Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.XLIX.
(1) Listen, O isles . . .—The argument against idolatry has been brought to its close, and a new section opens, and with it there is a new speaker, the mysterious “Servant of the Lord,” (Isaiah 42:1), at once identified with Israel (Isaiah 49:3), in fulfilling its ideal, and yet distinguished from it, as its Restorer and Redeemer. “Isles” as before stand vaguely for “far off countries.” The invitation is addressed to the heathen far and wide.
The Lord hath called me from the womb.—The words indicate a predestined vocation. (Comp. Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15; Luke 1:41; Galatians 1:15.) Admitting the thought of a Divine order working in human history, the idea of such a vocation follows in inevitable sequence.
And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;(2) He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword.—The words indicate at once the spiritual nature of the “Servant’s” victories. It is his speech that wounds and heals, his words that go like winged arrows to their mark. The description finds an echo in Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 19:15; Ephesians 6:17. The “shaft” is “polished,” as piercing without impediment. It is “hid in the quiver,” reserved, in the drama of the world’s history, and in each crisis of the Servant’s life, till the “hour was come,” the appointed “fulness of time” (John 2:4; John 7:6; Galatians 4:4).
And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.(3) Thou art my servant, O Israel.—Not that the “Servant” is merely the nation, but that he fulfils its ideal. “Israel” had begun with being an individual name. It should be so once more in the person of Him who would be truly “a prince with God.”
Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.(4) Then I said.—The accents of disappointment sound strangely on coming from the lips of the true Servant; but the prophet had learnt by his own experience that this formed part of the discipline of every true servant of God, in proportion to the thoroughness of his service, and therefore it was not strange to him that the ideal Servant should also taste that bitterness. We find in the prophet of Anathoth a partial illustration of the law (Jeremiah 20:14). We find its highest fulfilment in the cries of Gethsemane and Golgotha, The sense of failure is surmounted only, as here, by looking to another judgment than man’s, and another reward (better than “work”). (Comp. 1Corinthians 4:3.)
And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength.(5) Though Israel be not gathered.—Better, and that Israel be gathered to Him. The negative, as in Isaiah 9:3, comes from an error of transcription; for “yet” read and. The Servant falls back upon the greatness of the work committed to him, that of restoring Israel, and is certain that sooner or later it will be accomplished. Comp. the argument of Romans 9-11
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.(6) And he said.—The words are repeated from “saith the Lord” of the preceding verse, where they had been followed by a long parenthesis. The Servant becomes conscious of a higher mission. All national barriers are broken down. He is to be the bearer of a message of peace to the whole race of mankind, and has “other sheep not of this fold” (John 10:16).
Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.(7) To him whom man despiseth.—Literally, to one despised of soul, where “soul” may either stand for “men” as in the Authorised version, or imply that the contempt enters into the soul of the sufferer. (Comp. Psalm 105:18.) The point of the words lies in the fact that the doer of the great work is to be despised by the world’s judgment or by his own people, by proud rulers (comp. 1Corinthians 1:27); and yet he, and no other, will accomplish it.
Thus saith the LORD, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages;(8) In an acceptable time.—Literally, in the season of good pleasure. The message is borne in on the soul of the servant as the secret of confidence and strength. It will be his work to be the link in a new covenant with the people, an idea afterwards developed by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31), and reaching its fulfilment in Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20.
To cause to inherit the desolate heritages.—The prophet may have thought of a literal fulfilment such as was probably in part accomplished by Zerubbabel. We, seeing the prediction in the light of its fulfilment, look to the spiritual inheritance.
That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places.(9) That thou mayest say to the prisoners . . .—Comp. Isaiah 42:6-7. Here, perhaps, the thought of the deliverance of Israel is more exclusively prominent; but the words have obviously a yet wider and higher application.
They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them.(10) Neither shall the heat . . .—The word is the same as the “parched ground” of Isaiah 35:7, and stands, as there, for the mirage of the scorching desert.
And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.(11) My mountains . . . my highways . . .—The pronoun asserts the universal lordship of Jehovah. The whole earth is His.
Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.(12) From the west.—Literally, from the sea, which commonly has this meaning. In Psalm 107:3, however, it clearly stands for the south, and is probably used in that sense here. In this case “from far” stands for the south, probably for the distant Ethiopia, where Jewish exiles had already found their way (Zephaniah 3:10).
