This week’s Prophetic Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9
We live in a traffic jam of words: bumper to bumper syllables, detours made necessary by miscommunication, and collisions caused by conflict. Caught in the verbal traffic, we cut each other off, don’t make room to listen, and refuse to yield. And, the words just keep crowding-in on us.
If words were commodities, and we valued them on the basis of supply and demand, they would be dirt cheap. There are more words in the marketplace now than at any time in history: round the clock television news, streams of information from the internet, floods of email, and stacks of newspapers and magazines.
Ours is an age of hype, spin, and sound bytes. People use words to conceal more than to reveal, to obscure rather than to clarify, and to coerce more than to persuade. Simple, plain speech is in short supply. In especially short supply are words which “sustain the weary” (Isaiah 50:4), words which bless, heal, and empower.
When writer Rick Bragg was struggling to find his way in journalism, he won a prestigious fellowship to Harvard. While there, he felt out of place—like an exile or an alien. He hadn’t finished college, but he was taking classes with people pursuing graduate degrees. He saw himself as a redneck southerner surrounded by urbane Easterners. Legendary newspaperman Bill Kovach befriended Rick, encouraged him, and told him he was gifted. Bragg told Kovach about a newspaper editor who had once sneeringly asked him who taught him how to write. Bragg hadn’t known what to say. Kovach told him: “The next time somebody asks you that, you tell ‘em that it was God” (All Over but the Shoutin’, p. 229)
Those words were a benediction to Rick Bragg, words which affirmed who he was, gave him confidence, and moved him closer to his destiny. They were words that sustained the weary. Isaiah 50:4-9 describes a “servant of the Lord” who has the capacity to speak such words. The passage is one of four “servant songs” in Second Isaiah (the other three are 42:1-4; 49:1-6; and 52:13-53:12). Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) emerged from events which took place around 540 B.C.E as the Persian Empire was displacing brutal Babylon. As Babylon’s power gradually dwindled, the scattered exiles of Israel gathered hope of returning home. The Servant Songs characterized the kind of leader who could show them the way.
We don’t know the identity of the servant. Walter Brueggemann’s suggestion makes sense to me: “It is enough to see that Yahweh has designated some human agent to be about the work of healing and emancipation in the world with particular reference to Israel” (Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, p. 110). Historically, many Christians have understood the Servant Songs to interpret and illumine the life and ministry of Jesus.
The song is an affirmation of trust in Yahweh, whose name the singer invokes four times in these brief verses. The servant’s life and vocation grow out of focused and responsive attention to God. A central dimension of that vocation is teaching: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (v. 4a). The people who heard this song lived in exile, estranged from home and burdened by the demands of an often hostile culture. It was fatiguing to maintain a sense of authentic identity in the atmosphere of exile, and they needed words of hope to sustain them.
People of faith can feel like “exiles” in American culture, a culture characterized by exaggerated individualism, by rampant materialism, and by active and passive violence. We, too, need sustaining words, words which make vivid to us the possibility of community, mutuality, generosity, gentleness and peace.
The servant could offer such words because the servant had first heard them: “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear” (vv. 4b-5). The servant listened daily and deeply to God, even when threatened with the kinds of opposition and trouble described in the following verses (vv. 6-9). The servant allowed suffering to hollow-out a place of inner receptivity where God’s word could have sustaining effect in the servant’s own life.
Jo Jones, a bass drummer, was a great jazz musician. Nat Hentoff wrote that Jones had a “nearly religious feeling” in his gift for music. He served as a kind of mentor to younger players, whom he called “the kiddies.” He counseled them about personal problems, gave them job leads, and reminded them of the importance of their calling to be musicians. One night, at the Savoy, he said to one of his protégés:
You’re a musician. Don’t ever forget that. You can do what very few other people can do. You can reach people, but to move them, you have to be all open. You have to let everything in you out. And you have to be in a condition to play what you hear.” (The Jazz Life. NY: DeCapo Press, 1961/1975, p. 24).
God’s servants—those who sustain the weary—play what they hear. They sing the songs that have cradled, carried, and gladdened them. Their songs, in turn, help and heal, restore and renew, the weary ones who cross their paths.
Guy Sayles is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Asheville, NC. A native of West Virginia, Guy grew up in Atlanta where he later attended the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His work is focused on leading the church to discern and pursue its mission. He enjoys playing racquetball and hiking and, from time to time, a handful of malted milk balls and licorice jelly beans. You can read more of Guy’s insights at his blog: From the Intersection.