Isaiah 50:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9a It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
We have reached the penultimate moment in the Lenten journey. Christians, at least in the West, will be observing Palm Sunday, or perhaps Passion Sunday. I have always approached Palm Sunday with a bit of unease. After all, the triumphal nature of the day is fleeting. So, perhaps focusing on the Passion is more appropriate, even if we might regather on Friday to hear again the passion story. The reading from Isaiah 50, which forms the third Servant Song, has been read by Christians, along with the other Servant Songs, down the centuries as descriptions of the suffering Jesus experienced as he went to the cross. While the fourth Servant Song is the most revelatory when it comes to the Servant’s suffering (Isa. 52:13-53:12), this Song offers insight into his experience as one who was struck and bruised, but vindicated. In this reading for Passion Sunday, we hear this promise of vindication, making clear that the attacks on the servant are not the last word.
The prophet declares that God has given him the “tongue of a teacher.” That is his calling, but he is also a teacher who listens to the one who wakens him. The one who speaks is a teachable teacher, and this is important because the audience is not always receptive to the message. Therefore, the prophet tells us: “I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (vs. 5b-6). You can understand why the church has applied this passage, and other similar texts from Isaiah’s servant songs to Jesus. He was a teacher whose message was not well received by everyone. His opponents struck him, pulled at his beard, and faced insult and spitting.”
As we hear this message to the church in preparation for Holy Week, we should go behind the text to the original audience. That audience was likely the Judean exiles. Sometimes Judah itself is the Suffering Servant. In this case, it could be the prophet. The question is, should we focus on the suffering or the vindication? Christopher Seitz notes, following Claus Westermann, that this poem, and it is a poem/song, should not be read as a lament, but rather as a “psalm of confidence.” There is no complaint offered. Suffering is acknowledged, but it leads to a statement of confidence in the God who vindicates [“Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 6:436].
The prophet declares with confidence in verse 7: “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” The prophet, who has been called to teach the people, and has listened to the voice of God, has faced challenges, but because God is the helper, the prophet will not be disgraced or put to shame. Rather than be disgraced or shamed, the prophet is vindicated by God.
When read within the context of Passion Sunday, the reading from Isaiah is a reminder that despite the suffering that Jesus experienced, God vindicated him through the resurrection. For Israel, despite the suffering it had experienced in the Exile, it would be reconstituted. Israel would be resurrected. Taken together, Israel/Jesus are vindicated by God. Teresa Lockhart Stricklen notes that the while the Servant Community looks weak and defeated, “the power of the unseen God is at work to reconstitute that community and thereby reveal the power and purposes of the God of Israel.” Christians look to “Jesus on the cross, like Israel in exile, appeared to be weak and defeated, but God raised Jesus from the dead, thus again affirming God’s power and life-giving purposes” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, (WJK Press), p. 185]. The resurrection, like the reconstitution of Israel is God’s vindication. So, who can contend with those whom God vindicates and helps? If God helps, then who can declare Israel/the Prophet/Jesus guilty?
We can take this passage a step further. Rather than focus on the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant, we can ask the question of what it means for us to be servants of God, even in the face of resistance and persecution. How might we be the teachers who are awakened by God, so that we might share the God News, knowing that God helps and vindicates? Jon Berquist points us in that direction. He notes that when reading this in our Lenten context, we hear a word concerning our own calling.
Lent has emphasized confession, repentance, humility, submission to God’s will, and the desire to recommit one’s self to the work of God in the world. With these concerns framing our approach to the text, we understand Isaiah’s call to be servants and teachers, to sustain others while realizing that we are still learners ourselves, to live out our own vulnerabilities, to recognize that only God will save us from the persecutions and rejections of the world that will inevitably result from our commitment to God’s purposes, and to know that God’s salvation will come only through our persistence in the work of serving and teaching in the face mounting opposition. [Feasting on the Word, (WJK Press), p. 163].
Jesus faced his own tormenters, putting his face forward like flint. Israel did the same. Shall we follow their lead? The good news here is that we can go forth into Holy Week with confidence, knowing that God is our help. God is our vindicator. No one can stand against God, so let us stand together and move forward with boldness on the path set before us by Jesus.