Salvation Spreading Out
In this passage, Israel felt forgotten and forsaken by God, and we can feel that way at times too. But God comforts them with the good news that his salvation is going to spread out as a servant.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
In America we love a good success story. I remember walking across Fairmount Ave with a friend who was telling me about someone he knew who took a job as an admin assistant at a small startup on the West Coast in the 90s. They couldn’t pay her much, but they gave her stock in the company. The company was called Amazon, and she’s now a millionaire admin assistant. That’s the kind of story you tell your friends in America. The story we don’t tend to tell, though, is the story of the guy or gal who keeps trying things, but keeps failing, who’s totally deflated, who feels forsaken and forgotten. The Bible is far more realistic in the stories it tells, and therefore far more helpful to real people. Israel, God’s people at the time Isaiah was writing, were deflated in the passage on which we’re focusing today. They are in exile in Babylon, under the power of a foreign nation, and there is nothing happening that looks like it is building momentum in their favor. They feel forsaken and forgotten by God. We feel this way sometimes as God’s people today too, don’t we? We know God is glorious and he has promised us glorious things, but we look around at our lives and sometimes we don’t see much momentum. It can be deflating, but we’re going to see in this text that God has compassion on his afflicted people, and the comfort he gives us when we feel like total losers as his people is that no matter how bleak it looks now, God’s salvation will reach the end of the earth. It will reach the end of the earth as his servant, and it will reach the end of the earth to the comfort of his people. So even if you don’t yet see how that message of God’s salvation reaching the end of the earth should bring comfort to you when you feel deflated, stay tuned.
As his servant
Our passage begins with the command to listen once again, a word and theme that featured so prominently in chapter 48, which we looked at two weeks ago last time we were in Isaiah. Here, those who are called to listen are different, though. In chapter 48 the call to listen was issued specifically to Israel. Here, the call to listen expands from there to the nations, as the coastlands and peoples from afar are called to listen and pay attention in the first verse of chapter 49. Not only is the addressee different in chapter 49, but the speaker is also different. In chapter 49 the call to listen was issued by Isaiah or more directly by the LORD himself, but here the call to the coastlands goes out from one who in verse 3 is described as the LORD’s servant. Who is this servant? Maybe Isaiah? In verse 1 he says the LORD called him from the womb, and from the body of his mother the LORD named his name. But Isaiah wasn’t called from the womb; his calling story is later in life and is recorded in Isaiah 6. There’s another servant who has appeared since chapter 40: Cyrus, the coming ruler of Persia, who would do God’s bidding by conquering Babylon and sending Israel back to their land. God did name him before he was born, so maybe it could be him?
But look at verse 2. There this servant says God made his mouth like a sharp sword, and hid him away for a time like an arrow in his quiver. The idea is that this servant’s weapon would not be a literal sword, but his word, hence the mouth being like a sharp sword. But Cyrus didn’t conquer with his word; Cyrus’ weapon was the sword. He was victorious through military conquest. Furthermore, in verse 3 we read that the servant is named Israel, and Cyrus was a non-Israelite. Ok, so maybe the servant is the nation of Israel; that is what verse 3 says, and God has called Israel his servant multiple times since chapter 40 as well. But verse 5 makes that impossible, because there we see that the servant’s mission included bringing Jacob (another name for Israel) back to God, and gathering Israel to him. The servant is sent to save the people of Israel, and therefore the servant can’t simply be the people of Israel, nor would it make any sense to speak of Israel in verse 1 as being named “from the body of” their mother.
And yet, verse 3 calls him Israel. What are we to make of that? Here it’s important to understand the biblical principle of representation. The first man created in the Bible is named Adam, which is how we anglicize the Hebrew Adam. Do you know what the word for “man” is in Hebrew? Adam. Why? Because Adam was appointed by God to represent all of humanity. And as a representative of all humanity, Adam was sent into exile, away from the presence of the LORD, for his sin. So here, the servant of the LORD is one who will represent Israel, and as the representative Israelite, will bring Israel back from exile into the presence of the LORD.
