The prophets prophesied God’s love for Israel and Judah again and again, but saw their words come to nothing a lot of the time (with the exception of a righteous king from time to time). They certainly needed to trust God to keep prophesying as they did.
Isaiah 49:3-6 [The Lord] said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel,
and you will bring me glory.’
4I replied, ‘But my work seems so useless!
I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.
Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand;
I will trust God for my reward.’
And now the Lord speaks—
the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant,
who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him.
The Lord has honored me,
and my God has given me strength.
He says, ‘You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’
We Gentiles can see the promise of the Messiah in this. Verse 4, which says ‘My work seems so useless’, is challenging from that point of view; but we don’t really know everything Jesus was thinking when he realised what was about to happen to him.
Why are these chapters of Isaiah here, at the end of the Babylonian exile?
There are two ways of looking at Isaiah’s prophecies from about chapter 40 onwards
- prophecy only as foretelling the future: the man called Isaiah saw the coming of Cyrus long before Cyrus was even born
- prophecy as God speaking to us: a later prophet in the ‘school’ of Isaiah saw how a rising king called Cyrus would be used by God to overthrow the Babylonians and restore Israel.
Both give glory to God’s word and His capacity to speak to his people ahead of time and on time. For the sake of the overall narrative, I’ve gone with the second view. Even if it was written earlier, by Isaiah himself, it would have been only after the ascension of Cyrus that the prophecies became relevant (although prophecies about Jesus are relevant at any time). The text in these later chapters is also more consistent with what God was saying through other prophets towards the end of the Babylonian exile.