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Epiphany 8A 1st Reading

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Sam Powell

Let us begin by considering the context of this passage–its historical setting and its immediate setting in the text of Isaiah.

Isaiah 49:8-18 was written against the background of Israel's exile in Babylon, following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. For some 55 years, the elite of Judea–priests and other leading citizens who had survived the destruction–had endured exile in Babylon. Eventually, the rising Persian empire brought an end to the Babylonian empire; the new Persian regime allowed exiled people of all sorts to return to their ancestral homes.

At least some chapters of Isaiah 40-55 seem to have been written in the waning days of the Babylonian empire. They contain oracles whereby the prophet announced God's imminent redemption of Israel–its return to the land. It appears that the prophet's words met with some skepticism; 49:4 suggests a certain weariness in the prophet, feeling that his work on behalf of God had been in vain. 49:8-16 is one of the oracles proclaiming deliverance, along with God's rebuttal of Israel's doubt.

Where does this passage stand in the immediate literary context of the book of Isaiah? It is embedded in a series of passages usually referred to as the Servant Songs. The best known of these runs from 52:13 through 53:12, but there are several other passages in which God addresses someone, or something, sometimes identifying the addressee as "my servant." In its immediate context, the servant is the prophet himself, although in places it seems that Israel is also God's servant.

At any rate, as already noted, Isaiah 49:1-6 constitute one of the servant songs; our passage begins with God addressing the servant:

Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” (Isaiah 49:8-9a NRSV)

In this opening section, God reassures the prophet that, in spite of his frustration, caused by Israel's incapacity to hear the message of redemption, God is with him and that his prophetic task continues–God has made the prophet to be a covenant between God and Israel. His task is to announce Israel's return to the land and its liberation from exile.