But not only will he bring Israel back into the presence of the LORD; in verse 6 God tells him it would too light a thing for him to be his servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; so God says he will make this servant as a light for the nations, that his salvation may reach to the end of the earth. More literally, the last clause of verse 6 should read, “I will make you as a light to the nations, to be my salvation to the end of the earth.” So here we see that not only will this servant save Israel; that would be too light a thing for him. This servant will bring the salvation of God to the end of the earth because he himself will be the salvation of God to the end of the earth. God’s salvation reaches the end of the earth as a servant, who is himself that salvation.
Now, that’s a glorious mission, but verse 7 shows us that the path to such glory is through humiliation. There this servant of the LORD is described as one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, and the servant of rulers. Back in verse 4 we saw a similar idea. There the servant expresses exasperation; it seems this glorious mission of his has all been vanity. He says he has spent his strength for nothing and labored in vain. Yet he chooses in verse 4 to entrust himself to God, to trust that if he is faithful to the mission God has given him to the end, even though the fruit of it isn’t yet seen, God will vindicate him. And in verse 7 we see God’s promise to do just that. There God says this one who was a servant of rulers will one day have kings and princes bowing down to him, because the LORD is faithful, and has chosen his servant for this end.
When will this happen? Verse 8 identifies it as a “time of favor” and a “day of salvation.” In that day God will give the servant as a covenant to the people; notice again that as in verse 3 the servant is Israel, and in verse 6 the servant is God’s salvation, so here the servant is God’s covenant, and here his saving work is envisioned first as bringing Israel back from exile into their land, hence the language in verse 8 of “establishing the land.” He will bring even those in prison out from the prisons, and provide for them along the way, from the north, south, east, and west, until they reach their promised land.
Ok, so who is this servant, this Israel, this salvation, this covenant, and when is this time of favor, this day of salvation? Israel was left wondering that, and remained in suspense about the answer for hundreds of years following when Isaiah first spoke these words. It’s not Isaiah, it’s not Cyrus, it’s not the nation of Israel, but there is another candidate. Hundreds of years later an angel appeared to an Israelite woman named Mary and told her that the LORD would give her a son, created in her womb by the Spirit of the LORD. Once the child was in the womb, the LORD told her husband to name him Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21). The LORD named his name from the womb of his mother. For thirty years he lived in relative obscurity, hidden like an arrow in God’s quiver. When he was revealed, he came out not with a sword, but with a word, preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand, and telling people to repent and believe in the gospel.
As a child he fled to Egypt, and then returned to the land of Israel. This was to fulfill what God had said of Israel: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” At the beginning of his public ministry, he was baptized, going in and out of the river Jordan, and God declared him to be his son, in whom he was well pleased. Immediately afterward he faced temptation in the wilderness, only he obeyed where Adam had disobeyed. If you’re familiar with Israel’s story, this should start to sound familiar: God called Israel his son, and called them out of Egypt through water. On the other side, they were tempted in the wilderness, and gave in to the temptation, as Adam had given in in the garden. What does Jesus’ life reveal? It reveals that he is the true Israel, the representative Israelite of whom Isaiah writes here!
And on the cross, how does it look like his labors are going? Who better than he could say, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”? On the cross, Jesus looks like a total loser. And the cross is proof that he really was deeply despised and abhorred by the nation. On the cross, we see that the overwhelming majority of people really, really did not like him, so much that they wanted to kill him. Can you imagine how angry you’d have to be, how much you’d really have to hate someone, to yell “Crucify!” about them? Yet that’s what they did, and even his own disciples abandoned him. Yet he continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. We saw on Good Friday last week that one of Jesus’ sayings from the cross was a prayer to the LORD, saying, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And God did vindicate him when he raised him from the dead and brought him into heaven to sit at his right hand, where he received the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, even the knees of kings and princes.
