“I will answer...I will help.” The Hebrew is written in the past tense (“I have answered...I have helped”) and is the prophetic perfect idiom, referring to something in the future as if it was in the past to show that the event will happen. In this context there are several indications that the prophetic perfect idiom is being used. One is that the subject of the sentence, who is the Messiah, has not even been born yet, so to say that God has answered and has helped him has to be idiomatic. Another is that part of the sentence “and I will preserve you” is in the imperfect tense, here referring to the future. This is a verse where translating the Hebrew literally as a past tense action only confuses the reader because English does not have a clear prophetic perfect idiom.
Reading Isaiah 49:8-23 as a unit shows that it is referring to the Millennial Kingdom when Jesus Christ rules over the earth from his throne in Jerusalem. The majority of the statements in Isaiah 49:8-23 describe things that will occur in the Millennial Kingdom when Jesus Christ rules the earth, although some of the things mentioned in the verses, such as we read in Isaiah 49:14, occur before Christ rules on earth. The key to understanding prophecies such as this one in Isaiah 49:8-23 (cp. Isa. 19:18-25) is realizing that the prophecy is not in chronological order, and so the reader must understand from many other places in the Bible what the Millennial Kingdom will be like, as well as understand the times the prophet is living in and also what the Tribulation and Armageddon, which precede the Millennial Kingdom, will be like. Then the reader can use that information to sort out what pieces of the prophecy refer to events before the Millennial Kingdom and which events have never occurred but will occur in the Millennial Kingdom.
[For more verses in Isaiah that speak of the Millennial Kingdom, see commentary on Isaiah 2:2. For more on Christ’s future kingdom on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the prophetic perfect idiom, see commentary on Ephesians 2:6].
“as a covenant.” The phrase “as a covenant” (or, “for a covenant”) is general and thus has a number of meanings relating to the death of Christ and the covenants. Just as a covenant binds parties together, so also Jesus Christ would bind people to God. Also, the fact that Jesus Christ was given “as a covenant” indicates that in him the Old Covenant was fulfilled and the New Covenant ratified. Jesus was both the sacrifice that was required because the Old Covenant was broken (as per Matt. 26:28) and the blood sacrifice that ratified the New Covenant (as per Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25. Cp. Exod. 24:8). Thus the word “covenant” is a metonymy for a “covenant sacrifice;” both the sacrifice that had to be offered when a covenant was broken, and the blood sacrifice that ratified and began a covenant.
“the people.” Israel was God’s chosen people, so they are often referred to as “the people,” as they are here. We can see that from the scope of Scripture and especially the parallel verse in Isaiah 42:6 where “the people” (Israel) are contrasted with “the nations,” i.e., the Gentiles, the other nations besides Israel. Paul also contrasted “the People” with the Gentiles (Acts 26:23).
The Gentiles were blessed in Christ (Ps. 102:15; Isa. 2:2-4; 19:23-25; 42:6; 49:6; 51:4-5; 56:3-7; 60:3; 66:18-21; Ezek. 39:21, 27; Micah 4:2; Hag. 2:7; Zech. 8:22), but God made His covenant with Israel, the “Old Covenant” (Exod. 24), and He also promised to make a new covenant with them, and Jesus Christ was the covenant sacrifice, as he openly stated at the Last Supper when he said the blood of the covenant was his blood.