Isaiah 48 ends in a difficult place, with a real conundrum. God is not abandoning his plan for the world, nor is he willing to turn away from his people; but they’ve rejected the part he had prepared for them, and he’s conceding their refusal to change, and to play that part. He’ll still deliver them from Babylon and return them to Jerusalem, but he will no longer depend on them, or entrust his mission to the nations to them. Chapter 48 brings their corporate part in that mission to a close. Which raises the question: if Plan A is dead, then what’s Plan B? What does God do now?
The answer to that question begins in chapter 49 with the reintroduction of the Servant of the LORD. We’ve seen the Servant just once so far, in chapter 42, where he was already associated with God’s mission to the Gentiles, but not in a way that ruled out Israel’s involvement in that mission. Here, however, things have shifted, and the Servant has clearly replaced Israel; God’s promises to his people will still be fulfilled, but they will be fulfilled in a different way than they might have been.
Some things, however, haven’t shifted at all. One is that God still has no intention of reaching the nations by force of conquest. Thus the Servant says of himself, “The LORD . . . made my mouth like a sharp sword.” Now, it’s true that anyone who says “The pen is mightier than the sword” has probably never been stabbed with either, but words do have power, and the word of God most of all; God himself promises in Isaiah 55:11, which we’ll read in a few weeks, that “my word . . . will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” The Servant would speak that word which pierces until it divides soul from spirit and joints from marrow—which, in other words, is so sharp it can separate even the inseparable—and which judges our innermost thoughts and intentions, and that would be all he needed to carry out God’s mission; but bear in mind that the power of words is not a power which protects those who wield it. That’s why the First Amendment enshrines freedom of speech and freedom of the press, because those who stab with the pen tend to end up skewered by the sword. Such people also often don’t see the fruit of their labor, which is left to later generations to pick and enjoy.
Clearly this is the case for the Servant. God says to him, “You are my servant—you are the ideal Israel—in you I will glorify myself”; but the Servant looks around and thinks, “That’s not what I’m seeing.” He sees no result from anything he has done, except that he has become “deeply despised and abhorred by the nation”; all his efforts have brought him no reward, only suffering. In a world that measures us by our success, he is a clear failure, and so he says to himself, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.”
And yet . . . and yet. The Servant knows God is with him, and he knows that God’s word carries with it his power. He knows that the Lord will always accomplish his purpose, and that he takes care of those who follow him, and so the Servant says, “But—the justice due me is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God.” I may be done wrong now, I may have to suffer injustice—but the justice due me is with the LORD, and this injustice won’t stand. I may suffer now for speaking the word of God and doing what he calls me to do—but the justice due me is with the LORD, and all will be made right in the end. I may be attacked and persecuted for the sake of the truth, but my reward is with my God, and in the end this will seem a small price to pay. My faithful service may go ignored and unappreciated in this life, but my reward is with my God, and he doesn’t miss a thing. All my efforts may seem to get me nowhere, but if I speak his word, whether I see any results or not, that is enough, because his word carries his power and it never fails of its purpose. Regardless of what I see around me today, the justice due me is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God—and he never fails to accomplish what he sets out to do.
That is the Servant’s consolation in the face of his apparent failure; and after all, isn’t it backed up by his own life and ministry? God established Israel for a purpose, to be his faithful servant to be his salvation to the whole earth, but Israel was a faithless servant and failed in that purpose; now, not only has God’s plan not been carried out, but Israel itself has gone so far off the rails that it has been carried off into exile. God’s people have become part of the problem, not part of the solution. But even if Israel has derailed itself, that doesn’t mean God’s plan has been derailed; rather, he has raised up a new, ideal Israel, a new Servant who will be faithful to follow God’s will, and the plan goes forward. God always accomplishes his purposes.
But does this mean that God is settling for second-best? Is the Servant merely Plan B? Did Israel’s disobedience force God to come up with a backup plan?
Yes and no; but mostly no. There’s something very interesting going on in verses 5 and 6, but our English translations treat it as a mistake that must be corrected; that’s the reason the NIV’s translation of verse 5 is so choppy. You see, what we have in verse 5 isn’t the Hebrew text as it stands—it’s an amended version. A straightforward reading of verses 5 and 6 runs like this:
Now the LORD, the one who made me from the womb
to serve him,
resolved to turn Jacob to him,
but Israel would not be gathered;
yet I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
for my God has been my strength.
He said, “It is too small that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
to be my salvation to the end of the earth.”
In other words, the Servant sees himself as a failure, because he’s been sent to turn the hearts of the Israelites back to God, and they’ve rejected him—they’ve refused to be gathered; and God says in response, “It’s OK—that’s too small a task for you anyway. We’ll move on with the mission: I will make you my light to the nations and my salvation to all the world.”
Now, later generations of Jewish scholars really didn’t like that, and so they looked for ways to amend it. They came up with a couple that are pretty iffy by normal standards, but when the alternative is unacceptable, you take the best you can get—and so they did. They decided that the word meaning “not”—in the Hebrew, it’s “lo”—should be read as another “lo” (which is actually spelled differently), which means “to him.” Reading the text that way requires making a preposition or two behave in an unusual fashion, and it gives you a passage that doesn’t really fit together very well—but it makes the meaning of the text much more palatable, and so they went with it, leaving a note in the margin to indicate that this is how this verse should be understood. Our English translations follow that note, and so we end up with the reading we have.
If you don’t follow that note, however, if you don’t try to explain away the Hebrew text but take it straightforwardly as written, this passage makes perfect sense; it fits better with the rest of what’s going on in this part of Isaiah, and it helps us to see connections to other parts of Scripture. In particular, it reveals a link between this passage and Romans 11. In Romans 9-11, Paul deals with the question of the future of the Jews in God’s plan; he struggles with the fact that so many of his own people had hardened their hearts and refused to accept the Messiah, and builds an argument that in the end, Israel will be redeemed. In our passage this morning, he argues that even the Jewish rejection of Jesus served a purpose, because it provided an opportunity for Gentiles to come into the people of God. Though Paul doesn’t base his argument on Isaiah 49, it seems that Isaiah was looking forward to that same point: Israel’s refusal to be gathered back to God created the opportunity for the Servant to be the light to the nations.
This is not, of course, to say that all Israel rejected God, which is clearly not the case; nor is it to say that God has rejected Israel—an idea which Paul refutes at length in Romans 11, finally making the statement in 11:26 that “all Israel will be saved.” It is, however, to say that even when the Jewish leaders and people failed to turn as a whole and accept Jesus as the Messiah, God had included that refusal in his plan and made it an occasion of blessing for the Gentiles—for us. Israel’s earlier disobedience, refusing to be a faithful servant, Israel’s later rejection of the Messiah—these may appear to have forced God to Plan B; but in truth, God already knew they were coming. That’s not what he wanted to happen, but he knew they would, and he allowed for it in his plan.
This is an important point: God’s sovereignty is such that we can’t prevent him from accomplishing his purposes. He allows us freedom to choose, and he uses whatever we do, whether we choose to obey him or not. When we disobey him, obviously that’s not part of his perfect will and plan for us, but it doesn’t disrupt what he’s doing or force him to change plans, because he knew what we would do before we did; and though it isn’t best, he’ll use it for good. There is no failure he cannot redeem, no sinner he cannot restore, because in everything and everyone, he is still Lord, and he is the God who grows white flowers from even the blackest roots. He will work through our obedience or through our disobedience; if we obey, that’s better for us and for all concerned, but whether we do or don’t, none of it catches him off guard. Even his Plan B is Plan A.
And in this case, his plan was to bring his people back to himself—not just Jews, but people from all the nations. Thus God’s word to the Servant in verse 6, which the NIV mistranslates a little: “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, to be my salvation to the ends of the earth.” The Servant will not be merely the messenger announcing God’s salvation, he will be the one in and through whom God will extend his salvation to all people everywhere. Thus he says in verse 8—and don’t be misled by the NIV’s heading there, this section is addressed to the Servant, and talking about more than just the exiles in Babylon—“I will give you as a covenant to the people.” God’s people had broken his covenant with them in pretty much every way imaginable, but he wasn’t willing to give up on it, and so he would offer it in a new form—the form of his Servant. Only this time, the covenant would extend beyond the descendants of Abraham; it would involve the re-turn of the Jews, yes, but it would also draw people from every point of the compass. Look at verse 12—“from afar” denotes the east, then around the compass—from the north, from the west (literally “the sea,” the Mediterranean), and from the south—“Sinim,” at the southern edge of Egypt, the southern border of the known civilized world.
From every direction, God promises his Servant, from every tribe, nation and language of the earth, people will come home to me because of what you have done. My mountains will become a highway for them, and my blessing will be so abundant that even the barren places will provide them enough food to keep going; they will have food and water, and they will be protected from the heat of the desert. This is the imagery and the promise of Isaiah 40, now opened to all nations, including us, by the work of the Servant, Jesus the Messiah; Jesus, whom he gave to us to be his salvation for the whole world. By the power of his word, through his faithfulness, through his suffering, Jesus became the salvation of God for us and the covenant of God with us, so that we too might be called children of God.