In him, then, is all the righteousness we need to be counted righteous in God’s sight. In him is a sacrifice sufficient to cover all the sins of all the world. In him is eternal life, the life he now enjoys at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, he is our salvation, and all who are in him are saved. He is God’s covenant, and all who are in him are in covenant with God. He is the true Israel, and all who are in him are grafted into the Israel of God. As the New Testament puts it, he himself has become to us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). When, then, is the favorable time, when is the day of salvation? Quoting again from the New Testament, 2 Cor 6:2 says this: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” The servant has come; now is the day of salvation. Repent and believe in him. Now risen from the dead, God has made him a light to the nations, to be his salvation to the end of the earth. His salvation has even reached us here, on the other end of the earth from Israel.
But it would be too light a thing for it to stop with us. If you’ve come to recognize the greatness of this servant, how could you be content to see him only bring back those who are already gathered in this room? Consider your aspirations in life. Perhaps they include reaching a certain level in your career, retiring at a certain age, accumulating a certain amount of wealth, buying a house, getting married, having kids, having grandkids, traveling to certain places. None of that is sinful, right? But if that’s where our aspirations end, they are too light. This servant has sent his Spirit upon us to proclaim his word to the end of the earth, so that he might reach the end of the earth as the salvation of all the peoples of the earth. That doesn’t mean each of you must go from here to another end of the earth to proclaim the word of Christ, but it does mean all of us should aspire that our lives would contribute to the work of getting the word of Christ to the end of the earth, so that God’s salvation might reach the end of the earth. And I see so many of you giving time, energy, prayers, and money to building up this church because you believe you exist for more than developing a good family, a good career, and good health in your time on earth.
Consider our aspirations as a church, for that matter. We’ve got 98 members; that’s enough to be a church. We’ve got a paid pastor and a sustainable budget. We gather weekly for worship. That really is a glorious thing; don’t underestimate it. That’s 98 people God has brought from death to new life, 98 people who actually want to help and hold one another accountable to following Jesus for a lifetime. And yet, there was a time we didn’t even exist. There was a time we were much smaller than that. There was a time we were a congregation of Citylight Church instead of a fully established church. And we are what we are today not because any of that was bad, but because Citylight Church and we had a sense that it was too light a thing to remain there. And it wouldn’t be bad for us to just keep doing what we’re doing today for the rest of our lives until we all die and go to heaven. That would be glorious in its own right, but it’s too light an aspiration for Jesus. That may be what he does in our church, but it’s too light a thing for His Church that it end with us. We have kids growing up in this church to whom we must proclaim the word of Christ if we want the light of Christ to shine in their generation as well. We have countless neighbors in this city who don’t yet know Christ, many of whom have not personally heard the word of Christ! And there are whole groups of people throughout the world who still haven’t even heard the word of Christ. So let’s continue to aspire that the word of Christ go forth from us to the end of the earth, whatever that means for our particular church. Let’s teach the word of Christ to our kids, let’s proclaim the word of Christ to our neighbors, and let’s send the word of Christ to the nations.
And as we do, let’s keep in mind the path of the servant that Jesus has walked before us. How do we expect God’s salvation to reach the end of the earth? The path is still as a servant. We go out not with swords, but with the word, and we go out expecting to experience the feeling of verse 4: I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. We go out expecting the experience of verse 7, to be deeply despised, and abhorred by the nation. When you sign up to follow Jesus, you sign up for people to really, really, sincerely, not like you. I hate that feeling; don’t you? But Jesus said whoever hates his life in this world will gain it, and it’s the one who loves his life in this world who will lose it. So what should you do when you feel like your labor is vain, and when people really, really don’t like you for following Jesus? Don’t retaliate. Don’t give up. Don’t change the word of Christ. Entrust yourself to the God who judges justly. He sees your labor, and he will reward it. Look forward to the day when every knee will bow to Jesus. It is coming. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, pray for boldness to keep speaking the word of Christ without fear. That’s how God’s salvation will reach the end of the earth.
And sing for joy even now. That’s where verse 13 takes us. The promise of this coming servant is so sure that verse 13 speaks of it as though it’s already happened, and calls not just the people, but the creation itself, the heavens, the earth, and the mountains to sing for joy, because the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. And we’ll see that even more clearly in the next section of verses beginning in verse 14, where we’ll see that God’s salvation will reach the end of the earth to the comfort of his people.
