In the last essay we studied Isaiah 49. In this essay we are studying 50:1-51:8. Oswalt believes this segment goes with what precedes in chapter 49 rather than with what follows in chapter 50. It can be taken either way. In any case, in verse one God asks a rhetorical question. He wants to know if Israel can produce a bill of divorce, or a list of creditors to whom he may have sold them, to prove that he had put them away. That was their complaint in verse 14 of chapter 49. The implied answer, of course, is that they cannot. God didn’t put Israel away or sell her. She was sold because of her own sins.
In verse two God asks more questions: “Why was no one there when I came? Why did no one answer when I called?” The implication of these questions is that Israel should have been listening to, and committing themselves to God instead of blaming him. He is ready and willing to help them if they will admit their guilt and receive deliverance by his mighty hand. He has he necessary power to deliver them. Thus we see once again that their problems are of their own making. Notice that the Lord uses nature as evidence of his power. Nothing in the sea or in the sky can stand against him. It doesn’t matter how much water is in the sea, or how bright the sky is, he can dry up the one and darken the other. The point is that God has the power to deliver them. That is not the issue. The issue is whether or not they will repent and believe when the Lord comes and offers his salvation.
Scholars agree that the “me” in verse four is the servant, because he is identified as such in verse ten. But as usual, they do not agree on whether the servant is Israel, the prophet, or the divine Servant. I agree with Oswalt that it is the divine Servant. The fact that we are told in verse five that he never has been rebellious eliminates Israel. And the fact that the prophet did not suffer the kinds of suffering mentioned in verse six eliminates the prophet.
`The phrase “the tongue of a teacher” (NIV “an instructed tongue”) in verse four points to the Servant’s mission. He will “sustain the weary with a word.” We know from other Scriptures that the divine Servant also will destroy the wicked with the sword of his mouth (Isa. 11:4; Rev. 19:15), but that is not why he comes. He comes not to destroy, but to save the world (John 3:16-17). And his word “will sustain the weary.”
As we just observed a couple of minutes ago, the Servant declares in verse five that he always is obedient and never turns back. And then verse six tells us more about his mission. He gave his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who pulled his beard, and he did not hide his face from those who insulted or mocked (literally shamed) him and spit on him. The word translated “insult” in the NRSV and “mocking” in the NIV is the same word that is translated “shame” at the end of verse seven.
What all of this means becomes clearer when we read the last of the Servant songs in 52:13-53:12. And it becomes still clearer when we read it in light of Jesus’ ministry in the New Testament.
Verses seven tells us that the Servant, though publicly shamed, is not disgraced. Indeed he can move ahead with determination, setting his “face like flint”, because the Lord God helps him. You probably remember that Luke tells us that when it was time for Jesus to suffer and die, he set his face to go to Jerusalem (9:51).
Verses 8-9 tell us that God who vindicates the Servant is near, and thus the Servant has nothing to fear. His enemies can do him no harm, at least not until it is God’s will. Indeed the Servant dares his adversaries to confront him. They cannot convict him of any wickedness, because he has the help of the Lord God.
In summary, the divine Servant, a perfectly obedient Servant (verse five) comes to the world with a word for the weary (the sinful), verses four. The word he brings has to do with his own unjustified suffering (verse six). But the Lord God helps him and vindicates him (verses 7-9); and the adversaries wear out like a moth-eaten garment (verse nine). As we have seen, the full meaning of all of this will become clear later.
Now then, verses 10-11 present another transition. Oswalt believes there is a shift in speaker here. He suggests that the speaker is now the Servant’s Lord rather than the Servant. It seems to me it could be either one. At any rate, those addressed are God’s people. Verse 10 tells us that they fear the Lord and obey the Servant. However, they walk in darkness. The darkness once again would be at two levels. On the one hand, there is the frustration, injustice and humiliation of the Babylonian captivity; and on the other hand, there is the darkness of sin. But notice that they continue to trust in God (trust in his name) despite the darkness.
But verse 11 tells us of others who light their own fires to illuminate their darkness instead of following he light of the Lord and his divine Servant. Those will find themselves in torment.
We now turn to chapter 51. God’s people still are being addressed. With the vivid image of a rock quarry, the Lord or his Servant invites them to look at their history for comfort. In particular he wants them to look to Abraham and Sarah. And we can do that.
In Gen. 15:5 God commanded Abraham to look at the night sky. By the way, the word translated “look” in Gen. 15:5 is the same Hebrew word as we see here at the beginning of verse two. So the Lord told Abraham to look at the night sky, and then the Lord said that Abraham’s descendents would be as numerous as the stars. And Abraham believed him, even though Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was barren (Gen. 15:6). The point for the readers of Isaiah’s day and for those in the later Babylonian captivity was that God could do the same thing again. Although Zion was barren, the Lord could repopulate her. Indeed he would make her wilderness like the Garden of Eden. And the proper response is joy, thanksgiving, and song.
The Lord becomes even more personal in verses 4-6. Notice the personal element: “Listen to me, my people;” “give heed to me, my nation.” Then he declares that a teaching, which is his justice, will go out from him to be a light to the peoples, meaning the nations. Verse five confirms that the salvation in view is much more than deliverance from Babylon. It extends to the “coastlands,” the nations. And notice that they wait for God’s arm, which as you know, symbolizes God’s power. The fact that the nations long for God’s arm expresses the general human longing for a ruler who is both strong and just. Of course God is the only ruler who is truly powerful and just.
In verse six the Lord challenges the people to look at the heavens, that is, at the stars, because many people looked to the stars for guidance and hope. And he challenges them to look at the earth, which many saw as something solid and permanent. But the Lord declares that neither the heavens nor the earth are permanent. Both will pass away. Only God’s salvation is permanent. It is forever.
In verses 7-8 we see a third call to listen. This call to listen builds on the previous two. In verse one the Lord addressed the people as those who seek his righteousness. In verse four he told them to listen to his teaching of justice, or righteousness, that was going out from him. But now in verse seven, he addresses them as people who do not have to seek his righteousness. They already have it in their hearts. Therefore they do not have to fear the reproach and reviling of the world.
Then the Lord closes the segment by reminding the people that those who oppose God will meet with a slow destruction. And he reminds them that his salvation is eternal and it reaches to all generations. That is good news to us, because we are the latest generation of God’s people. We are included in that promise. Praise the Lord!