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Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Multifaceted Word

In my – admittedly short – time studying and preaching the Word, I’m reminded continually that the Word God gives for proclamation is used in ways I often didn’t expect, sometimes in conviction, edification, or comfort for my own life. In fact, I’ve found the more time I spend in and around the Word – studying, preaching, praying, etc. – the more God reveals Himself in new and creative, albeit often challenging and painful, ways. We see this same sentiment enacted in Isaiah 50:4-9a. The prophet expresses his interaction with the word given by Yahweh for him to preach. In the acceptance of this sustaining word, the prophet himself is preserved in the midst of humiliating circumstances. The passage can be divided into two sections: the prophet’s acceptance of the word in 4 and 5 and the rejection of the word by the prophet’s audience in 6-9a.

Prophet’s Acceptance

The prophet is aroused by Yahweh in response to Judah’s sin outlined in the previous chapters of Isaiah. For instance, the opening of the prophet’s ear in 50:5 parallels Israel’s closed ears in 48:8. Their sin of idolatry is alluded to in 48:5-6, and their false oaths are referenced in 48:1, their stubbornness in 48:4. But, in the midst of Judah and Israel’s disobedience and idolatry, God has not forgotten them. And, in response to their cries that God has forgotten them (49:14), the prophet in chapter 50 has been given a sustaining word for Yahweh’s people. This word will not only be good news to the people, but will act as vindication and comfort for the prophet himself.

This word, for the prophet is a teaching word (לִמּוּדִ֔ים – lamoud-im, from “lamed” – to teach) a word which demands the prophet’s discipleship. And, this discipleship, like any good discipleship, required obedience. The Lord awakens him morning by morning, and the prophet employs the imagery of his ear being opened to supplement the earlier image of the tongue of discipleship.

Audience Rejection

The prophet’s audience, however, will not be convinced so easily. Similar to Ezekiel’s eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 3:3, the word given the prophet of Isaiah 50 will result in “bitter” circumstances. He is humiliated by “striking,” “spitting,” and plucking “out the beard.” Scholarship is divided over whether this should be taken as a formal punishment by authorities (either Judean or Babylonian) or whether this is indicative or an impromptu beat-down by the adversary/ies of the prophet. Suffice it to say, however, whether the punishment is officially or unofficially administered, its intent is toward the humiliation of the proclaimer. Numerous instances exist in scripture of spitting on (e.g., Num. 12:14, Deut. 25:9, Job 30:10, Matt. 27:30) and plucking, or shaving, the beard (e.g., 2 Sam 10:4) intended toward dishonoring the victim. Clearly, this is intended to injure the prophet and his reputation. However, the prophet will neither be deterred nor will he accept the humiliation. His honor and vindication comes from God alone – from fulfilling the role of prophet given him earlier in the passage. The simile of flint is used to describe his commitment to proclaiming the word. This image has good company within the prophetic books, Jeremiah confronting his opponents like bronze (Jeremiah 15:20) and Ezekiel whose face was set as the “hardest stone (Ezekiel 3:9) against his enemies.

Verses 8 and 9 contain 3, apparently, rhetorical questions, asking a supposed interlocutor “who will contend with me,” “who has a case against me,” and “who is he who condemns me,” each time seeming to indicate that no opponent will be able to successfully content with him for it is the Lord who both provides his honor and gives him success in his prophetic endeavor. Because of this, no shameful act toward the prophet will “stick,” so to speak.

Theological Implications

This passage has a long tradition, either obliquely or directly, as prophetic of Jesus’ Messianic passion (e.g., Cyprian, Tertullian, Wesley, and Spurgeon). And, while this may certainly be a valid and worthwhile instance of Messianic foreshadowing, of equal importance should be the picture we receive regarding the place of the word of God for the believer, especially as we are called to be bearers of the good news to – an occasionally combative, often apathetic – audience. First, in order to be bearers of the word, we must be disciples of the Word. The prophet declares that he is awakened by God “morning by morning” (literally, in the Hebrew, “in the morning in the morning”) in the service of opening both his ears and his tongue to the word God is giving him. The life of the good news bearer should be characterized by constancy in the word and with the Word.

Second, we must continually be reminded that it is the sustaining Word of God which not only provides the impetus for our discipleship and proclamation, but for our honor. In a world which calls us to jockey for position; to seek rank and prestige; to walk, talk, and engage in ways which puts us in the best light possible, it is the Word of God only which honors and sustains the believer. Even in the midst of active antagonization, is our first concern for the mission of God to those in need around us? Or, do we prefer saving face and preserving reputation to the sustaining call of God? This isn’t to say that we should actively seek conflict or act obnoxiously, almost intentionally upon ourselves. However, status, reputation, or position should never be a competing motive to the word of God and its fulfillment in our lives. As Bob from Bob’s Burgers would say, “Nice things are nice,” but, “nice things” are never a substitute for obedience to the sustaining Word of God.