By Scott Grant

Learning in sleepy time

Here’s a question for you: Is it possible to learn something from a sermon you sleep through? Here’s an answer for you: Yes. Earlier this year on a Sunday night, I attended a talk by a man who was speaking on the book The Sacred Romance. It was at the end of a long, emotionally draining weekend, so by the time Sunday night came along I was spent. I slept through the talk. After its conclusion, as I was leaving, I asked someone what she learned. She mentioned a few things, but what really stood out to her in the hour-long message was this line: "You can’t outdream God." The following Wednesday night at our Bible study I was talking to someone else who was also in attendance Sunday night. He said he always learns at least one thing from a message, and what he learned this time was (you guessed it), "You can’t outdream God." So, that’s what I learned from the sermon I slept through.

In a nutshell, that’s the message of Isaiah 49:1-6: You can’t outdream God. Isaiah presents to us the Servant of the Lord, who turns out to be Jesus. The Servant in this passage wrestles with his vocation and the strange way in which he seems to be fulfilling it. It begins to look as if the Lord has called him to fail. Just as he called Jesus, God calls us to apparent failure that we might better display his truth.

Isaiah 49:1-13 constitutes the second of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah (see also Isaiah 42:1-9, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). As Isaiah moves into his next major section (Isaiah 49:1-55:13), the Servant of the Lord takes center stage. He made brief appearances earlier, when deliverance from Babylon was shown to be a picture of—and preparation for—the greater deliverance that the Servant would bring. And now in this section, here it is, the greater deliverance—and here he is, the Servant of the Lord.

The Servant is revealed as being named Israel (verse 3), and elsewhere in Isaiah the nation of Israel is called the servant of the Lord (Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20). But Israel fails in its vocation, and the title Servant of the Lord devolves onto Jesus of Nazareth, who is shown to be the one faithful Israelite (Matthew 12:15-21, Luke 22:37, Philippians 2:7). Finally, then, the title is given to those who make up God’s reconstituted Israel (Galatians 6:16), such as the apostles Paul and James (Philippians 1:1, James 1:1) and all those who follow Jesus.

In the first half of this Servant Song, Isaiah 49:1-6, we see the Servant in dialogue with the Lord. The Servant speaks (verses 1 and 2); the Lord responds (verse 3); the Servant speaks again (verse 4); the Lord responds again (verses 5 and 6). As servants of the Lord, we will have occasions to have such conversations with the Lord.


The Servant’s ministry of truth (49:1-3)

Elsewhere in Isaiah, only the Lord uses the words "listen to me" (Isaiah 41:1, 46:3, 12; 48:12; 51:1, 7; 55:2). Here, the Servant of the Lord commands attention as if he were the Lord himself. The Servant addresses the "islands," the "peoples from afar." He’s speaking not to Israel but to the Gentile nations. He’s speaking about his vocation. Like Jeremiah, the Servant has been called by the Lord from birth (Jeremiah 1:5). He is called to be a prophet. The Lord has also named him, and that name, as we shall see, concerns his vocation (in verse 3, that name is revealed as Israel). Like other prophets, his vocation is to call Israel back to God, but it is also to reach out to the whole world.

The tools of his trade are words. The Lord has made his mouth like a "sharp sword" and has made him "a select arrow." The Servant fights a war, but an entirely different kind of war. The deliverance that Cyrus would bring, conquering Babylon and releasing the exiles of Israel, would come through the sword (Isaiah 41:2). The deliverance that the Servant brings will come through the sword of his mouth. He will bring a different kind of deliverance.

In that his mouth is like a sharp sword, his word is effective, particularly with close targets. In that he is a select arrow, his word is accurate, particularly when aimed at distant targets. Yet he doesn’t become this effective and this accurate overnight. The Lord has "made" him this way, and he made him this way while concealing him "in the shadow of his hand" and while hiding him "in his quiver." The Lord prepares the Servant for his task, and that preparation involves intimacy with him. Intimacy with the Lord sharpens the sword and makes the arrow a select one.

The Servant announces what the Lord has revealed to him concerning his identity: "And he said to me, ‘You are my Servant, Israel, in whom I will show my glory.’" The Lord wanted to display his glory—the awesomeness of his Being—in Israel. The symbol of this desire was the temple in Jerusalem, where the Lord’s glory was manifested. The Lord had this indictment for his "servant," the nation of Israel, in Isaiah 42:19: "Who is blind but my servant, or so deaf as my messenger whom I send?" In Isaiah 48, the chapter preceding this one, the Lord leveled a series of accusations against the nation. The nation of Israel was not up to the task the Lord had in mind for it. Because of Israel’s sin, the Lord would destroy the temple, and his glory would shine there no more (2 Kings 25:9).

