A Humiliated Servant: Reflections on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 50:4-9a
March 24, 2013

I readily understand how and why most preachers will turn this day to one of the Gospel texts recounting Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. After all, it is hard to justify the children's parade of palm branches, not to mention those familiar hymns like "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna," without reading one of those passages that actually talk about palm branches, hosannas, and donkeys. Exactly what those texts mean, and how they work now in our Lenten journey, I will leave to my New Testament colleagues to expound.

For those of us who wish to focus on the day as the stark beginning of the Passion of Jesus, his terrible road to suffering and death at the hands both of the Romans and the religious authorities of his own people, we will naturally turn to the prophet II-Isaiah. The prophet's four "Servant Songs" so richly informed the early Christian communities as they sought to understand just what Jesus' ministry was finally about and how his ignominious and tragic death was finally to be understood as that ministry's culmination, rather than its completely catastrophic end.

Understanding Jesus' Ministry through Isaiah's Songs

It is Isaiah's third song of the servant that helps us to answer some of the questions that our Christian forebears posed as they reflected on the final week of the life of the one they came to call Lord. Before we begin to parse some of the possible meanings of these familiar, yet enigmatic, words, we should say a few things about what these songs meant to Isaiah at the end of the Babylonian exile of Israel, sometime before the year 539 BCE, when Cyrus the Persian allowed and enabled them to return to the city of Jerusalem.

The four "songs" (Is 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9a; 52:13-53:12) have generated an astonishing variety of commentaries, so any summary will hardly do justice to the complexities of the readings that have arisen. At least the following two conclusions may be drawn (though even these would have their loud detractors!). First, Isaiah presents the servant as Israel, or at least as a part of Israel, whose main task is to keep the unique and unmatched way of YHWH alive, not just for a reborn Israel, but for the entire world (Is 49:6). Second, the way that this servant will perform this enormous task is unique. I have long imagined that Isaiah—after reflecting on the long history of Israel, a history marked by defeat after defeat, failed attempts to gain power through strength and weapons of war—envisions the work of this servant quite differently. This servant "will not cry or lift up his voice," will not "break a bruised reed," will not extinguish even the most "dimly burning wick" of a lamp (Is 42:3). Traditional power will not be his way of operation. Since attempts at power—from David to Solomon to Jereboam to Uzziah to Hezekiah and, most recently, to Zedekiah—have proven useless, leading only to defeat and exile, Isaiah imagines something quite new.

The third song adds to the portrait of these new actions of YHWH's servant. "Adonai YHWH has given to me the tongue of students, so that I may sustain the weary with just the right word" (Is 50:4a). This great servant will speak a sustaining word, having received a student's tongue—that is, one who listens carefully to the words of the teacher and then shares that wisdom with those in need. "Morning after morning, YHWH wakens my ear to listen in the way of students" (Is 50:4b). "Adonai YHWH has opened my ear; and I was not a rebel, did not turn backward" (Is 50:5). The servant was an apt pupil, always listening to YHWH, always eager to learn YHWH's teachings, never turning away from those lessons needed to sustain the weary.

The Bravery of the Servant

It was not easy or safe to maintain and present these teachings. "I presented my back to beaters, my cheeks to those who ripped out my beard; I never hid my face from the humiliation of spit" (Is 50:6). This servant, when presenting the teachings learned from YHWH, was scorned and assaulted, suffering the uniquely Middle Eastern humiliations of a disfigured beard (note the story in II Sam 10:4 when David's ambassadors to a foreign court are humiliated by cutting off "half the beard") and a face full of spit (a spiteful and particularly disgusting act in nearly every culture). Still, the servant accepts all these appalling behaviors without comment or anger. Why?

"Adonai YHWH helps me; that is why I will not be disgraced. That is why I have set my face like flint and know I will not be shamed" (Is 50:7). The servant evinces complete trust in YHWH and is thus immune to the normal humiliations that humans inflict on one another.

The one who makes me righteous draws near; who dares go to court with me (accusing me of wrongdoing of any kind)? Let us stand up together! Who are these unjust ones? Confront me now (Is 50:8)!