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On the one hand he seems to be speaking of Israel but in the next breath it seems that the servant is the messiah who gathers in the remnant of Israel:

NIV Isaiah 49: 1Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. 2He 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. 3He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” 5And now the Lord says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I ama honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength— 6he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” 7This is what the Lord says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Is it possible to read verse 3 as "You are my servant TO Israel"?

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Isaiah 49:1-2 is written in first person, as if spoken by the nation of Israel as a collective individual, addressed to the nations of the world. It is not the prophet referring to himself. The rest of the chapter is a continuing dialogue between Israel and God. There is no imagery of messiah in this chapter. The Hebrew word for messiah does not appear in this chapter. God alone is the actor.

Isaiah 49:3 in the MT is:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לִ֖י עַבְדִּי־אָ֑תָּה יִשְׂרָאֵ֕ל אֲשֶׁר־בְּךָ֖ אֶתְפָּאָֽר

The NIV translation for this verse is accurate. The Hebrew is unambiguous, even without the readers marks and diacritics. There is no room to interpolate the proposition "to" before "Israel".

Isaiah 49:5-6 in the MT are a stand-alone parasha (paragraph) that should be punctuated as such in translations.

Isaiah 49:5 in the MT is:

וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֗ה יֽוֹצְרִ֤י מִבֶּ֙טֶן֙ לְעֶ֣בֶד ל֔וֹ לְשׁוֹבֵ֤ב יַֽעֲקֹב֙ אֵלָ֔יו וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לא ל֣וֹ יֵאָסֵ֑ף וְאֶכָּבֵד֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וֵאלֹהַ֖י הָיָ֥ה עֻזִּֽי

This is a preface to the following verse, 6. The prophet is referring to himself:

And now, God, (who from the womb made me to be His servant, in order to return Jacob to Him and to gather Israel, my God and strength):

The Hebrew is simple, although it is a run-on sentence. Note the colon that is implied at the end of this verse.

Isaiah 49:6 in the MT is:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב (ונצירי) וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ

The NIV translation gets this slightly wrong, IMHO. The object of נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥, "it is easy for" is not written and must be interpolated by the reader. The NIV chooses to interpolate "you", Israel. I think that the simpler reading better supported by the context of the whole chapter is "Me":

And He said, "For Me it is nothing to make you My servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and to return the captives of Israel, and to let you be a light to the nations, to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.

That is, the prophet is reassuring the despondent of Israel that God is saying that it would be easy for Him to make them into the light of the nations.

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  • So who is bringing Israel back in verse 5? – Ruminator Oct 30 '17 at 15:34
  • @Ruminator Added explanation of verse 5 to address your question. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Oct 30 '17 at 15:54
  • You state: "The Hebrew word for Messiah does not appear in this chapter." Based on the Gospels doesn't יְשׁוּעָ֖ה qualify as the word for Messiah? – Revelation Lad Oct 30 '17 at 17:11
  • @RevelationLad ישועה is a noun meaning "salvation", used in the OT in a very physical, political and social sense. משיח in the OT is either the designated high priest or the designated king who has been designated by anointing with oil. These terms are not related and are not synonyms. See Judges 13:5 regarding Samson who was מושיע but definitely not משיח. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Oct 30 '17 at 18:00
  • Doesn't the word (i.e. noun) become flesh and be given a name and dwell among us and bring salvation? – Revelation Lad Oct 30 '17 at 18:04
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Looking at this passage from a Christian perspective, "Israel" seems to be another name for the Messiah. Don't forget that "Israel" was originally the name of a single person, Jacob the grandson of Abraham whose name was changed to "Israel." (Gen. 32:28)

In the NT Jesus compared himself to Jacob with the words: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." (John 1:51, ESV) The comparison is with Jacob when he had his dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching to heaven. (Gen. 28:12) Jesus, then, would be a Greater Jacob or Israel.

In Hebrew, the equivalent of "to Israel" would be accomplished by prefixing the Hebrew letter lahmed (or "L") to the name Israel, but there is no lahmed at this point in the text of Isaiah.

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  • Thanks. Is there any prefix or qualifier of any sort? – Ruminator Oct 29 '17 at 2:50
  • Also, I'd really be more interested in a non-sectarian perspective. – Ruminator Oct 29 '17 at 2:57
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    As to a prefix or qualifier, at Isaiah 49:3 "Israel" is simply the name of the "servant" - it stands alone. I assume the "sectarian" perspective you allude to is my use of the NT to interpret the OT. That being the case, we'll wait for another answer. – Pilgrim Oct 29 '17 at 3:09
  • It is true that different names were used to refer to the Messiah, as a referent to the descendant - especially in David's case. So, there is merit to this solution. – elika kohen Oct 30 '17 at 17:56
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Isaiah is speaking about himself in verse 1 of Chapter 49. He is preparing to prophecy to many countries, stressing that G-d has chosen him for this purpose. (see Artscroll Tanach, Stone Edition p.1041).

