Isaiah (Part 58): Contrast of Jacob & the Servant Israel (Ch 50)
After God explains that the break with or cutting off of Jacob was not something God had wanted but was due to Jacob’s own faithless iniquity, the focus shifts to the faithful Servant. In verses 4 through 11 of chapter 50, the Servant is speaking. He begins with a curious statement: “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of those who are instructed.” We would expect the text to read, “…has given Me the ear of those who are instructed.” After all, that’s how we hear instruction. But the emphasis here is on the rabbi/disciple (or philosopher/student) relationship. The purpose for the rabbi teaching the disciple is so that the disciple can then turn around and teach the same message to others. Thus, the Servant says he has been given the tongue of the disciple—he receives instruction from God so that he can speak that same instruction to others.
The verse goes on to explain what he will speak: “…to know how to sustain the weary with a word.” This highlights the crux of relationship with God that we have seen over and over throughout Isaiah. In relationship with God, he is caregiver. To have relationship with God, we, his image bearers, must understand him to be caregiver—must trust him as caregiver. This was Adam and Eve’s problem—removing faith in God as caregiver to focus their faith on themselves for care. This is the overall dichotomy that has existed since the Garden and continues through Revelation—trust in God as caregiver versus trust in self. The Servant essentially tells us that God instructs him in caregiving, and he, then, is able to speak to others to “sustain the weary with a word.”
Verse 4 continues with imagery of revelation. God “awakens” the Servant. And to this enlightenment, the Servant is faithful. He “was not rebellious” (50:5). This depicts the classic form of Faith Electionism for us: God reveals, and we respond in faith. The word “rebellious” may seem like a more active response than simply assenting in faith or rebelling in heart, but the Hebrew here is marah, similar to the Marah of Exodus 15:23 where the Children of Israel came across the bitter spring. Thus, the Servant is saying that he hears God’s instruction and doesn’t become embittered against the message, seeking his own counsel. Rather, he responds in faith to God.
This is illustrated for us in the first story of post-Fall human condition. Abel and Cain both believe that they ought to bring an offering to God. We’re not told how they know, but they both decide on this course. Abel chooses sheep from his flock to give, and Cain chooses the produce he has grown from the ground. We are not told that God had given them instruction as to how or what to give. We cannot assume that God did tell them to sacrifice an animal, and therefore cannot assume that Cain was bringing something besides an animal out of the stubbornness of his heart. As far as we know from the story, they were both sincere in wanting to bring the best they had as an offering to God. We don’t know any of their motivation or background to the story because that is not what God wants us concentrating on. The point of the story is not their initial motivation. The point is how they would respond to God’s revelation. We are told that somehow God revealed that Abel’s offering was accepted, but Cain’s offering was not. And the story, then, focuses on Cain. Based on God’s revelation, how does Cain respond? He does not respond in faith to God. He becomes embittered, deciding his own way was best (or, at least, should have been good enough). That bitter, rebellious spirit to God’s revealed caregiving is the characteristic sin of fallen humanity. In Isaiah 50, the Servant declares that he does not have that spirit. David, the man after God’s own heart, declares that same purity of faithful following in Psalm 40:6-8 in which he rightly understands that God isn’t interested in rote sacrifice and offering simply for the sake of sacrifice and offering. David says, “I delight to do Your will, my God; Your instruction lives within me.”
The Servant fixes his gaze on God and does not turn back. This leaves his back open to the wicked who take advantage by attacking him. Yet, the beating, the pulling out of his beard, the spitting, and the scorn are not humiliation and shame for the Servant because his God vindicates him. Verses 7 through 9 offer a series of questions, asking, who can contend with the Servant if God is for him. This reminds us of the same kind of sequence Paul employs in Romans 8:33-34 asking if God is for us, who can be against us.
The chapter ends with the Servant calling to those in darkness (all humanity) to follow God’s light—his truth, his way, his caregiving. Those who don’t follow God’s light attempt to make their own light (50:11). But the firebrands of their own making will end up as their torment.
The next section of our study covers from chapter 51 through 52:12. In this section we will see Zion (God’s purpose of dwelling with his image bearers) being realized. The section includes legal language. The word covenant is a contractual agreement. Justice or justification means finding in favor of. And righteousness is that status of covenant faithfulness—being in right relationship to the covenant contract.
Chapter 51 begins with a call to covenant faithfulness. Notice that verse 1 actually calls to those who pursue righteousness. But since righteousness means “faithful to the covenant,” the call can be said to those who pursue covenant faithfulness. Lest the hearers believe this is a call to conformity to the Law, the author (God) explains that they need to think back to the covenant beginning—the rock from which they were cut (51:1b). Covenant relationship did not begin with the Law or with Moses. The hearers are encouraged to think back to their father Abraham. The Law, therefore, does not define covenant faithfulness. Circumcision, although begun with Abraham, began after the covenant had already been initiated. The covenant beginning, therefore, was when Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness—faithfulness to the covenant. God then speaks of the blessings of that covenant relationship in verse 3. But the important point to note is that the blessings of the covenant are not linked to the Law, but rather to the faith of Abraham from the beginning.
The next three verses (51:4-6) take a look at the other side of the covenant relationship. The call goes out to God’s people—God’s nation. God says that if the people respond in faithfulness to his instruction, justice will come, and that justice will be a light to the nations. What is justice? As mentioned earlier, justice or justification is “finding in favor of.” With verse 4, therefore, God is saying that as the people respond in faith, he finds in favor of them regarding covenant fidelity. That justice, in turn, shines as a light to other nations so that they too may enter into the same kind of covenant relationship.
God emphasizes the point of his own activity in the next verse. He declares that his righteousness is near. By speaking of his righteousness, he is not saying that he is morally pure (although, of course, he is). We must remember the legal implications of this language. In speaking of his righteousness, God is speaking of his own faithfulness to the covenant. God’s caregiving rescue—his salvation—is what appears (51:5). And by it, his justice goes out to the nations, or he finds in favor of the nations as they also have faith in that covenant rescue.
Verse 6 explains that there is no rescue—no covenant faithfulness in caregiving—anywhere else in all of heaven and earth. Heaven and earth themselves will fail, but God’s faithfulness will never fail. This should immediately recall Christ’s words in Matthew 24:35 as he declares that heaven and earth will pass away, but his word will never pass away.
In the last two verses of this mini-section (51:7-8), after having spoken of the covenant faithfulness of the people (51:1-3) and the covenant faithfulness of God (51:4-6), God explains to those who are in covenant relationship (“know righteousness”) that they may rest in that secure, care of God.