Armor Bearers – Isaiah 52:11
1. The Prophet and the Nation
One of the primary purposes of the book of Isaiah is to offer comfort and hope to the Jewish people. One method that the prophet uses to comfort Israel is by comparing the nation to the prophet himself.
“My Lord God has granted me a tongue for teaching, to understand the need of the times in conveying matters to those who thirst (for knowledge); He arouses (me) morning after morning; He arouses me to understand as disciples are taught. My Lord God has opened (my) ear for me, and I did not resist; I did not retreat to the rear. I submitted my body to those who smite and my cheeks to those who pluck; I did not hide my face from humiliation and spit. For my Lord God helps me; therefore I was not humiliated; therefore I made my face (as hard) as flint and knew that I would not be ashamed. My Champion is near; whoever would contend with me, let us stand together; whoever is my adversary, let him approach me. Behold my Lord God will help me; who is he that will condemn me? Behold, they will all wear out like a garment; a moth will devour them.” (50:4-9)
In this passage the prophet describes how God has granted him the tools that are necessary to fulfill his mission. God gave Isaiah a gifted tongue and an ability to break down the information so that people can understand him. Isaiah goes on to say that his mission called for him to endure humiliation and persecution but he was not deterred. Since God is on his side, Isaiah fears no one.
A few lines later we read: “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, the nation with My teaching in their heart; do not fear from the disparagement of man, and do not be broken by their insults; for like a garment, a moth will eat them, and like wool, a worm will eat them; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation for all generations.” (51:7-8)
Here God addresses the people of Israel, describing them as a nation who carries His teaching in their collective heart. God encourages them not to fear the humiliation and the shame of the nations. He assures Israel that her enemies will melt away as if consumed by the moth. (See also 41:11; 51:22, 23; 54:17; 60:14). Just as the prophet carries God’s message, suffers humiliation and is ultimately vindicated by God; so it is with Israel. She too carries God’s message, is humiliated on account of God’s message and will ultimately be vindicated by God.
In chapter 44 God describes the fulfillment of prophecy with the words: “Who confirms the word of His servant, and fulfills the council of His messengers.” (44:26). The prophet who proclaims God’s word is entitled with the terms: “His servant” and “His messenger”. In chapter 42 God exclaims: “Who is blind but My servant and deaf as My messenger whom I send?” (42:19). God’s servant and His messenger are described as “blind” and “deaf” – the very qualities that are associated with Israel several times throughout the book of Isaiah – 35:5; 42:7,16,18; 43:8. The blindness that is Israel’s quality is attributed to the prophet and the blindness of the prophet is Israel’s blindness. The nation of Israel is set as a parallel to the prophet and the prophet is parallel to Israel.
2. The Word
The role of the prophet is to bring God’s word to the world. But the prophet is not merely a “delivery boy”; a means of transportation that is not connected to the article that he is transporting. God tells Jeremiah: “Behold, I have placed My words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to uproot and to smash, and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:9, 10).
The word of God accomplishes His purpose on this earth (Isaiah 55:11), and the work of God is attributed to the prophet who brings the word from God into the world.
Just as the prophet is entrusted with God’s word and is enjoined to bring it into this world, so it is with Israel. Israel has been granted God’s word to the exclusion of any other national entity (Isaiah 43:12; Psalm 147:19, 20). Israel has been appointed to be God’s witness to the truth of His sovereignty (Isaiah 43:10; 44:8; 45:19).
“And as for Me, this is My covenant with them , said the Lord, My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth nor from the mouth of your offspring nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, said the Lord from now until forevermore.” (Isaiah 59:21).
“And I have placed My word in your mouth and with the shade of My hand have I sheltered you, to plant the heavens and to establish the earth and to declare to Zion; “You are My people”.” (Isaiah 51:16).
God’s work of planting the new heavens and establishing the new earth (Isaiah 66:22) is attributed to Israel who bears God’s word and declares it before it is done.
But how is Israel appointed to bring God’s message to Zion (“You are My people”)? Israel and Zion are one and the same. How can Israel be called upon to bring a message to herself?
The prophet provides two answers to this question. Throughout Isaiah we find that within the collective body of Israel there exists a limited group who are more closely associated with the prophet. In chapter 8 Isaiah tells us that God warned him not to walk in the way of the nation. As Isaiah proceeds to give us God’s warning he moves from the singular (in verse 11) to the plural (in verses 12 and 13). It is clear that the prophet was associated with a group within Israel who remained loyal to God even when the rest of the nation strayed. Similarly, the prophet calls out to this limited group: “Who among you fears the Lord, listening to the voice of His servant?” (50:10). The righteous amongst Israel fear God and obey the prophet. Chapter 40 opens up with God encouraging a plural group of people to comfort Israel (40:1). We can understand that those who are loyal to God are enjoined to declare to the rest of the nation that they are God’s people.
