This passage, one of the four “servant” poems in Second Isaiah, comes to us from a context in which the Israelite people have been in exile in Babylon for fifty years. What I find so striking about the passage is the way it is directed outwards, towards the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” (v. 1). This seems like the wrong audience for a suffering people in exile. Who could be farther away, and less important to the exiled Israelites in Babylon, who are deep in the interior, than the peoples of the coastlands? Why should these suffering people not be focused on themselves and their own suffering at this time? It would be entirely understandable for them to turn inwards. And yet here the anonymous prophet of Second Isaiah proclaims now, to Israel, that God is working through them, who have been suffering so much, to reach out to the world, to bring salvation to all those “far away.”
What does it mean for Israel to be a “light to the nations” (see also Isa. 42:6)? We are helped by another reference in Isaiah 51:4: “for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.” The “light” that Israel, and later for Christians, Jesus (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23), is to bring to the nations is true justice. I marvel that Israel’s greatest affliction (exile) was a time for it to reach outwards towards others, drawing on its rich tradition of being a vehicle for God to bless other nations, going back to Gen. 12:3 in one of the great divine promises to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In Second Isaiah God sends the servant that “my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”(49:6).
Gracious God, you have no hands but ours—strengthen us for your servant-work in the world, that we might carry the justice-bearing light of Christ to the end of the earth. Amen.
Jacq Lapsley, Professor of Old Testament