Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
Hardly any figure in all of Scripture simultaneously holds the notoriety and elusiveness of the “Suffering Servant” of Deutero-Isaiah.
In the brief collections of verses known as the four Servant Songs,1 the figure who, despite unwarranted suffering, trusts and serves God without question or complaint remains unidentified throughout. As a result, scholarship is replete with efforts to identify the servant, some more plausible and potentially helpful than others. Is the “servant” actually Israel, or an even more generic imaginary figure, or a real person who was simply never named, or perhaps even Jesus himself!?2
Efforts to identify the servant are certainly worthwhile and can bear significant theological fruit. Equally if not potentially more fruitful, however, is turning our attention toward not just the identity, but the function of the servant. Just what is God up to in and through this extremely intriguing figure?
Claus Westermann helps point us in the right direction through his identification of the form of this the third of the Servant Songs.3 Rather than an individual lament as some have suggested, Westermann argues convincingly for viewing these verses as a psalm of confidence. The servant enumerates personal experiences that are definitely unpleasant (verse 6). However, there is neither complaint about them nor petition for release from them. Instead, the servant declares the certainty of help and vindication from the Lord, challenging anyone to find guilt or shame or even unwillingness in what the servant is experiencing (verses 7-9a).
The behavior and exceeding trust of the servant presents a dramatic and ironic counterpoint to the behavior and lack of trust that has been exhibited by Israel. Long ago, God had entered into a covenant, promising to use these chosen people as a light to the nations, even entering into an everlasting covenant with the house of David. Yet, the people are now in exile. The glory days of kingdom and temple are gone. How dare God break covenant promises in this way! How could they still be a light to the nations? How could God still be committed to covenant promises if God had brought such judgement against the people??
The irony here is two-fold. If there is blame to be placed on violence being done to the covenant relationship between God and Israel, it rests solely with the party who had turned to sources of sustenance, trust, and commitment outside the covenant. That party was Israel. Further, who is to say that punishment, and thus suffering brought about by God necessarily means that God is in any way backing away from covenant promises? Perhaps God in judgement is in fact stubbornly refusing to give up on the covenant, continuing to pursue the promises made therein while leaving the door open for the real estranged party to return and be a part of God’s mission as intended.4
How could Israel have missed this, have gotten the scenario so backwards and wrong? Simple really — by not looking and, especially, not listening. Israel’s propensity to fail at these basic tasks is clearly highlighted elsewhere by the prophet.5 But then comes the servant, saying, “The Lord God has given me a tongue of taught ones.”6 Unfortunately, many translations render limmudim as “teacher.” However, the sense is not someone who is teaching, but rather someone who is being taught — a student or disciple. In other words, the servant has a tongue attached to eyes that still effort to see in order to perceive, and ears that strain to hear in order to understand — not to a brain that thinks it has absorbed all the information it needs, knows it all, and thus thinks and speaks misinformation and misrepresentations.
“Morning by morning,” (verse 4b) in other words, daily, the Lord God “wakens”7 the ears of the servant so that they might listen like the ears of those who are taught (same root word as earlier in verse). Verse five continues the ear motif, saying that “The Lord God has opened my ear.” Furthermore, the servant does not resist being taught, being thus stirred up by God.
One who has this disposition toward God, having the ears of a student, indeed open ears, is someone who is in a close relationship with God — a relationship from which Israel had backed away and in so doing brought punishment upon themselves with the exile.
Nevertheless, this open-eared, receptive servant also endures harsh treatment — suffering. The text is unclear as to the exact source or reason. The automatic assumption of the times would be that the receptor of such suffering had done something to deserve it, that the person is guilty in some way and worthy of shame — bringing upon themselves the righteous wrath of God. But that’s not the case here.
Unlike the Israelites who are deserving of their punishment, the servant neither scoffs at God nor pushes back on the justification of the suffering. Instead, the servant professes that suffering is not a sign of abandonment, insisting in verse seven that there has been no disgrace and will be no shame. In verse eight, the servant challenges anyone to see things otherwise.
If anyone will take on ears or eyes as stirred up and open as those of the servant, they will know that it is Israel who is guilty and should be ashamed. Their plight is the result of their dumping God, not of God dumping them. So, while there is punishment to be endured, it is punishment wrought by a God who has not abandoned this people or God’s covenant with them.
The servant is certain of vindication, despite suffering. Israel can be equally as certain of vindication. It may not be one that Deutero-Isaiah’s contemporaries (at least not all of them) will directly see or hear, but it will be no less wrought by the God who refuses to accept the breaking of covenant with them. No frivolous divorce writ has come to light. The heavenly host has yet to declare bankruptcy. Somehow, God will still make this rebellious people a light to the nations. From the eternal covenant with David will yet come one who will embody what it means to be messiah for all God’s people.
- Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12.
- While viewing and thus understanding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament is entirely appropriate and should be standard procedure for Christians, looking for explicit references to Jesus of Nazareth in those same Scriptures will obscure the forest of God’s ongoing salvific mission in and for the world with the trees that are meant illustrate and to point to it.
- Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 226.
- Isaiah 50:1-2a beautifully illustrates this scenario with divorce and, essentially, pawn imagery. There is no writ of divorce to be found saying that God wanted out of the relationship. There is no document to be found saying that God hocked Israel because God was strapped for cash. Furthermore, who is to say that God cannot redeem? Thus, the stage is set for the stark counterpoint of the third Servant Song beginning in verse 4.
- Isaiah 6:9-10, 48:8.
- Verse 4a, author translation.
- A better translation may be “rouses, stirs up.” The same verb is used in Ezra 1:1 for God “stirring up” Cyrus of Persia.