To the comfort of his people
The whole creation sings for joy at the coming of this servant, but in verse 14 we find the people of Israel, Zion, saying: The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me. They were still in exile when they heard this glorious promise of the coming servant, after all. And we are still in exile too. We live in the overlap of the times, when the day of salvation and the day of exile overlap. We’ve been saved by Jesus, but we still await our entry into our heavenly home, and for the day heaven comes down to earth, the day that will only come when Jesus, who is our salvation, comes again. In that day our bodies will be resurrected with him. Here’s the picture Revelation 7 gives us of that day, using the words of verse 10 of our passage: “15 Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” So we who are one with the true Israel, Jesus Christ, have this same glorious promise, and yet don’t we also at times feel like the LORD has forsaken and forgotten us?
We are wrong to feel it; it’s never true. And yet, God addresses us here not with rebuke, but with further assurance. He speaks of a woman forgetting her nursing child, and having no compassion on the son of her womb. Can you imagine a nursing mother forgetting her child? If you’ve ever been in close proximity to a mother nursing her child, you know how crazy a thought that is. For one thing, the child typically doesn’t let her forget, but there is also a powerful, natural maternal instinct, that even at the sound of the baby’s cry activates something physiologically inside the mother that she can feel. Yet even that is sometimes not enough, and you do hear gut-wrenching stories of mothers abandoning their children. God acknowledges that possibility; he says in verse 15 that “even these may forget…yet I will not forget you.”
Strangely, there are stories today of mothers forsaking their children in which the mother is seen as heroic for doing so. One noteworthy example is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, originally written in the 1800s, but in 2006 it was the most performed play in the world. In it the main character, Norma Helmer, leaves her husband and three young children behind. Some have interpreted that as an act of liberation, whereby Helmer breaks free of the constraints family life places on her. And, once again, if you’ve been around a nursing mom in particular, you know how constraining it is on her freedom. She must always keep her baby with her, and when the baby cries, she’s on duty again, whatever else she had planned for that time. Our world tends to view such constraints in an almost entirely negative light, but the glorious truth of scripture is that the true and living God does not! He freely and willingly constrains himself to us, as a mother to her nursing child, such that even when we have sinned against him as Israel did, he will never forget us.
His commitment to us is so solid that he depicts it in verse 16 as having engraved us on the palms of his hands. You know how sometimes people get infatuated with one another and get a tattoo of their lover, only to later try to get it removed because the relationship ended? God says he’s gotten a tattoo of our names on the palms of his hands, even knowing how faithless we were to him, and he will never try to get it removed. That means if you are in Christ today, when the nails went through the palms of his hands on the cross, your name was written there. That’s how committed he is to not forsaking you or forgetting about you. As we sing in the song “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” our ballast of assurance, the place where we see his love forever proved, is at the cross. If you feel forsaken or forgotten by God, look there for proof that he will never forget you. See the servant himself willingly crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” when he didn’t deserve it, so that you might know that God will never forsake you, even when you do deserve it.
And he goes on in verse 16 to say that not only has he graven us on the palms of his hands, past tense, but our walls are continually before him. Here the reference is likely to the walls of Jerusalem, which Babylon had broken down and left in shambles when they conquered Jerusalem and took Israel into exile. So what’s God saying when he says those walls are continually before him? He’s saying I have a plan to rebuild them that I continually keep before me, and I will not forget about it! In verses 17-18, he previews a day when their builders will get back to work, and when their enemies will run in fear of them. Jesus has promised to build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. He has not forgotten about us. He has not forsaken us.
In fact, we have gotten so big that the land of Israel could not contain us. Verses 19-21 predict that day, when God would so build up his people that the land of Israel would not contain them. And God will continue to grow His church until there are more people than can be counted in it. That doesn’t mean God will grow our particular church numerically, but it does mean he will build his church throughout time and space. It has spread out from the land of Israel when Jesus sent out his apostles from there, and one day it will take a whole new heaven and new earth to contain all those who are included in it.
