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In spite of the prophet’s assurances that God will surely fulfill His promises, most of the people could not shake themselves loose from their Old Covenant despair. They looked at their own inability to keep their vows. They despaired at the standard of righteousness set forth in the law. They saw the reality of their exile and knew that it was impossible to set themselves free.
In Isaiah 49:14 the prophet speaks for such people, saying,
14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.”
He then turns and speaks for God, saying in Isaiah 49:15, 16,
15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. 16 Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.”
The calling of a prophet is to intercede as a special kind of priest. A priest is a mediator, representing men to God and God to men. When the priesthood of Eli failed to fulfill its purpose, God raised up “a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul” (1 Samuel 2:35).
On the surface, this actually referred to Samuel, who was the first to hold the Prophetic Office, though others had been prophets before him. So we read in Acts 3:24 about “all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward.” These priests were prophets, trained by God in the wilderness to give the word of the Lord when the regular priests failed in their calling. Hence, Samuel not only offered sacrifices as a priest but also prophesied.
Even then, Christ was the ultimate Prophet who was also the “faithful Priest.”
Isaiah was a later prophet and one of Samuel’s successors. So we find him in Isaiah 49:14 being a spokesman for the people and then in the next verses acting as a spokesman for God. He reassures them that God has not forgotten them or His promise.
Promise of Deliverance
Isaiah 49:17 says,
17 “Your builders [ben, “sons”] hurry [mahar, “hasten, or to be skillful”]; your destroyers and devastators will depart from you.”
The first part of verse 17 can be read in two ways. No doubt the prophet worded it in this way to provide a double meaning. The word ben means “a son” in the sense of one who builds and establishes the family. The word mahar, when linked to a builder, means “skillful,” one who is experienced in his craft and can finish a project quickly.
In my view there are two ways to translate this: (1) Your builders are skillful, and (2) Your sons are coming quickly. In this way the prophet paints a word picture that sets the stage for the next verses, which speak of God’s promise to make their descendants as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5) and the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), and the sand of the sea (Genesis 32:12).
In fact, God used Israel’s exile to increase their numbers far beyond what the land of Canaan could support. So Hosea 1:10 speaks of the Israelites in captivity saying,
10 Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered; and in the place where it is said to them, “You are not My people,” it will be said to them, “You are the sons of the living God.”
In other words, the promise of God did not fail just because Israel was divorced from God and exiled. In fact, God’s purpose in destroying the nation was to rebuild it on a new foundation, that is, the New Covenant. There would certainly be an increase in natural population, but this increase would never reach the number of the stars, dust, or sand of the sea.
In the New Testament we find that the real seed of Abraham was not natural but spiritual. The seed of Abraham is based on faith (Galatians 3:26), because the Abrahamic promise itself was based upon faith (Galatians 3:6, 7). Only those who are born of the Spirit are sons of Abraham. The best that one’s natural genealogy can produce is what Paul calls the “old man,” which was condemned to death at the beginning.
Building God’s Household
Those who are the sons of God by faith are the “builders” of the household of faith who populate the Kingdom of God. Isaiah 49:18 says,
18 Lift up your eyes and look around; all of them gather together, they come to you. As I live,” declares the Lord, “you will surely put on [lavash, “clothe or dress yourself”] all of them as jewels [adiy, “ornaments”] and bind [kashar, “gird”] them on as a bride.”
Here Israel is pictured as a bride putting on her wedding garment and jewelry. We will see this theme again in Isaiah 61:10, where the bride (of Christ) “adorns herself with her jewels.” This is part of Isaiah’s remarriage theme in Isaiah 62, which we will cover later. For now, we should recognize that this describes a New Covenant wedding, unlike God’s first marriage to Israel at Sinai, which an Old Covenant wedding.
We must view Isaiah’s prophecies through New Covenant eyes, where Israel is no longer a particular genealogy from Jacob, but is the name and nature of the overcoming remnant, the sons of God. No one ought to use Isaiah’s metaphor to say that non-Israelites will be mere ornaments on the bride of Christ, as if to say that they are slaves owned by genealogical Israelites. Such a view violates everything that the Apostle Paul preached in the New Testament.
These “jewels” are also pictured by a different metaphor as “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) in the temple of God. Neither jewels nor stones in a temple are to be interpreted carnally. The prophet was using natural metaphors to convey spiritual things and living people.
Isaiah 49:19, 20 says,
19 “For your waste and desolate places and your destroyed land—surely now you will be too cramped for the inhabitants, and those who swallowed you will be far away. 20 The children of whom you were bereaved will yet say in your ears, ‘The place is too cramped for me; make room for me that I may live here’.”
The prophet paints a picture of an overcrowded land on account of the multitude of people. He tells us that their “destroyed land” would be “too cramped for the inhabitants.” That, of course, raises the question as to whether the Israelites were ever to return to the old land. The prophet does not give sufficient details to answer the question from this passage alone. But when we view it as the fulfillment of the promise of God through the New Covenant, we can see it clearly.
God’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. The old land was only a stepping stone toward a universal kingdom. For this reason, Abraham sought “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16) not made by human hands. The population of the dispersed Israelites increased greatly over the centuries, and they moved into new lands. However, to regain the name Israel, they would have to become overcomers, even as Jacob himself had to become an overcomer before he was given the name Israel.
No matter what land these dispersed Israelites might have settled, it was, at best, only a type and shadow of the “better country” that Abraham sought. The bottom line is that no matter what land mass we settle, it will never be sufficient to hold the glorified seed of Abraham that is like the sand of the sea or the stars of heaven. God does indeed grant lands and vineyards while we are yet physical, but these are only types and shadows of the things God has promised. If it were not so, the earth eventually would become overpopulated.
Isaiah 49:21 says,
21 “Then you will say in your heart, ‘Who has begotten these for me, since I have been bereaved of my children and am barren, an exile and a wanderer? And who has reared these? Behold, I was left alone; from where did these come?”
The prophet speaks for exiled Israel, who wonders where all the children came from. No mother would forget her children, so these are children that she did not beget. “Who has begotten these for me?” It is almost as if these children had a proxy mother without her knowledge.
The answer cannot be seen through Old Covenant eyes. The New Covenant, established by Christ, shows how the sons of God are begotten. It is through the Holy Spirit, as seen when Jesus Himself was begotten by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18). Natural Israel was “barren” and could not bring forth any sons of God, because she had been divorced (Jeremiah 3:8) exiled, and “left alone.” In that condition, she could not bear God’s children.
But we know the answer from John 1:12, 13,
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
These children of God were not begotten by natural, mortal, corruptible seed, but by the living and immortal word of God (1 Peter 1:23-25). Natural Israelites may be surprised by this, as Isaiah indicates, but the promise of God will indeed be fulfilled. In this way the seed of Abraham will be greatly increased, so that one cannot number the sons of God.