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Today’s lesson is on one of the so-called Servant Songs of the book of Isaiah. Christians throughout the centuries have seen these songs — and many other parts of Isaiah — as pointing to Jesus.
The following prayer was posted on the Vanderbilt University lectionary website:
O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.
This week's lesson is on Isaiah 49:1-13.
Often when we read scripture, we think we understand a particular passage. Then, as we experience new situations and challenges, we may read the same passage again and see another, deeper meaning.
The passage for today is a great example of how a Bible passage spoke to its particular historical context and had its primary meaning for the people of that time. Then, centuries later, readers took another look at the same passage and found a secondary meaning that points to Jesus Christ. And in many Christians’ minds, this secondary meaning is so obvious that they can hardly imagine there is another other meaning to it.
Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is really the work of at least three different authors. They attribute chapters 1 through 39 to the prophet Isaiah and believe they were written before the Babylonian captivity. Chapters 40 through 55, known as Second Isaiah, were probably written near the end of the captivity and during the resettlement period. Chapters 56 through 66 were likely written to the former exiles who had begun the difficult work of rebuilding Jerusalem.
The book of Isaiah includes four so-called “Servant Songs,” four prophetic poems from the second part of Isaiah about a servant that would care for justice, teach, suffer, restore Israel and be a light for the Gentiles. However, the servant theme extends beyond these four passages. In fact, it is an important theme from chapter 40 through 55, according to Old Testament professor Bo Lim.
Lim believes that chapter 40 through 48 were written while the people of Judah were in captivity in Babylon but that chapters 49 through 55 were written after the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem.
This morning’s text is from the second “Servant Song.”
Identity of the Servant (verses 1-5)
One of the most debated questions surrounding Isaiah is the identity of the servant. To Christians, it seems obvious that the Servant Songs refer to Jesus and his ministry. However, when Isaiah prophesied these words, he was speaking to his historical context and not primarily looking hundreds of years into the future. That context, as pointed out above, is the end of the Babylonian exile and the restoration of the people of Judah.
There are three major theories for the identity of the servant in its original context. First, the servant is identified as an individual, possibly Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah or Josiah or even the author of Second Isaiah himself. Second, many scholars identify the servant as a collective group, either the nation or a righteous remnant within the nation of Israel. In fact, Isaiah says in verse 3, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel.’” And third, some scholars see the servant as a “corporate personality,” according to Old Testament professor Dr. Claude Mariottini. By this theory, the servant is both an individual, such as the author himself, who also represents the whole nation.
Probably the best known statement of this passage is, “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.” The message here is that God’s call was part of God’s plan — whether it is God’s call to Isaiah, God’s call to Israel or God’s call to Jesus. In Jesus’s case, the gospels make clear that God was involved even before Jesus was born.
Our Sunday school lesson also points out that the servant is identified as Israel, but it suggests that is because Jesus is the true Israel. On the other hand, the lesson says, if it is referring to the nation of Israel, then the prophecy is fulfilled in the church, which carries the good news of Christ to the world.
The Lord’s Plan (verses 6-13)
Verse 6 calls for the restoration of the tribes of Jacob and those of Israel. By this time, it had been generations since the northern tribe of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians assimilated with other groups. To bring those tribes back together would be a huge undertaking, one only the Lord could accomplish.
The servant, Isaiah says, is not only to bring back the lost tribes, but he is to be a light for the Gentiles as well. Whether the servant refers to Israel, to Christ, or to both, God’s plan has always been to bring all people to God. Salvation is to reach throughout the earth.
Even kings and princes will respond to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, Isaiah says. Just as Israel as a nation was thought to be small and insignificant throughout most of its history, Jesus was also despised and rejected. So these words could refer to both.
Many of the promises that Isaiah prophesies concerning the role of the servant for the captives who were returning from Babylon can also be seen in the life of Christ and in Christ’s work for people today. Here are a couple of examples from our passage: “I will keep you and make you … to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” God is our redeemer, and those who are oppressed can shed their fears because God has chosen to rescue them. “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them.” Isaiah’s original audience was concerned that God would protect them from literal hunger, thirst and other difficulties of the desert they had to cross, but Jesus also fed people literally and spiritually and talked about the living water that would quench their spiritual longing.
Finally, Isaiah calls all of creation to shout for joy, to rejoice and to sing. This is the correct response when the Lord announces his intention to comfort his people and have compassion on the afflicted.
At the right time, God sent Jesus to earth to offer salvation to all who accept him as Lord and Savior (Romans 5:6-8; Galatians 4:4-5). The call is to those who are in our families and communities and also in far distant villages we will never visit or even know exist. Our responsibility in the time of salvation is twofold: to proclaim the good news to all (Matthew 28:18-20) and to worship God with all creation. We are comforted, and we experience mercy. Therefore sing to God! And spread the good news throughout the earth.
Lord, thank you for Isaiah’s prophecies and the ways that your Son, Jesus, fulfilled them. Make us people who call captives to freedom in Christ and whose faith in his care is unwavering. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
This week's benediction is from the God's Word translation.
Next week's lesson will be on Isaiah 49:18-23.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.