4The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher and skill to console the weary with a word in the morning; He sharpened my hearing that I might listen like one who is taught. 5The Lord opened my ears and I did not disobey or turn back in defiance. 6I offered my back to the lash, and let my beard be plucked from my chin, I did not hide my face from spitting and insult; 7but the Lord God stands by to help me; therefore no insult can wound me. I have set my face like flint, for I know that I shall not be put to shame, because one who will clear my name is at my side. 8Who dare argue against me? Let us confront one another. Who will dispute my cause? Let him come forward. 9The Lord God will help me; who then can prove me guilty?
Text © The New English Bible, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, used with permission.
I am a firm believer that when God wants you to have a skill which you don’t have, so that you can do His will more effectively, He will ensure that you get that skill, even if you don’t know what the mighty Creator has in store for you. When the only way to get out of Sydney, which I still hate with a passion, was to resign from my position as a weather forecaster, I turned to a profession which runs through my family: teaching. The first Principal under whom I worked gave me a professional kick in the guts, and a compliment, before my first class as a teacher. He said that I would never make it as a teacher, and, after a pause, added ‘because you’re an educator.’ How true! His discernment skill could be helpful in many areas. For several years after that, whenever this passage of scripture came up to be read, my name was on the readers’ roster beside “1st lesson” with no planning on behalf of the people doing the rosters. Yes, God; you don’t have to bash it into me, I get the message. I chose to use the New English Bible translation here because it rang so true for me and has stuck with me over the years.
On the face of it, Isaiah 50:4-9, which is the third of four “Servant Songs” in what is known as Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55 – is also a call to Isaiah to speak the word of the Lord to the people. God calls people who might be considered by others to be inadequate for the purpose, and flawed, and He gives them the skills they need to achieve the goal set for them. Some theologians have spent many years trying to work out who the servant mentioned in these songs is, and many have concluded that there isn’t just one person who fits the description. To my mind, that search for the identity of a single person in the Bible, just like the search for “the historical Jesus” leads us away from the message we should be getting. Scripture speaks to people in every generation, and we might well find people who could be added to the description of “the servant” even in today’s world.
If we read the verses before this passage, or the ones after it, we will find a description of the post-exilic Israelites showing them, yet again, to have difficulty following the instructions from God, and listening to the prophets. Sandwiched between those sections is this short passage where Isaiah claims that the Lord has given him the ability to talk to those who think they are followers of God’s word.
Isaiah has been given the tongue of someone who has studied: in other words he has been given the gift of teaching. Those who are weary in spirit need his words, morning by morning, to refresh the spirit and revitalise the people. What’s more, Isaiah has gained the skill to listen to what others are saying, and to understand their needs. We often confuse hearing with listening, so the servant’s hearing has been sharpened to listen as one who has been trained to listen. The servant was now attentive to God’s message, and had declared that he had not done as the others had done before him, and been disobedient. What God wants Isaiah to say or do, Isaiah will say or do.
God never said that following Him would be all peaceful and wonderful, because He knows that there are people in the world who don’t want others to hear the message. Maybe they think they have the message and someone else is wrong; maybe they hang onto power over people, rather than power to enable people. There could be a thousand reasons. Whatever the reason, there are people who will try their hardest to undermine any message from God unless it is agreeable to them. The violence portrayed of those opposing what God had asked Isaiah to say is far from pleasant. Under Jewish law someone found guilty of an offence could be subjected to 39 lashes across the back, as a punishment which shouldn’t kill the person but would leave an unwillingness to risk being lashed again, and here Isaiah indicates that he not only offered his back to the lash – though it doesn’t say that he received that treatment – but also allowed his beard to be plucked from his chin. Anyone who has been waxed to remove hair from the body knows that it would be very painful, but Isaiah is prepared to suffer for God’s sake. He endured the ignominy of being spat upon and insulted, again so that the message from God would be heard. The enemy would not win.
This passage is read at the beginning of Holy Week, in which Jesus, one with the tongue of a teacher and the skill to console people every day, and with a sense of hearing which allowed Him to know everything about everyone around Him, doesn’t turn His back on God, or the message which He brought. He endured the lashing, the spitting, and the abuse of the Jewish leaders of the day, and of the Roman soldiers. Jesus was the fulfilment of the Suffering Servant in this passage. Why? – because God stood by Jesus, so that no insult would harm Him, and Jesus knew it.
Modern-day prophets, and there are plenty of us, have to endure the 21st century equivalent of the treatment of Isaiah, and of Jesus, but we persevere because we know that, in God’s eyes, we will not be put to shame. When we are falsely accused we know that we can hand over responsibility to God, and He will clear our names.
When the disciples were brought before the Sanhedrin for professing that Jesus had risen from the dead, and for preaching the Good News, Gamaliel stood up and declared that, if the movement was from God then opposing it would mean fighting God, and if the movement was of men it would die out quickly once the generation which had experienced the teachings of Christ during His ministry also died. Was Gamaliel picking up on Isaiah 50:8-9? As a well trained Pharisee it is very likely that he would have been intentionally referring to that passage. What it says for us is that we should continue to preach what we believe God has been asking us to preach, and if we are right then the message will live on.
I’ve often been described as arrogant. Assertive would be a much better description, because, whilst I can be forthright in what I say, and some people, for a variety of reasons, do find that intimidating, I welcome people challenging my statements, and I’m prepared to accept that, as a human, I haven’t heard the message from God as clearly as I might have done. So who will argue against me? Let the debate begin.