The fourth of the book of Isaiah’s so-called ‘servant songs’ is the most dark-hued among them.
Thus says the Lord: ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away. Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.’
The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.
But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.’ (Isaiah 50:1–11 ESV)
I want to call out two details—meaningful points of connection—that show how this ‘song’ interrelates with the wider dilemma of Judah/Israel as Isaiah understands it.
First, the text refuses to loose its grip on ‘the weary’, although the referent to which this descriptor attaches varies. Here, the servant declares YHWH’s provision to him of a capacity for speech with that end ‘that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary‘.
This adds both light and shadows to questions of identity, for it is self-evidently the Judahite captives who are to be delivered from weariness or, better said, restored and refreshed so that weariness might not define them. Here, the servant himself—so recently declared to be Jacob/Israel—appears to stand outside of that remnant’s experience and to speak life and vigor into it. In this song, the text allows that weariness does indeed touch the life of the people. Yet the servant’s word sustains the weary so that he or they might not succumb.
Second, there is additional connection with Judah/Israel’s experience, in the way that a photograph and its negative correspond. For example, the prophet’s famous commissioning in chapter six contemplates both the judicial deafening and the punitive blinding of the people. Having chosen not to take in knowledge and understanding, they are now given over to the extremity of their chosen logic. The prophet is commissioned to bring that judgement to bear.
Here, however, the servant declares that ‘morning by morning (YHWH) awakens, he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught‘. The contrast is almost startling. YHWH is earlier the causative agent of the people’s loss of hearing, and then here of the servant’s capacity to listen and to learn.
Additional details of the servant’s self-description continue this contrastive relationship with the people as we have known them in the condemnatory passages that multiply in the first part of the book. The following claim is worthy of particular attention:
I was not rebellious (מרה); I turned not backward (אחור לא נסוגתי).
The Hebrew verb used here of the servant’s refusal to rebel against YHWH’s hard commission (מרה) abounds in descriptions of the people’s waywardness. Here, the servant refuses to be like them. The juxtaposed contrast cannot be unintentional.
Similarly, the two key words in the servant’s declaration that ‘I turned (סוג) not backward (אחור)’ become a virtual sub-dialect of rebellion for the duration of the book’s long literary journey. The ‘sinful people’, idolators, and—significantly—justice itself are said to turn back.
The servant, however does not. The book claims that, quite unlike Israel/Judah, this figure neither rebels not turns backward from the difficult way that is set by YHWH for him.
At the same time, he speaks refreshingly to the weary among the people.
We shall see evidence of the servant’s intimate proximity with YHWH himself, as one aspect of his being and his call. But already in the ‘servant songs’, we see—on the other horizon of his existence—that he both becomes and speaks into the life of a weary remnant that is bound for better things. Yet, close as this identification with the people or some subset of that people is, the servant refuses to be hobbled by the recalcitrant willfulness that has separated Israel/Judah from the Creator who would become that nation’s Redeemer.
Growing clarity and abundant enigma continue to flow simultaneously through the book’s description of this puzzling figure.