Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
Adversity can feel like a sign, that perhaps you are going in the wrong direction, that you misunderstood your calling, that it’s time for you to throw in the towel of your current endeavors and seek a different path. Not so for the servant of Isaiah 50. Adversity only strengthens the servant’s conviction and resolve, bolstering his confidence that his efforts and perseverance will be vindicated, that he is on God’s side, doing the work with which he has been tasked.
Isaiah 50:4-9 is the third of what scholars have identified as the servant songs in the book of Isaiah. The first two songs, Isaiah 42:1-4 and Isaiah 49:1-6, focus on the mission of the servant. The last song Isaiah 52:13-53:12 reflects on the vicarious nature of the servant’s suffering. Between the expansive statements of what the servant will do and the poetic reflection on the servant’s vicarious suffering, stands this important song that introduces the notion that suffering will be part of the servant’s role in bringing about redemption. Suffering is not unanticipated. Nor is it an indication that the servant is doing something wrong, for when one confronts privilege and power with truth, there is bound to be push back. The opposition to and suffering of the servant, then, is to be expected and an indication that the servant is doing exactly what God has called the servant to do.
The repetition of the title “Lord God”, adonai yhwh, draws our attention to the main themes of this song. The first theme that emerges is that the Lord God has equipped and empowered the servant for the task to which the servant has been assigned, in this case, to sustain the weary (verse 4). God has given the servant the tongue of a teacher (verse 4) and has opened the servant’s ears (verse 5), pouring into the servant both knowledge and words. The image is one of the servant being trained, gifted, and commissioned by God to do God’s work.
A second and perhaps more important theme emerges in verses 7 and 9 in the servant’s testimony, “the Lord God helps me”. The servant has not just been equipped and empowered for the work, but God helps the servant in accomplishing the work throughout the servant’s calling. In other words, God is committed to the work of the servant such that those who oppose the servant are, in fact, opposing God. Those who mock and spit on the servant and pull out the servant’s beard are not just attacking the servant, but attacking God.
In light of this, the servant notes that he will not be ashamed or apologize for being a disrupter of shalom. He will not cower in the face of discomfort and rejection. Instead, the servant commits to staying true to being an ambassador for God and God’s will. This is not easy work but one that the servant can undertake with resolve because of the Lord’s help.
It’s not clear in the text who the opposition is. Perhaps it is the Babylonians. More likely, it is those Jews who have accommodated to the values and practices of the Babylonian empire, who have accepted its lies about who and what matters in life, who have forgotten what it means to be people of God, to love God and to love others, who overlook the ways that the practices of the empire contribute to the oppression of the weak, the vulnerable, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant. They are Jews who have made a home in exile and simply want to get on with life and enjoy the privilege and opportunities that Babylon offers them. Out of fear of losing status and privilege, these oppressors chide and insult the servant, striking and hurting the servant in an effort to get him to stand down, to fail his mission.
But this song reads like a taunt—let them come, the servant croons. Let them attack. Let them see that the servant won’t be stopped, can’t be stopped because it is not his to stop. It isn’t his mission, but God’s, and God will not be stopped. This is the reason the servant can say with certainty that he will not fail, that he will be vindicated and his mission will succeed. God is with him, going before him to lead the way, going behind him to protect him, going beneath him to sustain him, and going beside him to befriend him, giving him the strength to face all that is hard and painful in his effort to do God’s work.
A couple of applications stand out for those who are preaching this text. First, this is a fitting text to preach in the context of Jesus’ own mission. For Christians, this description of the servant points to but also interprets Jesus’ life and suffering. In so many ways, suffering was part of Jesus’ earthly existence. Jesus humbled himself, not counting equality with God something to be grasped but taking the form of a human being to live life for and with us (Phillipians 2:6-7).
Jesus encountered significant opposition for the attention he gave to the poor, the widow, the outcast, the sinner. Insofar as Jesus lived out and embodied the kingdom of God, the Jewish leaders pushed back and sought to kill him, fearful that he might upset their uneasy alliance with Rome and diminish their own standing and power. Even so, suffering did not detract from the success of Jesus’ mission but became the means by which he accomplished it.
Second, this text invites us to consider who we identify with in this song. Do we liken ourselves to the servant who is committed to God’s redemptive work regardless of the cost or are we opposing the kingdom of God breaking into our world today? Perhaps we are neither but rather bystanders who choose not to involve ourselves in the struggle between good and evil. As Christians who claim to love God and God’s kingdom, this text invites us to a posture of suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God, to align ourselves with God and God’s purposes, and to join with God in the work of sustaining the weary, bringing hope to the oppressed, and standing against all that diminishes the flourishing of God’s good creation.