Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
The NBC family of networks has since 1989 carried a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) promoting values such as education, diversity, and civility.
The PSAs revolve around the tagline “The more you know.” The underlying idea is that the more you know, the better citizen — and person — you’ll become.
In this third of Second Isaiah’s servant songs, the servant talks about what happens when we grow in knowledge of the Lord’s ways. The more we learn, the more we’ll know. And the more we know, the more we’ll serve.
An instructed tongue (verse 4a)
The New Revised Standard Version’s (NRSV) translation of the first line of Isaiah 50:9 is probably less accurate and helpful than those of some other translations.1 Whereas NRSV has “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” the Hebrew text reads “the tongue of those who are taught” (see NRSV note). New American Standard Bible (NASB) has “the tongue of disciples,” New International Version (NIV) “a well-instructed tongue,” and Common English Bible (CEB) “an educated tongue”; all these readings better maintain the sense of the original.
On the other hand, a teacher’s tongue should express what the one talking has learned. In this case, the servant has learned from the Lord. The servant is a prophet who proclaims God’s word. The prophet can do this because the Lord has given it to him; perhaps it has come both through direct revelation and through the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem (assuming the scholarly consensus that Isaiah 40-55 come from a prophet who preached to the exiles in Babylon during the sixth century).
The instruction that the servant receives is not only for his good; it is also, and perhaps especially, for the good of others. The purpose of the servant’s instruction is to enable him to help others through his words. The proclaimed word offers hope and strength to those who hear it; it helps them to endure. The prophet receives the word to pass it on to others. Perhaps we can assume that the people who hear it have truly received it only when they pass it on as well.
In fact, we preachers can and should consider ourselves heirs of this same tradition, recipients of this same instruction, and proclaimers of this same word. We also have received the word of the Lord through Scripture, through tradition, through the Spirit, and through experience. And we have the same great responsibility to offer encouragement to God’s people to help them endure.
An open ear (verses 4b-5)
The Lord opens the servant’s ear to prepare him to learn and to speak. This is an ongoing process rather than a one-time experience; the Lord “wakens” the servant’s ear “morning by morning” (Isaiah 50:4b). In similar fashion, we preachers need to be alert to the ways that God speaks to us day by day. Preachers should be lifelong learners!
The emphasis thus far has been on the Lord’s gracious acts. God opens the servant’s ear and gives him words to share. But the servant chooses how he will react to the word. He is obedient to speak it (Isaiah 50:4a). Now he says he accepts and doesn’t run away from the Lord’s instruction. This implies that the word is challenging and even threatening. It is ironic that the word meant to encourage others when shared can be painful and dangerous for the messenger to receive.
A Willing Back (verse 6)
The servant’s embrace of the Lord’s difficult and dangerous instruction shows itself in his willingness to experience rejection and to endure persecution. It’s difficult to know if the servant is speaking literally or symbolically when he says, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (verse 6a). Either way (or both ways), he willingly accepts opposition to his sharing of the word of the Lord.
This does not mean that proclaimers of God’s word should go out of their way to provoke opposition. We should not seek persecution. Nor should we assume that opposition necessarily means that we are faithfully proclaiming God’s word. As the reading from James 3:1-12 reminds us, those who teach bear a special and demanding responsibility. As James makes clear, chief among a teacher’s obligations is to speak with integrity. But if we faithfully teach and preach with integrity, opposition will likely come. When we must pay a price for faithful speaking, we should pay it willingly.
A determined face (verses 7-9a)
The servant’s face has experienced pain (Isaiah 50:6b), but it still reflects his determined commitment — he “set[s]” it “like flint” (verse 7b). His determination is based on God’s helping and vindicating action. Because the Lord is with him to help him, he boldly stands up against his adversaries. Servants of God are steadfast in their determination to be faithful because they trust in God, not because they rely on their own strength.
In its original context, the words of this servant song most likely refer to the experience of the prophet who proclaims them. As the early believers grew to understand the ways Jesus fulfilled his role as Messiah and Savior, they found guidance in Second Isaiah’s servant songs. As the embodiment of God’s word (John 1), Jesus suffered greatly for his speaking and living of it.
The prophet’s experience of willing witness that leads to suffering and rejection at the hands of people but ultimately to vindication through the power of God foreshadows Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Those who follow Jesus, whether clergy or laity, by faithfully proclaiming God’s word through attitudes, words, and actions, can expect to suffer for it too. Not only should we not run from the possibility — we should embrace it.
The preacher could consider relating this text to the Gospel text, Mark 8:27-38. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he is a suffering servant. When Peter objects, Jesus not only rebukes Peter but tells both his disciples and the crowd that following him means taking up one’s cross and giving up one’s life. He ends by saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Isaiah 50:38). This brings us back to something the servant said: “The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (verse 5).
The more we listen, the more we’ll know. The more we know, the more we’ll serve. The more we serve, the more we’ll learn.
- See John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 116.