Suffering servants… (Isaiah 50-55).
January 12, 2011
A nice piece of synchronicity means that in Isaiah 50-55, like yesterday’s reading from Job, we find words used in Handel’s Messiah. Like those words from Job, it is also a passage for which many Christians see the interpretation as ‘obvious’. The song of the suffering servant (chapter 53) is used in Handel’s Messiah and by many Christians over the centuries, to reflect on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday, and I can see why. The song ends with “yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Sounds a lot like Jesus to me. But when you read this chapter in its context, this interpretation doesn’t seem so obvious.
A traditional Jewish interpretation of this text, and now the view of many Christian scholars, is that it personifies the nation of Israel and its sufferings under occupation and exile. The voices who speak here are the kings of the powerful nations, struck by the resurgence of God’s people. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. Not only is Israel named as the servant in previous chapters (44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3), but the kings are mentioned in the preceding verse 52:15; “kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” This leads straight in to the first line of 53; “who has believed what we have heard?”
Yes, when I read 53 as a whole, rather than certain verse or half verses, and especially when I read it in its place within Isaiah, I see that it may well be about the suffering nation of Israel in exile. But so what? Does that make it less powerful? Less relevant to Christians? I don’t think so, not at all.
Isaiah 50-55 is striking in that it is awash with contrasts. The suffering servant songs of 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12 occur between shouts of jubilation and hope. In 52:7 we read the beautiful lines
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
and in 55:1 there is what the NRSV entitles “an invitation to Abundant Life:
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
There is something vital for us to learn from this song of hope and suffering, or of hope that comes out of suffering. Something about patience, endurance, something about every experience forming who we are.
One reason I’m reluctant to subscribe to the Jesus-as-suffering-servant model is that I’m wary of presenting Jesus’ suffering as a substitute for our own. You know, the whole “Jesus: he suffers so you don’t have to!” slogan; it just doesn’t float my boat. Plus it’s totally not biblical; hello! John the Baptist, Paul, Stephen – there was definitely some suffering involved in following Jesus. He died that we might live, he didn’t suffer that we might live it up.
So there is something we have to face in the fate of the nation of Israel, in their rejection, exile, oppression. We have to face the idea that being called to follow God doesn’t mean an easy life, far from, it means more is demanded of you. It also requires faith when hope seems absurd.
But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not in Congo or Kashmir or Cote d’Ivoire or Queensland right now, for me it is likely that this talk of suffering will only ever be relevant on an existential level. I know nothing of war or coups or natural disaster.
So I think there is another reason we must face this image of the suffering servant. We must face it lest we become like the powerful kings who are startled when they realise that those they had thought of as below them are those who God loves. We must know that’s God’s love is for the oppressed, and we must live our lives in honour of this. If the Bible teaches us one thing it is that the rich need to watch themselves!
So may we know that in every suffering, there will later be song. And knowing this may we be a part of helping others to sing.