Have you ever longed to sit quietly in God’s throne room and listen in on a conversation between the Father and the Son? The wonder of the opportunity is beyond our imagination. And yet, Isaiah 49 gives us that very opportunity. As we step into the room, the Father and the Messiah are having a conversation in which the Father announces, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” [God calls the Messiah “Israel” because he is the perfect Israelite, fulfilling what the nation could not]. But in his reply the Son actually expresses disappointment in the results of his effort, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord…”
The reply is shocking, but the Father does not let that stand. The Father gives assurance that the Son’s work of salvation will not just bring back the preserved of Israel. The Father would make him a light to the nations so that salvation would reach to the end of the earth (vs. 6). The Father then gives further assurances, saying to the Son, “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you.” The Father would “help” the Son and give him as a “covenant to the people” so that the “prisoners” of the world and those in “darkness” could come out and find rest. Jesus would be the one who would lead a new “exodus,” leading a new people out of the cruel bondage of Satan. The peoples of the whole earth who responded to the “exodus call” would not hunger or thirst, for the Lord would lead them and guide them “by springs of water.” “Mountains would become a road and highways would be raised up” so that the people could “come from afar” and not be hindered.
In verse 13, the cry goes out for the heavens and earth to “sing for joy, for the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” What do people do when God delivers them from bondage? They sing for joy. They don’t sing because of a commandment. They sing because they are no longer slaves. They sing for joy because they can’t help but sing.
But Zion Doubts
After thirteen verses of encouragement that God would help the Messiah bring salvation to the end of the earth and make a highway so the captives could be free, we read these words:
“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’”
The future people of Israel would recognize that their sins had been so horrible and the judgment they deserved so devastating, it would be impossible to think that God could actually still love them and bring them back. Have you ever felt that way? Sure you have. We all have. We do not deserve his love. We have hurt our Lord deeply by our sins, and therefore we cannot imagine that he would pursue us to the end of the earth and make a highway for our return. Yes, we gather in our assemblies, sing and pray as the Lord’s people should, but deep inside we still hear the words, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.”
Impossible for the Lord to Forget
It is apparent the Lord knew this would be our response to his salvation. He knew we would struggle believing that he could still love us and still want us to be with him. God’s knowledge of our doubt and his desire to assure us of his love is an echo that fills all of scripture. In this text, the Lord’s answer brings us to tears:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me…The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold I was left alone; from where have these come?’” (Isaiah 49:15-16; 21-22).
How can a woman forget her nursing child? Ah, even some of these may forget, but the Lord does not forget us. He can’t. He has engraved us on the palms of his hands. When we were all alone, bereaved and barren, he brought us out of our exile and even caused us to produce offspring so that we have become a great nation, delivered by a great exodus, shining as lights to a dark world that they too can come out of bondage. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth, for the Lord has comforted his people.”