Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).
1. What testimony does the servant of the Lord make in verses 1-3 (printed below?)
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Jehovah called me before I was born; while I was still in my mother’s womb, he made mention of my name. (2) He has made my mouth like a sharp sword—he has hidden me in the hallow of his hand; he has made me like a polished arrow—he has concealed me in his quiver. (3) He said to me, You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified. (Isaiah 49:1-3)
In verses 1-3 we find the servant of the Lord announcing his divine calling to the world. He calls upon the distant islands and the Gentile nations to listen to him—his divine calling is of universal significance, it does not just relate to the nation of Israel, it has bearing upon all the nations of the world (verse 1a). He declares that the Lord has sovereignly chosen him and called him to be his servant (verse 1b). He reports the Lord’s testimony to Him: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (verse 3). Note: here Israel is once again reduced back to one individual, but it is not the great forefather, Jacob; rather, it is his one great descendant, Jesus Christ—here is the One who proves Himself to be a true and faithful servant of the Lord.
2. What complaint does the servant raise in verse 4 (printed below?)
But I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose. But surely the justice I deserve is with Jehovah, and my reward is with my God. (Isaiah 49:4)
In verse 4 the Lord’s servant raises the complaint: “The Lord said to me, You are my servant (acknowledging his faithfulness)…I will be glorified in you” (the promise that his work will be successful and wholly acceptable to the Lord, with the result of bringing glory to the Lord.) “But I said, I have labored in vain.” He has faithfully fulfilled his calling, but there appears to have been no results, he sees no fruit. He has served the Lord faithfully, but far from being rewarded with an abundance of faithful disciples, he has been forsaken and crucified (note Matthew 26:56b). Nevertheless, despite the bitter things he has experienced, he places his trust in the Lord: “But surely the justice I deserve is with Jehovah, and my reward is with my God.” (verse 4b)
3. How does the Lord respond to His servant’s complaint? See Isaiah 49:7-8 (printed below)
This is what Jehovah, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, says to the one whom men despised, to the one whom the nation abhorred, to the one who was a servant of rulers: Kings will see you and stand up; princes will see you and bow down, because of Jehovah, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you. (8) This is what Jehovah says, In my appointed time I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you. I will preserve you and make you to be the covenant representative for the people, to restore the land and to cause them to inherit their heritage that has lain desolate (Isaiah 49:7-8)
The Lord Himself pledges to honor His servant who has been despised by the world (verse 7). The Lord speaks as “the Redeemer of Israel” and “his Holy One”—in His righteousness He must honor and reward His righteous servant (note Acts 2:24-25a, 27). The faithful servant of the Lord, the one who was despised by man and a servant of tyrants, shall finally be recognized and honored by the kings and princes of the world (note Philippians 2:9-11). As verse 7d indicates, the promises of the Lord are sure “because of Jehovah, who is faithful.” The Lord pledges to fulfill His promises to His servant in His “appointed time”—and until the time of fulfillment He shall preserve Him (verse 8).
4. What complaint do God’s people (i.e.; Zion) raise? See Isaiah 49:14 (printed below)
But Zion said, Jehovah has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me. (Isaiah 49:14)
Verse 14 voices Zion’s complaint, “Jehovah has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Here is the accusation that Jehovah, the covenant God, has broken His covenantal vows of commitment to His people; note Deuteronomy 7:6, “You are a people holy to Jehovah your God. Jehovah your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” But now the people God feel that they have been forsaken: the Lord has sent them away and consigned them to captivity in the land of Babylon.
5. What assurance does the Lord give to His people? See Isaiah 49:15-16 (printed below)
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion for the child to whom she has given birth? Yes, they might forget; but I will not forget you. (16) Look! I have engraved you on the palms of my hands—your walls are continually before me! (Isaiah 49:15-16)
In verses 15-16 the Lord tenderly assures His people that He cannot forget us nor forsake us. His compassion and care is greater than that of a mother for her infant child (verse 15). He cannot forget His children, redeemed by the blood of Christ, because we are engraved on the palm of His hand (verse 16).