The Love Of God

After a fortnight's break for our Giving Review we return this evening to the Prophet Isaiah, and to chapter 49. How are you feeling about your life at the moment? I don't mean those superficial emotions that yo-yo up and down all the time. I mean your deep, settled feelings about life. Maybe when your smile is stripped away, and you are in the privacy of your own thoughts, the truth is that you are despondent. And it's not just those of you who are not Christians that I'm talking to here. In fact, it's primarily the Christians. Depressed and discouraged Christians. The Lord has something to say to you, and it's right here in this chapter. What kind of people is God addressing here exactly? Let's pick up the clues from the second half of the chapter. For a start, he is talking to those who feel that God has given up on them. Verse 14:

But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me."

You're not denying he's real. You're not doubting he's there. He just not there for you. Maybe you think you've only got yourself to blame for that. If you were God you would have given up on you as well, long ago. After all, you and God know what really goes on inside you. But it's still painful being forgotten by God, even if it is your own fault. And the Lord is speaking to those whose experiences have left them devastated. So verse 19 says:

you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste

The exile of the Jews after their beloved Jerusalem had been shattered by the invading Babylonians 600 years before Christ is in view here. But Isaiah is looking way beyond them, to the likes of you and me. The means by which it happens may be different, but the desolation can be the same. And the Lord is speaking to those who have been chewed up and spat out by the non-Christian world - "devoured" is the word used in verse 19. He is speaking to those who have lost what was most dear to them in all the world - there is reference to their "bereavement" and "exile" in verses 20 and 21. He is speaking to those who feel lonely and isolated - those "left all alone" as verse 21 has it. He is speaking to those who not only feel like this, but who are convinced that there is no way back for them. The enemy is too strong, the obstacles too high. Or, as they put it in verse 24:

Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives rescued from the fierce?

So this is a word for those who have no hope for a productive and fruitful future - who regard themselves as "barren" (v 21). And above all it is a word for Christians who feel like this. It is Zion - the City of God, inhabited by God's people - which is saying (verse 14):

"The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me."

For such people, the Lord has a message. It is a promise of a better future. A future that is to be brought about by a plan of action centred on the One who is the Lord's Servant. This is God's answer to the despairing cry of his despondent, discouraged, and depressed people. Now it will help us to get a hold on this chapter if we see the 3 main sections that it falls into. The question to ask as you read it is this: Who is speaking to whom? In verses 1-12, the one called the 'servant' is speaking to the nations - to everyone who will listen. So he says in verse 1:

Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations...

And he goes on to recount what God has said to him. So the servant is telling us what God has said to him. Then in verse 13 the scene changes. Now it is the whole of creation being addressed, no doubt with the intention that God's people will overhear. Here is the message of the whole chapter in a nutshell:

Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

And then immediately the scene changes again, and in verses 14-26 the Lord is speaking to Zion, that is, Jerusalem - the desolate City of God. But as he speaks to the city, he is really speaking to his people, as they respond to what they have heard so far. So in essence, in this chapter the Lord promises a bright future to his people through his servant. The first twelve verses, then, are about the Lord's Plan. And that is my first heading on the outline. First, THE LORD'S PLAN (vv 1-12) Verse 1:

Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.

Who is this "I"? Verse 3 identifies the speaker:

He said to me, "You are my servant..."

This is the one who is God's servant. Now Alec Motyer in his book on Isaiah describes the whole book as like one massive word portrait of the Messiah. The early part of the book focuses on the Messiah as God's chosen King. The middle section, which includes this chapter, speaks of the Messiah as God's Servant, and then the final part is a picture of the Messiah as the one who will come from God as the Anointed Conqueror of all the Lord's enemies. So the servant who is speaking here is the Messiah. But you might be thinking, if you've read on just one more word in verse 3, "Hang on, it says here that the servant is Israel".

He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel..."

But this cannot be the nation of Israel. Why? Because the one speaking is an individual who will be the rescuer of Israel. So verse 5 begins:

And 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...

In other words the servant is one who is both a substitute for and a representative of God's people. The servant is the True Israel - everything that Israel, God's chosen people, should have been but wasn't. Now from where we stand, we can confidently identify this servant as Jesus. Why? Because the New Testament does. In the New Testament, the Bible identifies the servant prophesied here in Isaiah as Jesus in three ways. First, Simeon does, as he takes the baby Jesus in his arms in the temple. He says:

"Sovereign Lord... my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel".

Jesus will be a light for the Gentiles. That is a direct reference to this very passage. Look at verse 6. The Lord says to the servant:

"...I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

Secondly, the apostles identify the servant as Jesus. Do you remember how Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading from the prophet Isaiah about the servant. He doesn't understand who the servant is. And he says to Philip:

"Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

That's one just one example of how the apostles identify the servant in Isaiah as Jesus. Then thirdly, we can be confident that the servant in Isaiah is Jesus because Jesus himself makes the connection. On the evening of the last supper Jesus said to his disciples:

"It is written: `And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment."

Jesus is quoting one of the servant passages of Isaiah, and saying "This is being fulfilled now, in me. I am the servant." What then can we see in this portrait of the servant Jesus? Five things, at least: First, the servant has an intimate relationship with the Lord from before he was even born. Verse 1:

Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.

And verse 5 speaks of ...

... he who formed me in the womb to be his servant...

Secondly, the servant is powerful in his person and in his word; but at first that power is hidden from people. Verse 2:

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.

Thirdly, at first the servant is rejected and it seems like his mission fails. Verse 4:

But I said, "I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing..."

