Jesus fulfilled the Day of Atonement through His vicarious death on the cross (Heb. 9). He suffered as the only righteous servant of God, and the idea of a “suffering servant” is another important old covenant theme that is fulfilled in the new covenant.
The plainest teaching on the Suffering Servant in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 42–53, which chapters are filled with what scholars call the “Servant Songs.” Today’s passage is one of these famous songs. In it, the prophet speaks of the mission of Yahweh’s servant, Israel (49:3). Many Jewish interpreters stop with the identification of the nation of Israel as the servant, saying that the Christian attempt to identify Jesus with the Suffering Servant is illegitimate. Yet they miss the point — Christians identify Jesus with the Suffering Servant precisely because the Suffering Servant is Israel. The old covenant prophets are very clear that one person, specifically the Davidic king, can represent the entire nation before God. We have seen in past months, for example, that King Manasseh represents Israel in 2 Chronicles 33:1–20. His failure to keep covenant sent him into exile in Babylon and his repentance brought about his restoration. This is the exact same fate Israel later suffered (36:17– 23). Manasseh, in a real sense, was Israel; his fate was the nation’s fate. This was true of all the Davidic kings, not least Jesus Christ (Matt. 2:13–15). John Calvin comments, “Under the name Israel, by which he means Christ, Isaiah includes the whole body of the people, as members under the Head.”
Today’s passage includes other hints that Isaiah has both the nation and an individual in mind when writing the Servant Songs. God’s servant Israel, for example, is called to restore Israel (“the tribes of Jacob,” Isa. 49:3, 5–6). This makes little sense unless Isaiah is moving back and forth between an individual who is sent and the nation that must hear His message. In the immediate context, the individual in mind may very well be Isaiah himself, but since even he was limited by sin (6:1–7), it would fall to an even greater servant to bring the faithful in the nation back to the Lord.
The Suffering Servant’s ministry will gather in not just Israel but the nations as well (49:7). Clearly, this is happening in this era of the new covenant church.