Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
The third Servant Song in Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 50:4-9a) probably has received less attention than its more familiar counterparts in Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:13-53:12—especially the latter text featuring quite prominently during Holy Week.
Though in Isaiah 50:4-9a, one finds some important themes that align with the other so-called Servant Songs and that communicate a powerful message in today’s context, which more than ever before has seen a leadership crisis—both in the church and society.
The lectionary reading in Isaiah 50:4-9a is embedded within a context of judgment and destruction that serves as a description of the circumstances in which the servant is called. In contrast to elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah in which the reversal of water in the wilderness has been the norm, in Isaiah 50:2, God is said to make “the rivers a desert” with the fish dying of thirst, “stink[ing] for lack of water.” Coupled with images of drought and wastelands, one also finds reference to darkness descending on the land as the heavens are clothed with blackness, being dressed in mourning clothes (verse 3) due to the devastation all around.
It is in such a grim context that the servant is called. Though it is precisely in these desperate times that the servant’s role is more significant than ever. This servant is characterized as a true prophet, one who is able to serve as a bridge between God and the people—being in touch with the people, “listening to those who are taught” (verse 4), but also being attuned to God, whose word the prophet proclaims as he “sustain[s] the weary with a word” (verse 4).
God furthermore is said to play a prominent role in the servant’s life. God is the one who helps him (verses 7 and 9), who vindicates him (verse 8), who protects him against those who want to declare him guilty (verse 9), and who saves him from shame and disgrace (verse 7). And God is the one who every morning “wakens [his] ear” (verse 4), helping him to be open and sensitive to the needs of the people he is called to serve.
A central characteristic of this servant is that he is called a Teacher. All the other Servant Songs contain an element of teaching by example as the figure of the servant, who increasingly emerges as the Suffering Servant, is held up as an example to be emulated by the rest of the community as they seek to uphold the values of justice, mercy, goodness propagated in this text. In Isaiah 50:4, though, the servant most explicitly is described as having “the tongue of a teacher,” (verse 4) proclaiming, or rather living, God’s word and God’s way. And the prophet’s message is specifically taught concerning the suffering that the servant, who represents the people, is said to endure. In Isaiah 50:6, we find painful descriptions of this suffering when it is revealed how the servant is struck, how his beard is pulled out, how he is insulted and spit at. Nevertheless, the servant endures, offering his back, his cheeks, as well his face to those who do him harm. Similar to Isaiah 42:3 in which the servant was characterized as “a bruised reed” and “a dimly burning wick,” who nevertheless will not be snapped nor snuffed out, the servant of Isaiah 50 will endure as well, strengthened by God who sustains him throughout his ordeal.
A central theme in this lectionary text is thus the notion of vicarious suffering. For a community that has seen the worst, it was important to consider the question regarding the meaning of this suffering, and in particular to address the concern that this suffering was not for nothing. Isaiah 50 forms part of the community’s ongoing efforts in seeking to understand and to make sense of the lingering wounds of the Babylonian invasion and exile.
The Servant Song in Isaiah 50, as part of a larger narrative in Deutero-Isaiah, wants to say that the suffering that the people experienced is not for nothing, that some good will come out of these terrible events that saw the destruction of the capital city Jerusalem, as well the exile of a number of prominent leaders and skilled workers. From a contemporary perspective, one could well say that this narrative of vicarious suffering informing Isaiah 50 is a dangerous narrative, which pops up every so often as people try to make sense of their own suffering. However, as a meaning-making exercise, one should acknowledge that this act of attaining meaning in suffering may be helpful for those who are finding themselves amid the deluge. But it is important as well, when one is not in crisis mode, to learn and teach others the skills of challenging such harmful trauma narratives for the dark days, when they come.
Finally, whenever there is discussion on the Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah, questions regarding the identity of the servant abound. Joseph Blenkinsopp1 argues that there is a distinct movement from the first part of Deutero-Isaiah in which hopes were still high that there would come a leader, even a foreign leader in the form of Cyrus, who would serve as God’s servant and do God’s work of transforming the community, to the second part of Isaiah in which despair and disappointment have set in. Increasingly, there is a movement toward the community, with individuals themselves, in a responsible, trustworthy, and humble way, acting as God’s servants. In a move that democratizes leadership, it seems that, in the absence of a “good” leader, the onus rests upon ordinary human beings and the community as a whole to do what is good—to cite Micah 6:8: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”2
- Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism,” JSOT 41 (1988), 83-103.
- Additional works consulted: L Juliana Claassens, “To the Captives Come Out and to Those in Darkness be Free…: Using the Book of Isaiah in (American) Politics?” Old Testament Essays 21/3 (2008), 618-634.
September 12, 2021