1-3 Listen, far-flung islands, pay attention, faraway people: God put me to work from the day I was born. The moment I entered the world He named me. He gave me speech that would cut and penetrate. He kept His hand on me to protect me. He made me His straight arrow and hid me in His quiver. He said to me, “You’re my dear servant, Israel, through whom I’ll shine.” 4 But I said, “I’ve worked for nothing. I’ve nothing to show for a life of hard work. Nevertheless, I’ll let God have the last word. I’ll let Him pronounce His verdict.” 5-6 “And now,” God says, this God who took me in hand from the moment of birth to be his servant, to bring Jacob back home to Him, to set a reunion for Israel—what an honor for me in God’s eyes! That God should be my strength! He says, “But that’s not a big enough job for my servant—just to recover the tribes of Jacob, merely to round up the strays of Israel. I’m setting you up as a light for the nations so that my salvation becomes global!” 7 God, Redeemer of Israel, The Holy of Israel, says to the despised one, kicked around by the nations, slave labor to the ruling class: “Kings will see, get to their feet—the princes, too—and then fall on their faces in homage because of God, who has faithfully kept His word, The Holy of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The opening address to the islands and faraway people comes not from God, but from the Redeeming Servant. The servant reports the call that has already taken place (verses 1-3). Language used to describe God’s relationship to Israel is here applied to the Servant. The references to being protected, together with effective speech, match perfectly the role the servant has had up to this point.
From the perspective of immediate redemption, the questions center on the identity of the servant: “Is the servant an individual or are there many? Can the servant be identified with any individual important in Israelite history? Is it a collective term applied to all Israel? What is the servant’s role? What is the reason for the servant’s suffering?”
In this song, the servant is called by God to restore the survivors of Israel, but he laments that his work has been in vain. The servant’s life is a pattern of rejection, misery and continual violence from birth to death. But in the end, he will see his descendants prosper, and he will be numbered with the great ones.
The possible identity of the servant can be more clearly understood within the socio-political setting of the exiles’ life under Babylonian rule. The prophet’s ringing praises of Cyrus the Persian as Liberator of the Exiles could be seen as threats to the Babylonian Empire. Some among the Exiles supported the prophet’s view; others feared that his words would bring retaliation against the exiles for their anti-government stance.
Alternatively, a pro-Babylon position among the exiles is also possible, given the years of living there and the adapting that surely took place on the part of the exiles to the social/political morès of that culture. From that perspective, the servant would be seen as a traitor, being executed by the Babylonian government.
*Contemporary interpretations of the Suffering Servant have been meaningful and inspiring to poor and marginalized people around the world—San Salvador, Nicaragua, Korea and, of course, here in America. Those individuals (or groups of individuals) that lead such movements are often persecuted and/or martyred when the government feels threatened. They, like the servant in the text, give their lives to liberate others. As Christ’s disciples, is this not our role as well?
8-12 God also says: “When the time’s ripe, I answer you. When victory’s due, I help you. I form you and use you to reconnect the people with me, to put the land in order, to resettle families on the ruined properties. I tell prisoners, ‘Come on out. You’re free!’ and those huddled in fear, ‘It’s all right. It’s safe now.’ There’ll be food stands along all the roads, picnics on all the hills—nobody hungry, nobody thirsty, shade from the sun, shelter from the wind, for the Compassionate One guides them, takes them to the best springs. I’ll make all my mountains into roads, turn them into a superhighway. Look: These coming from far countries, and those, out of the north, these streaming in from the west, and those from all the way down the Nile!”
These verses continue the description of what God has called His servant to do. Here is a ministry that reaches far beyond Israel, going out to all the nations. The assurance is that God’s intention with the redeeming Servant will finally prevail. The servant will be responsible for a new exodus like the one Moses led, but far more expansive in its points of origin and far less fraught with wilderness wanderings. The Servant becomes the concrete means by which God’s relationship with Israel is embodied and manifested.
13 Heavens, raise the roof! Earth, wake the dead! Mountains, send up cheers! God has comforted His people. He has tenderly nursed His beaten-up, beaten-down people.
The him that closes out this passage declares that heaven and earth will witness God comforting of Israel. Comfort begins with their return to their homeland. The return is both literal and figurative. The literal is of no use without the spiritual.
*The ultimate point of the passage is the sovereign power of God which altogether allows for our falling away from Him, chastens and disciplines us for our rejection of Him, and ultimately calls us back to Him. At all times, God is in control.