One of the things that can be helpful to remember, when we’re reading certain passages of scripture is that the separation of the various books into chapters and verses and (most) headings was something that was not part of the original text.
Meaning, sometimes the way chapters and sections are divided out adds to confusion when the speaker or subject changes (as is frequently the case in Isaiah). Of course, actually remembering not to focus too much on the chapter and verse divisions can be difficult to do.
[Side note: if you’re interested in reading the Bible without the chapter and verse divisions, they’re available in a number of translations. One of the most famous is Eugene Peterson’s scholarly paraphrase ‘the Message’, but there are many others out there. Just be aware of whether they are also attempting to rearrange the material in a chronological way, or presenting it in the more traditional canonical order. Either can be helpful, just be aware of what’s going on, and what is included (or not).]
All of which to say; it’s good to keep in mind that Isaiah 50:1-3 and 4-11 are different speakers.
The first section is a message from the LORD to the people, and it’s probably helpful to read with the context of the previous chapter in mind. In chapter 49, the LORD is speaking a message of promise and restoration to a people who say (49:14) ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Likewise at the beginning of chapter 50, we hear the implied accusation that God has abandoned his people, given them a ‘bill of divorce’ or having ‘sold them off to creditors’.
It boils down to the challenge: “where were you, God?” when all of this was going on. Why has all of this happened? Without trying to collapse every bad thing that happens to us as a sign that we’ve done something wrong, keep in mind that the whole sweep of Isaiah’s message is that this particular journey Israel and Jerusalem have been on have been precisely because they have abandoned and rejected God and God’s call for justice and mercy toward one another.
Which is precisely what we find here. God’s response is: I didn’t divorce you or sell you off; I didn’t abandon you, but this is a consequence of your rebellion. To the people asking God, “where were you”, the answer comes back (v.2): I was here – where were you – when I came and called out to you?
God rhetorically asks: do you think I’m not able to rescue you? To do anything about your situation? God is able to act in this world and over the powers (v.3).
To pause here just a moment; it’s a question worth engaging as we read of the exile’s experience. Again, not that we should believe God is necessarily actively punishing us whenever something goes wrong, or something bad happens. But when we ask God – where are you? – are we also reflecting on where we’re at? Are we open, willing to hear from God when God speaks into our pain, even if the message isn’t something we might want to hear. Are we willing to engage, to look around for the presence of God in the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves in, willing to explore what it looks like to respond with faith and trust in the midst of it? I don’t mean this as another form of victim blaming – but in the sense of the question of how we trust and follow God when things really get real; when it’s not easy, when our own expectations and dreams are shattered. Sometimes, as in the context of what’s going on with the people of Israel, it means being confronted with some ugly stuff that needs to change. Wounds that need to be drained before they can heal. Sometimes it’s not as much our fault as it is the reality of life in this world involves suffering; and our choice is what we will do with it, whether we will respond in faith and trust, or bitterness and anger.
The second section of this chapter is another of the ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah; describing one who serves the LORD and God’s purposes to redeem and restore the people of Israel to their place and purpose.
The word ‘servant’ is not used, nor is the servant explicitly named, but we find the description of one who, in contrast to the people, leans into their calling and gifting from God, looking to lift up those around them (sustaining the weary with a word). This servant listens and obeys the direction of the LORD, enduring scorn and rejection, confident in God’s ability to vindicate them.
The last section of chapter 50 invites the listeners to consider how they are responding to the servant of the LORD, with the warning that those who kindle fire (think torches and pitchforks raised in rebellion against the servant of God), will reap the consequences of setting themselves against God.
In its historical context, it may well be as John Watts (Word Bible Commentary) suggests, that the servant here is an unnamed leader among the exiles, encouraging them in their rebuilding efforts under the blessing of the Persian king Darius.
Yet in light of the story of Jesus, we’re also invited to look back at these verses and consider the qualities of one who truly embodied what it is to be God’s servant – who understands their calling and purpose, who uses God’s gifts to lift others up, who listens and obeys the direction of God and who – critically – trusts in God, even in the face of violent resistance. In all of those ways, we can see Jesus fulfilling this image of servanthood.
But we’ll miss part of the point if we just stop there. Jesus didn’t just come to stand in our place, nor do we find these contrasting images of the mass of the people and this servant leader just for the sake of comparison — but we find the invitation to follow in the footsteps of the servant leader.
How do we understand our purpose in life? Have we defined it for ourselves, or are we listening for God’s direction?
How are we using our gifts to bless and encourage others? Do we see ourselves connected to the people around us?
Are we listening and obeying God’s direction in life, even in those times when we seem to ‘walk in darkness’ (v.10) – yet trusting in the name of the LORD and relying upon our God?
Where does this chapter speak most clearly to your circumstances or heart today?