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Isaiah 50:4-9a

Word for the Weary

Teachers know the only way to learn comes through observation and repetition as proven throughout history and across cultures. Whether it is how to assemble an engine, prepare a feast, or tie the laces of a shoe, the one learning how to do it needs the one who already knows standing nearby. As the learner practices the task, the teacher will be there to correct or encourage. In time, the learner might just become the teacher, and the cycle continues.

The Christian year gives Christ followers the time to observe and repeat, hear the Scriptures and walk in these words year after year. As the season of Lent draws to a close with what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday, it is also a time to reflect on why Lent is so important to the Christian year. For the Liturgy of the Palms/Passion, the words of the Hebrew prophet found in Isaiah attempt to vindicate the heart of the teacher found in the Servant.

Today’s Old Testament reading is the third of four passages in the latter half of Isaiah referred to as the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-7, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). The figure of the Servant has been compared to the nation of Israel by Jewish interpreters and to the coming Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth by Christian readers. Historically, the post-exilic leader Zerubbabel has been identified as the Servant. Regardless of the true identity of the Servant, this person suffers on behalf of the people in unwavering obedience to the Lord.

Isaiah 50:4-9a is sandwiched between two scathing passages filled with questions to a rebellious nation to which the people of God’s choosing have no answer (Is 50:1-3 and 50:10-11, cf 51:12-13). The history of God’s people continually points to the inability to listen from the first few days after fleeing Egypt to the return of the exiles from Babylon. To ability hear God, for the Hebrew people, is synonymous with the ability to obey. The people of God have trouble obeying the One they claim to follow. In the second half of Isaiah’s scrolls, the people have been called back to the promised land from a season of exile (Is 49:8-12). What should have been a time of celebration became one of conflict with rising tensions between the people living in the land and the returning exiles (Ezra 3:1-5). Caught in the middle was Zerubbabel, the leader of the exiles intent on rebuilding Jerusalem, the ideal of Zion, the place where God can be present. It’s possible that the words of Isaiah in verses 4 to 9 refer to the harried teacher and leader of a people unwilling again to be led where God wants them to go.

In contrast to the obstinate disobedience of the people, the Servant stands as a singular figure capable of living in what Nietzsche, in the work Beyond Good and Evil, called “long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” The Servant admits to having a “well-taught tongue” (MSG). It is the ability to speak from hard-won ideals derived not from the scattered dreams of starry nights but in the full light of the morning. The Servant has been gifted with the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV) or in another rendering, “the tongue of disciples” (NASB). Both are essentially correct interpretation, for the only way to teach is to learn, the only way to lead to be able to follow. In the words of the Servant, the Lord “wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.” (50:4c). For the Servant, the ability to walk in obedience and the gifting to teach this way to others who are often tired of the long road ahead sometimes produces not reward but derision from fellow travelers.

The received wisdom of the Servant comes from the “God of the long view” as Watts in the Word Biblical Commentary translates “everlasting God” in Isaiah 40:28. Yet the exiles returning home have grown “weary.” The road is too long, and the God Whom they follow seems to far away. This description of tiredness and fatigue ties the third Servant passage to the beginning of the prophetic word to the exiles in chapter 40. The people are following Yahweh Who promises hope, the only cure for weariness. But, in their weariness, the people have lost sight of Yahweh Who is:

“Creator of the ends of the earth [borderlands].

He will not grow tired or weary and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength . . .

They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and no be faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV)

These words are cross-stitched and hanging from grandmother’s walls of homes even today. Even still, the ones weary from the walk and the discipline of obeying take out their frustrations on the Servant. The acts of humiliation (50:6) do not point toward an admission of guilt by the Servant or justification of public shame imposed by the crowds through physical beatings and torment. The humiliation intended by the frustrated and fearful crowds return to the Servant as evidence of vindication. The mocking of the crowds, even the betrayals of one’s own students (cf. Luke 22:34), do not diminish the Servant’s focus on the sovereign LORD. The purpose of the suffering is not yet known (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Philippians 2:8), but the presence of Yahweh is unmistakable in the midst of this short-sightedness. There is hope to be found, somewhere down the road (Isaiah 53:11-12, Philippians 2:8). Something will happen—soon—and it will make sense of this mess of human sinfulness.

The Lenten color of violet hints at the violence sometimes suffered by faithfulness in the short-term, and also sends shivers down the spine. This Sunday the color of a bruise is replaced by that of blood-red, lethal wounds. The full impact of faithfulness is not yet accounted for. The humiliation of the Servant is not accidental or temporary but an intentional step in the direction of God’s promise of redemption.

This is life worth living.

This is the word for the weary.