"Israel" refers to the People of Israel and all verb conjugations are in the singular, not plural. This is typical and can be seen in v.8 where the "people of the covenant" are also addressed in the singular.

I can confirm that there is no prefix attached to Israel in verse 3.

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  • So what is verse 3 actually saying? Is Israel somehow Isaiah? – Ruminator Oct 29 '17 at 16:12
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This scripture speaks on what nobody is acknowledging. God is bringing up a servant that will bring Judah and Isreal back to obedience to him. He has hidden this servant from the world and from the servant himself. Almost another Moses. This servant shall be a light to the gentiles as well. And is the servant that Jesus speaks on in revelations chapter 2 and 3

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  • Hi James, thanks for taking the time to contribute an answer. We're all here to learn, so any answer that gets us going in the right direction is helpful. This is why we expect from a good answer to provide some more detailed information about sources and references. Can you please come back with some more of that? You may find helpful to read this small guide and see what is expected from an answer on the BH site. Thank you. – Constantin Jinga Jul 1 '18 at 18:53
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My Servant Israel is clearly the Messiah, for the whole context of chapter 49 supports this. Consider in verse 5 how the Lord who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant does so "To bring back to him." And look how the names of Jacob and Israel are used. “Jacob” points back to a deceiver and run away, transformed by One who wrestles with him and renames him "Israel". God, who formed the Messiah from the womb to be His Servant does this very thing: He, as the truest Israel, brings back an old ‘Jacob’ of unregenerate people, "..to him..", in order that ‘Israel’ (the new creation of born again people) might be gathered to Him. Furthermore, no one has lived up to the name of Israel more than the Messiah Jesus. The name "Israel" by definition in Genesis 32:28, means ‘one who has striven with man and with God and has prevailed’. Jesus strove with the unbelieving leaders of Israel for three years...He strove with God in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He strove with men and with God and has prevailed as the Redeemer.

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Make sure you take our Tour (lower left). Thanks – John Martin Sep 7 '19 at 17:36
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Kindly allow me to offer a few possibilities to explore. While the servant reveals that he was called from birth to be God's servant, his subsequent comments appear to be those of an individual expressing a lot of frustration and discouragement with his life's achievements, whatever they may have been; "...I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing, and in vain." Could it be that it was only later in life that the servant learns about his God-given purpose, a purpose assigned to him at birth, but until the servant became aware of this fact, his life remained hidden away from any public scrutiny?

As far as the servant's name, if, let’s say, his name isn't Israel, then why isn’t the reader otherwise told what the servant’s name actually is? In scripture do we find others God directly names without their God-given name being recorded? In 49:1 we read, from the body of my mother he named me, or (another translation) from the matrix of my mother he has made mention of my name. The wording of these translations doesn’t appear to be providing rock-solid, easy-to-understand clarity in what we're being told. For example, did God give the servant his name, did God just mention his name, did God only bring to memory the servant’s name, or what? With the wording being what it is, it appears the reader starts off with some wiggle-room in his or her's effort to figure out exactly how the phrase should be understood. The Hebrew word translated “matrix” could also be translated body, bowels, inward parts, and heart, as a reference to “feelings”. It therefore seems possible that the servant isn’t actually telling us that God spoke directly to his mother saying something like, "Here’s the name I want you to name to your son", but rather God simply "inspired" the servant’s mother to give her son a name that might have already been resident in her heart.

Yeah but, in verse 3 God clearly says, “You are my servant, Israel….” Since a lamed doesn’t come before the word Israel, as another noted, God is not telling the servant that he is a servant “to” Israel. That said, and staying briefly with the idea that the servant's name isn’t actually “Israel," and further, that the people of Israel, collectively, are not the servant reference in chapter 49, then we're left believing that the servant's name, whatever it actually is, has a connection of some sort to the word Israel. If so, the word Israel in verse 3 is serving only as a clue-word of sorts. Clue to what? Obviously, a clue leading to the reader's discovery of the servant’s actual name. For this line of reasoning to have traction the word “Israel” requires researching, meaning, what else, if anything, can the word Israel mean, or otherwise define? What do the people Israel themselves represent, and on and on? The many excellent and helpful comments so far posted, along with the variation of answers, tends to say that God has presented the reader with a riddle to solve.

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  • Hello Charles, welcome to BHSE, so glad to have you with us! If you haven't already, make sure to take our tour to get yourself familiar with this site, you'll discover that we are a little different than other sites you know. (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour) Thanks! – sara Sep 15 '19 at 6:11

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