1Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
3He said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified,’
4but I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’
5Now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
6he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
7Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and His Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.
There are four servant songs in what is known as 2nd Isaiah, of which this is the second. As an educator with a healing ministry I have always liked the third of these songs, 50:4-9, because it is so close to my heart and my own ministry. Here we have another very powerful passage.
At the time of “Isaiah” writing this the Hebrew people were spread across several countries, having been invaded and having their temple destroyed, now enduring what, to us, seems to be yet another period of exile because they lost track of what God wanted of His chosen people. The prophet calls to his people, wherever they are, and stakes his claim to being one whom God had chosen to lead them back to their homeland and back to their faith. Isaiah has spent much of his life labouring at his task and not getting any results of which he can be satisfied – “proud” is often misunderstood because pride can be a negative characteristic, but God has declared that the prophet will not only bring His people back from exile, but will extend the message of the divine love and goodwill to nations beyond Israel’s shores. It seems that Isaiah’s work has been annoying rulers. Given that the Hebrew people were scattered in a number of countries with different rulers and Isaiah was trying to get them back to their homeland it’s not surprising that the rulers were objecting to his entreaties and forcing him to fit in with their wills. “Don’t tell me what I should be doing. I can ignore you to my heart’s content and you will just have to deal with it.” It is not clear from the wording of the passage who was deeply despising Isaiah, but the context suggests that it was those with authority, and God then declares that kings will recognise God and prostrate themselves in recognition of Him because of what the prophet has done and written.
The servant songs have long been part of the tradition of the Christian community as a prophecy for Christ himself. If we read this passage with Christ as the centre then we see His ministry unfolding in much the same way as the suffering servant. Christ would labour greatly through a few years of ministry, even struggling to get His disciples to see clearly what He was about, but His message of love and hope would spread to all nations, as we have seen, with few exceptions. Rulers have, indeed, seen the light of Christ and have worshipped Him as the Good News has spread around the world, thanks to those unlikely folk on whom God has called.
However, there is an increasing tendency towards secularism, especially in countries where living is easy, and where we have a choice of religious observance and attire. Though we have not been forced into physical exile are we, in various countries, experiencing a period of exile from God whilst still in our own homes? Are we succumbing to moves to make “Merry Christmas” into “Happy Holidays”? Are we denying our young children the opportunity to learn about the faith which has underpinned much of our heritage, our laws, and our security by banning religious education in government schools, and stopping even Christian children from singing Christmas carols and wearing signs of their faith? If we are doing that shouldn’t we be doing the same for people of all religions?
Who is going to be “Isaiah” for us? Who was called by the Lord whilst in the womb? Whose mouth is like a sharp sword to those in authority, raising issues which they don’t want raised and challenging them to address the deficiencies? Who has laboured long in an endeavour for the message from God to be heard in circles which do not want the message to be heard? Who is, or has been, deeply despised by rulers, and that can include those in authority in the church because they are frequently in the role of a ruler, because they ask questions or raise a differing point of view?
Those questions can be raised in a secular context as well as a religious one. Should we ask them of politicians, not only in the lead up to an election, as we will have in Western Australia in March this year, but at every opportunity? Should we ask them of leaders of our churches?
Over the years I’ve worked with people who have put themselves forward as potential ordination candidates in four Australian dioceses in the Anglican Church, all of them having a deep sense of call, as per these servant songs, all having support from their parishes, and all having been chewed up and spat out by a diocesan machine which tells them that their lay ministry is affirmed, but with no pastoral care forthcoming, or told that “many are called but few are chosen”. The church is quick to claim that the reference is to many being called to offer themselves but few being chosen by God to join the ordained ministry. I suggest it should be read as many are called by God but few are chosen by the church, and I also suggest that that is the case because those who have offered themselves bring questions which the church does not want to answer.