This is the second of the traditional servant songs in Second Isaiah (see Theological Themes). Here the servant is identified as Israel, and the text follows the pattern of a typical prophetic call: the call (vv. 1-2), the objection (v. 4), and the renewal of the call (vv. 5-6). This pattern, the similarity to the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), and the reference to the "mouth" as key to the servant's task suggest that the text represents the call to someone in a prophetic role to proclaim God's word of salvation to all.
Who is meant in this text? The servant? Israel? The prophet himself? As in many of the passages of Second Isaiah, the identity is not clear. All of these figures come together to announce the new thing God is doing.
The first call, to bring back Jacob and gather Israel, has apparently not worked well. "I have labored in vain," says the servant. But now God gives an even more difficult task: to serve as a light to the nations. The word of God must now extend beyond Israel to all peoples. The servant will be the one chosen to proclaim that message.
It may be the voice of the servant that we hear somewhat earlier in 48:16b: "And now the Lord GOD has sent me and his spirit." God had sent Cyrus to conquer Babylon and return the exiles (48:14-16a); but now God sends "me" (the servant) as a light to the nations. Cyrus does not appear again after this point in the book.
49Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mothers womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
4 But I said, I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.
5 And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength
6 he says,
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org