Isaiah 50:4-9a

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                                                      Isaiah 50:4-9a
Background to the Book of Isaiah 40 - 55:
Historical Situation

In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jeremiah 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jeremiah 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezekiel 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jeremiah 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jeremiah 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Leviticus 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.

In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isaiah 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).

PURPOSE of Isaiah 40 - 55:

These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.

The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.

This is the task of the writer of Isaiah 40-55 - to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.

Literary Comments

Isaiah 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isaiah 40-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and she has suffered enough for all her rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isaiah 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isaiah 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Gen 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isaiah 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. These can be seen in many of the psalms we read.

The comments I have made about poetry, prophetic oracles and God speaking are applicable here.

Context of Isaiah 50:4-9a

This reading is the third of the Servant songs in Isaiah 40-55 in which a servant is chosen by God who declares what the servant's task will be. This song suggests that such a person will be despised by those around and is the foreshadowing of the servant's suffering in the fourth song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

Isaiah 47 is an address to Babylon which denounces to them that all that they have felt as sacred is false and will not save them from the power which is about to descend on them. The next chapter swings immediately into a call to Israel reminding them of their origins and declaring as before in the Book of Isaiah 40-55 that God is about to do new things. The chapter finishes with the reminder that God is Redeemer and the command that they are to leave Babylon with shouts of proclamation.

Isaiah 49 speaks of Israel as the servant (v.3) although the remainder of vv.1-13 sound as though verses are speaking about a single person. This may have been the case originally and with the insertion of v.3 a later writer thought it ought to speak about the nation. The verses speak of the servant's calling (vv.1-7) and then the work they are to do (vv.8-13).

Isaiah 49:14-50:3 speak about Jerusalem. Indeed, Zion herself begins the conversation in v.14 suggesting that God has forgotten her. God answers in vv.15-50:3 by saying that Zion could never be forgotten because a parent can never forget a suckling babe. Others images are used to give further reassurance and finishing with a number of questions by God for which there is only one answer- none of which impugn God.

The verses following call on the people to hear God's voice and be obedient to his servant. Zion will be comforted and all her waste places will become like Eden. This constant reassurance that God will rule and make all things come right is the focus of Isaiah 51. God is creator and the one who comforts and rescues humans. A further address to Zion of redemption before it moves into the final servant song in 52:13-53:12.

Insights/Message of Isaiah 50:4-9a:
Literary Insights:

While Isaiah 50 breaks into 3 sections (vv.1-3, 4-9, 10-11), vv.1-3 belong with Isaiah 49:14ff. Which has a focus on Zion (Oswalt:317). Seitz suggests they should be separate because they deal with the children of Zion, but I think vv.4-9 can be a response to the whole section on Zion (Seitz:435). Verses 4-9 are known as one of four servant songs within Isaiah 40-55. Seitz suggests that vv.10-11 are an elaboration parallel to that of Isaiah 49:7 which anticipates the final song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (Seitz: 435). These elaborations in 49:7 and 50:10-11 appear to encourage the community to keep faith with the servant.

The term "Lord Yahweh" appears only in this servant song and makes the monologue more personal somehow. Some scholars suggest that this song is in a lament form, but it reads more as a proclamation of confidence in spite of the adversity (Westermann: 226).

Shame is mentioned in vv.6-7 which is an emotion very pertinent to the world view of that time. Shame occurs when when has taken an action which is regarded as foolish by the community of the time. Even although the servant will be ridiculed and would be expected to feel shame this will be absolved because of the presence of God with him. In our world shame has not been the focus of social mores, but often a hidden emotion with guilt as a major controller of behaviour. Therefore, it is hard for us to see the importance of the claim made in vv.6-7.

Verses 8 & 9 have an interesting structure: v.8 has two rhetorical questions interspersed with two invitations to stand together: v.9 has two proclamations with one further rhetorical question. It is a very tight structure reaffirming the statement in 7a & 9a - the Lord God helps me. This is what the servant relies on for his confidence.

Message / Theology:
The servant speaks straight after God has made the claims that he has the power to deliver Israel from their unfaithfulness. In contradiction to the unfaithful and unhearing Israel, the servant declares that he is obedient and listens to the Lord. The servant is totally confident that God is with him despite all those who have been actively opposed to his ministry and the consequent adversity. This supreme confidence in the presence of God allows the servant to face any future adversity. Isaiah 50:4-9 is leading up to the song in Isaiah 52:13ff. with its declaration of vicarious suffering.

The prophet/servant has been faithful in teaching what has been transmitted to him and that teaching will sustain the weary. The term was used in Isaiah 40:30 where God will strengthen the weary and the exhausted. (Isaiah 40:29-30).

Seitz suggests that the servant is this prophet's answer to 'the origins and injustice of raw evil' (Seitz: 439) as he finds his vocation in the same places as Zion and yet remains faithful. We have no clear answers about the identity of the servant in Isaiah 40-55 and can only wonder if his message was so unpopular that he suffered because of it. Certainly other prophets, such as Jeremiah, suffered. His suffering and response is depicted in a different way - Jeremiah gets angry with God and wants his adversaries punished.

Of course as we are celebrating Palm Sunday there is no doubt that we can identify Jesus with the words of the Isaiah 50:4-9 in which Jesus has had to face and will face his tormentors. He sets his face towards Jerusalem, riding in with the knowledge that the crowds could easily be fickle. Jesus has relied on God to sustain him and he continues to rely on the help of God. It is interesting that Isaiah 50:9b has been omitted in the Lectionary reading, but is part of the servant song. The final stanza of the verse reflects a statement of punishment in some form for those who are against the servant. This was quite acceptable theology in those days, but was confronted by statements of Jesus who spoke of forgiving a person 7x70. If we are honest with ourselves there are times we would like to see our opponents punished in some way for their opposition to us or our ideas.

In these last days of Lent it is a reminder that discipleship is costly. We may be wondering whether our journey is going to be painful as we have thought again in Lent about our call and relationship with the church. However, the message from Isaiah 50:4-9 is the assurance that God is present and will be there for us no matter what the future holds.

Resources/Worship for Isaiah 50:4-9a

It would be helpful to point out some of the issues within the passage before it is read. Furthermore, I would like to ask people to think about the servant as someone other than Christ before we see the connections to Jesus. If we only equate Christ with the the servant we can lose something of the message of the prophets who suffered and remained faithful. They were the forerunners in proclaiming the very controversial message about God and challenging people on their unfaithfulness. To remain faithful to their task caused great trauma and suffering and that is true for many Christians today as well as Christ.



The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book of Isaiah.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.
Seotz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.

Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: