Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
The first reading for this week is the third of Second Isaiah’s four Suffering Servant Songs.
The Song itself falls naturally into four strophes, each of which is introduced by the refrain “The Lord GOD (verses 4, 5, 7, 9):
A The Lord GOD has given (perfect) me the tongue of a disciple (verse 4)
Result: preaching consolation
B The Lord GOD has opened (perfect) my ear
a did not hide face
B’ The Lord GOD will help (imperfect) me
b’ no disgrace
a’ set face like flint
A’ The Lord GOD will help (imperfect) me (verse 9)
Result: no one can declare me guilty
The first two strophes A (verse 4) and B (verses 5-6) are further characterized by past tense (perfect) verbs describing what the Lord God has done, namely, given the servant the tongue and ear of a disciple. In contrast to this, the last two strophes B’ (verses 7-8) and A’ (verse 9) are characterized by future tense (imperfect) verbs describing what the Lord God will do; in both cases God will help him. All four strophes conclude with the results of God’s activity. The two middle strophes are further linked by their repetition of “disgrace (NRSV: “insult”) and “face” as the servant describes the vindication of his suffering. An exhortation identifying the speaker as the “servant” closes the song (verses 10-11) as indicated by the setuma before verse 4 and the petucha following verse 11, though the lectionary, as usual, leaves the rather negative sentiments contained in verses 9b-11 unheard.
The first strophe begins with the servant declaring that “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue
of a disciple” (limmudim), not the tongue of a “teacher” as conjectured by the NRSV. That is, he has been equipped by God for the prophetic office. The purpose of his calling is that he “may know how to sustain the weary with a word,” that he may console those who are suffering under the burdens of life. He has received this “tongue of a disciple” because every morning the Lord God wakens his ear to listen as a disciple (in Hebrew, the same word as above).
In the second strophe the servant describes what has happened to him as a result of his acceptance of this call and his unwillingness to shrink from the burdens that call entailed. He suffered the physical hostility of being scourged and the ultimate ancient near eastern humiliation of having his beard plucked out and being spit upon, as well as the mental anguish and disgrace that accompanied such abuse.
The third strophe describes a reversal signaled by the change from past tense verbs descriptive of God’s activity to future tense verbs. Despite the disgrace and humiliation the servant experiences, he goes on to declare his unwavering trust in and reliance upon God. He is convinced that the God who called him to this disagreeable office is with him in the midst of his suffering: “he who vindicates me is near,” he cries out in verse 8, and this confidence results in the strength he needs to courageously bear the disgrace and humiliation he has encountered, knowing that in the end he will be vindicated.
In the final strophe, he reaffirms that the Lord God will help him and he challenges his adversaries to a trial, let those who judge him so harshly now dare to face him in the court of heaven where the Lord God will stand beside him as advocate. The outcome is not in doubt, his cause will be vindicated and his adversaries will perish, deprived of victory and like a garment that falls apart to rags or is consumed by moths.
Following the Song itself, Second Isaiah has added a concluding exhortation addressed to those in the community who are now suffering themselves (verses 10-11). This is notoriously difficult to translate as a glance at various modern versions will show. NRSV and RSV place a question mark at the end of verse 10. Other translations place the question mark in the middle of the verse after “obeys/listens to his servant.” Recent commentaries often opt for no question mark at all! If the majority of modern translations are correct in placing a question mark in the middle of verse 10 it becomes clear that four synonymous terms for faith (“fears,” “obeys,” “trusts,” and “relies on,”) frame a central description of “those who walk in darkness and have no light.”
“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys his servant?” Second Isaiah asks. Answer: “Those who walk in darkness and have no light,” those who suffer persecution. And all because despite their suffering and affliction they “trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon their God,” and they will be vindicated.
Powerful as this message is this week, Christians must read and hear these words the way the church has always read and heard them: as descriptive of the suffering experienced by Jesus in his life-giving passion and death. Just as the servant was persecuted for his faithful obedience to God, maintaining that faithful obedience to the end, so Jesus was persecuted for his message, remaining obedient unto death, “even to death on a cross” as Paul reminds us in our epistle.