“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” — Isaiah 49:6
with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
A Time for Light
How far does God’s grace extend? That question lies at the heart of theological debates that troubled Israel and continue to dog the church today. Is God’s saving grace limited to a select few, or available to all? Isaiah’s second Servant Song suggests that, while God had a special relationship with Israel, God’s grace, light, and salvation is intended for all peoples of the earth.
The servant as Israel(vv. 1-4)
Today’s text is the second of four texts in Isaiah that are called “Servant Songs” because they speak of a servant of God who will bring deliverance, not just to Israel, but to all people. The first Servant Song (42:1-4, or possibly 42:1-9) speaks of the servant and possibly to the servant, but in the second Servant Song (49:1-6), the servant speaks for himself and of his relationship with God. That much is clear: identifying the servant is another matter.
The overall message of Second Isaiah assumes that the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel, are called to be God’s servant, living in faithful obedience and serving as a light/blessing to the nations (recall Gen. 12:3). With the Hebrews unable or unwilling to live out their calling, however, the prophet raises the possibility of another who will do what Jacob-Israel has not done. In the second Servant Song, the prophet speaks for the people and appears to identify himself as the servant, standing in for the people.
Two attributes contribute to the unity of the poem. First, it begins and ends with a reference to all peoples, from “coastlands and peoples from far away” in the opening words to “the end of the earth” in the closing line. These act as bookends, binding together what comes between and emphasizing the theme of God’s grace to all people.
“Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” addressed the nations beyond Israel (v. 1a). The word translated as “coastlands” (NRSV) is sometimes rendered as “islands” (KJV, NIV, NASB). It refers not so much to a beach as to the border of a land that touches the sea, a place where mariners put into port. From the very small perspective of the world known to ancient Israel, the reference would be to nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea. They could only imagine the “peoples from far away” who were beyond.
A second stylistic touch is that the first verse of each section of the song includes the idea that God’s purpose for the servant extended from the womb onward (vv. 1, 5). The belief that God had a special relationship with some people “from the womb” is common in scripture (Gen. 25:23; Judg. 16:17; Ps. 22:9; Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:41). It is found with reference to Israel in Isa. 44:2, 24.
“The LORD called me before I was born,” said the prophet/servant “While I was in my mother’s womb he named me” (v. 1b). And what was the servant’s name? It is found in v 3. “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’”
Perceiving the servant as the people of Israel may seem a bit troublesome, because we commonly think of the servant as an individual called to restore Israel, as in v. 5 of this same song. As we’ve noted previously, it is possible to understand the people of Israel and Judah as God’s intended servant, though they had failed to become the nation-blessing witness God wanted them to be. Thus we might perceive a singular servant being called to do on Israel’s behalf what the people could not do for themselves.
Whether we see the servant’s identity as individual or corporate, the self-description in v. 2 may seem surprisingly warlike, since other texts describe the servant as gentle and non-combative (Isa 42:3, 50:6, 53:7). The weapons of war, however, are words, and their targets are not to be killed, but converted. The metaphor of the mouth as a sword when filled with the word of Yahweh is also found in Jer. 5:14, 23:29; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12; and Rev. 1:16. “In the shadow of his hand he hid me” suggests that God has waited until the appropriate time to “draw the sword” of the servant’s speech.
Similarly, the servant is like a polished arrow, an archer’s favorite and most accurate shaft. Again, the servant has been hidden away in Yahweh’s quiver, to be withdrawn and unleashed with the message of salvation when the time was right.
In v. 3, any mystery about the intended identity of the servant is made clear: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” That was the ideal, but Israel had not lived up to God’s call.
The prophet, speaking in behalf of Israel, stated the people’s case with apparent sarcasm: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God” (v. 4).
Israel-in-exile voiced similar laments, as in Ps 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” In the prophet’s words, the people admit no guilt and acknowledge no failure. They see themselves as victims, claiming to have poured out their strength in service to God for nothing, since they remain in captivity. From this perspective, their conclusion is not so much a statement of faith as the wishful thinking of pious and self-interested pretense: “yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God” (v 4b).
The servant beyond Israel(vv. 5-6)
God responded to the servant’s lament with an even greater challenge, one that extends beyond the tasks “to bring Jacob back to him” and to see “that Israel might be gathered to him” (v. 5a). The call would extend to all nations, and for this calling the prophet believed God would provide both opportunity and ability: “I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength” (v. 5b).
Restoring Israel alone might seem to be an impossible dream, but the servant learned that when God’s grace is involved, restoring Israel alone was far too small a goal. Thus, God said: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v. 6).
Consider those words. God’s grace, expressed through the work of the servant, shines as a beacon of light and hope to all the nations. Servant Israel’s job was to quit blaming God for the nation’s failures, stop pretending to have been faithful, and start proclaiming God’s salvation.
Whether servant Israel would prove faithful or not, God’s purpose remained – and remains – unchanged: “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In v. 5, the servant comes across as defeated, unable to do the “small thing” of restoring Israel. Israel had rejected God. Yet, God appears to have rejected the people’s rejection. Neither God nor God’s cause would be defeated. God will be glorified, the servant will be a light to the nations, God’s salvation will reach to the end of the earth.
Could it be that God has in mind a salvation that goes beyond the limitations we typically draw around saving grace? In Isa. 45:22-23, the prophet spoke for God: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’” Matthew 18:14 credits Jesus with saying “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” The testimony of Luke 3:6 is that “All mankind will see God’s salvation.” Especially interesting, given the emphasis upon light in Isa. 49:6, is the claim of John 1:9: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
John’s gospel also quotes Jesus as saying “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (12:32), and “I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” (12:47). Is it possible that God might reject even our rejection, as Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland argue in If Grace is True (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004)? “You did not choose me,” John quotes Jesus as saying, “but I chose you” (John 15:16).
Contemplating such ideas can be unsettling or even downright disturbing for those whose basic view of soteriology is “accept Jesus – or else.” Other biblical texts suggest differing destinies depending upon one’s response to God, and they must also be considered. God’s desire, however, is never in doubt: that all be saved.
It may be helpful to remember that just about everything Jesus said and did was unsettling and disturbing to the religious establishment of his day. In our time, when some seem intent on pulling in the stakes and narrowing the parameters of grace, it is refreshing to be reminded that God’s purpose is for God’s people to be a light to all the nations, “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
We may nt know exactly what those prophetic words mean – but we can hope they mean exactly what they say. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 15, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 49:1-7
There can be days when we might question whether or not we want to grant the grace to our students that God has given to us and there are other days when it comes easily to heap grace upon them. But it is probably more important to heap the grace on our students when we don’t want to, because isn’t that what grace truly is? Be consistent in how you show your student love and grace. Their first and primary understand of who God is comes from you. How you represent God will mold and shape who they believe God to be at a foundational level. Show the grace of God to your students that you know that they receive from God.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Freeing Javert” from Les Miserables via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 49:1-7