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Isaiah Chapter 49 Notes

Posted by lehunt on January 4, 2015

Isaiah Ch 49 Commentary // larryhuntbiblecommentary.wordpress.com

Chapter Forty-nine:

v. 2: I like the way these images are arranged: God makes the weapon (the sharp sword and polished arrow) and then protects it (in the shadow of his hand and in the quiver).  It is a very beautiful juxtaposition of qualities to describe a dangerous weapon along with its need for protection.

Since the sword is described as being a metaphor for the narrator’s mouth (i.e. his words, his message) I assume the same is true of the arrow.  John uses the image of a sword similarly in Revelation 1:16.

v. 3: “You are my servant, Israel.” This is an unexpected sentence.  The servant in this chapter is the Messiah, who will save Israel (v. 5), so it seems odd to refer to the servant himself as Israel.  The Oxford commentary notes that the word “Israel” here in v. 3 is “absent from some Hebrew manuscripts” and thus believes it is a gloss added by a later editor rather than a part of the original text.  That makes sense to me.[1]

v. 4: I believe this verse describes the feelings of Jesus as he suffered from disappointment at the sinfulness and lack of faith in his followers.  He expressed such disappointment when he said, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (Matt 17:17) and “Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and you still do not know me?”  (John 14:9) and “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matt 26:40)  And he expressed it with a look when Peter denied knowing him at the trial before his crucifixion (Luke 22:61).

This chapter is Messianic, but it differs from some earlier Messianic chapters of Isaiah in that it sometimes seems to refer to Jesus directly rather than through one of his prefiguring types (like Cyrus in 41:2-3 or Immanuel in chapter 7).[2] Verses 8-21, use the imagery of Judah’s return from Babylonian captivity, so if this chapter were to reference one of Christ’s prefiguring types, I would guess that the reference would be to Cyrus, but how can verses like 4 and 7 refer to Cyrus? When would Cyrus have said something like what the speaker of v. 4 says, or how could Cyrus, triumphant emperor of the Persians, be reasonably described as “the slave of rulers” as this servant is described in v. 7?  Verse 6 is also a little awkward to apply to Cyrus.  He could be said to be the savior of Israel (and thus prefigure Christ) in that he conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  He could also be said to be the savior of the rest of the known world in as much as he rid the world of the Babylonian tyrants, but it seems more natural to see Cyrus as the savior of the known world first and then as the savior of the Jews (and other individual races enslaved in the empire) secondarily as a consequence of having conquered Babylon.  But here in verse 6, the servant saves Israel first, then the rest of the world.

v. 5: What “the LORD says” is in actually in v. 6.

v. 7: Saying that kings shall stand and princes fall prostrate makes me think of all these rulers in a confused scramble, eager to honor the Christ.

v. 8: The phrase “in a time of favor” begins the words of God in this section.  I do not know why the NRSV does not put quotation marks here as it does in other places (like v. 6).

v. 12: I am not sure about whether these people coming from far away are Jews returning from exile, or Gentiles being drawn in to Jerusalem from all over the earth.  Maybe the passage is meant to be ambiguous in order to allude to the fact that, once the Messiah comes, there will be no more Jews and Gentiles as such; everyone in the new spiritual kingdom will be a child of God.

As for the place “Syene,” I am not sure where it is.  The Oxford commentary thinks it is a place in upper Egypt where a Jewish community once existed before the Persians conquered Egypt.  Barnes seems convinced that it is China, citing the linguistic similarity of “Syene” with “Sina” (209-210).  He makes an interesting argument, but I am not sure whom to believe.

Notice how the prophet gives four directions from which “the people” (v.8) will come to Zion: “Far away…the north…the west…the land of Syene.”  Since the number of directions is four here, I would expect them to correspond to the four directions of the compass, but only two do this overtly (north and west).  I might argue that the other two imply the missing directions, and that Syene (China) could fill in for the east, but it seems a stretch to suggest that such a general term as “far away” is meant to refer specifically to any direction, and thus it seems a stretch to suggest that either of these two vague directions should refer to directions of the compass.

