21 March 2012

Isaiah 50: the ‘Suffering Servant’ on Palm Sunday

‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard’ (Isaiah 50: 6)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, 1 April 2012, Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent, are: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; Mark 14: 1 to 15: 37; or Mark 15: 1-39 (40-47).

In our Bible study this morning, we are looking at the Old Testament reading for that Sunday:

Ησαϊασ 50: 4-9a

4 Κύριος δίδωσί μοι γλῶσσαν παιδείας τοῦ γνῶναι ἡνίκα δεῖ εἰπεῖν λόγον ἔθηκέ μοι πρωΐ πρωΐ, προσέθηκέ μοι ὠτίον ἀκούειν·
5 καὶ ἡ παιδεία Κυρίου Κυρίου ἀνοίγει μου τὰ ὦτα, ἐγὼ δὲ οὐκ ἀπειθῶ οὐδὲ ἀντιλέγω,
6 τὸν νῶτόν μου ἔδωκα εἰς μάστιγας, τὰς δὲ σιαγόνας μου εἰς ραπίσματα, τὸ δὲ πρόσωπόν μου οὐκ ἀπέστρεψα ἀπὸ αἰσχύνης ἐμπτυσμάτων·

7 καὶ Κύριος Κύριος βοηθός μοι ἐγενήθη, διὰ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐνετράπην, ἀλλὰ ἔθηκα τὸ πρόσωπόν μου ὡς στερεὰν πέτραν καὶ ἔγνων ὅτι οὐ μὴ αἰσχυνθῶ·
8 ὅτι ἐγγίζει ὁ δικαιώσας με. τίς ὁ κρινόμενός μοι; ἀντιστήτω μοι ἅμα· καὶ τίς ὁ κρινόμενός μοι; ἐγγισάτω μοι.
9 ἰδοὺ Κύριος Κύριος βοηθήσει μοι· τίς κακώσει με;

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

A Greek Orthodox icon of Christ in Golgotha, by Theophanes the Cretan (1500s)


Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (26 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 was the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (4 March), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (11 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17) looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent (18 March), we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).
● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the Sunday we are looking at this morning, we hear of the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 1 April), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on Palm Sunday (1 April), the Old Testament reading follows these themes of Covenant and rebellion against Covenant with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant.

We have been looking at the Old Testament lectionary readings on Sundays because we are all aware that the Old Testament reading is the one least likely to be selected for a sermon topic on a Sunday, and the reading that is most likely to be omitted when anyone is trying to shorten the length of a Sunday service.

The Gospel reading on Palm Sunday is so long that I imagine the Old Testament reading is likely to be heard in few churches, indeed.

And the Gospel reading is so familiar – and so important a theme for Palm Sunday – that I imagine very few preachers indeed would pass on the opportunity of inviting us to reflect on that well-known donkey ride into Jerusalem to preach on this passage from Isaiah, even though it too begins with well-known words, words beloved by every preacher: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”

Do you think the Lord God has given you the tongue of a teacher or teacher, or that he is equipping you here with the tongue of a teacher or a preacher?

And, if so, would you be brave enough to select this passage in the Book of Isaiah for your sermon on Palm Sunday?

Looking at the text:

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The 19th century French writer Victor Hugo included Isaiah in his list of the six great writers of Western literature, alongside Aeschylus, Homer, Job, Shakespeare and Dante. As we read Isaiah 50, we are reminded that we are in a linguistic and theological world that is as far superior to most literary expressions.

This reading is well known as the third “Servant Song” of Isaiah – in all, there are four servant songs of Isaiah:

● Isaiah 42: 1-4
● Isaiah 49: 1-6
● Isaiah 50: 4-11
● Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12

We all know of Isaiah 52: 13 to 53:12 and many know of Isaiah 42: 1-7. But you will find that this third Servant Song is relatively unknown. It builds upon and develops chapter 42 and chapter 49 in that the Servant of God, for the first time, suffers in chapter 50. In words that are adapted by George Frideric Handel in the oratorio Messiah (1742): he “gave his back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (50: 6). Then, of course, we have the “symphony of suffering” in Isaiah 53.

