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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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    Excellent question. Lots of scholars believe that the word Israel in v. 3 is a later addition. To me it is clear that the servant is some kind of messianic individual, someone separate from Israel. The servant brings Israel back to God, and the servant later sees his grandchildren and lives long and gets multitudes of spoils. All this clearly point to the servant being an individual rather than the collective nation of Israel.
    – bach
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 3:08

7 Answers 7

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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
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 15:34
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    @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.
    – user17080
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 18:00
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    @RevelationLad Only if you back-read later Christian ideas into the earlier text. If you read the text from the perspective of the prophet's audience it is otherwise.
    – user17080
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 18:10
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    The Messiah is not a Christian idea. It is the expectation of the original audience there will be a Messiah who brings salvation (who be from Israel). At some point doesn't the text need to be understood from the realization of the events it predicts? Does not this prophet say the end is declared from the beginning and doesn't that influence how the audience should or does approach the text? I think a rigid (grammatical/textual) approach to a prophetic text denies the very nature of a prophetic text. (+1) for a good answer. I'm only suggesting there is more to the text than the literal words. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 19:29
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    @RevelationLad Agreed that Messiah with a capital M is pre-Christian. It is in fact post OT, Pharisaic, hundreds of years after this chapter was written. This chapter has no reference to any earthly leader. The summary explicitly states that the Moshia is God alone: וְיָדְעוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מוֹשִׁיעֵךְ, וְגֹאֲלֵךְ, אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב (last stanza of verse 26).
    – user17080
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 7:03
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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
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 2:50
  • Also, I'd really be more interested in a non-sectarian perspective.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 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
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 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. Commented Oct 30, 2017 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
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 16:12
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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 Commented Sep 7, 2019 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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    – sara
    Commented Sep 15, 2019 at 6:11
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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. Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 18:53
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While Isaiah 49:5 may appear to counter the idea that 49:3 tells us that the servant is Israel — the nation today (or some element therein)— one speculative idea proposes that the tribe of Judah — now restored to the land of Israel — is the Isaiah 49 servant. Hence the Jewish people today, Judah, will restore the other tribes.

Isaiah 5:7 draws a distinction between a group of people called the house of Israel, and a separate group called the house of Judah. Even God references the distinction, referring to one group as His vineyard, the other as His pleasant garden. Bottom line; historically the people of Israel constituted a separate kingdom apart from the people of Judah. Judah was south of the kingdom of Israel.

Concerning his birth and name the Isaiah 49 servant references a woman, one woman, (his mother), telling us that his name came “from” the “matrix” of his mother. By contrast, the birthing of Israel and Judah involved multiple women; Rachel, Leah, two concubines named Zilpah and Bilhah, and two of the tribes of Jacob, his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, came from Asenath (an Egyptian, possibly of Hittite lineage).

Regarding Jacob himself, as an individual, he was not named Israel “from the matrix” of his mother, but rather was called Israel much later in his life.

In the adventure of exploring ideas, perhaps our correctly understanding Isaiah 49:3 requires employing the interpretive advice given in Isaiah writes in 28:10-11, which says, “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little: For with stammering lips and another tongue (language) will he speak to this people.”

Said differently, like the fictional Indiana Jones and his solving a sequence of riddles before finding a sought after treasure, housed within some prophetic writings are riddles, which once identified for what they are, riddles, and the solving of might require our reaching beyond some scholarly word-for-word (or word-order) translation to score a home run.

Seems obvious, Isaiah 49:3 introduces an enigma, a riddle to solve. Perhaps Isaiah 49:1-3 falls under the “stammering lips” category, and if so then maybe an “imperfect articulation” translating formula will allow some rearranging of the word-for-word sequence as found in the original text.

If so, then one of serval possible stammering-lips variations of Isaiah 49:1-3, adding thereto the punctuation marks of “another language” (not found in the original text) may allow us to read the verse like this: “God summoned me from birth, from (within the) heart (of) my mother He brought my name to (her) mind, and (He) made my mouth like a sharp sword, in (the) shadow (of) His hand the hiding (of) me, and (He) made me (to be) a polished shaft, (and) in His quiver the hiding (of) me, and said to me my servant you (which by you) Israel (will be) raised up.”

A closing possibility; could it be that Isaiah 49:3 (and connecting verses) simply serve as parallel enhancements of Malachi 4 (or visa-versa) which says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”?

Anyway, the foregoing simply offers some more out-of-box exploratory thoughts, all subject to the very helpful and enlightening views others are presenting on this excellent forum.

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