For the past two days we have been looking at the first servant song in Isaiah 42:1-7. In the first four verses of that passage, the Lord spoke about the servant in the third person. Then, in the last three verses, the Lord spoke to the servant in the second person. Now, as we turn our attention to the second servant song in Isaiah 49:1-9, the servant himself speaks in the first person. The first four verses of this passage are as follows:
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. 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. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4 But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
I will come back in the next post in this series to talk a little more about the servant being addressed in verse 3 as Israel. But what I want to focus on in this post is what the servant says in verse 4. He says that he has “labored to no purpose,” and that he has spent his strength “in vain and for nothing.”
The reader will remember that two days ago we discussed the Lord’s statement in the first servant song that his servant “will not falter or be discouraged” as he endeavors to carry out the task assigned to him. I noted at that time that we should probably understand that there was a bit of overstatement in that passage. The Lord did not mean that the servant would not falter or be discouraged at all; but, rather, the servant would not ultimately falter or be discouraged, but would, despite the discouragement, press on to accomplish the mission.
Now, in this second servant song, the servant complains that he seems to have labored in vain, to no purpose; he laments that he has spent his strength, and yet with nothing to show for his efforts. It certainly sounds like he is faltering and experiencing discouragement, doesn’t it? This reinforces my suggestion that the statement in Isaiah 42:4 is in fact an overstatement. Of course, the question arises as to why the servant of the Lord should feel this way. What could have happened to cause the servant to feel such discouragement? Why did he feel as if he had labored in vain?
I will try to answer that question in a later post. But for now, I would like you to notice something very interesting in this lament from the servant of the Lord. The Hebrew word for “nothing” in Isaiah 49:4 is used quite a lot in one other book in the Old Testament. It is the word hevel, the word which the NIV consistently translates as “meaningless” in the book of Ecclesiastes. The “Teacher” starts off by saying, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl 1:2). Over and over again, he declares everything to be meaningless. This is a very pessimistic statement. In fact, the Teacher never lifts himself up out of his pessimism. When we come to the Teacher’s last words in the book, again he declares, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Eccl 12:8). The Teacher never overcomes his pessimistic outlook on life under the sun. He, too, like the servant of the Lord, complains about the toil and labor in which he has been engaged: “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl 1:3). His answer is “nothing.” And by “toil,” the Teacher does not just mean physical labor, but emotional labor. He found the whole thing to be both physically and emotionally oppressive (Eccl 2:20).
But notice the great contrast. Whereas the Teacher complains about life’s meaningless, about all the labor he has had to exert with no return, and never rises above the despair, it is different with the servant of the Lord. Though he, too, complains about the hevel, the apparent “meaninglessness” of his labor, yet, after making this complaint in Isaiah 49:4, he immediately goes on to say, “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes and the servant of the Lord in the servant songs in Isaiah both experience the meaninglessness of life, the feeling of failure and of labor expended with no result. They both faltered and were discouraged. But whereas the Teacher never lifts himself up out of his pessimism, the servant of the Lord comes to express his ultimate faith in the Lord who assigned him his mission. The servant of the Lord does indeed falter and experience discouragement, but he does not do so ultimately.
Jesus, too, faltered and was discouraged. He was fearful as he faced the prospect of going to the cross. He came to his own and his did not receive him. He was the stone that was rejected. He was betrayed by one of his followers, denied vehemently by another one of those followers, and abandoned by the rest. As he hung upon the cross, he felt as if he had been abandoned by his God. Nevertheless, with his dying breath he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Or, to put that another way, “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
This is the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the faith of the servant of the Lord. This is the faith that accomplished our redemption.
Christ died our sins according to the Scriptures.
March 8, 2014