So, the Servant Song we are looking at this morning is vitally important in the development of a theology of an individual’s suffering for the sake of the nation and the world.

But, by now, you are familiar not just with the literary qualities of this text, but with questions about the identity of Isaiah’s servant, and with the many answers, including:

● Some unknown prophet
● Isaiah himself
● The Nation
● Both the prophet and the nation (see also Jeremiah 11: 18; compare with Luke 2: 32; Acts 13: 47; Acts 26: 23).

In the past, the sufferings of the Suffering Servant in the writings of Isaiah have been identified by Jewish scholars with the sufferings of the whole children of Israel, and in more recent years, by some scholars, in particular with the experiences of the Holocaust.

Christians, on the other hand, have identified Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with the suffering and crucified Christ. And, for early Christians, there was only one answer. For them, Christ was clearly the one long predicted by the exilic prophet.

Most especially, they saw him in the fourth “Servant Song” in Chapters 52-53, where the servant was “despised and rejected” (53: 3), “a man of suffering” (53: 3), “has borne our infirmities” (53: 4), “carried our diseases” (53: 4), who “like a lamb was led to the slaughter” (53: 7), who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for our transgressions” (53: 12).

For those early Christian believers, this fourth song was clearly about the one they had experienced in his life and particularly in his death on the cross.

So, perhaps, that fourth song in Isaiah 52-53 might seem to be more appropriate as the text as we face into Holy Week. So why was this passage (Isaiah 50: 4-9a) chosen instead for the Old Testament readings on Palm Sunday for Year A, B and C?

In Isaiah 50, the servant is given a clear and powerful description. But so too is God. Four times in this passage (verse 4, 5, 7, 9) the Lord is known as the “Lord God,” an address that is unique in Isaiah. Other versions render this as “Sovereign Lord,” and it catches attention because of the double title of God (adonai Yahweh). Perhaps we should see this as a way of emphasising the dependence of the servant on God.

To help our study this morning, and to help sermon preparation, we could divide this passage (50: 4-9a) into three sections:

1, The Servant’s Teaching (verses 4-5).
2, The Servant’s Sufferings (verse 6).
3, The Servant’s Determination and Justification (verses 7-9a).

1, The Servant as Teacher or Learner (verses 4-6):

Verse 4:

The passage opens with us being told that God has given the writer “the tongue of a teacher,” according to the NRSV translation, although footnote j on the translation offers what may be a more accurate translation – “the tongue of those who are taught” (Isaiah 50: 4a).

The word the servant uses to describe himself in verse 4 (lemudim) has been translated “of a teacher,” or “of those who learn,” or “of the learned.”

It is not clear whether the word means that God has given the servant the tongue of a teacher or learner. But we all know that the best teachers are those who are the most eager learners. Theological teachers, in particular, need to listen to human wisdom and divine wisdom, we need to listen to creation and to the Creator. To have the tongue that teaches, I must first have an ear that hears. The servant of God is one who learns and proclaims a message from God.

The prophet implies by that language that the servant is not necessarily a leader, that he does not always need to be out front, but is the one who can speak well when right speech is needed. Indeed, God’s gift of speech is given “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50: 4b).

The primary role of the servant is to pay special attention to the “weary,” to those who are in desperate need of a word of encouragement and support, to those on the margins of society who are neglected and who are in danger of being forgotten.

This role of listener and right speaker is given to the servant “morning by morning,” again and again (50: 4c).

In contrast to other prophetic figures, who may have received the Word of God while in the Temple praying (Isaiah), while watching the flock (Amos), or in dreams or in visions (Ezekiel), the prophet here emphasises the daily inspiration that came to him. The word “morning” appears twice and “awakens” also appears twice in this verse. It is as if all the prophet needs is an attentive ear to hear what God will say to him.

Verse 5:

The servant refuses to waver from this role. He was “not rebellious … did not turn backwards.”

