Question: In Isaiah 42:6, doesn’t the phrase “I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations” (NASB) indicate that the Messiah was given to the Gentiles as a covenant, and thus the New Covenant is also extended to the Gentiles and the church in general?
Answer: Great question, but no – in fact, the opposite is true. I admit that the NASB (which is my preferred English translation) does seem to imply that the Messiah was given to the Gentiles for or as a covenant. However, a closer look at the Hebrew construction used in both Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8 helps to resolve the issue.
In Isaiah 42:6 the Hebrew reads: וְאֶתֶּנְךָ֛ לִבְרִ֥ית עָ֖ם לְא֥וֹר גּוֹיִֽם׃
(Isaiah 49:8 reads, וְאֶתֶּנְךָ֙ לִבְרִ֣ית עָ֔ם)
And I give You (וְאֶתֶּנְךָ֛)
To, or for, a covenant (לִבְרִ֥ית)
A people (עָ֖ם)
To, or for, a light (לְא֥וֹר)
Nations, or peoples (גּוֹיִֽם)
The phrasing and syntax leaves us with a few possible readings:
(1) And I give you to a covenant-people, to light-nations.
(2) And I give you to a covenant-people, a light to nations.
(3) And I give you as a covenant to a people, as a light to nations.
The NASB prefers reading #3, but readings #1 and #2 are equally plausible. Regardless of which of the three readings is preferred, people (עָ֖ם) is singular, while nations or peoples (גּוֹיִֽם) is plural. In this context people (עָ֖ם) references Israel, while nations or peoples (גּוֹיִֽם) refers to gentiles. There is clear distinction between the two. Note that if the Servant (Messiah) is given as a covenant, then He is given as a covenant to the people (עָ֖ם), not to the nations or peoples (גּוֹיִֽם), but rather, He is a light to them. Also, Isaiah 49:6 describes in detail Messiah’s dual purpose: He would be a servant in order to (1) raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel and (2) serve as a light to the nations. These two purposes are quite distinct. While they are accomplished by the same Messiah, they must not be conflated.
It is evident that the Messiah has a covenant relationship with Israel, but doesn’t with the gentiles. He serves as a light to the nations (Is 49:6, Jn 1:4-9) in fulfillment of the seventh component of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:3) – “and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” As Paul records in Galatians 3:8, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you.’” In Galatians 3:16, Paul quotes Genesis 22:18 (“in your seed all the nations [גּוֹיֵ֣י] of the earth will be blessed”) to acknowledge that the predicted seed was not plural, but rather singular, and that the Messiah was that seed.
Consequently, there is no grounding in the Isaiah passages for us to understand any of God’s covenants as being made with the gentiles. All of Israel’s covenants are for Israel alone. However, God’s blessing of the gentiles was very clearly predicted in and from God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3, 22:18). Thus gentile salvation is not a New Covenant thing, but gentile salvation is accomplished by the One who was given to Israel as a covenant (or who was given to a covenant-people, Is 42:6, 49:8), and is a part of that central promise He made to Abraham. In short, gentile blessing comes from the covenant God made with Abraham, and not from the New Covenant He made with Israel.