Thirty seven years ago Melanie and I, one Sunday morning, stumbled across the well-known Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh in time for corporate worship. The preacher was the renowned Derek Prime, and he preached from Is. 49:2b (KJV), ‘in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.’ Somehow the main thrust of that message has stayed with me over the years.
Melanie and I came across the same verse a few weeks ago in our evening reading, and the words struck me again [NLT]: ‘He has hidden me in the shadow of his hand. I am like a sharp arrow in his quiver.’ Other renderings refer to the arrow secure in the arrow-bag, an arrow ‘ready for use,’ ‘a select arrow’ (NASB). Lovely little nuances…
The million dollar question of course is the identity of the ‘servant’ Isaiah is referring to? What were the circumstances? OT students differ [my readers, please let’s not be lazy (as many believers are today) but apply our minds – nothing ‘unspiritual’ about that as long as it’s done in dependence on God], but most agree that this section forms part of Isaiah’s second ‘Servant Song,’ firstly addressed to the godly remnant of the Jews in Babylonian exile.
On Is. 49 A.E. Cundall suggests that at times the ‘Servant’ appears to be the prophet himself (v. 2), at times the nation of Israel (v. 3, 5) but this is qualified in v. 5 with its picture of a ministry to Israel. There is also an anticipatory hint of the Messiah in v. 7. With regard to understanding the OT writings particularly, I like Bruxy Cavey’s comment that ‘If the Bible is God’s instruction manual on how to live, Jesus is God’s instruction manual on how to read the Bible’ – you’ll find a good example of this in Lk. 24:25ff.
From Is. 49 Cundall expounds 8 points:
- God had called and prepared the true, spiritual Israel for a unique purpose (v. 1ff).
- God, despite their failure, had not rejected them and he would in fact restore them (v. 4ff).
- Beyond this ministry to Israel there would be a witness and a ministry to the whole world (v. 6)
- Instead of being the underdogs, the rulers of the nations would do them homage (v.7, 22)
- The exiles would be restored to their homeland (v. 8-13)
- In God’s faithfulness and compassion he had never forgot them (v.14ff)
- There would be a glorious homecoming to a restored and re-populated Jerusalem (v. 17-21)
- God reveals himself as the God of the impossible, the Champion and Redeemer of his people (v. 24ff)
From an OT and NT perspective we can clearly see how:
- Israel as a highly privileged people failed to fulfill their considerable responsibilities toward God and toward the nations (Ex. 19:6). Privilege became presumption, leading to an air of superiority over the Gentiles, illustrated in later Pharisaic Judaism.
- The new spiritual Israel (the Church) (Rom. 9:6ff; Gal. 3:29, 6:16) has infinitely greater privileges in Christ than ancient Israel. This is precisely why the temptation of spiritual pride must always be resisted by his people. How the institutional Church has failed in this regard, and of course the many little simple ecclesiae scattered around the world are not exempt! A humble, compassionate and sacrificial ministry to all people, after the example of Jesus in the Gospels, is to characterize the new Israel at all times. Easier said than done!
- Jesus in himself is the true Israel, he is the true Vine (Jn. 15), and those who remain in him will organically bear fruit in terms of Christlike character and fulfilling God’s divine purpose in the world, viz. to crown his Son the totally Pre-eminent One (Eph. 1-2; Col. 1). Strong medicine for a Church largely pre-occupied with herself, religious institutionalism, materialism, individualism, pop psychology, ego-centricity, etc – the result of poor preaching and teaching, particularly in the West. The task God has given us is not hard, it’s impossible – unless empowered by the indwelling Christ, who bears his divine fruit in/through us. The Father is determined to display the servant’s splendour in a dark world (Is. 49:3).
Allow me to draw out some ‘New Year’s lessons’ for ourselves as Messiah’s followers:
- We are always protected and sheltered in God’s quiver, the recipients of his splendid faithfulness and love, even when we have messed up and disappointed him, others and ourselves…
- There is always a preparing and polishing process going on in our lives. The sandpapering is often rough but absolutely necessary to a polished and prepared arrow for God’s kingdom purposes…
- What often seems to be wasted years, years of sweat and struggle, times of feeling forgotten and misunderstood and shunted into a siding, is all preparation for the present and the future. I spent 38 years in some institutional desert lands, only to find my truest calling in the last 8 years. Ask Joseph, Moses, Esther (cf Mordecai’s question to Queen Esther in 4:14, ‘and who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’), Jesus, Peter and Paul. Desert places are always ‘training for God’s moment’ (Derek Kidner).
- Avoid like the plague over-busyness, obsession with many things and ‘doing’ rather than ‘being.’ An Ethiopian proverb reads, ‘You do not climb two trees at once just because you have two feet.’
- Ensure that you hit the target GOD has set for you. Years ago my children sent me a birthday card from the US depicting a moose with perfect ‘target-like rings’ on its chest – a fellow-moose comments, ‘Bummer of a birthmark, hey Hal?’ Sometimes I’ve felt like Hal, haven’t you?? However, God has a ‘select’ target for a ‘select’ arrow (Is. 49:2, NASB). The Bible reveals God’s general purpose for his Church – pray him to reveal your specific role in it. [A recent BBC article read ‘”Young people ‘feel they have nothing to live for'”: apparently three quarters of a million young people in the UK feel that way because of unemployment, and many have contemplated suicide. Of course the situation is infinitely worse in Africa/S. Africa. A matter for earnest prayer and practical action in our small corner]
God in Christ make us all, corporately and individually, his ‘polished arrows,’ for Jesus’ sake! [PS, this is serious stuff. You might have to leave your highly controlled and stifling institutional congregation and seek out like-minded brothers and sisters elsewhere for this to play out in your life – of this be sure, God in his faithfulness will lead you and make you the sharp arrow he has always planned you to be as you obey him].