Isaiah 49: Israel or Messiah?


by Rabbi Jeffrey Adler

Isaiah 49 is the second of Isaiah’s 4 servant songs, foretelling the arrival of “Eved Adonai”, the “Servant of Adonai”, the one Who would suffer for the sins of Israel and the world. Many popular traditional rabbinic interpreters since the time of Rabbi Shimon ben Yitzhaq (Rashi) have seen the servant to be Israel suffering for the evil in the world, but, the internal evidence of the text states that Israel is the prime beneficiary of the Servant’s work, thus, cannot be the Servant.

“Listen to Me, islands! Pay attention, peoples far away. Adonai mibeten k’raani, mimm’ey immi hizkir sh’mi.” “Adonai called Me from the womb, from My mother’s belly He named Me.” The Messiah would not be some accident of history, but, the agent of a well devised divine plan. As so many Biblical texts make clear, even His birth is orchestrated from above.

“He made My mouth like a sharp sword. In the shadow of His hand He hid Me. He made Me a polished arrow, He has hidden Me in His quiver. He said to Me, ‘You are My Servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The Servant comes with a purpose, just as a sharpened arrow is intended to be aimed at a target. He stands in corporate solidarity with Israel, Jacob’s greatest Son, embodying what Israel had always been designed to be.

Yet, as all the Servant Songs attest, the great divine plan appears to fall onto failure, rejection. Isaiah 53 mourns, “He is despised and rejected by man, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…we hid our faces from Him…” Here, in Isaiah 49:4, “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and futility…” All looks lost.

Yet, there is the divine plan and arm. “Yet surely the justice (mishpat) due to Me is with Adonai, and My reward with My God.” No one is as trusting and faithful toward a father as a son, and, this son is none other than God’s Son. As He submits to the sacred and holy plan, there is confidence that God will come through in a manner consistent with His Nature and Character, the real definition of divine justice.

Jacob now will reap the benefits of the coming of the Servant Messiah: But now says Adonai, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, to gather Israel back to Him, for I am honored in the eyes of Adonai and My God has become My strength…” It is the ultimate honor to be the one bringing salvation and restoration to beloved Israel; that ultimate honor goes to Elohim’s ultimate delegate, His Servant/Son/Messiah. But, there is also a wider plan. “It is too trifling a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel. So, unt’tati-kha l’or goy-yim, lih-yot y’shuati ad-katzey ha-aretz. So, I will give (or gift) You as a light for the nations (or Gentiles) that You should be My Salvation to the end of the earth.” Ever since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, Mankind had had no idea what to expect from a holy God, so, Adonai had chosen Abraham and his descendents, choosing to reveal Himself and His Nature to them, so that, when the nations saw His faithfulness, mercy, righteousness, etcetera, they would know that they could expect Elohim to relate to them in kind also. God had always been interested in reaching the whole world, demonstrated by Naaman, Ruth, Nebuchadnezzar… Here, we see that one of the criteria of Israel’s true Messiah is that Gentiles also flock to Him. He (the Servant/Messiah) will be rejected, then honored. (Verse 7) “Thus says Adonai, the Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One, to the One despised, to the One the nation abhors, to a servant of rulers: ‘Kings will see and arise, princes will also bow down, because of Adonai who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.’”

He goes on in verse 8: “Thus says Adonai, ‘In a time of favor I will answer You, in a day of salvation I will help You. I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the land, to make them possess its desolate inheritances…’” “E-tzor-kha”, the 1st person of the imperfect tense of “ya-tzar”, form or fashion, speaks of Elohim’s process of shaping Messiah’s role as the covenant itself, personally. He Himself is the Restorer of Israel. He, Himself, is the bond between God and His people.

Verse 14: “But Zion says, ‘Adonai has forsaken me.’” Painful history, often the consequence of our own unfaithfulness, has given the illusion to a suffering people of divine rejection. However, the Lord responds, “Can a woman forget her nursing baby or lack compassion (me-ra-chem) for a child of her womb? Even if these forget, I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands. Your walls are continually before Me.” The Messiah/Servant, faithfully offering Himself and suffering in the place of His people, is the evidence, the proof, of God’s ongoing, passionate love for His people. The sight of the Servant/Messiah, Yeshua, is constant reminder that Israel will forever live in the favor of her holy God.

Rabbi Jeffrey Adler is president of the Board of HaShomer and also Rabbi of Sha’arey Yeshua in Indianapolis, IN.