49 Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.
3 He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Points of Interest:
The Literary Note of the Day–On Hebrew poetry
Over the course of our reading, you might get the impression that Isaiah is repeating himself. And he is. Whereas in English we tend to use rhyme and meter in our poetry, the ancient Hebrews used repetition and parallelism. These repeated parallels artfully reinforce the poet’s message, and subtly add depth to the picture they’re painting. So, we’ll frequently run across two synonymous or near-synonymous verses paired in a couplet. Our passage starts out with two such couplets; Islands and distant nations in the first two lines are, for example, two ways of saying, ‘faraway places.’ So, our passage starts with a repeated call from Isaiah: ‘Hey, everyone. Yes, even you way over there. Listen up. I have something you’ll want to hear.’
The Theological Term of the Day–Israel
Israel (also known as Jacob) was the founding father of Isaiah’s home nation of Judah and its sister nation, Israel. Jacob was the grandson and heir of Abraham, to whom God promised: ‘I will be your God. I will make you a great nation, and through you all the nations of the world will be blessed.’ Israel had twelve sons, each of whom became the leader of a tribe. Together the twelve tribes formed the original nation Israel. Later on, the twelve tribes split up in a civil war, with two of the tribes forming the nation of Judah and the other ten forming the nation of Israel. Isaiah uses Israel in several different ways, sometimes referring to the man, sometimes to the ten-tribe political entity, sometimes to all twelve tribes, and sometimes to whomever from the twelve tribes remained faithful to their relationship with God. Often, you can tell which one Isaiah means from context. Today’s passage may not entirely be one of those times. My best guess is that in verse 3 (‘You are my servant, Israel’) he’s referring to the person; God is telling the narrator, ‘You remind me of my old friend, your great-granddaddy, Israel.’ I think in the other times where ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’ appear in this passage, it’s in the faithful remnant capacity. Isaiah, as a Judean, has something of a tendency to highly identify the nation of Judah with that faithful remnant.
The Image of the Day–The unshot arrow
This passage describes a beautiful weapon, an arrow that’s been honed and polished to perfect sharpness. Then, instead of being fired, the arrow is put away in the quiver. And it sits there, and sits there, and sits there. When will it be fired? The arrow says to God, ‘Put me in the game, coach. I know I can do it,’ but God keeps it on the bench. It feels like a waste. Not so, God says. It’s such a good arrow that God doesn’t want to spend it on any ordinary target. God is saving it for a very special occasion, an occasion where only this particular arrow will do.
The Question of the Day–Who is the narrator?
Who is this person who is compared to Israel, and to being a particularly fine weapon? My pet theory is that it’s Isaiah. We may have just started reading, but Isaiah has been writing for forty-eight chapters already; and he feels like all of that work has gone to nothing. Nobody is listening, and nothing has changed even though he’s been talking until he’s blue in the face. When will his words finally strike home?
My pet theory is probably wrong. Most commentators think that the narrator here is someone they call the Servant, a mysterious supernatural figure God calls upon to fulfill God’s biggest purposes. Isaiah has a series of Servant Songs that talk about the work of this supernatural deputy. We’ll read a couple of them. This is probably one of them.
The Big Idea of the Day–Think bigger
All of Isaiah’s attention is on what will happen to ‘the tribes of Jacob,’ his own people. He sees the trouble they are in, and wonders why they aren’t being rescued. That’s why he feels like he (or, more likely, the supernatural Servant) is a wasted arrow. The arrow could be fired to save Israel, but there it is in the quiver. God replies that simply rescuing Israel is small potatoes. In Isaiah’s parlance, gentiles means, ‘the nations,’ in comparison to ‘the Nation,’ meaning Judah or Israel; in other words, gentiles means, ‘the others.’ When Isaiah asks, ‘What about Israel?’ God responds, ‘What about everyone else?’ Israel may have their problems, but God sees an even bigger problem, one that affects the whole world. That’s the problem God wants to solve, with the help of Isaiah and this Servant. God has something broader and deeper in mind than Isaiah can even imagine.
Taking It Home:
For you–It seems like we’re not that great at getting our hopes and expectations right. We either think too small, or are too eager for action. How are you feeling about your life right now? When you think about your day, the next 6-weeks of this faith experiment, or the next year trajectory of your life, what comes to mind? Are you filled with hope? With dread? Impatient for everything to just start working? Ask God to give you God’s hope for your life. Ask God for God’s perspective on any areas of your life the feel a little grim. Ask God for patience for the areas of your life in which you are anxious for immediate change, and ask for a bigger picture in places where you might be dreaming too small.