So when the Lord identifies his Servant as Israel here; he’s identifying one who embodies his design for Israel. The name Israel, originally Jacob, was attached to an individual before it was attached to a nation. The New Testament identifies this individual as Jesus of Nazareth.

The Servant says, "Listen to me…." The Father says of Jesus, "This is my beloved Son, listen to him!" (Mark 9:7). The Servant is called and named from the womb. The angel told Mary, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus" (Luke 1:31).

The Servant’s mouth is like a sharp sword, as he fights God’s war with his word. When Jesus spoke, listeners marveled: "And they were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!" (Mark 1:27) Jesus told Peter, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for" (Mark 1:38). John in Revelation depicts Jesus as fighting God’s war with the sword of his mouth (Revelation 1:16, 2:16, 19:15). The Servant’s word, as a sword and as an arrow, is effective and accurate both near and far. The word of Jesus has penetrated souls and landed in hearts around the world.

The Servant is concealed and hidden by God until he is ready for his mission. Jesus spent many years as the intimate of the Father, being sharpened and polished, before beginning his mission. When he did begin his mission, he knew the Father intimately and the word thoroughly. The Servant bears God’s glory that others may behold it. The Apostle John, speaking of Jesus, says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Listen to Jesus, the Servant of the Lord. Hear is words, and listen to his stories in the gospels. They will cut through you like a sword and reveal the intentions of your heart. They will pierce your heart like an arrow and make you ache for the love you see in them. Simply behold him, behold his glory—he’s showing you what God is like. And if you have ever seen a love like this anywhere else, you’re not looking hard enough.

We too, making up God’s Israel, are servants of the Lord. We have been called from the womb (Galatians 1:15, Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 2:10). Our call, too, is to in our own ways present God to people.

The Lord has prepared us and his preparing us for this task. He conceals us in the shadow of his hand, and he hides us in his quiver. He prepares us through intimacy with him. The best thing we can do to prepare for what God has for us next is to draw close to him through the word and prayer. In this way he sharpens and polishes us. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Preparation takes time. It may feel that nothing much is happening in your life right now, that you’re not really being used by God. Perhaps you’ve moved forward in certain ways, but doors have closed. Perhaps the timing is wrong. Perhaps now is the time for preparation, when you need to be drawing close to him. Perhaps the Lord is sharpening and polishing you.

He makes us into sharp swords and select arrows—weapons of truth. We declare the truth in word and deed, and hearts are both opened and pierced (Hebrews 4:12, Ephesians 6:17). In the ministry of the word, we teach what Jesus taught. We are the bearers of God’s glory (Ephesians 2:22), telling and showing the world what God is like. If this is the path we take, God, knowing that he has in us a faithful witness, will tell others, "Listen to him," "Listen to her."

When you find one of these sharp swords or select arrows, you find yourself drawn to them. You find yourself wanting to listen to what they say. You’ll even eavesdrop on their conversations, just to see if you can learn something. Often you’ll find that a strange blend of courage and gentleness coats their words of truth. It’s that way because they’ve spent their time with the Lord. It’s done something to their character. I met such a one when I was living in Idaho. We went on a short-term missions trip together. One afternoon I saw Harden explaining the Bible to a young Bulgarian man for about four hours, patiently listening and answering questions, though the language barrier presented all sorts of difficulties. I ducked in on the conversation from time to time. At one point the young man said to Harden, "You know a lot about the Bible, don’t you?" Harden said, "I’m 63 years old. Shame on me if I don’t!" Harden owned a Christian bookstore in town. I found myself dropping by the bookstore when I was in the vicinity, even if I wasn’t planning on it, just to see if I could have a few words with Harden. Harden had put his time in with the Lord in the word and in prayer. The Lord had sharpened him and polished him, so Harden, the Lord’s servant, had something to say.

The Servant of the Lord, though sharpened and polished by the Lord, doesn’t receive a very warm reception.


The Servant’s ministry of failure (49:4-6)

The Servant has heard the Lord commission him, but after embarking on his mission, he felt that he had failed: "I have toiled in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." As a prophet, he was supposed to call Israel back to God (verse 5). At some point, he became disheartened because Israel was rejecting his words. He felt as if he poured himself out to no effect.

Yet this feeling ends up being a point at which he turns to the Lord and renews his confidence in him. He says, "Yet surely the justice due to me is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." Israel, on the other hand, said, "My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God" (Isaiah 40:27). Israel was supposed to be ruling over the nations, but instead the nations were ruling over it. Israel wanted to be vindicated by the Lord, but feared that it would not be. The Servant is confident in the wisdom and power of the Lord where Israel was not. He trusts himself to the Lord. He expects the Lord to vindicate him. He ultimately deems apparent failure not to be disheartening. He believes that what he wants—justice and reward—are still with the Lord, whether or not he has failed. He sees that the Lord will honor his heart and his works, and he trusts that the Lord will make things right.

