“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold.” Isaiah 42:1
The book of Isaiah contains a staggering number of prophecies about the first coming of the Messiah Jesus — His birth, baptism, ministry, triumphal entry, arrest and trial, death, resurrection, and more.
It also contains four “Servant Songs.” Each song focuses on elements of His faithful nature, immense suffering on our behalf, and glorious exaltation in His resurrection. These four songs are the finest descriptions of our Savior in the Bible.
Isaiah 42 contains the first song. It carries significant meaning about Jesus’ gentle manner and His mission to save the lost.
Isaiah 42:1–3, “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him. He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench. He will bring forth justice for truth.”
Isaiah’s first Servant Song illustrates Jesus’ deep compassion toward those considered outcasts. His gentle nature could not possibly permit Him to come into the world as a military leader, as first-century rabbis taught. On the contrary, He would have no political agenda, incite any sort of revolution, or force Himself on anyone (v2). Instead, without fanfare, He came with gentleness and meekness, just as Isaiah foretold. Jesus even scandalously declared “justice to the Gentiles (v1).”
Isaiah uses two metaphors in verse three to describe Jesus’s nature. Shepherds used a reed to fashion a musical instrument. If it broke or cracked, it was useless. Flax was used as wicks to give light, but if it was smoking, it was useless. Isaiah 42 rightly says Jesus did not come to “break” or “quench” those who were considered useless; He came to restore and reignite them. No one is useless in the kingdom of God.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)
In His gentleness, Jesus came to show mercy to the weak and offer a path to restoration with the Father. But He is not finished. At His second coming, He will rule over His kingdom with justice (see Psalm 2:8–9; Revelation 2:27), and all the nations will experience His righteousness.
The Second Servant Song
Isaiah’s second Servant Song in Isaiah 49:1–13 is the longest of the four songs. It describes Jesus’ priestly functions, His suffering and humiliation, and final victory when He redeems His children. The word “servant” occurs twenty times in this song. Looking at the verses in sections helps us better understand how Jesus is the Lamb of God who laid down His life to redeem His children.
Verses 1–2. In verse one, Isaiah prophesies the Father’s announcement at the time of Jesus’ first advent.
“Listen, O coastlands, to Me, and take heed, you peoples from afar! The LORD has called Me from the womb; From the matrix of My mother, He has made mention of My name.”
God is announcing to the entire world, including Gentiles (“coastlands,” “peoples from afar”), of Jesus’ coming. Through Isaiah, God announces two essential details. First, Jesus will come as a human being, born from a woman like all humans. According to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, we know this woman will be a virgin and that it refers to Mary (see Luke 1).
Second, the Father called Jesus even before He was born in human form (“He has made mention of My name”). The fall of man to sin in Genesis 3 is where the Bible first mentions God’s redemptive plan. But since Jesus is one part of the triune godhead, and God is “from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2),” we know Jesus was there when the Father formed His redemption plan. Jesus was always a part of the plan long before the fall of the world.
Verse two describes Jesus’ power and intimate relationship with the Father.
“And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword. In the shadow of His hand, He has hidden Me and made Me a polished shaft. In His quiver, He has hidden Me.”
God has given Jesus the power to speak the Word of God effectively as a weapon against every enemy. He also hid Jesus and adequately prepared Him until the proper time of His physical appearance. Such love reflects their precious relationship.
Verses 3–4 and 5–7
“And He said to me, ‘You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ Then I said, ‘I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain. Yet surely my just reward is with the LORD and my work with my God.’” (Isaiah 49:3–4)
Some interpret the name Israel in verse three as referring to the nation of Israel. Some even claim it is about a purified remnant within Israel. However, New Testament authors rightly conclude it refers to the Messiah Jesus (Matthew 8:17; 12:17–21; John 12:38; Acts 8:30–35). Isaiah uses the name of Israel in reference to Jesus many times in his prophetic Servant Songs (42:1; 49:6–7; 52:13; 53:11).
The remainder of verse three, continuing into verse four, describes Jesus’ eventual suffering and His glorious victory. Though the people rejected the incarnate Lord, thinking He was a fraud and His mission a failure, He was confident to complete His task and enjoy a great reward of success (“In whom I will be glorified”).
Verse four indicates Jesus’ frustration with Israel, but He acknowledges the Father’s vindication of His people. One day, He will permanently release them from bondage.
Verses 5–7. In these verses, we learn of Jesus’ mission, which involves only two things — restoring Israel and drawing the Gentiles to the Father. Gathering and saving Israel through Jesus is the greater priority, but He will not complete His task until His second coming (see Zechariah 12:10–13:1).
For the Gentiles, Jesus’ goal is to be a light that also offers them salvation, which will provoke Israel to jealousy so that they return to the Lord. Paul writes about it in the book of Romans.
“I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:11)
The Bible has many prophecies about salvation coming to the Gentiles, causing the Jewish people to be jealous (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6; Matthew 8:11–12; 21:43; 22:1–14; Acts 13:46–47; 28:25–28). But the Jews will not return until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in during the Tribulation and the 144,000 witnesses have converted (Revelation 7:1–10; 14:1–5).
Despite God’s efforts to bring salvation “to the ends of the earth (v6),” men will reject the Servant Jesus. However, rulers, kings, and princes will exalt Him at His second coming, and all will bow down to Him (v7). Here in Isaiah 49, the Father declares His promise of faithfulness and success to His Servant.
“Because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, and He has chosen You.”
Continuing the Second Servant Song
The second Servant Song continues in verses 8–13, with the Servant asking the Father to give grace to sinners. God assures Jesus, “I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people…that You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’”
This covenant references the Abrahamic covenant, also found in the first Servant Song in Isaiah 42. However, chapter 42 speaks of God blessing the nations through Abraham. Here, in chapter 49, God promises to restore His people to the land they forfeited. At the right moment, God will save the Gentile elect and deliver Israel through His Son Jesus. Paul mentions Isaiah 49:8 in 2 Corinthians 6:1–2.
“We then, as workers together with Him, also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says, ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Though Paul was referring to events of the time and how God responds to repentant sinners, he emphasizes that will not always be the case (“now is the accepted time”). However, Isaiah 52 prophesies that a final Jewish remnant will return to Israel when Jesus returns during the Tribulation (the “day of salvation”). Their oppression will turn to prosperity and joy, and God will supply their every need.
The second Servant Song ends with an invitation to worship.
“Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth! And break out in singing, O mountains! For the LORD has comforted His people and will have mercy on His afflicted.” (v13)
Chapter 49 clearly prophesies that Israel will reject Jesus, but He will be victorious in returning them to the Father in the last days. In the meantime, He will call the Gentiles, and the collective worship in the new kingdom will be spectacular.
The third and fourth Servant Songs center on Jesus’ obedience to the Father and the sufferings He will endure for our sake. The fourth song especially highlights His ultimate victory over sin and death and the exaltation He deserves. Though His suffering culminates on the cross, He finishes with overwhelming triumph at His resurrection. A triumph in which we all can partake. We will talk about all that in parts two and three next time.