From the land of Sinim.—The region thus named is clearly the ultima Thule of the prophet’s horizon, and this excludes the “Sinites” of Canaan (Genesis 10:17), and the Sin (Pelusium) of Egypt. Modern scholars are almost unanimous in making it refer to the Chinese. Phœnician or Babylonian commerce may have made that people known, at least by name, to the prophet. Recent Chinese researches have brought to light traditions that in B.C. 2353 (and again in B.C. 1110) a people came from a strange western land, bringing with them a tortoise, on the shell of which was a history of the world, in strange characters “like tadpoles.” It is inferred that this was a cuneiform inscription, and the theory has been recently maintained that this was the origin of the present Chinese mode of writing. (See Cheyne’s “Excursus,” 2 p. 20, and an elaborate article on “China and Assyria” in the Quarterly Review for October, 1882.) Porcelain with Chinese characters has been found, it may be added, in the ruins of the Egyptian Thebes (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, 1st ser., iii. 106-109). All recent discoveries tend to the conclusion that the commerce of the great ancient monarchies was wider than scholars of the sixteenth century imagined. The actual immigration of Jews into China is believed to have taken place about B.C. 200 (Delitzsch in loc).
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.(13) Sing, O heavens.—As in Isaiah 44:23, all nature is invited to join in the chorus of praise for the deliverance of Israel.
But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.(14) But Zion said . . .—In the midst of all that Jehovah was doing for his people they were still showing their little faith, and thinking of themselves as forsaken. They shared the misgivings which were felt even by the Servant, but they did not rise out of them as quickly as He did into the full assurance of faith.
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.(15) Can a woman forget . . .?—The love of Jehovah for His chosen ones is more than that of a father, more tender and unchangeable even than the maternal love which exists often in the most depraved. Even that may perish, but not so His pitying affection.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.(16) Behold, I have graven thee . . .—The words point to the almost universal practice of tattooing. A man thus “engraved” the name of his god, or the outlines of his home, or the face of her he loved, upon his hands or arms. So, by a boldly anthropomorphic figure, Jehovah had “graven” Jerusalem on His hands. He could not open them, i.e., could not act, without being reminded of her. The “walls” may be either those of the earthly city lying in ruins, or those of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Thy children shall make haste; thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee.(17) Thy children shall make haste.—A various reading adopted by the LXX., Targum, and Vulg., gives thy builders. They rush to their work of restoration; the destroyers and ravagers go forth.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold: all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith the LORD, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament, and bind them on thee, as a bride doeth.(18) Lift up thine eyes.—The daughter of Zion is called on to gaze on the returning exiles. They shall be her gems and her girdle as the bride of her new espousals. A distant parallel is found in the story of the mother of the Gracchi pointing to her children as more precious jewels than those of her wealthy rival.
For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away.(19) Shall even now be too narrow.—Literally, with a vivid abruptness, thou shalt be . . . The over population of the future is contrasted with the depopulation of the past (Isaiah 3:6; Isaiah 4:1).
The children which thou shalt have, after thou hast lost the other, shall say again in thine ears, The place is too strait for me: give place to me that I may dwell.(20) The children which thou shalt have . . .—Better, the children of thy bereavement (i.e., born when Zion thought herself bereaved) shall yet say . . .
Then shalt thou say in thine heart, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? and who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where had they been?(21) Who hath begotten me these . . .?—Better, who hath borne . . .? The widowed daughter of Zion cannot believe that these crowding children are her own, and asks, Who then is their mother? She, the widowed one, the prisoner, dragged hither and thither, could not claim them.
Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.(22) The Gentiles . . . the people . . .—Both words are used of the heathen. They are summoned by the uplifted signal of Jehovah to do their work as nursing fathers, carrying the children in their bosom (Numbers 11:12).
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.(23) Kings shall be thy nursing fathers . . .—As a rule kings gave their children to be brought up by their nobles (2Kings 10:5). Zion should have kings themselves and their queens to rear her children. They shall bow down to her, the true Israel, the true Ecclesia, as the dwelling-place of Jehovah.
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered?(24) Shall the prey be taken . . .?—The question is asked by Zion in her little faith. The next phrase, “lawful captive,” literally “captive of righteousness,” may mean, (1) as in the Authorised version a captive whom the conqueror had a right to take, or (2) one who was righteous and yet had been given into captivity. Neither meaning is quite satisfactory. A conjectural emendation gives the captives of the terrible one, which fits in with the parallelism of the next verse.
But thus saith the LORD, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.(25) I will contend . . .—The pronoun is specially emphatic. The question of Isaiah 49:24 is answered in the affirmative, because Jehovah is the deliverer.
And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, as with sweet wine: and all flesh shall know that I the LORD am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob.(26) I will feed them that oppress thee . . .—The words are, of course, symbolical of the utter collapse, the self-destructive struggles of the enemies of Zion, i.e., of the company, or Ecclesia, of the redeemed.
The mighty One of Jacob.—Same word, and that a rare one, as in Isaiah 1:24.