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The Servant: responding to violence (Isaiah 50:4-9).

An innocent person under attack

Isaiah 50:4-9 introduces one who usually is identified as the Servant of the LORD, even though this person is not so named in this text (cf., however, v. 10). His ear is ever open to God's voice; he is not "rebellious" but is obedient to the divine teaching (vv. 4-5). As one who is taught by God, this Servant gives encouragement to the "weary" (v. 4), who are, no doubt, those Jews devastated in Israel's defeat at the hands of the Babylonian army and by their exile in a foreign land (cf. Isa 40:28-31).

The Servant has dedicated himself to God and to the service of his people, yet when he appears in public he is confronted with hostility. Our text calls forth a number of images: people stalking him with insults, showing their contempt by spitting at him and yanking at his beard (v. 6). His attackers watch for his reactions. Will he show fear, beg for mercy, attempt to escape or defend himself? They had to be disappointed and surprised, for in him there is no sign of weakness, no sense of fear, and no attempt to fight violence with violence. Standing alone and with his face set firmly, "like flint" (v. 7), he willingly accepts the angry abuse (v. 6; cf. Isa 53:7).

His refusal to respond in kind to those attacking him, however, is not born of weakness. It arises out of inner strength that comes from his reliance on God (vv. 7-9), who, he believes, will honor his innocence and stand by his side (vv. 8-9). The Servant suffers, he knows, not because of wrong that he has done but because he has taken a stand for God. He is an innocent victim! This does not mean that the Servant was sinless but rather that he was not guilty of anything that would justify the violence that now threatens him (v. 9). His trust in God remains strong; he is confident that whatever happens, God will vindicate him (v. 8) and destroy his enemies (v. 9)

Many suggestions have been made regarding the identity of the Servant. He is variously viewed as a suffering prophet, king, messiah, or Israel, in whole or in part. All of these attempts to establish the identity of the Servant are legitimate and find support in the biblical texts. Frequently, however, we focus so intently on the identity of this person that we turn a blind eye to other passages in the Old Testament that employ similar images to describe the suffering of other innocent people, namely in the books of Job, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. Later in our brief study, we will comment especially on the significance of passages from the Psalms for our understanding of the servant figure in Isaiah 50.

The servant's enemies

Who are these people attacking the Servant? Possibly they are Babylonians who are persecuting the Jewish exiles in their midst. The Jews, a defeated people forced to live in Babylonian territory, were most certainly subjected to discrimination and persecution (see Ps 137:3 and Isa 51:23; 47:1-7). The context in Isa 50:4-9, however, makes it more likely that the enemies assaulting the Servant consist of Jews who are rebelling against the teaching that the Servant embodies. We know that in periods preceding the exile there was similar resistance to the "word of the LORD" proclaimed by the prophets (e.g., Jer 3:1-5) with whom the Servant stands in close relationship. Rebellion against prophetic teaching did not cease when Israelites were led off as captives to Babylon. Among the exiles there was sharp division (Ezek 20:38). The exilic prophetic community was engaged in an age-old battle, namely, opposing those who surrendered to the temptation of assimilation to a foreign culture and religion--to be like the nations (Ezek 20:30-32).

Perhaps it was this same danger that challenged the exilic prophet whom we call Second Isaiah. His strong emphasis on the ancient traditions and his call to trust in the God of Israel no doubt met stiff resistance from those who found Babylonian religion attractive. The prophet ridicules Babylonian religion, but this attack is certainly not aimed at the Babylonians. It has in mind those Jews who were willing to exchange the worship of the God of the Exodus for the worship of Babylonian idols who cannot see, hear, or move about by themselves (44:9-20; 46:1-7). These Jews embraced Babylonian religion because they believed, wrongly, that the Babylonian gods defeated the God of Israel when Nebuchadnezzar's army overran the cities of Judah, including the Temple city, Jerusalem. In their "conversion" to the religion of the victor, they doubtless became cynical of their earlier beliefs and stood in opposition to those who proclaimed them. It seems likely then that Isa 50:8 refers to strong opposition that the Servant is facing from Jews who had cast aside their historic faith. The Servant presses the question: "Who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me." Such an outburst is more suitable as a reply to inner Jewish opposition than to that of the Babylonians. This conclusion conforms to the reality that opposition to prophetic persons arises mainly from their own people.

The servant and the servant community

The suffering Servant in Isaiah 50:4-9, and elsewhere in Isaiah 40-55, is a commanding figure. Although it is a legitimate scholarly task to inquire as to his identity, it should not escape us that this Servant does not stand alone in the run of history. This dramatic figure, though important, is but one in the community of those who innocently endure suffering.

