Williamson sees ‘a division of some sort’ at this point within Isaiah 40-55: ‘After Isaiah 48 there are no more trial scenes or anti-idol polemic; there is no more reference to the fall of Babylon; there is no further reference or allusion to Cyrus; Zion is addressed in a far more extended manner than previously; finally, Isaiah 48:22 obviously marks the end of a section, as a comparison with Isaiah 57:21 makes clear, and Isaiah 49:1–6 (the second Servant Song) is itself a passage that speaks of transition.’ (DOT:P)

Ideal Israel Delivers the Exiles

49:1 Listen to me, you coastlands!
Pay attention, you people who live far away!
The LORD summoned me from birth;
he commissioned me when my mother brought me into the world.
49:2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
he hid me in the hollow of his hand;
he made me like a sharpened arrow,
he hid me in his quiver.
49:3 He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, through whom I will reveal my splendor.”
49:4 But I thought, “I have worked in vain;
I have expended my energy for absolutely nothing.”
But the LORD will vindicate me;
my God will reward me.
49:5 So now the LORD says,
the one who formed me from birth to be his servant—
he did this to restore Jacob to himself,
so that Israel might be gathered to him;
and I will be honored in the LORD’s sight,
for my God is my source of strength—
49:6 he says, “Is it too insignificant a task for you to be my servant,
to reestablish the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the remnant of Israel?
I will make you a light to the nations,
so you can bring my deliverance to the remote regions of the earth.”
49:7 This is what the LORD,
the protector of Israel, their Holy One, says
to the one who is despised and rejected by nations,
a servant of rulers:
“Kings will see and rise in respect,
princes will bow down,
because of the faithful LORD,
the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.”
49:8 This is what the LORD says:
“At the time I decide to show my favor, I will respond to you;
in the day of deliverance I will help you;
I will protect you and make you a covenant mediator for people,
to rebuild the land
and to reassign the desolate property.
49:9 You will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’
and to those who are in dark dungeons, ‘Emerge.’
They will graze beside the roads;
on all the slopes they will find pasture.
49:10 They will not be hungry or thirsty;
the sun’s oppressive heat will not beat down on them,
for one who has compassion on them will guide them;
he will lead them to springs of water.
49:11 I will make all my mountains into a road;
I will construct my roadways.”
49:12 Look, they come from far away!
Look, some come from the north and west,
and others from the land of Sinim!
49:13 Shout for joy, O sky!
Rejoice, O earth!
Let the mountains give a joyful shout!
For the LORD consoles his people
and shows compassion to the oppressed.

v8 “In the time of my favour” – “In the time of favour” (not ‘my favour’), Smith, NAC.

“I will…make you to be a covenant for the people” – The Servant will both embody and manifest God’s covenant.

Calvin says that this makes it clear ‘that all that had formerly been said was promised to Christ, not for the sake of his personal advantage but on our behalf. He has been appointed to be the mediator of the covenant because the Jews by their sins had revolted against God, who had made an everlasting covenant with them. It is Christ who renewed the covenant that had been broken or dissolved.’

‘He is given for a covenant, that is, for a pledge of all the blessings of the covenant. It was in him that God was reconciling the world to himself; and he that spared not his own Son will deny us nothing. He is given for a covenant, not only as he is the Mediator of the covenant, the blessed days-man who has laid his hand upon us both, but as he is all in all in the covenant. All the duty of the covenant is summed up in our being his; and all the privilege and happiness of the covenant are summed up in his being ours.’ (MHC)

The first part of this verse is quoted in 2 Cor 6:2.  N.T. Wright argues that Paul had the larger segment in mind, and that there is therefore remarkable consonance between part of the promise here (‘I will…make you to be a covenant for the people’) and the Pauline argument which climaxes in 2 Cor 5:21 (‘That we might, in him, become the righteousness of God’).  See the discussion in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 135-144).