The prophet provides another way to understand how Israel can be appointed to bring a message to herself. Israel is a nation comprised of human beings who do not live forever. Israel’s purpose is only accomplished with the connection of all of her generations; from the past into the future. It is for this reason that the seed of Israel is mentioned so often in these passages of comfort (43:5; 44:3; 54:3; 59:21; 61:9; 65:9, 23; 66:22). Each generation of Israel is appointed to declare to the next generation: “you are God’s people”.
3. The Servant of Chapter 49
With all of this in mind, let us approach the opening passage in chapter 49.
“Listen to me, O islands, and hearken O distant regimes: the Lord summoned me from the belly; He mentioned my name from my mother’s womb. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He hid me; He made me like a smooth arrow, in His quiver He concealed me. He said to me: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I take glory.” But I said, “I have toiled in vain and used up my strength for nothingness and naught; however, judgment is with the Lord and (the reward for) my accomplishments is with my God.” And now the Lord, who formed me from the belly to be a servant to Him, to restore Jacob unto Him, and Israel will be gathered unto Him and I was honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God was my strength. He said: “It is insufficient that you be a servant for Me to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the ruins of Israel; I will make you a light for the nations, so that My salvation may extend to the ends of the earth.”
Who is this servant?
At first glance, we would say that this is Isaiah. The prophet is described as one who is called from the womb (Jeremiah 1:4). The mouth of the prophet is the implement that God uses to accomplish His purpose (Jeremiah 1:9,10). Isaiah was first called to restore Israel to God (when he spoke to the Jews of his own generation), but ultimately, it is Isaiah who is the primary prophet called to bring the message of the Messianic era to all of mankind. It is Isaiah’s words that are written on the side of the U.N. building expressing man’s hope for a future of peace. And it is Isaiah’s metaphor of the lion lying with lamb that is most often used to describe the glorious plan that God has for all of humanity. Furthermore; the servant in this passage speaks for himself in the first person without being introduced in any way, which also leads us to believe that it is Isaiah who is talking.
However; the servant is identified as “Israel” (verse 3). Israel is also called from the time of their formation (43:21; 44:2, 21, 24; 46:3). The servant of this passage is described as a “sword” and an “arrow” just as Israel is called the “armor-bearers of the Lord” (52:11) and they are set by God to be a “threshing board of many blades” (41:15). Just as this servant is sheltered in the shade of God’s hand so is Israel likewise sheltered (51:16). Just as the servant fears that his toil has been in vain so does Israel fear that their toil has been in vain (40:27). Just as the servant will bring light to the nations so will Israel bring light to the nations (60:3). And this passage is placed in the midst of a series of prophecies which are spoken for the encouragement of Israel (48:20; 49:14).
The lines between the prophet and the nation are intentionally blurred. The encouragement to Israel is that in a certain sense they are the prophet of God. Just as the prophet carries God’s word so does Israel carry God’s word and just as the prophet is granted the strength of God’s word so is Israel granted the strength, the power and the eternal nature of God’s word (40:8).
4. The Servant of Chapter 42
“Behold My Servant, whom I shall uphold; My chosen one, whom My soul desired; I have placed My spirit on him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not shout nor raise his voice, nor make his voice heard in the street. He will not break (even) a bruised reed nor extinguish (even) a flickering flax; but he will administer justice in truth. He will not slacken nor tire until he sets justice in the land and islands will long for his teaching.” (42:1-4).
“Thus said the God, Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them forth; who formed the earth and its produce, Who gave a soul to the people upon it: I am the Lord; I have called you with righteousness; I will strengthen your hand; I will protect you; I will set you for a covenant (to the) people, for a light to the nations; to open blind eyes; to remove a prisoner from a dungeon. I am the Lord; that is My name; I shall not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven idols. Behold the early (prophecies) have come about; now I relate new ones; before they sprout I shall let you hear (them)” (42:5-9).