The Lord has an interesting answer to his Servant’s predicament. But first, almost parenthetically, the Servant in verse 5 acknowledges the Lord, the one who speaks into the Servant’s predicament, as the one who called him to his vocation. His call begins with bringing Israel back to the Lord. This is different from the Lord’s design for Cyrus. Cyrus allowed Israel to return not to the Lord but to Jerusalem. The Servant is to bring about true deliverance, not from Babylon but from sin, and to bring about true return, not to Jerusalem but to the Lord. The Servant recognizes that the Lord has "honored" him with this task. And though earlier he felt that he had spent his "strength" for nothing and vanity, he now acknowledges that his God is his strength. Somehow, he believes God will give him the strength he needs to finish his mission. Isaiah promised Israel, just after it complained that God’s justice had passed it by, that "those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength" (Isaiah 40:31). The Servant believes the promise.

And yet, what about this feeling of failure? Yes, it looks as if the Servant believes that the Lord will ultimately give him the strength for the task, but why does he first have to, by all appearances, fail? Because, paradoxically, "failure" was part of the task, right from the start—and that was something that even the Servant had trouble seeing at some point or points. Why did the Servant fail, at least initially, in the first part of his task, to bring Israel back to the Lord? Because, in the words of the Lord, speaking to the Servant, "It is too small a thing that you should be my Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel."

The Servant was to "raise up" Israel, which was as good as dead, nationally and spiritually (Ezekiel 37:1-14), and bring it back to life, "restoring" it to the Lord. Specifically, he was to restore the "preserved" ones of Israel—those who had been preserved by the Lord for this very purpose.

Yes, the Servant has this mission to Israel, but the Lord tells him, "I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." The nations are living in spiritual darkness, without truth, and the Servant will embody God’s light so that they might see the truth (Isaiah 9:2). By shining forth God’s truth, he will enable the world to see God’s salvation, that it might forsake sin and embrace the Lord. This was the Lord’s design for Israel, but Israel didn’t embrace its vocation. The Servant of the Lord initially fails to bring Israel back to the Lord, but that failure becomes the means by which he brings the world back to God. He is not only vindicated over the nations, as Israel hoped to be, he brings salvation to them.

Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, must have felt at some point—or perhaps at many points—that he was failing. When it came right down to it, Israel had no interest in returning to the Lord. When Jesus looked over Jerusalem, he lamented, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling" (Matthew 23:37). Jesus, as Israel’s king, was supposed to rule over it and the entire world, but Israel convinced the Romans to crucify Jesus, and even his disciples abandoned him at that point.

Yet in the apparent failure, Jesus was able to renew his confidence in the Lord. In the upper room, he prayed, "And now, glorify me together with yourself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with you before the world was" (John 17:5). In the garden, he prayed, "Abba! Father! All things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). On the cross, he cried out, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

How did the Father respond to Jesus’ feelings of failure and his subsequent prayers? The Father did for Jesus, his Servant, his Israel, what he wanted to do for the nation—he raised him from the dead. Failed revolutionaries ended up on crosses. Jesus appeared to be a failure and even felt like a failure. But when the Father raised him from the dead, he was vindicated. The Father not only called him "from the womb" (verse 1), he called him from the grave. The strange way he went about fulfilling the vocation of Israel was vindicated.

Jesus is the one who brought about true deliverance for Israel, for those preserved ones in Israel who believed in him—his disciples and other followers. It was a deliverance not from Egypt or Babylon or Rome but from sin and Satan (Matthew 1:21). Although the people never really felt as if they had returned to Jerusalem, because they were still being ruled by oppressive powers, Jesus offered to do something much better for them—to bring them back to the Lord. Because it was not the kind of deliverance most of Israel was looking for, he was rejected.

The Father honored Jesus by giving him this best and most difficult of all vocations, and he gave him his resources to fulfill it—his Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16) and his angels (Matthew 4:11). The Father gave him the strength to, in effect, fail—to submit to the authorities of Israel and Rome, who crucified him. His failure with Israel, though, meant his success with the world. It was too small a thing for Jesus to bring just Israel back to God. His rejection by Israel meant that he died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. The Servant was to be a "light of the nations," and Jesus proclaimed himself to be "the light of the world" (John 8:12). Paul says that Israel’s transgression in rejecting the gospel meant "riches for the world" (Romans 11:12).

Jesus not only rose from the dead, he ascended to the Father, where he is fulfilling his vocation to rule over the whole world (Ephesians 1:20-23, 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, Philippians 2:9-11, Hebrews 1:3). Israel ends up being reconstituted and redefined as those who follow Jesus regardless of nationality, so in the end Jesus succeeds in his mission to gather Israel (Galatians 3:29, 6:16).

