day. While in a state of impenitence and unbelief, they enjoy nothing more than a reprieve; sentence is deferred, but not remitted, it still remains in full force. It is the prerogative of Christ to say to these prisoners, go forth, and show yourselves. As it respects the claims of divine justice he sets the prisoners free, not by denying but completely satisfying those claims, by paying down the ransom price, that the captive may be set at liberty. But in reference to the bondage of sin and Satan, a very different process is adopted. The detention here, though voluntary on the part of the enslaved, is unlawful and unjust. Christ therefore enters into no parley; he breaks down the prison walls, and sends forth the immured into open day. He calls his servants to preach the gospel, which is mighty through God, to pull down the strongholds, to cast down imaginations, that the prey of the terrible one may be delivered. The language here is highly encouraging; it says in effect to the weeping prisoners, do not be afraid, the debt is all discharged, the ransom price is paid. Do not be ashamed; go forth and show yourselves as my disciples. If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.

They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. Cyrus was the Lord’s shepherd, he was to collect the scattered flock of Israel, and send them back to their own land. Here it is promised they should be provided for on their return, that even the tops of the barren mountains, over which they had to pass, should yield them sufficient sustenance. Under this beautiful figure is shadowed forth the care of the great Shepherd, who when he had laid down his life for the sheep, would not leave them to perish in the wilderness, but would plentifully provide for all their wants. It is also implied, that when souls are released from the dominion of sin, and the curse of the law, they begin to relish the green pastures of the gospel, and long for the living stream. They now feed on the promises, drink of the water of life freely, and find spiritual food and nourishment, where before they had no delight.

Isaiah 49:10. They shall not hunger nor thirst. This is still the language of a shepherd concerning his flock, and may more immediately refer to the return of the Jews from captivity. When the Lord brought them out of Egypt, he led them like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron: now he would lead them in like manner, in their way from Babylon. The elements shall favour them on their passage, the sun and the wind shall be attempered to the shorn lamb. All this however is highly illustrative of the tender care of the great Shepherd, in conducting to his kingdom and glory the flock committed to his care; and though some of them may at times know what it is to hunger and thirst, and to be stricken through for want of the fruits of the field, yet he has promised to supply all their need, and what is more, has even covenanted to give meat to them that fear him. Psalms 111:5. Their spiritual wants especially shall be well supplied; and blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Men of the world are thirsting after what they never will obtain, seeking happiness where it cannot be found; but those who believe in Jesus and follow him, shall be abundantly satisfied. He that cometh to me, says the Saviour, shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

Neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them. Not only shall their wants be well supplied, they shall also be protected from the dangers of the way. In these milder regions we scarcely know the value of such a promise, but in other latitudes where the traveller is exposed to the vertical sun, persons are often smitten, or die of excessive heat. An instance of this kind is recorded in the history of Jonah, who, impatient of his gourd, wished rather to die, than be long exposed to the solar heat. Allusions to the insalubrity of hotter climates are not unfrequent in sacred history, and have given occasion for various promises, ensuring protection and relief. Isaiah 4:5-6; Isaiah 32:2. Our Lord has noticed the excessive heat of the sun in Judea, its scorching and withering effects on vegetation, as figurative of the fiery trials and persecutions to which his more immediate followers would be exposed. Matthew 13:6. Believers are not to expect an exemption from fiery trials, though protected from persecution by the benignant laws of the country, but they shall not be so smitten by them as to be overcome. The Lord is thy keeper, the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. Psalms 121:5.

Isaiah 49:11. I will make all my mountains a way. When the Lord redeemed Israel out of Egypt, he made a path for them through the mighty waters, and a way in the wilderness; and when he brought them out of Babylon, the mountains and the vallies should become a plain, to expedite their safe return. Difficulties which appeared insurmountable vanished at once; and as in the former instance, he led them by a right way to a city of habitation. Insuperable difficulties present themselves in the way of a sinner’s salvation. God’s righteous law pronounces him accursed, and demands his punishment; the sinner owes ten thousand talents, and has nothing to pay. Inflexible justice declares, the soul that sinneth shall die; the sentence was passed as soon as man had sinned. God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent. Supposing the supreme Being to bear infinite goodwill to his sinful and apostate creatures, yet he cannot consistently, as the moral governor of the world, exercise mercy at the expense of righteousness. To connive at sin, or not manifest his displeasure against it, would be to impeach his own law as neither just nor good, and his own veracity in not executing the threatened punishment. There is therefore no way of return to God on the footing of justice, nor even on the ground of mercy, without the interposition of a Mediator. But by the death of Christ the punishment due to sin has been fully endured, its exceeding sinfulness has been demonstrated in a more awful and affecting manner than it could have been by the eternal destruction of the human race. All the ends of divine government are fully answered, and all the divine perfections are harmonised and glorified in the great scheme of man’s redemption. Now therefore the way is opened for the honourable exercise of mercy; the sinner is pardoned, justice is satisfied, and sin condemned to everlasting infamy. Romans 8:4. All the difficulties are now removed, and the way to God is made plain; even the mountains become a way, and the highways are exalted.

