Summary: Year C. Passion/Palm Sunday April 8th, 2001 Isaiah 50 : 4-9
Title: “Suffering Servant”
In Isaiah Chapters 40 – 55, there are four “songs” or poems, 42: 1-7; 49: 1-7; 50: 4-9; 52: 13 – 53: 12 that stand out as having a distinct character. In fact, if they were removed from the text along with their surrounding fragments the text would flow quite easily and they would not be missed. They were obviously “sewn into” the text and stitched onto it. They are known as either the “Servant Songs” or the “Suffering Servant Songs.” The “Servant” is depicted as both Israel and as an individual, who’s suffering, because he is innocent, counts towards the suffering of others required by their guilt and sin. Seen as an individual, he redeems Israel by paying the price with his life, after undergoing undeserved punishment. As Israel, the servant is either the “faithful remnant,” those Israelites who remained faithful to Yahweh despite their circumstances and who redeem the rest of Israel, or faithful Israel who redeems all the other nations and peoples of the world.
These four songs were quite influential in Jesus’ understanding of himself and his mission. While others expected a political victor, conquering through military might, he saw himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah, conquering through his innocent suffering, his example of fidelity at all costs, and his absolute confidence in God. Jesus meditated on these songs and saw their truth coming true in his life. Much of his behavior, especially at the time of his Passion and death, can be explained by his fidelity to the teaching of these songs. Our present text is the third song. Curiously the word “servant” does not appear until verse 10. It is absent from the song proper. The word was used to “stitch” the song’s contents into the context of the existing text at hand. In this song the servant is much more clearly an individual figure, possibly even the prophet himself speaking. The situation of the speaker and his reaction to it strongly resemble the “confessions” of Jeremiah 11 (quickview) : 18-20; 15: 15-18; 18: 19-23, another prophet whom Jesus closely imitated. Unlike Jeremiah, the servant accepts his sufferings willingly and does not complain about them. He is confident of eventual vindication.
In verse four, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” The essence of prophecy is that it is the Lord’s word, not the prophet’s. His ability to speak at all and his message are not self-created or self-serving. Though it is an awesome claim, to speak for God, without it the prophet has no authority and no credibility. “That I may know how to sustain the weary with a word,” in some versions “Well-trained,” This translates the Hebrew, “of those who are taught.” Obviously, he is taught by God. The prophet refers to himself as Yahweh’s pupil rather than as his servant. Although the word “servant” does not appear in the song, the idea of a servant as a pupil helps to expand the notion. He is receiving God’s message like a pupil in a classroom, being “taught by God” as Jeremiah and Jesus would remark. When Jesus was explaining the implications and applications of receiving and carrying his message he frequently used the teacher-student metaphor as well. “No servant is greater than his master; no disciple -learner, pupil- greater than his teacher,” he would say.