Last week in church we read words of hope from the prophet Jeremiah that were spoken to a people about to go into exile in Babylon. This Sunday’s Old Testament reading comes from a slightly later period – possibly a generation after Jeremiah. The people remain in exile, and yet the situation is changing. Mighty Babylon itself threatened by a new superpower: Persia under the leadership of Cyrus the Great. Eventually Cyrus would capture Babylon, and allow the exiles to return home. So the hope of Jeremiah looks close to being fulfilled.
The passage we are reading today is the third of four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in the book of Isaiah. Each of the four passages describes the Lord’s servant (50:10), who will suffer as a result of his faithfulness to God’s purpose.
One of the questions that has been much discussed by bliblical scholars over the years is: what is the identity of the Lord’s servant?
Traditionally, Christians have seen the servant as speaking prophetically about Jesus. For example, John Wesley wrote: “This and the following passages may be in some sort understood of the prophet Isaiah, but they are far more evidently and eminently verified in Christ, and indeed seem to be meant directly of him.” (Notes, Isaiah 50:4)
It is perhaps inevitable that Christians will read the Servant Songs in this way. But first we need to ask what this text would have meant to the Jews in exile to whom it was first addressed, over 500 years before the birth of Christ.
Who would the exiles in Babylon have understood by the servant? Scholars have given many different answers to this question, but we can probably narrow them down to two. Firstly, the singer of these songs might be the prophet himself. This is perhaps the most obvious interpretation – after all, the passage is written in the first person singular, and if Isaiah 50 were the only Servant Song it would be a reasonable deducation. The other possibility is that the suffering individual represents the community of Israel. This comes over more clearly in the other servant songs (and see especially Isaiah 49:3).
There are good arguments for either interpretation. But perhaps we don’t need to choose. Geoff McElroy writes:
“Ultimately, I think to identify one person or one group as the servant is to miss the point. Maybe the author of the servant songs had a particular person or group in mind, but you could easily argue (or interpret) that the description of the servant found in verses 4-9a are not just indicative of the servant, but of any servant of God.”
It seems to me this makes a lot of sense. Both the people of Israel collectively and the prophet individually are called to be servants of God. So are you and I. And supremely for Christians, so is Jesus, whose whole life embodied this servant ministry.
As we read this passage, with John Wesley, we will recognise the life of Jesus and in particular the events of his passion. But again we need to hear Geoff McElroy’s cautionary advice:
“For Christians preparing for Good Friday and Easter, it’s easy to see Jesus in this reading and it is not inappropriate, but don’t be too quick to get there. Many people of faith have faced adversity, faced suffering as servants of God. Think of faithful Jews who chose to die at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes instead of going against their deeply held beliefs (cf. 1 Macc. 1:62-63). Think of the faithful martyrs of the church who gave their lives instead of denying the Lord Jesus. Think of priests and pastors putting themselves in the way of danger instead of allowing the Nazis to take the Jewish children that had been entrusted to their care.”
“The list could continue on for much longer, but the point is made. The servant of the song is not necessarily a particular person. Instead, the servant is a model of and for anyone who hears God, who is given a “word” to comfort, and gives of themselves to be the servant they are called to be. Of course, Christians confess that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of this ideal, God Incarnate, the Word-Made-Flesh, the perfect obedient servant to the will of the Father. But to reduce this passage to just a prediction about how Jesus would act in the face of crucifixion is to do the vision of the prophet a disservice.
Instead, this passage is a poetic and powerful motif for what it means to stand for God in the midst of injustice and evil, to be willing to suffer abuse and scorn for the kingdom of God, and to speak a word from the LORD even when you know that it is going to be unwelcome.”
So who is the servant being spoken of here? Well… it’s us.