Verses 4-7 are often characterized as one of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. Typically Christians read these passages as messianic prophecies that point to Jesus. Indeed, it would be more than appropriate to read Isaiah 50:4-9a messianically, particularly on Passion Sunday which leads us into Holy Week. However, perhaps diving into the text’s own context can not only shed light on how the ancient faith community understood this passage, but can also uncover new depths of discovery for Christ-followers.
Who is the “Servant”? While we may be tempted to jump immediately to “Jesus!” let us take a moment to come to the text as if we are reading it for the first time. While the “me” in the passage isn’t identified, we can imagine a few possibilities, one being the prophet Isaiah himself. Most prophetic writings recount prophecies in which the prophet(s) acts as God’s spokesperson and relays God’s messages to the people. The life of a prophet was unenviable as they often received harsh criticism, persecution, and even torture and imprisonment for speaking out against those in power. While the personal lives of the prophets remain undisclosed for much of Scripture, we are sometimes given glimpses into how they experienced the difficulties they faced.
We could very well read this passage through the tortured experience of an ancient prophet, a prophet who was chosen by God to speak to the people, to represent God to the masses. Those in power– both political and religious– used prophets and their prophecies in order to obtain a “God-stamp” of approval on their own agendas. False prophets offered this “God-stamp” freely and often enjoyed the social and economic benefits that came with this approval. Genuine prophets relayed the messages of God regardless of how they were received, and most suffered greatly because of their commitment and integrity to be a true representative of the LORD God.
True prophets in the Bible are identified through their divine calling; they were commissioned by the LORD God and not a king, priest, ruler, or self-commissioned as were the false prophets. The prophet in Isaiah 50 recounts the experience of his calling in verses 4-5:
4 “The Lord God has given me
a trained tongue,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens,
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I did not turn backward.”
There is a reference to both speaking and hearing in these verses, two major tasks of the prophet. A prophet must both faithfully listen to the voice of God and then sincerely speak those words to others. The biblical prophets emphasized two major themes: idolatry and injustice. They criticized the religious authorities for their worship of wealth, fame, and power over God (idolatry) and the political rulers for their oppression, abuse, and exploitation of the lower classes (injustice), although within a theocracy the lines between the two were often blurred. The servant in Isaiah 50 has answered God’s calling and has faithfully served as God’s representative, regardless of the influence and threats of the politically and religiously powerful.
Verse 6 takes a sharp turn as the prophet describes what his calling has cost him: he has been beaten, humiliated, and shamed. What is remarkable is the way in which the prophet describes his suffering. He focuses on his response to his tormentors, declaring that he has willingly allowed his torture to occur. However, it is not his own willpower or determination that empowers him to withstand suffering. Both Verses 7 and 9 declare, “The LORD God [Yahweh Adonai] helps me.” The name Yahweh Adonai (“LORD God”) is used four times in these six verses. Yahweh, the god of Israel, is the Master (Adonai) of the universe. Because of Yahweh Adonai there is no shame in suffering. Because of Yahweh Adonai there is no disgrace or guilt. Because of Yahweh Adonai tormentors will be defeated. Yahweh Adonai is the reason the prophet will endure, the reason he can face humiliation and torture. Yahweh Adonai is “the one who vindicates” him (v.8).
Once we read this passage from the context of the ancient prophet, we see a poetically mirrored reflection in the suffering and servanthood of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man who was both the ultimate prophet, and yet “more-than-a-prophet,” encountered the same torture, humiliation, and shame of the ancient prophets. Jesus, like the Isaian prophet, found himself surrounded by powerful enemies who were threatened by his criticism of their agendas and his commitment to not only represent God, but to live as God-embodied. Like the prophet, Jesus willingly faced insult and injury. Like the prophet, Jesus finds help in the LORD God and relies upon Yahweh Adonai for final vindication.
Representing God to those with power and influence is costly. Even though we are far removed from the theocracy of ancient Judah and the empire of the first century, there is still a need for prophetic voices to cry out on behalf of the victims of economic and social injustice and to criticize religious leaders for worshipping the idols of wealth, fame, and power. Living prophetically, like discipleship, will cost us. As you spend time preparing your sermon this week, take the time to “exegete your congregation/community” to discern what living prophetically entails. How is the LORD God calling us? If we are living prophetically, what has it cost us? How does the LORD God show up for us within our shame, humiliation, and suffering?
For thousands of years, God’s spokespeople have suffered torture and humiliation. Even after Jesus, his followers walked in his footsteps, facing the same fate that he did. Of course we know the end of the story, we know of the empty tomb, we know of resurrection, we know of eternal life. But Isaiah 50 doesn’t, at least not in the New Testament way. Instead, there is a bold declaration of “the LORD God helps me!” coming from a voice that hasn’t seen the empty tomb. By following the Christian calendar we too follow in Jesus’ footsteps, tracking his path as did his disciples. On this day today, Passion Sunday, we, like the disciples, like the Isaian prophet, have not yet seen the empty tomb. The end of the story has not yet come and God’s kingdom may feel centuries in the future. But we too can declare, “The LORD God helps me.”