Nevertheless, it does seem odd to me (since these chapters either refer directly to the return of the Jews from Babylon or use the return more indirectly as a metaphor for other things) that “the east” is not given as a direction from which people will come.  One could argue that the Jews actually arrived from Babylon back into their homeland via the highways which approach Israel from the north, but it still seems like “the east” would have been mentioned since Babylon is to the east of Jerusalem.  After all, the wise men who came to see Jesus were “from the East” (Matthew 2:1) even though they may have approached Israel from the north.

v. 15: “I will not forget you [Zion].”  This is a beautiful feminine image of God.  In fact, it is sort of a superfeminine image of God because he is described as a more faithful mother than some human mothers.  It reminds me of Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  And there are also other places in the Bible where feminine imagery is used to describe God.  Compare the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 3:13-14,16; 4:6;8:1,12,23,27-29 with the description of Christ as the Word in John1:1-3,14.  See also notes on Genesis 1:27.

The image of God as a mother is particularly poignant here because Mount Zion in Jerusalem is personified as a mother bereft of her children.  By reminding her that he loves her just as she loves her own children (i.e. the Jews carried away to captivity) God assures Zion that he has not forsaken her.  See verses 20-23.

v. 16: Inscribing her (Zion) on the palms of his hands is a fascinating idea.  There may be no intentional reference here to the crucifixion, but it would be very good poetry if one were to make such a reference.

Vs. 20-23: This is my understanding of the imagery in these verses:  Zion is a bereaved and barren mother who suddenly is blessed with such a rush of children coming to her that the land is filled to the brim.  Thus, they will say, “The place is too crowded for me; make room for me to settle.” She has not known about these children because they were born away from her “in the time of …[her] bereavement” and reared by somebody else.  Thus, she asks in joy and surprise: “Who has reared these?”  The answer is that the kings and queens of the Gentiles have raised them.  “Kings shall be your foster fathers and queens your nursing mothers.”[3] These foster parents are now happily returning the children to their rightful mother.  “They shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.”  These same kings and queens, upon returning her children, will then acknowledge her as their High Queen and submit to her authority.

Here is my interpretation of these images: The mother Zion is a somewhat fluid metaphor: she represents both the physical (historical) and spiritual (Messianic) kingdom of Israel, and by extension, the true religion of God.  The substance of these verses is derived from the Jewish return from the Babylonian Captivity.  Historically, the land of Judah was bereft of its inhabitants.  These were taken away and “reared” in the Gentile lands for seventy years until the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Thus, the Gentiles returned Zion’s children to her.  However, I can think of no corresponding event in the history of the physical kingdom of Judah to match the Gentiles’ submission to Zion.  Persia was still Judah’s earthly master even after the return from Babylon, and after Persia, Greece, and after Greece, Rome, in the time of Christ, and Rome eventually annihilated Judah as a kingdom.  One could interpret this submission as a reference to mass conversions of Gentiles to Judaism, but I do not believe that ever happened.  This is only fulfilled in the Messianic kingdom of Jesus, where the Gentile world entered the kingdom by acknowledging the God of the Jews as the true God, and by submitting to his authority.  See also notes on 60:14.

v. 26: Some scholars think these verses describe the desperate sort of cannibalism that people have resorted to during prolonged sieges, but I do not believe that is what the prophet intends.  The wording does not suggest desperation but rather debauchery.  The oppressors of the Jews will be drunk on their own blood as with wine.  If this refers to the siege of Babylon (as I believe most people think it does) then my interpretation has a nice parallel with Daniel 5.  The fact that these oppressors are metaphorically drunk on their own blood refers to the seductive and self-destructive nature of sin.


[1] If it is a gloss, I wonder if it was added by Jews after the time of Christ in an attempt to make these verses seem less applicable to him.  See note on  42:2-3.

[2] Similarly, chapter 42 seems to make direct references to Jesus.

[3] I.e. the foster fathers and nursing mothers of your children.

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