It appears that the Israelites are still bitter about the exile, and they think they’ve been ignored and abandoned by their God. So God’s response is what we find in Isaiah 41-47. All of these poems are designed to be a poetic courtroom. God launches his case, claiming to be the Creator of the world and Lord of history. “Exhibit A” is the fact that just as he promised through Isaiah (see Isa 13:17), he’s raised up the Persians and Cyrus, their king, to topple Babylon, who took them into exile (see Isa 41:2-5, 41:25, 45:13). “Exhibit B” is the exile itself. This tragedy was not the result of God’s neglect! Rather, it came about as result of the Israelites’ idolatry and unfaithfulness (see Isa 43:22-28). “Exhibit C” is the downfall of Babylon itself, which is the focus in chapters 46-47. This is a demonstration of God’s justice on behalf of Israel, as he brought down their former oppressor.
Now, all of this evidence should have an effect on God’s covenant people. Experiencing the power, grace, and providence of their God should motivate the Israelites to become God’s “servant” who will bear witness to God’s justice and mercy before all of the nations. This is what the poem in Isaiah 42 is all about. The idea was that the exile would have chastened and purified Israel (as Isaiah spoke about in Isa 1) so that they would become “a light to the nations” (42:6) and unleash God’s justice into the world. However, that’s not what happened, and chapter 48 is wholly dedicated to making this point.
In Isaiah 48, God accuses the post-exile Israelites of continuing their hollow allegiance and idolatry, which ultimately disqualifies them from being God’s servant to the nations. Instead, God says he’s going to do “a new thing, hidden and unknown to you” (48:6), and then, like a bolt out of the blue, we hear a new voice speak up in Isaiah 48:16: “Behold, the sovereign Lord has sent me, endowed with his Spirit.”
Who is this?! We have heard of Spirit-empowered leaders before in Isaiah, the messianic King from the line of David, described as the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in Isaiah 11:1. He was endowed with God’s Spirit seven times over (see Isa 11:1-3). And now, it appears, he’s showing up on the scene after the exile. However, now the story is more complex; he doesn’t just have a job to do among the nations, as Isaiah 11 described, he also has a job to do among the Israelites themselves, who are as hardened to their God as ever. This is the main point of Isaiah 49-55; it describes this new servant’s mission, first to Israel and then to all nations.
Isaiah 49 describes how this individual “servant of Yahweh” is given the title “Israel” (49:3) and given Israel’s job of bringing justice and good news to the nations. But in 49:7, we discover that this servant is “despised and abhorred by the nation.” This ambiguous little description is developed in the following chapters. The servant tells us that his message is rejected by his fellow Israelites, and he’s beaten and forsaken (Isa 50). Nonetheless, the servant has a message of good news: God is going to fulfill his great promises and bring his kingdom over all nations (ch. 51-52). But, it’s going to happen in a surprising way. We’re told that God is going to send messengers with “good news… that ‘Your God reigns as king!’… God will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isa 52:9-10).
That sounds awesome! How will it go down?
Not how you’d expect. The poem that follows this dramatic announcement is the famous “suffering servant” poem of Isaiah 53 (to be precise, it goes from Isa 52:13-53:12). We hear about God’s servant that we were introduced to in chapters 48-49, and how God is going to lift him up high in exhaltation by allowing him to be rejected and beaten.
The center of the poem is put in the mouths of a group called “we,” who tell the story of the servant. They say he at first appeared to them as an insignificant low-life, god-forsaken and rejected by people. There was nothing about the servant that looked impressive or important (Isa 53:1-3). However, they now acknowledge that they couldn’t have been more wrong (Isa 53:4-6). In reality, the servant was suffering and dying on behalf of Israel’s sin and unfaithfulness. It was Israel who rejected God’s servant, and they led him to his death and killed him (Isa 53:7-9). But just like Joseph and his brothers who planned evil to destroy him, God orchestrated their evil to result in good (remember Gen 50:20!). It was actually God’s mysterious purpose that the servant would die at the hands of Israel, because of their sin and on behalf of their sin (Isa 53:10). His death would play the role of a sacrificial guilt offering (remember Lev 5-6?), providing atonement for their evil.
Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the servant’s story. After his rejection and death, we all of a sudden read that the servant will “look upon descendants and live long days” and “see the light and be satisfied” (Isa 53:10-11). We hear that his death was actually the opposite of failure. It was his way of “bearing the sins” of his people so that the guilty “can be pronounced righteous” before God (53:11b). Guilty Israel, who not only ended up in exile for their sins, but also killed God’s servant sent to them, is pronounced “righteous,” not for anything they have done, but because of what the servant did on their behalf.