Throughout much of prophecy the Spirit appears willing to eschew clarity of description in order to provide a reward to those that search with determination and discernment. Nonetheless there are a handful of places where the issues contemplated are so awesome that the Spirit appears unable to resist recording text that is plain and unequivocal to any but the most willfully ignorant. The opening verses of Isaiah 49 are such a section of scripture and the reason is plain: they describe the birth and mission of the Messiah.
A survey of conservative commentators reveals that whilst they are all cognoscente of arguments against the attribution of this passage to Christ; they also are unanimous in dismissing those arguments in favor of the plain meaning of the text. Therefore for the purposes of this essay I am not even going to yield space to the unorthodox. Instead I aim simply to look at some of the details in this beautiful passage and see what can be extracted from them.
Isa 49:1 Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.
The first thing to note from this passage is the global reach of it. Whilst the prophecies to this point have been to Israel or one of the immediate nations; this one is addressed to 'the Isles and the people from afar'. Gill considers that the isles may be a specific reference to Britain. Personally I think that whilst Britain is included any specific identification actually misses the point. I believe the Spirit is saying here: "no matter how remote you are (isles) or how far away you are - then this message is for you".
The next point is that the Messiah was called and named from within the womb. As Barnes notes this may refer partially to the explicit usage of His name in the gospels prior to His birth. However the broader point is almost certainly that His name: Messiah, Christ, Jesus was foreordained as it expressed His very being and character. But not only was it foreordained but also fore-used. Isaiah has repeatedly noted that a proof of God's deity is His ability to predict the future and name things before they happen. He did it with Cyrus and with Christ also. I should perhaps also note under this verse that the NET Bible stands alone in stating Christ was commissioned whilst in the womb; personally I consider this to be a dangerous deviation. I believe the commissioning of Christ was from the foundation of the World.
Isa 49:2 And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;
This reference in Isa 49:2 is almost directly quoted in Rev 1:16 and Rev 19:15 on both occasions it is in reference to Christ. Gill shows from Eph 6:17 that the Sword is the Word of God and that it is available to all. Nonetheless as there are only two other references to the mouth producing a sharp sword and they are both messianic there seems little grounds for doubting who this verse refers to.
A more controversial questions surrounds when the Messiah was hidden within the hand of God, when He was polished and then when hidden in a quiver. Gill suggests that he was hidden in God's hand during the persecution under Herod. Further that the arrows are the 'sword of God' as delivered 'long range' to the gentiles and that the hiding in the quiver was the concealment of the true meaning of certain passages of scripture. Barnes views the expression differently. In his view Christ walked around like a concealed weapon ready to strike as God decreed. The arrows then picture the piercing of the heart that occurred and the quiver that Christ was protected during His ministry.
JFB, albeit somewhat tersely, outlines a different approach that I believe may be more accurate. They suggest that the Messiah was hidden prior to His incarnation. The polishing process could then quite reasonably correspond to the life of Christ upon this earth. We are told He was perfected through sufferings and what better picture than of a young sapling being abraded by the coarse grit of everyday life. JFB then suggests that the quiver is a sign of protection. However I do not agree. If you want to protect your arrows you leave them at home. If you put arrows in your quiver it is because you intend to use them to do battle. I therefore believe that this verse is telling us that the Messiah came to do battle with His Word at first but then there is still a hidden reserve that will become visible in time.
Isa 49:3 And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
If there is a verse in the first six of Isaiah 49 that might cause one to doubt that the passage is Messianic then this is the verse. It appears to address Israel directly and as Barnes' points out Israel has been addressed as the servant of God in Isa 41:8. Barnes actually details at length four possible interpretations of whom Isa 49:3 refers to before settling upon it being the Messiah. However JFB gives a more succinct and I believe convincing argument that this verse is Messianic which runs as follows:-
Therefore it may reasonably be argued that the Bible clearly equates Christ with Israel at least sometimes and that based upon verse 5 we know that the servant Israel is not the nation Israel and thus it is the Messiah.
Isa 49:4 Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.
Isa 49:4 is one of those subtle verses that need to be handled carefully to ensure it stays consistent with the rest of scripture. We know that Christ was never discouraged, never failed and was never confounded. We also know that he will eventually look at the travail of his soul and be satisfied. So how do we reconcile that knowledge with the expression 'I have laboured in vain' ?
Barnes resolves the conflict by asserting that the expressions in Isa 49:4 are comparative. Thus He labored in some vanity. JFB however points out that one hundred and twenty disciples out of a whole nation was not many at all. Gill makes an interesting distinction which may point towards the truth. He suggests that the death and suffering were not in vain; but that the traveling around the Jewish countryside and doing good may have been.
Personally I would not describe the Lord's miracles as vain. I believe the fourth verse needs careful reading. It doesn't actually state that He had labored in vain: it states that He said that He had labored in vain. We know that at some point during the Lord's walk upon the earth He went from preaching the kingdom directly to the Jews to looking ahead to His death and global Gospel. As a man tempted in all manners as us (except for sin) is it not inconceivable that He had a few brief moments in which He said: "this is a waste of time - but God the judgment and work are with You" ? It may even have been during the time in Gethsemane although I suspect it was a little earlier because He was speaking of His death long before the garden.
Isa 49:5 And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength.
Isa 49:6 And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Whilst scripture is always better considered in context I think these two verses are almost impossible to understand independently of each other. The first states categorically that Christ was formed in the womb to gather together Jacob. Barnes and others suggest that this is a spiritual gathering; thus the Messiah came to return the hearts of the people to God. I think this is true but it is not wholly true. Israel was a physical nation given a physical inheritance allocated by tribe. For Israel to be truly restored to and beyond its former glory then it would need its people returned to their land. The problem with this interpretation is that it didn't happen.
I suggest though that close reading of Isa 49:5 states exactly that. The Messiah was formed to gather Jacob. Although Israel was not gathered yet the Messiah was to be glorious in the eyes of God and God was to be His strength! Why? Because of verse six. The simple restoration of Israel was not enough. Instead the Messiah was to be a light to the gentiles to the ends of the earth. This is of course exactly what is happening during this gospel age. The Jews are not yet restored physically and most of them are not restored spiritually. Yet Christ is supreme and is a light to the gentiles. Of course the restoration of Israel will come - but that is the subject of later verses.