Isaiah 49:12. These shall come from far—and these from the land of Sinim. A way having been cast up, it is here promised that it shall be occupied. The Jews shall be collected from their various dispersions; and the parts from whence they should come appear to mean the four quarters of the earth, as in Matthew 8:11. This prediction has been partially fulfilled, but the greater part is still to come, when they shall be brought in with the fulness of the gentiles. The passage is besides indicative of the nature of true conversion, whether of Jews or gentiles, showing that its tendency is to bring sinners to a oneness of heart with Christ and his people. He is the great centre of attraction, to which all hearts are drawn; and their language is like that of old, Tell me, oh thou whom my soul loveth, where thou causest thy flock to rest at noon. Under the former dispensation Jerusalem was the centre of union; and when any were proselyted from among the gentiles, they immediately resorted thither. Now Christ and his people become the centre of union; and those who come to the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, come also to mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Isaiah 49:14. But Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me. While the heavens and the earth are called upon to rejoice, because the Lord had comforted his people with the promise of a final and glorious restitution, and the accession of converted gentiles to the church, Zion is sinking into unbelief, and fearing she should be utterly forsaken. She is sighing and mourning, because the coming of the Messiah was so long delayed. The Lord therefore assures her, to the end of this chapter, of his faithfulness and lovingkindness, and that his attachment was even stronger than that of a mother towards her sucking child. He would multiply her children, and encrease her blessings, and would never forget his Zion. I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands, thy walls are continually before me. The same assurance is repeated in chap. 54:10. These promises were only partially fulfilled on the return from Babylon, heathen kings being then in succession oppressors of Zion, till the Jews sheltered themselves under the iron wings of Roman protection.

Isaiah 49:24. Shall the prey be taken from the mighty. Yes, the Lord made Babylon give up her captives, and disgorge her gold and plunder.

REFLECTIONS.

The prophet having spoken of Babylon for the last ten chapters, with now and then a strong reference to the Messiah, he speaks here most obviously of his incarnation and ministry. See Acts 13:47, 2 Corinthians 6:2, where these prophecies are so applied. The preseding chapter closes with encouragement of deliverance from Babylon, from the circumstances of their deliverance from Egypt. On a similar mode of argumentation, the redemption of the world, and the glory of the church are inferred from the illustrious character of Cyrus; for the Jews as well as Christians understood this chapter of Christ.

We have here the designation of the Saviour to his work. He was called from the womb, or according to St. Peter, foreordained before the foundation of the world. 1 Peter 1:20. We have also the derivation of the Messiah’s offices and power, his offices especially of Prophet, Priest, and King, which must ultimately be given up to the Father again, that the Son, in his humanity, may be subject unto him who put all things under him. The Lord put a sharp sword into his mouth, and a keen arrow into his bow; and Christ made use of this sword when he sentenced Jerusalem to destruction, and announced vengeance on all the enemies of his church. He began his work with war, and fought a good fight against idolatry and sin.

The Messiah is here called Israel, because Jacob was a type of Christ, who is both the father and the firstborn of all the faithful. This name cannot be applied to Isaiah, because he was never sent to the gentiles; nor did the Jews ever understand it of any prophet but the Messiah. Of him it is literally true, for he gathered only a remnant of Israel, and yet he was glorified with the Father; and his word had free course among the gentiles, until he became salvation to the ends of the earth. Sincere and faithful ministers should be comforted by this thought, that if they are not useful to one people, they may be useful to another.

As the Israelites were heard in a time accepted when they prayed, being pursued by Pharaoh; so Christ, given for a covenant to the people, was heard in the garden, and on the cross: he was heard when despised of men, and abhorred of kings and rulers. The head and the members being one, we have here a promise that God will ever hear the penitents who cry for pardon in the day of trouble, and save them with a sense of pardoning love shed abroad in their hearts, as a pledge of providential deliverance in due time.

The going forth of the prisoners, the calling of those who sit in darkness to show themselves, the gathering of the people, after the Messiah has become the light of the gentiles, the encrease of population, and the feeding of those who oppress Zion with their own flesh, do so strikingly accord with the latter-day glory of the church, that every commentator who is resolved to apply these prophecies to the return of the people from Babylon, or to the first propagation of the gospel, very much cramps himself, and diminishes the glory of the several subjects.

 


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Bibliography Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 49:4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jsc/isaiah-49.html. 1835.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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