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Isaiah 49:1–12 Two Servants—The Messiah and the House of Israel
Biblical commentators have different views of Isaiah 49:1–12, especially with regard to the identification of the speakers and the servants (see verses 3, 5, 6 and 7). But 1 Nephi 21 (see the words in brackets) helps us to identify both the speakers and the recipients of the message. In this section, there are two different servants—the Messiah (see verses 5, 6, 7, and 8) and Israel (see verse 3). The identification of these two servants accords with other passages in Isaiah, where both the Messiah (see 42:1–4, 19; 52:13; 53:11) and the house of Israel (41:8; 43:10; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) are called God’s “servant.” Importantly, President Wilford Woodruff has stated that Isaiah 49 is having its fulfillment in our day (Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, 104).
In several captivating ways, this section artfully interconnects the words of the Lord, the Messiah, Isaiah, and covenant Israel; the chapter also has many poetic parallelisms as well as a variety of instructive symbols.
In verse 1, the Lord directly addresses the house of Israel. house of Israel . . . broken off. Descendants of Israel were broken off, like a branch is broken off of a tree. wickedness of the pastors. Those who were supposed to shepherd Israel led her astray. called me from the womb. Now the Messiah, Jesus Christ is speaking first person. These words, which suggests foreordination, recall the experience of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4–5; 44:2, 24; 49:5).
mouth like a sharp sword. During mortality, Jesus Christ spoke with authority and with the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; Doctrine and Covenants 6:2), which cuts and pierces. He hid me in the shadow of His hand/His quiver. Hiding in God’s hand and quiver provides ultimate safety (51:16).
You are my servant, O Israel. Now the Lord addresses Israel directly. I will glorify myself. God glorifies Himself through the work of His servant, Israel.
The Messiah speaks again, in first person.
my reward is with my God. See 53:12. he who formed me from the womb. See 49:1.
I will make you a light to the nations, to be My salvation to the end of the earth. The Messiah is a light to the nations; he is also salvation to all of the earth. But note also that Paul, Barnabas, and other ministers of Jesus Christ fulfilled these words (see Acts 13:47), as do all of the Lord’s true servants in the latter days: “Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it” (Doctrine and Covenants 86:11; emphasis added).
Kings will see, and princes will arise. Historically, the Messiah has been “despised” and “abhorred by nations,” but the time will come when kings and princes will pay respect to him and “they will bow down” to him and worship him. The Hebrew (yishtach) means “to bow down” or “to worship.”
The Lord now addresses the “isles of the sea.” acceptable time . . . day of salvation. Paul cited this passage to the Corinthians and then stated, “Now is the accepted time, behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). O isles of the sea. The Lord seems to be speaking to covenant Israel, which is scattered among the islands and the nations. My servant to be a covenant. God again addresses the Messiah, who is “a covenant of the people” (God is a covenant maker, and He makes sacred covenants with His people). establish the land/inherit desolate inheritances. Inasmuch as the land has been desolated over millennia, the Lord will bless and prosper it in the latter days.
prisoners . . . that sit in darkness. The Messiah is the one who frees the prisoners, speaking of those who are in spirit prison (Doctrine and Covenants 128:22) as well as to those who are in spiritual bondage (42:22; 1 Nephi 22:12).
They will feed/their pastures. Members of the house of Israel are portrayed as sheep, which are cared for by the Lord, who is the Shepherd. He will “lead them . . . and guide them”; and because of Him, “They will not hunger nor will they thirst.”
My mountains/My highways. The Lord now speaks in first person; He will provide a way for the exiles to return. These terms may also refer to the Lord’s holy temples (“mountains”) and His covenant path (“My highways will be exalted”).
O house of Israel. The Lord speaks directly to the house of Israel. these will come from far/north/west. Israel will gather from all parts of the earth. Verse 8, we recall, referred to the “isles of the sea.”
Isaiah 49:13–21 The Lord Comforts His Returning Children
The dialogue between the Lord and Lady Zion is one of the most endearing passages in scripture. When Lady Zion says, “The Lord has forsaken me,” the Lord tenderly responds, “I will not forget you, O house of Israel. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands” (49:14–15), a reference to the Atonement. 1 Nephi 21:13–20 has some textual variants.
Sing gladly, O heavens, and be joyful, O earth. Isaiah commands the inhabitants of heaven and earth to be joyful (see also 1:2). Why? Because God’s covenant people will be established, comforted, and gathered to their lands of promise. for they will be smitten no more. When Zion is fully established in the last days, she will no longer be smitten by her enemies (Doctrine and Covenants 45:66–71).
These verses constitute a dialogue between Lady Zion (which is Israel) and the Lord.
Zion says. Zion, or the Lord’s covenant people, the house of Israel (49:15). The Lord has forsaken me/forgotten me. It has been millennia since the Lord made covenants with Israel, so Israel thinks He has forgotten them (compare Judg. 6:13). But He is operating according to His time schedule, not Israel’s. The promised blessings will yet be given to Israel.
Can a woman forget her nursing child? A nursing child cries out when it is hungry, making it unlikely that a loving mother would forget her precious baby; additionally, nursing mothers physically need to nurse or it becomes painful. But although a woman may forget, the Lord will never forget His people, the house of Israel. In a previous revelation, the Lord stated, “O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me” (44:21).
I have engraved you on the palms of My hands. A reference to Jesus’s Crucifixion, in which nails pierced His hands and left marks that remained after His Resurrection (Luke 24:38–40). These marks are a sacred sign to Israel that Jesus is indeed the Savior. your walls are always before Me. The walls may refer to the temple’s walls, pointing to God’s covenant promises.
Your children . . . your destroyers . . . depart from you. The children are Israel’s descendants, and the destroyers are the nations and armies that assaulted ancient Israel. But in the last days, Israel’s destroyers will depart and Zion will find peace (Doctrine and Covenants 45:66–71).
all of them gather together. An explicit reference to the gathering of Israel in the last days. As I live. Jehovah utters an oath of surety to Israel. clothe all of them, as with an ornament. Each individual who comes to Zion in the last days will be precious to the Lord, just as fine clothing or jewelry is precious to a bride. bind them on. Zion’s inhabitants are bound together with the bond of charity; they are also bound together in the sacred sealing ordinance of the temple.
waste places/desolate places. Israel’s promised land, ravaged and destroyed through the millennia, will “be too narrow for inhabitants” of Zion because of the great numbers who will gather. Isaiah 54:1–3 expands on this prophecy. those who swallowed you up will be far away. Israel’s enemies swallowed Israel up, meaning they destroyed Israel as easily as one swallows while eating. But God’s “glory” and “terror” will keep Israel’s enemies a distance from Zion (Doctrine and Covenants 45:67, 70).
place is too narrow for me. See verse 19.
Who gave birth for me to these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away. Lady Zion—who was bereaved, barren, exiled, and put away—sees the great numbers of her children who are inhabitants of Zion in the last days and wonders where they came from.
Isaiah 49:22–26 Nations Will Assist Returning Israel
Isaiah employs several beautiful symbols and parallelisms as he prophesies of Israel’s return to God and their covenant lands in the last days. The Lord Himself takes an active role in the gathering: “I will lift up My Hand . . . I will raise My ensign”; “For the Mighty God will deliver His covenant people”; and “I will save your children” (emphasis added). Additionally, nations will assist Israel’s gathering—kings will be like fathers to Israel, and princesses will be like wet nurses. In fact, kings and princesses will bow down to Israel (see verses 22–23), a reversal of when Israel served as slaves to the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others. Jacob cited Isaiah 49:22–26 in 2 Nephi 6 and Nephi cited Isaiah 49 in 1 Nephi 21, with some variants.
I will lift My hand to the nations. God’s lifted hand may designate (1) a covenant gesture, (2) a signal for the nations to gather to the ensign, or (3) a demonstration of His power; “hand” (Hebrew yad) sometimes denotes power. I will raise My ensign to the peoples. The ensign, or standard, serves as a rallying point around which people gather. God’s “everlasting covenant” is a “standard”: “And even so I have sent mine everlasting covenant into the world, to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people, and for the Gentiles to seek to it, and to be a messenger before my face to prepare the way before me” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:9); also, “Verily I say unto you all: Arise and shine forth, that thy light may be a standard for the nations” (Doctrine and Covenants 115:5). your sons in their lap/your daughters will be carried upon their shoulders. The Lord sets forth the image of coddling parents who love and pamper their children.
kings will be your foster fathers, and their princesses your wet-nurses . . . they will bow down to you. Monarchs and royalty will express great respect to the children of Israel, a reversal to when Israel submitted to dishonorable kings and queens.
Will the prey be taken from the mighty. In wonder and amazement at the Lord’s great promises in verses 22–23, Israel asks the Lord if the mighty nations and their rulers will lose their power. Note the chiasmus: prey/captives//captives/prey.
I will contend with them that contend with you, and I will save your children. Anciently, when Israel served the Lord with obedience, He fought their battles and conquered their enemies (Exodus 14:27–28; Joshua 10:11; Judg. 4:15, 23; 2 Kings 6:18–27). He will do the same for Israel in the latter days.
I will feed them that oppress you with their own flesh. Israel’s enemies will fight against each other and eventually destroy themselves. all flesh will know that I the Lord am your Savior and your Redeemer. When Jehovah fights Israel’s battles in the last days, all flesh will know that Jehovah is God.
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