Observe all this about Jesus—how he felt that he was failing but nevertheless trusted the Lord, how he offers true deliverance, how the Father vindicated him by raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand, where he reigns over creation. This is the one you should listen to.

As servants of the Lord who seek to in our own ways bring people to God, we offer true deliverance—deliverance from sin and Satan. Like Jesus, we are the "light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). When you come right down to it, it’s a deliverance that most people in the world and many people in the church simply don’t want. There will be times when we too feel as if we have "toiled in vain" and that we have spent our strength for "nothing and vanity." We feel deep in our hearts that there is something special about us, and there is. We therefore feel that we have something to offer this world, something that will benefit it—something that will show it something of the greatness of God. And yet when we move forward, often we’re rejected. Our swords and arrows miss the mark.

Those moments, though, present themselves as opportunities to renew our confidence in God, to understand more deeply that the justice due us is with the Lord, and that our reward is with our God. In other words, rejection is an opportunity to realize that God will vindicate us in the resurrection, when we will reign with Jesus (Revelation 22:5). The Lord honors those who risk rejection for him. He honors our heart and our work. He doesn’t look at what kind of effect you’re having. He looks at your heart. When he sees desire forming in your heart to reach out, and when he sees you taking steps to express it, he is pleased, and for that desire and for those steps, you will be rewarded. You will not be rewarded for the effect you have; you will be rewarded for your heart and for your work. This is what the Servant of the Lord realized. So don’t obsess over the kind of effect you’re having in life. Results are out of our hands. We can trust that in time God will make all things right. He takes responsibility for the results. But we have responsibility for what’s happening in our hearts.

God has honored us by giving us this best and most difficult of vocations to be his servants. But he gives us his strength—his Holy Spirit (Philippians 1:19) and his angels (Acts 5:19)—to form us and to empower us to move forward. He gives us the strength to fail. Failure, as it turns out, is part of the call. If you live out the call and follow what God has placed on your heart, you will not conform to popular expectations. It will be hard. You will be crucified—probably not literally, definitely spiritually. In this spiritual crucifixion, the rejection we face from the world does something good to us, if we will let it—we give up our dreams and let God give us bigger dreams. Paradoxically, this spiritual crucifixion, in which we become more like Jesus, becomes the means through which God reaches the world. If Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, wrestled with the strange paradox of his vocation, that he was called to fail, we can expect that we will have to do the same.

What you want to succeed at may be too small a thing, anyway. It was too small a thing for the Servant of the Lord to restore Israel. That job you want may be too small a thing. That relationship you want may be too small a thing. That house you want may be too small a thing. That money you want may be too small a thing. That recognition you want may be too small a thing. That ministry you want may be too small a thing. Your dreams are probably too small. If they are, they must die.

Do you know who’s dreams were too small? The Apostle Paul’s. He thought he was supposed to go his countrymen, the Jews, but he failed with them, and the Lord told him, "Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles" (Acts 22:21). In turning to the Gentiles, Paul referred to Isaiah 49:6: "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you [Jews] first; since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth’" (Acts 13:46-47). Just like Jesus, for Paul it was too small a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob.

Then, as an apostle to the Gentiles, he went about his business in a strange way. He was anything but a glowing success. He was rejected, beaten, stoned and jailed. He confessed that he was depressed. The Corinthians, in particular, couldn’t understand this. What kind of apostle is this? they wondered. They wanted a success story. Paul discovered the paradox of failure. Despite all this rejection, he observed that the fragrance of Christ was being wafted about (2 Corinthians 2:14-15), that the glory of God was shining through him (2 Corinthians 3:8-9) and that the life of Christ was being manifested in his body (2 Corinthians 4:10). Paul recognized that his affliction was for their benefit (2 Corinthians 1:6, 4:12).

Although he was more successful with the Gentiles than with the Jews, at the end of his life he felt abandoned (2 Timothy 4:10, 16). The churches he established died out. He was a failure, right? Well, no. Because the churches he established were so messed up, he wrote letters to them, and they copied them and circulated them. Countless numbers have drawn encouragement from those letters through the centuries. Paul had no idea he was writing what would constitute half of the New Testament. It was too small a thing for him to succeed with the Jews; it was too small a thing for him to succeed with the Gentiles. But maybe it wasn’t too small a thing for him to be God’s principal author of the New Testament!


Preparation for what’s next

Get to know the Lord through the word and prayer. It will prepare you for what comes next. Sometimes when you step forward into what comes next, you feel as if you’re failing. But when your dreams fail, remember that you can’t outdream God.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Isaiah 49:1-6
11th Message
Scott Grant
May 7, 2000