The Lord Remembers Zion

49:14 “Zion said, ‘The LORD has abandoned me,
the sovereign master has forgotten me.’
49:15 Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast?
Can she withhold compassion from the child she has borne?
Even if mothers were to forget,
I could never forget you!
49:16 Look, I have inscribed your name on my palms;
your walls are constantly before me.
49:17 Your children hurry back,
while those who destroyed and devastated you depart.
49:18 Look all around you!
All of them gather to you.
As surely as I live,” says the LORD,
“you will certainly wear all of them like jewelry;
you will put them on as if you were a bride.
49:19 Yes, your land lies in ruins;
it is desolate and devastated.
But now you will be too small to hold your residents,
and those who devoured you will be far away.
49:20 Yet the children born during your time of bereavement
will say within your hearing,
‘This place is too cramped for us,
make room for us so we can live here.’
49:21 Then you will think to yourself,
‘Who bore these children for me?
I was bereaved and barren,
dismissed and divorced.
Who raised these children?
Look, I was left all alone;
where did these children come from?’ ”
49:22 This is what the sovereign LORD says:
“Look I will raise my hand to the nations;
I will raise my signal flag to the peoples.
They will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their shoulders.
49:23 Kings will be your children’s guardians;
their princesses will nurse your children.
With their faces to the ground they will bow down to you
and they will lick the dirt on your feet.
Then you will recognize that I am the LORD;
those who wait patiently for me are not put to shame.
49:24 Can spoils be taken from a warrior,
or captives be rescued from a conqueror?
49:25 Indeed,” says the LORD,
“captives will be taken from a warrior;
spoils will be rescued from a conqueror.
I will oppose your adversary
and I will rescue your children.
49:26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh;
they will get drunk on their own blood, as if it were wine.
Then all humankind will recognize that
I am the LORD, your deliverer,
your protector, the powerful ruler of Jacob.”

v23 Kings…will bow down before you – Fee and Stuart (How to tread the Bible for all its worth) warn against too great a readiness for identifying New Testament events in Old Testament prophets.  An opportunist might take this verse as a prediction of the visit of the Magi.  But this ignores the context (kings and queens are mentioned, and the issue is the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile), intent (the purpose is show how greatly Israel will be respected when God restores it), style (the imagery is of foreign rulers as foster parents to Israel), and wording (the Magi were not kings).

v24 This question ‘recalls that this is exactly what God did when he delivered his people from Egypt (Ex 12:35–36).’ (EBC)

v26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh – Some modern readers of the Bible recoil with horror at such words.  Derek Flood, for example, writes that in the OT ‘God is repeatedly portrayed as causing parents to cannibalize their own children (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20; Ezek 5:10; Isa 49:25–26). The graphic imagery in these passages is obviously intended to instill appalling fear in a violent God who is either on your side as you kill in his name, or who will inflict the most violent and humiliating suffering on you if you disobey’  (Disarming Scripture, p12).

Others take a more nuanced view:-

‘In the defeat of the enemies, who are forced to eat their own flesh and blood (an allusion to cannibalism in siege-induced famine, as in the curses of Lev. 26:29 and Deut. 28:53–57), all flesh will acknowledge Yahweh as Israel’s God.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘Verse 26a is a graphic and gruesome way of indicating the utter desperation of the enemies of Israel, overcome with hunger and thirst, in contrast to Israel’s promised condition (vv.9–11).’ (EBC)

Motyer comments: ‘The pictures of eating their own flesh and drinking their own blood draw on the horrors of siege conditions. The reality is that those who oppose the Lord and his people experience the self-destructiveness of sin—a recurring feature of the wars of the Lord (Judg. 7:22; 1 Sam. 14:20; 2 Chr. 20:23–24).’

Smith (NAC) also understands this in terms of the self-destruction of tyrants: ‘These bloodthirsty tyrants who devoured others (not a literal cannibalistic eating) will self-destruct and kill each other. This is exactly what happened earlier when Jehoshaphat opposed the Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites (2 Chr 20:22–23) and when Gideon’s 300 men surrounded the Midianites (Judg 7:22), for in both cases the enemy armies self-destructed because they turned on one another.’

On the imagery of cannibalism itself, Smith adds in a note: ‘When nations besiege cities, the people inside the walls eventually run out of food, and in a few exceptional cases they turned to the cannibalistic act of eating their children (2 Kgs 6:24–31), but usually this is used in prophetic texts to refer to self-destruction by internal fighting against one another (Isa 9:19–20; Deut 28:53–57; Ezek 5:10). In Ps 27:2 the prayer complains that the enemies want to eat his flesh, but this is no doubt a metaphoric hyperbole meaning they want to kill him.’

George Knight sees verses 24-26 as answering any doubts about whether the Lord is able to effect his purpose: ‘Yahweh, he says, is surely stronger than any human dictator, for he has made them all (Isa 45:9). In fact he could effect the terrible picture drawn in v. 26; and yet even if he were to do these things, they would represent even less than justice for the evil in the thoughts and plans of the nations. For God, being the living, active God, must do something, no matter how shocking that something may be.’