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

The servant becomes ever more convinced that he is doing the work of YHWH, and no one shall prevent him from accomplishing what he has been called to do. His master is YHWH, his teaching is from YHWH, and he can do nothing other than continue the work YHWH has sent him to do, no matter the human consequences.

Look! "It is Adonai YHWH who helps me! Who dares declare me evil (or "guilty")?" (Is 50:9a). The passage is shot through with legal language. The servant has been teaching what he has learned from YHWH, and there are plainly those who will have none of it, resorting to humiliating actions like beard abuse and spitting in the face. The servant demands that his accusers confront him in a court but knows they do not have a legal or religious leg to stand on. The servant has been called, and he will act for YHWH. That teaching that must reach the coastlands—the very ends of the earth (Is 49:6)—will go forward, and the servant will be heard!

Not Even Death Can Quiet a Message of Hope

I trust it is quite simple to see how the early Christians read this passage and quickly applied it to the work of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, they believed, had heard the word from his God and set about bringing that word to the world. The world was less than interested in such a word and finally, in a fit of desperate anger, humiliated the teacher, murdering him in a cruel Roman way and leaving him to die of asphyxiation and exposure, thereby, they thought, ridding the world of such teaching for good and all. But, as we all know now, a little thing like death could not stop such teaching.

In this way it could be said that Isaiah and those early Christians were not so different in what they hoped the servant Israel and the servant Jesus would do. Isaiah hoped against hope that his servant would appear from the exiled Israelites and would bring the Torah of YHWH to the world, thereby creating a new world of peace and justice for all. And the early Christians believed, in the face of the death of their servant, that the teaching of Jesus would not disappear but would spread throughout the world, thereby creating a new world of peace and justice for all.

In the final analysis our journey through Lent is very like the Israelite journey through exile. Both they and we look to the servant—a cleansed remnant of Israel for them, for Jesus, and for us—to make the world new. This Easter, this Passover, may it be so.

3/17/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.