Notes on Isaiah, Chapters 50-52, (January 29, 2023)
Starting with Chapter 33 (or so) Isaiah’s message has shifted from a message of God’s impending wrath to a message of hope. God’s people have fallen, as Isaiah had warned them would happen if they did not repent. Now, with the world falling down around their ears, Isaiah wants them to know that God’s favor has not left them. He is still with them, even in their chastisement. He is, in fact, molding them into something redemptive.
In my last post (here) I shared with you some thoughts on the poetic image of “the Servant.” This image permeates chapters 33-53, becoming especially prominent beginning in chapter 41, and climaxing with the magnificent hymn of the “Suffering Servant” in chapter 53. We considered how God used this image to help Israel understand that she was not suffering merely for her own redemption, but for the redemption of the whole world.
And now the Lord says– he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel for himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength– he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Between this staggering revelation of God’s purpose for Israel and the climactic stanzas of Isaiah 53, Isaiah briefly lays aside the Servant metaphor to take up a few other, overlapping word pictures. God is portrayed as Israel’s nursing mother:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child that she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”
At the beginning of chapter 50, Israel is compared to the unwanted child of a wayward wife:
This is what the Lord says:
“Where is you mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? It was because of your sins you were sold, because of your transgressions your mother was sent away.”
This image of God’s people as a wayward wife is used by several of the prophets. Hosea is most famous for his marriage to Gomer, a local woman of questionable reputation, as a symbol of God’s desire to reconcile with an adulterous Israel.
The second half of the image is more foreign to us. We find the idea of selling off a child to settle a debt foreign, at best. If we’re honest, we find the idea absolutely abhorrent. Within the culture of Isaiah’s day, however, the practice was commonplace. There were, in fact, even provisions for the practice embedded in the Torah:
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
This brief passage in Isaiah, though, simply brushes up against these metaphors in passing. The more pressing image, to which Isaiah will return, is one of a husband who never wanted to lose his wife or his child. He didn’t file for divorce or sell off his child to pay a debt. In fact, God will later point out that He claimed no benefit at all by letting them go. We will return to this thought a little later.
For the moment we want to take a look at Isaiah 50:4:
The sovereign Lord has given me a well instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed; The sovereign Lord has opened my ears.
This verse pens a brief passage that is hotly debated among scholars. Who, exactly, is speaking here? Is this another insertion of the metaphorical servant that represents Israel? Is it the prophet speaking of himself? Is it somebody else? Perhaps some future Messiah figure?
Occam’s razor seems to point towards the Servant, Israel. This, after all, is a recurring literary device already known to be at work in Isaiah’s writing. It is true that this passage seems to portray a righteous figure, and right on the heels of God’s pronouncement that Israel’s sin is the cause of her current predicament. How can we reconcile these two images?
Here again, I think we fail to recognize the boldly poetic nature of Isaiah’s writing. It is this tension between Israel the chosen and Israel the rebellious which is at the heart of his message. The impending doom brought about by sin is, throughout the book, punctuated by ecstatic songs of coming splendor and redemptive purpose. Isaiah is aware that these two pictures are contradictory. He is also stubbornly insistent that both are true.
In any case, we didn’t pause on verse 50:4 just because it poses a puzzle. We highlighted this verse because it introduces the literary structure that propels us through the next couple of chapters. Isaiah insists that God has given Israel the word of comfort needed to persevere through this dark night. He also says God has done two other things for Israel: he has opened her ears, and awakened her morning by morning. Having armed us with these two images, he follows with three commands for Israel to listen:
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord…”
“Listen to me, my people; hear me my nation…”
Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken my instruction to heart…”
Each of these commands to listen is followed by a word of hope and restoration. Once these three “listens” have been played out, Isaiah presents us with three commandments to “awake:”
“Awake, awake, arm of the Lord, clothe yourself with strength! Awake as in days gone by, as in generations of old…”
“Awake, awake! Rise up Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath…”
Awake, awake, Zion. Clothe yourself with strength!
As with the three commands to listen, these three “wake up calls” are each used to introduce words of hope. In the first wake up call, Israel is told that the God who performed mighty deed in the past is still your God. In the second, she is told that her time of suffering is coming to its close. In the third wake up call, he returns to the unresolved image of the “sent away” wife and the child sold into slavery:
For this is what the Lord says:
“You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Israel’s redemption is at hand, her time of captivity come to an end. And the price she owes in return is… nothing!
Because this, my child, was never a transaction. This was never eye-for-an-eye or tit-for-tat. This was never about a pound of flesh. This was about cleansing you and preparing you to serve a larger purpose. It was grace. Always grace.
With this truth in hand, Isaiah returns to the poetry of the wake up call. The sun is coming up, and the it is dawn. The night watch are in place, eyes locked on the horizon. The smoke rises from the battlefield, just out of sight. Weary eyes squint into the morning light looking for a messenger from the battle.
There. Running. In sight but still out of earshot. Bloodied and limping, but pushing towards the battlements.
At last in earshot, the pause, hands on knees to gather their breath, then stand to shout.
Good news! The victory is won!
This is the word picture that Paul and the early church bring to mind when they use the word “gospel.” It is the tidings that we are delivered because our God has won the victory.
Our God reigns!