Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
“God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” says the prophet–something, no doubt, all preachers would like to claim.
If they do, though, they should pay attention also to the next line: God “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” The preacher/prophet must first be a listener: to God, to God’s word, to God’s people, to God’s world. Then good things can happen.
The traditional Servant Songs of Second Isaiah, of which our text is the third, provide a powerful biblical witness to what is going on behind and in the suffering of God’s servants, and thus in the death of Jesus. But before joining the debate about whether the servant is Jesus or someone in the prophet’s own time, other questions should interest the preacher: What is God’s work in the book of Isaiah, who is invited to do it, and what will it cost?
If we accept the naive reading of the text (as I do)–that when authors speak of “I,” they are speaking of themselves–then these words describe our prophet. Certainly, they speak of a prophetic office (involving at the outset the “tongue of a teacher” and the comfort of God’s “word”). More, they follow close on the previous Servant Song (49:1-7), which in genre is clearly a prophetic call narrative. So, whoever else might be God’s servant in these chapters, the descriptions are in part at least autobiographical. The prophet knows whereof he speaks, for he speaks of his own experience. And his experience is both jarring and encouraging: the hearers resist (at least some of them), but God is faithful.
Why the resistance? After all, the word the prophet speaks is “comfort” (40:1), spoken to “sustain the weary.” But apparently not everyone is prepared to hear the good news of release from captivity. Why? Despair? Unbelief? Investment in the status quo? Commitment to the new gods of the culture? A developing party spirit among the exiles? We cannot be sure, but we see here another example of the rejection of God’s word–whether of judgment or of promise–and most of the possible reasons then apply equally well now. They deserve to be addressed by today’s preachers.
Isaiah 40-55 announces God’s use of Cyrus the Persian to “break down all the bars” of Babylon (43:14) and set free the Israelite captives (which did happen in 538 B.C.E.)–a task that demonstrated the inestimable power of God’s “holy arm” (52:10). Yet, paradoxically, the arm of the Divine Warrior is at the same time the arm of the tender shepherd (40:10-11). Curiously, this God who works through the military power of Cyrus will also work through the unpretentious power of a servant’s words. Interspersed through the chapters that describe this big God (“I am the Lord, and there is no other”–45:6) are the accounts of the gentle justice brought by God’s servant (42:1-4)–the servant who called Israel to be a light to the nations (49:1-7), who suffered for his fidelity to God’s word (50:4-9a), and who bore “our” iniquities and carried “our” diseases (52:13–53:12).
This is the work of God described in these chapters, the work that should interest the preacher: comfort and release to the captives, salvation and justice for the nations, suffering love for the other. And who is invited to do it? First, the servant, of course–but the servant whose work describes that of the prophet and of all Israel. The servant is the prophet is Israel; yet, none of this remains an issue of the distant past, for the New Testament and the Christian tradition have seen this work and this identity in Jesus of Nazareth–and Jesus, of course, has passed it on to his followers.
Who is the servant? Our answer must be inclusive: Israel is the servant; so is the prophet; so is Jesus; and so are “you” (the unnamed “you” that invites the hearer into the text and into its work is present already in 42:6, following the first Servant Song).1
In the text, the servant sustains the weary with a word. Who does this today? Jesus does, of course; but so do “you”–in our time, the followers of Jesus. Who listens in order faithfully to speak? The prophet does; so does the preacher; and so do all Christians. Who is called to turn the other cheek in the face of personal injustice? Jesus, of course; but also the prophet of the text–and, as Jesus makes clear, so are we. And how do we pull this off, especially in the face of strong resistance? Because, as the text knows–as Jesus knew–“the Lord God helps me.” “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” Paul knew this well, of course (Rom 8:31-39), because he, like we, had heard today’s text and believed in the God it proclaims. And he, like we, knew that the source of that help is Jesus–the one who shows us most fully God’s suffering love. The prophet is in the text, along with the servant, Israel, Jesus, and the hearer–but not all participants are equal. Jesus’ suffering for us is the primary instance of the help the text announces–the love that invites us into Holy Week not merely as observers but as servants ourselves: servants of the word, servants of Christ, servants of one another, servants of God’s justice, servants of all God loves.
That loving service is exercised by the servant in our text simply through the word. In the face of those who would bring in the Reformation by violence, Martin Luther insisted solely on the power of God’s word: “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word…did everything.”2
Absurd as it may seem, the preacher’s task is to share that confidence in God’s word–with the servant, Paul, and Luther–and to proclaim it to God’s people, inviting them into its mission.
1For more on this, see Frederick J. Gaiser, “‘To Whom Then Will You Compare Me?’: Agency in Second Isaiah,” Word & World 19/2 (1999) 149-150; available at www.luthersem.edu/word%26world/Archives/19-2_Isaiah/19-2_Gaiser.pdf
2Martin Luther, “Sermon on Monday after Invocavit” (March 10, 1522), in Luther’s Works 51:77.