The Mysterious Servant Speaks: Isaiah 49:1-7

mystery man

mystery man

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Three mysterious contestants sat before the celebrity panel. Each of the contestants stood in turn and announced, “My name is Robert Ethan Miller.”

All three claimed the same name. It was the celebrities’ job to ask questions and figure out which was the real one. At the end of the questioning, the panel would vote. If they failed to identify the true mystery guest, all 3 contestants won cash.

To Tell The Truth was first aired in 1956, the year I was born. I remember watching it as a child and guessing along with the TV panelists. Though they weren’t wearing masks, they were definitely mysterious. Each one answered the questions differently, but as confidently as if he were “the Real Robert Ethan Miller.”

I was mystified.

Isaiah’s Mysterious Servant Speaks

Today’s passage is the second of four Servant Songs in Isaiah. Last week we listened to the first song, sung by the LORD himself. “Behold my Servant,” he began, and went on to describe this mysterious person in ways that surprised us. We thought he would come as a Conqueror, but this first song announced him as One who would be meek and gentle, bruised and burned out.

Here is a servant we can relate to. But that description would have dismayed the battered nation of Israel. How could one so gentle be the deliverer they needed?

The second Servant Song brought a different surprise to God’s Old Testament people–and us–as the preacher pointed out this past Sunday. This time the song is not just about the Servant, it is sung by the Servant himself. Yes, we hear, not Isaiah’s voice, but the mysterious Servant, calling, “Listen to me.” And he’s not just talking to the nation Israel, either: “Listen to me, O coast lands, and give attention, you peoples from afar (Isaiah 49:1, my emphasis).”

He’s talking to us.

What is he saying, not just to Israel, but to all nations? This mysterious Servant begins giving clues to his identity:

The LORD called me from the womb,

from the body of my mother he named my name.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword;

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow;

in his quiver he hid me away.”

Isaiah 49:1b-2

First, he tells us about his prophetic calling, not just from birth, but before birth. Next he refers to being hidden, three times: First in the womb of his mother. Second in the shadow of the LORD’s hand. And third in the LORD’s quiver, like some sort of secret weapon.

Now I love a mystery. Right away I want to puzzle out these clues. Who was this one named by God himself before he was born? John the Baptist is one prophet who comes to mind.

No, it is the one to whom John pointed.

The Mysterious Servant Named

Jesus himself was named by God, much like his cousin John was. An angel announced his name to Joseph and to Mary in separate dreams. But what name does this prophecy give him?

Our familiarity with the Christmas story might cause us to fill in the blank too quickly. We know that an angel visited Mary first and announced the mysterious conception, adding “and you shall call his name Jesus.”

After that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and announced the same name–Jesus– adding “for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

However, hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah records a different name for the coming one, given by God himself:

And he said to me,

“You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:3, my emphasis

How could this mysterious one be named after the nation? It helps to remember that Israel wasn’t originally the name of God’s people, it was the name God gave to one person, Jacob, after he had wrestled with him during a long, dark night, until Jacob finally asked for his blessing.

God answered him with these words, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:28).”

The man who fought with God became the father of a nation who continued fighting with God, often in disobedience. Now, at last, the Messiah would bear that name, Israel, but this time he would use it both to identify with his people and submit to his God.

The Servant Sings the Blues

The servant’s response to this calling surprises me, but even more, it comforts me. He doesn’t boast about his accomplishments or show off his title. Instead, he laments:

But I said, “I have labored in vain;

I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my right is with the LORD,

and my recompense with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4

I completely identify with his discouragement. Do you? After coming to faith in Jesus as your Savior, did you expect one triumph after another? We often find ourselves feeling low because of the way some hopes we cherished have been dashed, such as:

  • a child who rebelled
  • a career that fizzled
  • a sickness that became chronic
  • a marriage that unraveled

Our Savior experienced the full range, not just of human trials, but of corresponding emotions. Remember the day he miraculously fed 5000 with a few loaves and fish? After he explained the miracle, saying “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” the crowd began to grumble and eventually dispersed.

Can you hear the pain in his voice when even many of his disciples turned away? “Do you want to go away as well (John 6:67)?” Jesus braced himself against the possibility that the twelve would finally walk away, too.

The pain of failure, the vanity of unfruitful labor, is painful to face. But we are not alone. God’s mysterious servant faced it, too.

The Servant Trusts

How does the LORD’s mysterious servant respond to his unsuccessful career, as well as to betrayal, mocking, crucifixion, and finally being forsaken? Isaiah tells us how he fights to trust God.

“Yet.” He doesn’t listen to himself, spiraling downward; he talks to himself, arguing with himself about the character of God, “yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God (Isaiah 49:5b).” Notice the word of relationship in his phrase “my God.” That’s faith pushing back against discouragement.

Jesus came to live the life we fail to live. When he became discouraged by his apparent lack of fruitfulness, including the persistent unbelief of his followers, he trusted his heavenly Father. As one commentator puts it

Not even our direst failure, our uttermost uselessness, can unpick the relationship of trust.

We are not saved by success or dismissed by failure.

Within that intimacy of believer and Lord, leave all to him; let him be the judge (‘my judgment’)

and let him decide the outcome (‘my achievement’).

Alec Motyer, Isaiah by the Day, p. 241

Jesus will help us trust our Father the way we hope, but often fail, to trust.

The Servant Is Promoted

After this disconsolate moment, the song changes tune. The LORD, pleased with his Servant’s faith, expands the his scope of ministry. Not only will he be sent to God’s Old Testament people Israel–that is too small a task for this faithful one–no, God unveils a grander plan:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to bring back the preserved of Israel;

I will make you as a light for the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Isaiah 49:6b

Though Jesus was despised and rejected by the Israel of his day, God transformed his defeat into victory over death and ministry to the nations. And his gospel will continue to conquer the earth until every knee has bowed and every tongue confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

Take heart, dear sister, from the Mysterious Servant’s words. He struggled against despondency to trust the One he served, and prevailed. And so shall we, as we follow the same path of faith, struggling to trust, but filled with his Spirit.