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Isaiah 49:1-7

Isaiah 49:1-7

Background to the Book of Isaiah

Historical: In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jer 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jer 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezek 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jer 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jer 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Lev 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Lev 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.

In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isa 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).

PURPOSE of Isa 40-55: These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.

The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.

This is the task of the writer of Isa 40-55 - to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.

Literary Comments: Isa 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isa 40-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and she has suffered enough for all her rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isa 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isa 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Gen 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isa 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be seen in many of the psalms we read.

Context of Isa 49:1-7

This text is preceded by the section 44:24-48:22 in which Cyrus is named as the Lord's shepherd who will bring release for the captives and overthrow Babylon. Cyrus is claimed as God's agent doing the will of God in order that Jerusalem will be built and the foundation of the temple laid (Isa 44:28). The extraordinary statement in Isa 45:1 announces Cyrus as the Lord's anointed a term used only of those born of Israel lineage. The claim of God as Creator continues through this section (Isa 45:8, 12, 18) as well as the claim of monotheism, that is, there is only Yahweh and no other gods exist (Isa 45:22b). The purpose of these powerful declarations about God serve to give people the confidence to trust in the call which is being put upon them, that is, to return to Zion. Isa 48 is a wonderful declaration of the new creation which God is about to bring and it is all done for his own sake. God will ensure that Babylon will be defeated through the call of Cyrus which will allow the Israelites to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem (Isa 48:20). The verses following the lectionary reading speak of their God who has cared for them, had compassion, answered them, like a mother can never forget a sucking child, and even had them engraved on his hands. This God will prevail over their captors because God is their Saviour and Redeemer.

Insights/Message of Isa 49:1-7

Literary structure:Isa 49:1-7 is part of the section 49:1-52:12 in which the challenges to believe God and the servant grow more intense (Oswalt:287). Many scholars include vv.8-13 which then follows a similar pattern to that in Isa 42:1-13 which ends with a song of praise also. The structure becomes vv.1-6 - the call and task of the servant: v.7 - acts as a bridge between vv.1-6 and vv.8-12: vv.8-12 - first person proclamations of God, both about the past relationship, and future promises about their journey: v.13 a song of praise by nature in response to God's compassion for Israel. V.1 addresses the whole earth not simply Israel and the preeminence of the servant is verified by the fact he was called before birth (very close similarities to the call of Jeremiah, Jer 1:5). After the attributes given to the servant in vv.1b-3, v.4 records words of the servant which express wasted efforts together with an affirmation of trust in God. The Hebrew 'aken', (for surely) emphasises the servant's complete trust in God. After the reiteration of the servant formed by God in the womb further tasks are named which finish with proclamation that God's salvation will reach to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6b). V.2 makes it plain that the weapons of the servant will be words which are like a sword and arrows. This continues the description of the servant in 42:1-7 who will not use the usual means of war to bring justice. The last line of v.6 if taken from the Hebrew reads, 'to become my salvation until the end of the the earth', which means the servant will be the salvation of the world (compare otehr versions). V.7 foreshadows the theology in Isa 52:13-53:12 in which the servant will both be despised and yet will be acknowledged as saviour.

Message / Theology: Some scholars want to claim that the language in Isa 49:2b is so personal that it could only refer to an individual. However, when poetic imagery is used there is no reason to limit v.2b to an individual, it could just as easily be the nation, Israel. Indeed, v.3 makes it quite overt that the servant here is the nation Israel. When imagery is used in poetry we need to be aware that it acts differently to descriptions in other forms of genre. For example, in Isa 66 Jerusalem suckles her children. The chiasm in vv.1a and 6b which state that God's message will be heard and salvation reach the ends of the earth give a cosmic purpose to the servant's task. However, before this task happens the servant is to bring Israel and Jacob back into relationship with the Lord. This break in relationship has been named by all the prophets as the major issue affecting all that happens to Israel. It is wise to remember that the relationship comes first and all else flows from it. Some scholars suggest that this is a recommissioning of the servant because he has already laboured and not been successful in his eyes (v.4).

It is very easy for Christians to understand the last two lines of v.6 as Christ who is a light to the nations and becomes God's salvation for all the earth. However, as we read on the message is that this saviour will be vulnerable and suffer, will be despised and experience shame. This is the path we are called to follow and how many of us really accept the idea of shame and contempt of others? We have the assurance that we can trust that God is with us, BUT ...! We are reminded further that the word is as powerful as all the weapons and might of the world. We can hear this message as the collective church being the servant and proclaiming the love and compassion of God as well as individuals. Whatever, the original intention of the author we are left in Isa 40-55 with the idea that the servant can be both an individual or a corporate reality. The whole idea of this redeemer servant being a despised and vulnerable person without the trappings of power and might was as much an anathema then as it is now to many people. It is truly amazing that this revelation came 500 hundred years before Christ, came into he world.

Resources/Worship for Isa 49:1-7

Worship:Psalm 40:1-11 can be used as a meditation which reflects on God's ability to listen and respond to a person's need after which the person must speak out about God's love, knowing it is the right thing to do and feeling great about it.

Resources: Commentaries

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982. Seitz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:



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