Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth century mystical writer, knew of suffering.
In a particularly difficult moment of her life she was forced to cross a river while sick with fever. She raised her voice of complaint heavenward, “Lord, amid so many ills this comes on top of all the rest!” A voiced responded, “This is how I treat my friends.” “Ah, my God!” Teresa retorted, “That is why you have so few of them!”1 Some may feel it is in the fine print of the Christian contract, but following Jesus is anything but safe. The prophecy of Isaiah puts a sharp question to its readers, “Will you identify yourself with the suffering One?” This is the driving question of the fiftieth chapter of Isaiah.
Today’s reading, on this Palm Sunday, prepares us for the torturous and difficult journey we are about to take as we enter Holy Week. Like the disciples, our senses and hopes are disoriented. The Messiah we expected, triumphant and glorious, displays his triumph and glory in the paradox of suffering. Is this our Savior? Is this the one we expected to redeem Zion? It will take time to reorient us toward God’s redemptive plan. It will take Easter for us to see that God fulfills his promises in the ways he wants. But we are not there yet. We are left in the first three verses of Isaiah 50 with Zion’s sin. The next six verses, our text for the day, bring us to the third of what are called the “servant songs.”
Now we see for the first time the depiction of the servant’s suffering and affliction. It is important to note that the Lord God or the Sovereign Lord has been with the servant through it all; he has taught him, sustained him, opened his ears to hear and understand. The servant is prepared for what comes by the attending hand of Yahweh. Because of this, he turns his face like a flint to his tormenters. Whereas Judah in Isaiah is defined by her rebellion (Isaiah 1), the servant is defined by his obedience. He did not turn backward. He moved forward in the confidence of Yahweh, his sustainer and teacher. Like Teresa, however, the servant was not spared suffering in this moment. He is no Daniel sleeping comfortably on the lion’s mane. The servant enters deeply into the river of suffering: blows to the face, a plucked out beard, and the insult of spitting.
The servant does this because of his confidence in the vindication of God. Accusers and tormenters may abound. Nevertheless, the servant places his hopes and trust in Yahweh alone. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “Good” is still the right modifier for Good Friday because of the redemptive hopes attached to Jesus’ suffering and death. Friday, yes, but the clarifying word of Easter is coming.
The picture of Jesus in John’s gospel reflects the force of this third servant song. Jesus moves to the cross in the confident assurance of his Father. The Father’s teaching has instructed and sustained Jesus. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27-28). The final moments on the cross witness to Jesus’ confidence. When Jesus knew that all had been accomplished, he cried out, “It is finished” and bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30). The picture is of Jesus, our servant, confident in the will and ways of his Father for the redemption of the world and in the assured hope of his vindication.
Isaiah 50 ends with a pointed question: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant?” Many of us are familiar with the images of the beaten back and plucked out beard of this third servant song. But the final verses of the chapter are not so familiar. The question is a difficult one. Who will obey and identify themselves with this suffering figure? The reader may recall the image in the famous Isenheim altar piece of the crooked finger of John the Baptist pointing to the suffering Christ. Similarly, the prophetic word of Isaiah enjoins those reading to identify themselves and submit to this suffering figure. Or as Saint Paul says, “To know Christ and the fellowship of his suffering” (Philippians 3:10).
During this Palm Sunday we are invited once again to re-think and reorient the way we think about our own humanity. How do I define myself as a person? During this Holy Week, Isaiah the prophet, true to the Trinitarian character of Holy Scripture, encourages us to see our humanity as that which is identified by our union with Jesus Christ, the suffering savior.
My true self is the one that is in union with Jesus (Galatians 2:20), and during this Holy Week we are called once again to walk into the realization of that union by identifying ourselves in obedience with One who is, was, and is to come. When such events in our Christian experiences occur by the work of the Holy Spirit, we, like John the Baptist in the Isenheim altar piece, witness faithfully to Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus isn’t safe. But we can be assured the one we follow is worthy.
1As told in Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grover: IVP, 1998), 133.