Summary: The word of the prophet, into the world of the prophet, depends on the walk of the prophet with God
The Serving Prophet
One of the great things about being a parent or a grandparent is being able to read children’s stories. And as you will know, the best children’s stories work on several levels. They have an immediate appeal of course to the children, but on another level, they speak directly to adults.
And it is often so with the Bible. Our passage this morning from Isaiah 50 is one that operates in several levels.
As you may know this is one of several passages in Isaiah called the Servant Songs. These are poems or songs that in some way speak about the coming messiah, speak about Jesus, and particularly refer to him not as a king, but as a suffering servant. And it is no coincidence that this passage is set for today, for Palm Sunday, as we look forward to the central work of the Suffering Servant on the cross. So one level at which this part of the bible works is in looking forward to Christ.
But we must be careful not to forget that it was also a direct word from the prophet to the Jews in exile, in the sixth century BC. So it is also relevant on that level.
And finally, of course, we must not forget that it can speak to us now.
The world of the prophet
So let us first examine the world in which the prophet was speaking. What was the situation into which he was speaking? What were the circumstances of his hearers?
Well it is not immediately clear from this passage of the Scripture, but if you read the chapters around it you’ll see that there are references to Babylon at King Cyrus. So the situation that the prophet was writing to was the Babylonian exile. You will remember that a great many of the Jews were sent into exile to Babylon around 580 BC. This period of exile lasted for around 70 years, and the prophet is speaking around the end of that period of exile.
I can’t fully imagine what it must be like to be in that situation. But we get a sense of the feelings of many of those in exile from the verses around the passage we read this morning. There is a sense in which the Jews felt abandoned by God. V1. The idea that God has divorced his people and sent them away. There is a sense in which the Jews felt that God actually was powerless. (v2) and unable to act. There’s a sense in which the Jews felt that God simply didn’t care (49:13). A sense perhaps that God was irrelevant.
A sense of hopelessness, depression, and weariness (v4). So the prophet was speaking into a situation in which the people were at the very least confused about God.
500 years later, there was a similar confusion in the Jewish mind. At the time of Jesus, the suffering servant, the nation was under Roman occupation. There was a sense among the people that God had abandoned them again. There was a sense of confusion as to why God was doing nothing to liberate them. There was a sense perhaps that God simply didn’t care.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound entirely unfamiliar. We live in a world which in many ways is in exile from God. We live in a world which has exiled itself from God. We live in a world which allows in many ways decided that God is powerless, or simply doesn’t care, or maybe even doesn’t exist. And yet when the chips are down still people question God. So we live in a world which is certainly confused about God.
The word of the prophet
And so it is into the world of the prophet that the word of the prophet is spoken. It is into this situation that the prophet speaks with a word of God. ‘Thus says the Lord’v1. It is into to this situation that the Lord has given me a word.
At the first thing to note is that these words are the words of a servant. Verse 4 appears a little confusing. This phrase ‘The Lord has given me the tongue of those who are taught’ and ‘ to hear as those who are taught’ appears a little strange. It appears that in the year original Hebrew it’s a play on words that which naturally doesn’t translate very well. But it gives the sense of speaking the words as a pupil. God, the teacher has spoken to the prophet, the pupil. And the pupil is speaking those words, sharing the message of God. And it suggests that the prophet is merely a servant of God. It makes it clear that the prophet identifies closely with his hearers, with those to whom God’s message is sent. The prophet is a servant, both of God, and of the people to whom he is sent and to whom he speaks.