Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
One of the challenges of preaching the lectionary in conjunction with the liturgical calendar is that of remaining true to the tradition of the church season while allowing the biblical texts to speak anew to our communities of faith.
Palm Sunday is certainly no different, and with the exception of Easter, may in fact be one of the most difficult weeks in the calendar to preach a new word. How might one seek a new and relevant word for the congregation that anticipates the major celebration of Resurrection Sunday in just one week’s time? How does one commemorate the entry of Christ into the city while also maintaining the depth and somberness of what he will have to face in the week ahead?
One possibility for this liturgical year is to turn to the Hebrew Bible text for this Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a. This passage is the third of four so-called “servant songs” in the second portion of Isaiah (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Christian tradition has often placed these songs as laments on the lips of Christ to express his suffering during Passion week. When read in light of the historical context of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), however, these texts take on a different tone.
Many scholars believe this second portion of Isaiah was composed during the late exilic period, sometime around 540 BCE. This period saw a shift in imperial policy from the Babylonian practice of dislocating subjugated people groups to the Persian strategy of restoring those groups to their native lands. Second Isaiah, then, reflects on the suffering of the exilic community while anticipating the hope of its release from Babylon along with its return to and restoration in Judah.
One of the most perplexing mysteries of the servant songs is the question of the servant’s identity. While many candidates exist, two common traditions of reading the voice of the servant might inform our reading of the text during this liturgical season. The singer of these songs might either represent the prophet who speaks the words found within Isaiah 40-55 or the community of Israel as a suffering individual.
First, this song might speak a word for the preachers, teachers, and other ministers. At the risk of self-aggrandizement, one might read the first verse of the song as an exemplar of prophetic responsibility. God has given preachers and teachers the ability–“The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher”–and the responsibility to “sustain the weary with a word” (verse 4a). Those in congregational ministry have an audience and the opportunity to sustain that audience with the words they present. But how does a minister responsibly and effectively do so? I believe the answer comes in the latter half of the verse: “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” (verse 4b). God has given the effective minister the ears to listen to the voice of God and to the circumstances of weary communities. Only when she does both can she effectively communicate the hope and truth that God has given to the weary congregations in the midst of economic recession, denominational decline, and the seemingly decreased relevance of the Christian community’s voice in today’s world.
Second, the song offers testimony to the suffering community of faith. In verses 5-7 the song becomes the testimony of a particular servant who has already suffered and endured harsh persecution. The body of the song, then, is a commemoration of the steely resolve of the servant who perseveres humiliation in the face of his opposition. The song displays the persecution with vivid descriptive and violent imagery. The enemies of the servant flog her back, pull out his beard, and spit in her face. Indeed, it is this very imagery in the song that inspired early Christians to identify it with Christ’s suffering during the Passion.
A temptation of superficial reading occurs, however, if we disregard the original context of these words as a response to exile. When drawing analogies between our suffering communities and the community of exile, we must be careful to note the differences in the nature and scale of the suffering, lest we trivialize types of radical suffering akin to the Babylonian exile, such as victimization in war, displacement, famine, and the like.
Third, the song exhorts these suffering communities using a legal metaphor. Verses 8-9 may seem brash, but they inspire confidence in the audience of the song. The language is clearly legal imagery with the speaker challenging his opponents to a course case: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me” (verse 8). The passage calls the faithful not only to persevere the persecution, but to challenge the oppressor knowing that God perseveres with them and will be the final vindicator: “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (verse 9a). With God as the faith community’s defense attorney, the community can stand resolute.
Isaiah 50:4-9a can speak on multiple levels to Christian worshippers on this Palm Sunday. It’s evocation when reflecting on the entry of Christ into the city can remind us of the Messiah’s steely resolve in the face of the overwhelming anguish he would face in the week to come. When one comes to this text as a potential prophet, he can learn that part of prophetic preaching involves a call to discipleship and attentiveness to the Spirit of God and the voices of the congregation. When the minister looks to the exilic context of this passage, she can carefully draw parallels to contemporary communal suffering, offering to sufferers the assurance that God recognizes and indeed travels with them through their trials.
Finally, the text offers exhortation to the weary, inspiring individuals and communities to make their stand for principles of faith and justice, knowing that the Divine Vindicator is on their side. As we come to this text in the latter season of Lent let us listen as disciples so that we, too, can speak timely words to a weary world.