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Isaiah 50:4-9a

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