2, The Servant’s Sufferings (verse 6):

Verse 6:

The servant was so committed to the task that he “gave his back to those who struck me” and his “cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” Neither did he “hide (his) face from insult and spitting.”

These acts – striking, beard pulling, insulting and spitting – are harsh, demeaning actions in a shame-based culture. Each of these deeds is designed to humiliate and denigrate a person, forcing him or her to “turn back,” to reject the course he or she had first decided to follow.

However, this servant is not going to be deterred from his task of being a careful listener and a true encourager, no matter what insults are heaped upon him. On the other hand, he is not just going to comfort others or quietly speak his message, as in Chapter 42.

Although the message will be proclaimed, it is his suffering that is emphasised here. Just as the mouth speaks what the ear hears, so the parts of the body that suffer are stressed here. His persecutors strike him on his back and when they pull out hairs from beard they attack him at the front too. They hurt him physically, when they strike him, and hurt him psychologically when they insult him.

Although the suffering is not nearly as bad as that suffered in Chapter 53, it is significant nevertheless.

In the preceding servant song (Chapter 49), the servant also preaches but he only gets discouraged:

But I said, “I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” – Isaiah 49: 4.

3, The Servant’s Justification and Determination (verses 7-9a):

Verse 7:

The suffering servant was empowered to take on his suffering and to not turn his back because “the Lord God helps me” (verse 7a). Because of the presence of the Lord God, the servant feels no “disgrace” and has "set my face like flint.”

This second image suggests the unbreakable conviction of the servant to do what he has been called for.

The remainder of the passage enumerates the absolute conviction of this servant to act on the call of the Lord God in all things:

And I know I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near. – Isaiah 50: 7c-8a.

He will not be put to shame. Professor John N Oswalt of Asbury Theological Seminary (The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, New International Commentary on the Old Testament) explains that the particular Hebrew use of “shame” here is in the sense of being shown to have taken a foolish course of action.

But, while the Servant may have been set up for public ridicule, in the end it will be shown to all that his decision to trust God, to be obedient to God, and to leave the outcome in God’s hands was the right decision. He will not be shamed by that choice (p 326).

We should also recognise the difference between being treated shamefully and feeling shame is important. Instead of being shamed, the prophet will be vindicated.

Verse 8:

“The one who vindicates me” (verse 8) might also be translated as “the one who makes me righteous.” In other words, the servant can perform the work of the Lord God, however difficult and dangerous it may be, because the Lord God stands with the servant, making clear that the servant is on the side of the Lord God, is in fact a righteous one.

Verses 8-9 use a lot of ancient legal terminology to explore the notion of the prophet’s innocence and to express his unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him (see also Jeremiah 1: 18-19; Jeremiah 17: 17-18; Ezekiel 3: 7-11; Romans 8: 33).

Indeed, these verses are reminiscent of the legal language in Job, where he says, among other things: “I have indeed prepared my case; I know I shall be vindicated” (Job 13: 18). God, in the end, is his helper and will vindicate him.


We live in a society and a culture where we try to avoid suffering. Sickness and ill-health have to be avoided at all costs. We take out insurance against every inevitability and if, despite that, we end up in hospital we want what we have paid for. So much so that doctors and hospitals that fail to provide a “cure for every ill” run the risk of litigation.

Suffering is no longer appreciated or reflected on in our culture these days. We are more interested in the exploits of the rich and famous than in the suffering of the marginalised and the global majority.

Yet, we should know, of all people, that suffering is at the heart of it, and the servant whose story we hear today is the one who leads us on the way to it. And In the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, we are invited again to be brought once more to the mystery of divine suffering.

Can we hear that today?

What is it about proclaiming the Word of God that leads to suffering?

What is the relationship between the servant’s prophetic proclamation 2,500 years ago and our preaching today?

But suffering and rejection must never have the last word. All suffering must eventually be put to an end, because that is the promise of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Can we offer Easter hope on the morning of Palm Sunday?


Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 21 March 2012.

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