Verse 21 gives us this picture of the people of Israel wondering where all these other children have come from. In the verses that follow, we learn that they have streamed in from the nations, as the Lord GOD has lifted up his hand and drawn them in. Christ is the one who was lifted up on a cross and then lifted up to heaven, who is now drawing all nations to himself. The image here is that there are some who come willingly, called the “sons and daughters” of Israel, those God has chosen from among the nations to be his own. But then there are those who carry them, kings and queens even, who when they come will bow down to the people of Israel and lick the dust of their feet. In verse 24 the question is asked, “How can this happen?” And God’s basic answer is that he will directly confront the oppressors of his people and deliver his people from their grasps, while they eat their own flesh and are drunk with their own blood. So we have this picture here of the enemies of God’s people, who oppressed his people while on earth, licking the dust off the feet of his people, eating their own flesh, and being drunk with their own blood, because God himself will do battle against them, and as our final verses in chapter 50 make clear, he has the power to do it. By his rebuke he dries up the sea, he makes the rivers a desert, the fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst.
How does that fit with your sense of what the true God is like? Many modern Americans, and perhaps especially white Americans, struggle with this description of God. But this description is meant to be a comfort to God’s people. It’s one of the ways he assures them that he has not forgotten them, and will not forsake them. So how can we see these words as words of comfort? Well, we should recognize first that the reason we may struggle to feel comforted by them as 21st century Americans is because many professing Christians in America, perhaps especially white American Christians, have never experience the kind of visible, tangible oppression that the Israelites experienced at the hands of the Babylonians before the coming of Christ. But we do have certain analogies to this in the ways African-Americans and Native Americans have been treated in the history of America, and can you see how, if you’re a people group that has been oppressed by those in power for generations, it would be a comfort to you to know that the day was coming when you’d be released from those oppressors, and those oppressors would be brought to justice?
Of course, the best thing would be for the oppressors to simply give up their oppressive ways, repair the damage their oppression caused, for the oppressed to forgive, and for us all to just get along. And that option is available in Christ. When he rose from the dead, he didn’t just go to his enemies and make them lick the dust of his feet, or make them drunk with their own blood. He went to them preaching peace, and then he went to the nations preaching peace, and people from warring tribes throughout the world have found peace with one another through finding peace with God in Christ. But what about those who refuse to repent? At some point, the only way for God’s people to be at peace is for those who refuse to stop oppressing them to be brought to justice. And the same Jesus who comes to us now preaching peace will come again to judge the living and the dead, and in that day he will say to those who oppressed his people, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).
There are various reasons many Christians in America haven’t experienced the same kind of tangible, visible oppression that the Israelites did in Babylon or that our brothers and sisters in Christ still experience throughout the world. Not all of them are bad reasons; we can thank God for favor with the government and nothing in scripture requires us to go looking for persecution. But there have been times in our history where Christians have been spared from oppression because we’ve sided with the oppressors, and there are times today where we are spared from oppression because we’ve simply become so much like the world as to be unrecognizable in distinction from it. That’s a way of dealing with feeling forgotten and forsaken by God: Join the world. But God gives us a better option here. He promises us in verse 23 that those who wait for him will not be put to shame. Don’t go look for persecution, but if you simply desire to live a godly live in Christ Jesus in the present evil age, it will find you to some extent, whether violently and politically as in Babylon and throughout the world today, or more subtly through exclusion and insults. You will be shamed in the world, but in the end, it is those who refuse to give up their sin against you who will be put to shame, while you will be exalted with Christ.
Do you see what that means for how we relate to the world here and now, then? It means we don’t have to win here and now! It means that we can love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and turn the other cheek, in hope that they will give up their oppression in this life and come willingly to Christ, but knowing that if they refuse, vengeance is the LORD’s, and he will repay. As you go forward with the word of Christ and experience the feelings of failure and hatred, God has not forgotten or forsaken you. Even nursing mothers may forget, but he will not forget you. He has graven you on the palms of his hands, and he always has his plan to build his church before him. It will be so large that it will take a new heaven and new earth to contain it, and those who would not give up their sin against you will be judged. So let’s give ourselves to turning the other cheek as we proclaim the word of Christ, so that the salvation of our God may reach the end of the earth, for the glory of our God. Anything less would too light a thing for such a glorious savior.