It would seem that the prophet is speaking here of two separate servants. The first servant is appointed to bring judgment to the nations (verses 1 thru 4); a function most often assigned to a king (11:3,4; 16:5). While the second servant is called to bring God’s word to the people (compare to 49:8; 61:1-3); a function assigned to the prophet. The first servant is described in the third person, while the second servant is being addressed directly by God and the paragraphs describing these two servants are separated by a space in the original scroll as well as with an introduction in verse 5.
With our new-found understanding we can see how these two servants are both separate and the same. We must first ask ourselves: what is this “teaching” that the islands long for? (verse 4).
In chapter 2 (verses 3 and 4) we see how it is God’s word and His teaching that will guide the nations. The same concept is repeated in chapter 51 verses 4 and 5. Yet here in chapter 42 we are given to understand that it is the teaching of God’s servant that the nations are longing for. So what is it? Is it God’s teaching or is it His servant’s teaching that brings light to the nations?
These two are actually one and the same. In chapter 60 we read how the nations are covered in darkness while God’s light shines over Israel (verses 1 and 2). But verse 3 tells us how the nations shall walk to Israel’s light. So whose light is it? Is it God’s light or is it Israel’s light?
The answer to this question is the underlying theme of these chapters in Isaiah. The light that all hope for is the word of God. This word has already been set in the mouth of Israel (59:21). The teaching of God that all of mankind longs for and the righteousness of the Lord that will judge the nations has already been granted to Israel and has already been planted in Israel’s heart (51:7). God’s righteous law that has been granted to Israel will ultimately bring light to all of mankind. When Israel’s king; the Messiah, administers justice to the nation, it will not be his own personal justice, he will rule by the righteousness of God and that righteousness is the law that is already planted in Israel’s heart.
The first servant of chapter 42 (verses 1 thru 4) is the Messiah, the king of Israel while the second servant (verses 5 thru 9) is the prophet who brings God’s word to accomplish God’s purpose here on earth. Yet these two are not seen as entities that stand alone. Both of these are part and parcel of Israel herself. The justice meted out by the Messiah is the law that God allowed Israel to call her own and the word that the prophet proclaims is the word that has already been planted in Israel’s mouth.
The argument that God uses in verse 8 of this chapter (42) is repeated in chapter 48 (verse 11). God argues that He will certainly fulfill His word because: “how can I let My name be profaned? I will not cede My glory to another”. In that context (chapter 48) God is explaining why it is that He will purify Israel and bring about His purpose through His chosen nation despite their failings. It is because he has already associated His name and His glory with this nation and this connection is immutable. It is this same argument with which God encourages His servant in chapter 42. It is because God has already associated His name and His glory with Israel that the prophet’s words must come to pass. The last phrase in verse 9 (of chapter 42) addresses the servant in the plural indicating that it is not only the prophet who is being addressed personally but it is also the nation as a whole that God is speaking to.
5. The Servant of Chapter 52:13 – 53:12
Why do the priests and the prophets bear the sins of the people (Numbers 18:1; Ezekiel 3:17 – 20)? It is because the priests and the prophets are the people who are charged with the task of bearing God’s teaching and His word (Deuteronomy 33:10; Ezekiel 3:17; 2Chronicles 31:4). As the teachers of the people they are responsible for the sins of the people. Had they executed their function more completely the light of God would have reached the people and they would have refrained from sin. When the priest and the prophet do not fulfill their divinely appointed tasks and the people walk in darkness, it is they, the teachers, who are held responsible.
Israel, who bears God’s word and His teaching is called “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). It is their responsibility to bring God’s light to the world through their obedience to God’s law. When they fail in their calling and the world walks in darkness; Israel is held responsible. It is for this reason that the servant bears the sins of his oppressors. And the servant is comforted with the promise that he will eventually share his knowledge with many thus fulfilling his true calling before God (53:11).
It is the duty of every king to administer justice to their respective nations. Each nation has its own concept of justice and righteousness that is administered by every nation’s own monarch. This will cease when God’s light is revealed. When God’s teaching is revealed to the nations they will realize that they had been walking in darkness. They will recognize that their own concepts of justice and righteousness are at odds with God’s righteous law. It is for this reason that the astonishment of the kings and their subservience to the bearers of God’s word is such a prevalent theme throughout these prophecies of the future redemption (49:7, 23; 52:15; 60:3, 10, 11; 62:2).
But Israel is made up of individuals who only live for the brief time allotted to them by the Eternal God. How can these mortal beings accomplish God’s eternal purpose? It is through their progeny that Israel accomplishes God’s purpose on earth (53:10). By passing on God’s word from one generation to the next God’s purpose is accomplished and all of mankind is blessed (59:21).
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal