The true Israel: Isaiah 49

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 49-53.

Reading the Old Testament, we Christians see God’s continual interaction with his chosen people, the Jews. Despite their rebellion God forgives them and preserves a remnant. But as New Testament believers we now see the Jews cut off from the Messiah because of their unbelief. We must ask ourselves, as Paul did in Romans 9, how we reconcile this situation with God’s covenant promises to Israel. Part of the answer jumps out in today’s passage from Isaiah as the prophet introduces the Servant.

Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” Isaiah 49:1-3

The Jews now interpret these verses to apply to the Jewish people as a whole, but in former days they said it described the Messiah, and that is how Christians understand it. God says his Servant will restore Jacob and bring back Israel; how then can he be Jacob or the nation of Israel? Yet God calls him Israel, because he is the true Israel, in contrast to the Jews who continually rebelled against him.

  • He is the true Israel because he perfectly manifests everything Israel was meant to be.
  • He is the true Israel because he “prevailed with God” on behalf of man and for our sin. Israel means “prevails with God,” as Jacob prevailed with God when he wrestled with him.
  • He is the true Israel because, though one, he represents the many of God’s people.

Isaiah describes many tasks that are given to this servant, the true Israel, the Messiah. He will be a light to the Gentiles, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6). He will be a covenant for the people and free the captives (49:8-9). He will give himself fully on behalf of God and be physically abused but not disgraced (50:6-7). He will carry our sorrows, bear our iniquities, and be pierced for our transgressions. Through his suffering, he will  heal us (Isaiah 53).

Paul saw God defining true Israel as the children of the promise, those who by faith enter God’s family as Abraham and Sarah bore Isaac by faith (Romans 9). Isaiah is telling us that the true Israel is God’s suffering servant, the Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus Christ, and God’s people are those who come to him through the work of the Messiah. It’s important to note here that the Messiah’s work isn’t just for the Gentiles. Isaiah makes it clear that the Messiah will some day restore the Jews.

Image by Jeffrey on Flickr, CC by 2.0

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