In Psalms 31, 69, 17, and 26, for example, we hear voices of the innocent faithful who are suffering from vicious attacks on them. In these psalms there are no complaints or accusations. Rather, like the Servant in Isa 50:4-9, the psalmists affirm both their innocence and trust in God while urging God to act quickly against their enemies (Ps 31:14-18; 69:6-8). These psalms, which describe suffering akin to that which the Servant endured, do not speak of the sufferings of specific individuals or a special class of people; they are texts that stem from Israel's worship and relate to the afflictions borne by everyday people. As these psalms were recited or read in the presence of the congregation, the worshippers identified with the suffering of the psalmists and in doing so found strength to affirm the psalmists' confidence and hope in God.

These psalms depicting the innocent suffering of God's servants open the Servant texts in Isaiah 40-55 to an expanded interpretation. Although the suffering depicted in Isa 50:4-9 and in the other Servant passages probably relates to some special persons or groups, the examples from the psalms help us to understand that innocent suffering is not limited to these persons. Such suffering has happened and continues to happen to a multitude of average persons whose lives, through no fault of their own, are shattered by physical and verbal attacks upon them. These people are present in every congregation and in every worship service; they seek encouragement and healing within the community of faith.

Identifying with the sufferer and the oppressor

Frequently when we read Isa 50:4-9 or the psalm texts on suffering and violence, we, as people of faith, identity with the sufferer. This is understandable, because all people experience suffering in a smaller or greater measure and need to hear the confidence and hope expressed in the biblical texts. However, in addition to the suffering victim, the above texts speak of those who are the oppressors. In order to hear the whole of these scriptures, we need to consider whether we are at times on the side of the victimizers.

History demonstrates, to be sure, that people of faith are frequently sources of light and life to large numbers of people. When we cast an eye on the world about us, however, we cannot avoid concluding that too often the cause of pain and violence can be attributed to people of faith, whether they are Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Muslims. In his thought-provoking article "Is Religion the Problem?" Martin Marty declares that "the killing dimension of religion is an interfaith phenomenon" (Tikkun, March/April 2002, 19).

It is surely true that the Christian community is responsible for words and actions that Christians would like to erase from memory. It is not only what Christians have done to those of other faiths (Jews, for example) or minorities (e.g., Blacks) but what Christians have done to other Christians. Within the faith community there exists a persistent enticement to intolerance, prejudice, and racism which may disguise itself as a defense of the true faith. Considering the presence of verbal and physical violence in our world, it is evident that these temptations have not always been successfully resisted. Against such a background, Christians need to consider the oppressors in the above texts from Isaiah and the Psalms and ask the searching question, Is it I?

The servant's ordeal repeated in Jesus

Our text concerning the Servant in Isa 50:4-9 and similar texts we have cited in the Psalms stand as a word of God to both the Jewish and Christian communities. It is important for Christians, however, to look at this text from the point of view of the New Testament, because it is clear that the Servant loomed large in the eyes of the New Testament writers. Early Christians were drawn to this impressive portrayal of one who with courage and faith endured undeserved suffering. They were convinced that the events surrounding his suffering were similar to what happened to Jesus. What occurred in the past was seen as happening again. Jesus is the Servant alive again! Matthew and Luke make this clear when they respectively identify Jesus with the Servant depicted in Isa 42:1-4 (cf. Matt 12:18-21) and Isa 49:6 (cf. Luke 2:32). Also, a variety of New Testament authors see Jesus as the contemporary expression of the Servant portrayed in Isa 52:13-53:10. In these New Testament passages there is the conviction that in Jesus, the Servant has emerged from the past to carry on his witness to God in the midst of opposition and suffering.

The identification of Jesus with the Servant can be seen also in Isa 50:4-9. (1) Both the Servant and Jesus, in their times of suffering, placed their faith in God (Isa 50:7-8; Matt 26:42). They were not afraid of what would happen to them; with faces firmly set, they confronted hostility (Luke 9:51; Isa 50:7). (2) The indignities with which the mob treated the Servant happened again with Jesus when his enemies spat in his face and struck him (Matt 26:67; Isa 50:6). (3) As the Servant, Jesus willingly endured suffering and made clear that he of his own free will had opened himself to violence and death (John 10:17-18; Isa 50:5-6). (4) Both the Servant and Jesus refused to respond with violence against those who persecuted them (Isa 50:6; Matt 26:47-55). Further, Jesus taught his followers: "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matt 5:39; cf. Isa 50:6).

