Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I am a servant.” – Larry Norman, 1976
This lectionary reading for Palm Sunday is the third of four servant songs in Second Isaiah (see also Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 52:13-53:12), explicitly identified as Israel in Isaiah 49:3 but also personified as an individual as seen in our text (note the first person singular pronouns throughout).1 It is also part of the larger textual unit of Isaiah 50:1-11, which is in turn part of the larger textual unit of Isaiah 49:14 – 52:12.2 Nonetheless, the general contours of the interpretation of this passage are relatively straightforward, and the text provides a helpful point of departure for Palm Sunday preaching.
Verses 1 and 2-3 share the same movement from rhetorical question to clarifying statements that provide an explicit answer to the rhetorical questions:
“Where is… which of…” (verse 1a) moves to “because of your sins… for your transgressions” (verse 1b), and
“Why was… Why did… Is… Have I …” (verse 2a) moves to “by my rebuke… I clothe…” (verses 2b-3).3
Scholars typically see these verses are referencing Isaiah 49:14 and Zion’s accusation that “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” In essence, the Lord has put that accusation on trial, and in good lawyerly fashion is refuting the allegation that Israel is in exile because of the Lord’s largesse.
Verses 4-9 move from a focus on the exilic community as the larger group to the individual servant, though the word servant (ebed) is nowhere used in this unit.4 Although there are different ways to organize this unit, I find Throntveit’s ABB’A’ structure most satisfactory.5 Throntveit correctly observes that while the appellation “The Lord YHWH” occurs in verses 4, 5, 7, and 9, it is joined with a Hebrew perfect verbal form in verses 4 (natan, “has given me”) and 5 (patach, “has opened”) and a Hebrew imperfect verbal form in verses 7 and 9 (ya’azar, “helps me,” “who helps me”).6
Together, these five verses present “a psalm of confidence in YHWH by the servant, which functions as a model for the people’s outlook and behavior within the larger context of 50:1-11.”7 The movement of thought is consistently from the Lord’s action to its consequence for the servant:
action: the Lord “gives me the tongue of a [pupil, student]”;8 consequence: the servant is to “sustain the weary by a word” (verse 4);
action: the Lord “has opened my ear” (verse 5a); consequence: the servant is to submit to those who have abused him (verses 5b-6);
action: the Lord “helps me”; consequence: the servant sets “[his] face like flint,” knowing that he will not be put to shame and that the one who vindicates him (obviously God) is near (verse 7a);
action: the Lord again “helps me”; consequence: no one will declare the Servant guilty. This verse summarizes the confidence the Servant has based on the Lord’s help (verse 9a).
This leads into verses 10-11 which are themselves grammatically ambiguous9 but appear to be a challenge, in the form of another rhetorical question, to the community in exile to follow the model of the servant (verse 10). Further, it serves as another affirmation to the community that what they are experiencing, what they are fighting against (“kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands”), comes from the hand of the Lord (verse 11).
The Palm Sunday context of Isaiah 50 leads one instinctively to the coming suffering of Jesus that will culminate in his crucifixion (John 19:16-18) and resurrection (John 20:13-16). Christians have historically viewed the suffering of Jesus as divinely ordained by God and willingly accepted by Jesus, and that clearly fits the model of the servant in verses 4-9.
But if the servant in verses 4-9 is to be a model for the community of faith in exile, shouldn’t the servant also serve as a model for us? How can we read the passage in that context?
Are we sustaining the weary (verse 4)? From the beginning of Isaiah 40, one of the themes of Second (and Third) Isaiah is the proclamation, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:3; see also 49:13; 51:3, 12; 52:9; 57:18; 61:2; 66:13). Is our effort to sustain the weary based on listening to the God who gives us the tongue of a pupil (verse 4) whose ears have been opened (verse 5) by God? Or, are these efforts motivated by political ideologies or ongoing quests for power, celebrity, and fortune?
Are we willing to submit to perceived persecution without fighting back (verse 6)? Jeremiah proclaims, before the Exile begins, that the community of faith should settle down for 70 years of life in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-9). Jesus reminds us that “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10, 11-12; see also Luke 6:22-23).
And how do we read these exhortations to non-resistance with other biblical traditions that proclaim the value of civil disobedience to those who persecute us (for example: the midwives in Exodus 1; Rahab the Canaanite in Joshua 6; the stories of resistance in the book of Daniel) or with the Confessing Church’s opposition to the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s?
As I write this, the federal administration is rolling out millions of COVID-19 vaccines across the United States, and for the first time in many months, the defeat of this virus can be envisioned. While I deny that COVID-19 is in any way a divine gesture of judgment, it is worth pondering how the church responded to it from the standpoint of this servant song. And if the church’s response was indeed lacking, it is worth pondering what a better response might look like, a response that is grounded in the model that the servant of Isaiah 50 gives us.10
May the church always and everywhere be counted amongst those who “trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon their God” (verse 10, lightly edited).
- For a recent discussion around the identity of the Servant, see, e.g., John Goldingay, “Servant of Yahweh” who lists the Messiah, some other individual, the prophet, and Israel as possible identifications (M. J. Boda & G. J. McConville, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets [Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012], 703–706).
- So Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 40-66 (Forms of the Old Testament Literature; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 178: “Thus, 49:14–52:12 as a whole focuses on YHWH’s announcement of salvation for Zion.” In contrast, John Goldingay, Isaiah 40–55 (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T&T Clark , pages 180, 205) sees a sharper distinction between 49:14– 50:3 (“YHWH’s Response to Abandoned Zion” and 50:4–11 (“The Awakening of YHWH’s Servant”), which he assigns to the section 50:4–53:12.
- G.S. Ogden and J. Sterk, A Handbook on Isaiah (Reading: United Bible Societies, 2011), 1411–13.
- Klaus Baltzer, “So that there can be no doubt at all as to who has appeared here, the first saying begins: ‘the Lord, Yahweh. ‘The Servant of Yahweh’ is the correspondence, even if this is not expressly said” (Deutero–Isaiah [Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001], 338).
- See Mark Throntveit’s 2010 Working Preacher commentary on Isaiah 50:4–9a, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-3/commentary-on-isaiah-504-9a-8 [accessed December 22, 2020].
- Sweeney, Isaiah 40–66 (Forms of the Old Testament Literature; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 181.
- The translation of the imperfects is uncertain. Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40–66 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 352, 354) translates as the future tense “will help me”; Goldingay, Isaiah 40–55, 212 thinks they are both habitual presents (“supports me”). Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 338 translates verse 7 as a future tense (“will help me”) and verse 9 as a present tense (“helps me”). Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns , 484) agree that verse 9 is a future tense imperfect (“will help me”) but have no explicit treatment of verse 9.
- The NRSV translation, “teacher” is wrong: Brown-Driver-Briggs, 541 (“taught, as disciples”), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 8:9 (“The term limmûd refers to a pupil who receives instruction or is otherwise introduced to something), Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 4:551 (“tongue of the pupils”).
- See, for example, Ogden and Sterk, Handbook on Isaiah, pp 1429 (“The Hebrew text of verse 10 is difficult and it allows for a variety of interpretations”) and 1431 (“Like verse 10, verse 11 is difficult to interpret”).
- See Michael Luo, “An Advent Lament in the Pandemic,” https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/an-advent-lament-in-the-pandemic?fbclid=IwAR3V4biluHczlskrN0I9C7timu5t3lVgesFoQD1HzXYh4NqoI0hKJp1882Q [accessed Dec. 22, 2020].