“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isa 50:4). So begins this Sunday’s Hebrew Scripture selection that is offered by the lectionary—yet another passage from the section of Isaiah which is set in the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. We have read other passages from this section of Isaiah on Lent 3 and Lent 5.
In considering those passages (Isa 43 and Isa 55), we noted that the experience of exile was experienced as a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel. The hope for a return to the land of Israel was strong and insistent throughout those years of exile. The imagery in the verses immediately before this passage (50:2–3) clearly convey this bitter sense. Hope is waning amongst the people. There is a need for strong leadership.
In this section of the text, the anonymous prophet speaks of an unnamed figure who will take on this function. He is known as the Servant (50:10).
In this song, the Servant specifically identifies himself as a Teacher, to encourage the weary and offer them hope (50:4). The Teacher is resolute, determined, fully committed. Yet he encounters opposition, resistance, aggression. He is called to stand up for what is right in the face of opposition (50:8) as well as to endure the negativity and abuse from those opponents (50:6). The call he has received is not an easy task. It requires resilience, being able to see the long view in the midst of immediate setbacks. The Servant, says the prophet, has “set my face like flint” (50:7).
The use of the term Servant at 50:10 (as well as at 42:1; 49:3, 5, 6; 52:13; 53:11) means that this passage is one of four songs known collectively as The Servant Songs (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). The identification of the Servant is contested. Do the songs refer to an individual? Or is the term intended to refer to the collective experience of Israel, as a nation? Certainly the hardships and oppression of life under various empires—Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian—would attest to this latter identification.
Another aspect which points to a collective understanding (the whole nation as the Servant of the Lord) is the occurrence of the imagery of light. Israel as “a light to the nations” (42:6; 49:6) reflects a national understanding, developing and extending the earlier sense that nations would come to Zion to worship God (Isa 2:2–4; Mic 4:1–4).
Both of these elements feed into the later Christian interpretation that these song provide a prefiguring of the person of Jesus, “the servant of the Lord” (Acts 3:13, 4:27). The way that Jesus was treated in his trials and on the cross resemble the mistreatment of the Servant—and worse. The insistent description of suffering in 52:13–53:12 particularly correlates with the sufferings of Jesus in his passion (Acts 8:32–33; 1 Peter 2:21–25).
And the universal extent of the “light to the nations” image is also deliberately applied to the way the message about Jesus spread across the world (Luke 2:29–32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). In Christian interpretation, the songs of the Servant are usually taken to provide a pointer to the fate of Jesus—dedicated to God, committed to his calling, speaking forth with passion, enduring opposition, being utterly humiliated and thoroughly abused, and dying an abject death. Yet the power of the figure of the Servant was such that—for Israel, and for followers of Jesus—the message and example of the Servant (be that Israel, or Jesus) lived on for centuries.