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.
Following this word of encouragement, the oracle to Israel begins: Israel will come out of Babylon and will come to the land, just as Israel was liberated from Egypt and journeyed into the land. And just as God provided for Israel in the wilderness, so God will care for Israel on its journey out of Babylon:
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights[b] shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. (Isaiah 49:9b-10 NRSV)
In response, all creation is invited to offer praise:
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. (Isaiah 49:13 NRSV)
However, while the heavens, earth, and mountains may sing, Israel is not singing. Emotionally shattered by the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, Israel is convinced that it has no future. According to the customary beliefs of the time, Israel's military defeat at the hands of the Babylonians signaled either that Israel's God had been overcome by the Babylonian gods or that Israel's God no longer cared for Israel.
In response, the prophet uses a maternal metaphor to convince Israel of the impossibility of God forgetting Israel:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15 NRSV)
Even if it is conceivable for a mother to forget her child, under no circumstances can God forget of forsake Israel.
Isaiah 49:8-18 speaks to us of a twofold discouragement. The first is that of the prophet, who, as noted, feels that his work has been in vain (see 49:4) and that he has been persecuted see 50:6). The second is Israel's fear that God has abandoned his people.
God's response to the servant's discouragement is reassurance that in fact God has sustained the prophet, employing him as a covenantal sign to Israel of God's faithfulness. God's response to Israel's discouragement is the tender metaphor of a mother's love for her child. This text thus speaks both to God's people as a whole but also those members of God's people who come to symbolize that people, who stand in special service between God and the people.
We don't know how long the prophet labored, bringing his message of hope and redemption. But we do know that he was not the only prophet to get discouraged. Elijah complained of standing alone for the cause of God (1 Kings 19:10) and Jeremiah repeatedly complained that God had deceived him and caused him to be a laughingstock (see Jeremiah 20:7). The prophetic vocation can be a lonely one.
And yet, God was with the prophet: "On a day of salvation I have helped you" (Isaiah 49:8). The prophet's experience was not foreign to God; after all, Israel had frequently turned its back on God. Their skepticism about the prophet's word was in fact a skepticism about God and God's ability to save. The prophet and God were thus in the same boat, trying to convince Israel of God's continuing love and faithfulness, contrary to their experience of defeat and exile.
The enduring message of this passage is God's steadfast commitment to Israel, and to Israel's continuation in the church. Israel and the Church constitute God's project in the world. In spite of the sins and failures of God's people, we are God's project. God has not other plan, no fall-back position. We are it. The people of God is thus continually the object of God's redemptive love and faithfulness.
This constant, irrevocable love and faithfulness is the basis of Paul's confidence in 2 Corinthians. Like Israel, Paul had suffered. Yet he could say, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). To be the people of God is to live in the tense struggle between the present age that is passing away and the new age that God is creating, the kingdom of God. Those caught in this struggle, who bear witness to the new thing that God is doing, suffer afflictions of all sorts. Like Israel, our experience is one of exile, of being homeless. Like Israel, we find it difficult to accept the proclamation that redemption will occur. And yet, it is our calling to proclaim that very thing. To that end, we need the consolation of God of which Paul spoke, the assurance that God is with us in our afflictions.
Professor, Point Loma Nazarene University