< March 29, 2015 >

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a


Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of the third of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 40-55 (a section of the book commonly called Second Isaiah).

The passage stands at a critical juncture or turning point for the recurring figure of the servant, at which dark signs increasingly cloud the promise of his mission.

The selection of lectionary verses is unfortunately artificial; although it is legitimate to treat vv. 10-11 as a commentary on the foregoing first-person statement in vv. 4-9, the exclusion of 9b is not justified. It is, in fact, v. 10 that identifies this passage with the servant, calling the hearers to listen to him.1

The next phrase of Isaiah 50:10 describes someone who “walks in darkness and has no light.” The same Hebrew term for darkness is used metaphorically in Psalm 82:5 and Isaiah 8:22 for those who are unenlightened, but the portrayal of the servant does not suggest such a person, so it seems best to interpret it as referring to the hearers who trust the prophet although they cannot see what he can. However, some interpreters take the comment as autobiographical and conclude that this is another reference to the prophet’s blindness, like Isaiah 42:19: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the Lord?”

The servant portrayed in Isaiah 50 may be the same figure who in chapter 40 responded to the divine summons to “Cry out!” -- the one who responds: What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). Much like that figure, the servant’s mission seems to be initially one of comfort: The servant knows “how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4), using a word for “weary” (y’p) that occurs repeatedly in 40:28-31.

The servant is also a figure of conflict, however. He is portrayed with images of hard, sharp objects -- as “a sharp sword” and “a polished arrow” in Isaiah 49:2, and in 50:7 he sets his face “like flint.” The servant presses forward in his mission (v. 5), but the portrayal of his work has taken a darker turn from the optimistic tone of earlier chapters -- he is struck, stripped, insulted, and spit on (v. 6). In this way, the passage looks forward to the fourth and final servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), in which the servant also suffers affliction, apparently unto death.

Isaiah 50 supports the idea that the servant was a figure with disciples. The opening phrase of v. 4 is most easily translated, “the Lord has given me a tongue of/for disciples.” (Only with difficulty can translations such as “the tongue of a teacher” [NRSV] or “an educated tongue” [CEB, NIV] be justified, since the Hebrew form is plural: limmûdîm.) At the end of the same verse, he asks to be able to hear “like the disciples.” The passage suggests a combination of toughness, humility, and faith that would be exemplary in a leader of a group. The song of comfort in Isaiah 54 may have this servant in mind when it says, “O afflicted one … all your children shall be disciples of the Lord (Isaiah 54:11, 13).

There is a shift in the use of the term “servant” after these four Servant Songs in Second Isaiah. In Isaiah 40-53, the servant is generally a singular figure, but after the report of his death in Isaiah 53, there is a shift to plural references -- the Lord often speaks of “my servants.” At about the same time, the tone of the book shifts from the comfort offered early in Second Isaiah to the harsher tone of Third Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). One way to make sense of these shifts is to conclude that the servant was the leader of a community which tried to bring a message to the people, but its leader (the singular servant) was killed, and the group marginalized. After the death of the leader, the group may have identified itself as “the servants of the Lord,” defining themselves over against those “who forsake the Lord (see esp. Isaiah 65:8-15).

In Isaiah 50, however, the servant expresses confidence in terms that are reminiscent of Job. In Isaiah 50:6, the servant is spat upon (Job 30:10), insulted (Job 20:3), and struck on the cheek (Job 16:10). Like Job (Job 19:3), he speaks up against the idea that he should be disgraced and shamed (Isaiah 50:8). Like Job, he takes his stand, contends his case, and expects vindication/justification (Isaiah 50:7). Of course, such terms are not limited to Job; many of them are drawn from a common language of ancient jurisprudence and/or wisdom literature. And unlike Job, the servant seems confident that God is on his side. Unlike Job (Job 10:2), the servant believes he will not be condemned by God (Isaiah 50:9).

The Servant has proven a uniquely challenging figure to interpreters; the eminent Old Testament scholar S. R. Driver is said to have abandoned his efforts to write a commentary on Isaiah because the literature on the servant overwhelmed him. If a single historical figure lies behind these Isaianic texts, none of the innumerable efforts to determine his identity has ever generated great confidence. If, however, one sets aside that concern, one can see that the servant at least fits into a familiar pattern, as one of many messengers of God who suffers in his mission. To name just a few examples, this can be said of Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem and into conflict (John 12:13ff.). Like the servant, Jesus encountered crowds and leaders who did not believe him. The parallels between the two led John to write that “Isaiah … saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke about him (John 12:41).


1 The conventions of English writing make it difficult to avoid using gendered personal pronouns for the servant, and indeed the servant is elsewhere identified with masculine entities, but it is interesting to note that the herald in chapter 40 is a feminine noun, sometimes thought to reflect a female figure.