And in verse 7 he is described as the one

who was despised and abhorred by the nation.

Fourthly, the servant is honoured by the Lord, even when others do not honour him, and the time will come when he will be publicly and universally glorified. So verse 3:

He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour."

The end of verse 4:

"... my reward is with my God..."

Verse 5:

"... I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD..."

Verse 7:

This is what the LORD says... "Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down..."

Fifthly, in the end the servant will accomplish his mission, which is to save both Jews and Gentiles. He will bring them out of darkness and slavery and desolation and exile, back to God, into the light, into an eternal home of peace and plenty. So verse 5: And 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... Verse 6:

[the Lord] 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 you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

And verses 8-9:

8 This is what the LORD says: "In the time of my favour I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, 9 to say to the captives, `Come out,' and to those in darkness, 'Be free!'" They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill.

This portrait was painted 700 years before the event. Who for? Not primarily for those exiled Jews waiting to return to Jerusalem. It was given for us - for those who believe in Jesus. So the apostle Paul quotes this very passage when he says in 2 Corinthians 6:2 :

As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace I vain. For he says, "In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation.

And Peter agrees. 1 Peter 1:10-12 :

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

"Listen to me..." Jesus the servant says to us. Are we listening? This is all so wonderful that it takes time to sink in. But when the reality of it dawns, only one response is possible. Which brings us to verse 13, and my second heading: Secondly, THE LORD'S PROMISE (v 13) There is just the one verse in this section. But it seems to burst off the page. The glorious truth has been sinking in. Now it wells up:

Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

This is a threefold call to all creation - the heavens, the earth , the mountains. It is true! There is a dazzlingly bright future for those who are in bitter suffering now. God looks at his people. He sees that they are afflicted. How does he respond? Does he condemn and crush them as they deserve? No! He loves them. He will have compassion on them. He comforts them. He strengthens them in affliction and he brings them out of it. That is a promise! How do we respond? Is there scepticism in our hearts? Does this sound just too good to be true? Is this too much like the empty promises made by the advertisers of life assurance of a sunlit, blissful old age if only you will sign on the dotted line, which ignore the inconvenient fact that old age brings death in its wake? Well, if you are sceptical, then read on. Because God knows how slow we are to believe what he says to us. Scepticism is the response that he expects. So to my third and final heading: Thirdly, THE LORD'S PEOPLE (v 14-26) These verses are God's response to an unresponsive people who cannot believe that his promise can be true. They are not only despondent, depressed and discouraged, but they are disillusioned too. They say, verse 14:

"The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me."

And verse 24:

Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives rescued from the fierce?

What does God say in reply? First, he emphasises the depth and permanence of his love. So this is the Old Testament version of Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge The Lord uses three images to persuade us that he loves us. The first is of a mother and her baby. Verse 15:

"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!"

That makes me think of the words of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem on the way to the cross: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" The second picture of the Lord's love for us is that we are, so to speak, cut into his hands. Verse 16:

"See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..."

In a sense that became literally true for Jesus. Do you remember how the risen Jesus confronts the sceptic Thomas with the wounds of the nails that crucified him? He says:

"Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

The holes in his hands are the proof of the love of Jesus for you and for me. Then the third picture is of the city walls. The end of verse 16:

"...your walls are ever before me."

Both the old city with its broken down walls, and also the new, heavenly city that God will build for his people are always on his mind. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation picks up this image in the clearest way. So, in Revelation 21 this is what we hear:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls... The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass... The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb [that is, Jesus] is its lamp.

The Lord loves you. Has he forsaken you? No. He loves you. Has he forgotten you? No. He loves you. He has you engraved on the palms of his hands. In answer to our disillusioned scepticism, the Lord first of all emphasises the depth and permanence of his love. Then secondly, he says church growth is a visible sign that he will fulfil his promise of a bright future in heaven for a numberless crowd of the redeemed. Verse 18:

Lift up your eyes and look around; all your sons gather and come to you. As surely as I live," declares the LORD, "you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride..."

And verse 20:

The children born during your bereavement will yet say in your hearing, `This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in.'

And he says that the day will come when all the scepticism and disillusion of God's people who can only see decline ahead will be overcome by joyful amazement at what God has done. Verse 21:

Then you will say in your heart, `Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren; I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up? I was left all alone, but these--where have they come from?'"

People will come to Christ in numbers that will take our breath away when we see the full extent of what God has done. And finally, in answer to our defeated despondency, the Lord reassures us that all the enemies of God's people will be sent packing. For now they may seem to have everything going their way. But not for long. Verse 17:

... those who laid you waste depart from you.

And verse 19:

... those who devoured you will be far away.

So which voice should we listen to? The voice of discouraged scepticism within us that says it cannot really be true? Or the voice of Jesus which says "Listen to me. My promise is true. The future is bright with me"? The choice is a simple one. But there remains one key question. Who qualifies as belonging to God's people? Who can claim this promise of a bright future through God's servant Jesus? The Lord tells us the answer at the end of v23:

"... those who hope in me will not be disappointed."

In other words if we believe the promise, stake our lives on it, live by it, follow through all its implications - if we 'hope in God' - then the promise is for us. No other qualification is necessary. Just believe it. And you will not be disappointed. Hope in God - believe his promise - and in time you will find that your despondency and depression and disillusionment has given way to astonished joy as you see how faithful God is. And the Lord will say, directly to you, in the words with which this glorious chapter finishes:

"... I, the LORD, am your Saviour, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob."

The future is bright. The future belongs to Jesus.

Back to top