Jesus: pointing to and away from the servant

Most Christians are familiar with the above passages concerning Jesus that point to the Servant, but not often noticed are a number of texts, especially in the Gospels, that point away from the seeming calm, undisturbed, accepting manner in which the Servant confronted his enemies. See, for example, the following passages: (1) Jesus is slapped on the cheek, but, despite his teaching that one should turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39), he does not. He defends himself (John 18:22-23; cf. Paul in Acts 23:2-3). (2) Jesus looks around "with anger" at his opponents (Mark 3:5). (3) In response to Jesus' advice that his disciples buy a sword (!), they reveal that they had two swords. He noted that this was "enough," that is, enough for the defense of this small group (Luke 22:35-38). (4) Jesus launches a fierce verbal attack on his religious opponents in Matt 23. (5) According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was not always willing to face his enemies. He "hid himself" from those who were picking up stones to throw at him (John 8:59). Also, it is reported that the enemies of Jesus "tried to arrest him but he escaped from their hands" (10:39). Further, in response to hostile questioning, it is reported that Jesus "departed and hid himself from them" (12:36). (6) Although Matthew's narrative concerning Jesus' experience in Gethsemane depicts Jesus as obedient to his Father, it represents him also as one "deeply grieved" and desiring that "this cup pass from me" (Matt 26:36-39). In Heb 5:7 Jesus is also presented as the obedient Son, but his distress is more forcefully emphasized: he "offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears" (cf. Luke 22:44).

The reader of these texts is exposed to the agonizing struggle of Jesus as he faces the violence that is approaching. The depiction of Jesus in these prayers is quite different from that of the Servant in Isa 50:4-7, for lacking, both in this latter brief text as well as in the longer one of Isa 52:10-53:13, is information about the Servant's inner turmoil. The absence of any sign of inner struggle within the Servant may encourage some readers to idealize his response, that is, to view him as completely calm and untroubled in the face of violence. The above texts concerning Jesus, however, as well as the cries of innocent sufferers in the Psalms (e.g., 69:3), press home the hard reality that facing violence involves inner torment. These passages caution the reader against idealizing the response of the Servant in Isa 50:4-9 and making it the norm for one's own confrontation with physical or verbal abuse.

One text does not fit every situation

These seemingly contradictory responses of Jesus, mentioned above, help us understand that one biblical text, in this case Isa 50:4-9, does not fit all the circumstances of life--does not express all that may be said about one's response to opposition or violence. Very often the words of the prophets as well as those of Jesus have a specific or special situation in mind and are not intended to be applied across the board.

This truth is easily recognized if we look at some teachings of Jesus. While the Sermon on the Mount contains teachings that are widely accepted and valid for a good portion of life, not all of them are everywhere practical or advisable. For example, banks could not operate on the advice of "give to everyone who begs from you" (Matt 5:42), nor could people feel safe in their homes if "do not resist the evil doer" (Matt 5:39) were adopted as a rule for every occasion.

Further, one must not automatically accept Paul's dictum that one who "resists authority resists what God has appointed ... for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad," and the government "is God's servant for your good" (Rom 13:2-4). Paul could write these words because in his time one could still believe that the Roman government would give a fair hearing to those coming before the court. The book of Revelation, however, presents a radically different portrayal of Rome. It depicts this government as a terror to faithful Christians and deserving of destruction. In such a time, when the Roman government was persecuting Christians, it would have been an act of unfaith to obey Paul's words, which come from a much different period and situation.

Not only does the book of Revelation speak against Paul's teaching, so also does our knowledge of the Nazi government's persecution of Jews, Christians, and other minorities. Paul's words are not everywhere and every time a good guide for Christians. His teaching as well as the above words of Jesus are addressed to specific situations and retain their validity only in contexts that closely approximate these situations.

Reconsidering Isaiah 50:4-9

With the above discussion in mind, let us look once again at Isa 50:4-9 to see if we can better understand the willing acceptance of abuse by the Servant. From this brief text we cannot make any firm conclusion about the number of people attacking the Servant. However, the references to insults, spitting, striking of the body, and yanking of the beard indicate that the Servant was under attack and probably overpowered by a number of opponents who were bent on violence. In such a circumstance, no doubt, it was futile to attempt resistance or escape. Powerless to break free from his enemies, the Servant recognized that his "hour" had come! He stands unnerved and unmoved before the violence because he is convinced that the God who has chosen him will vindicate him. His response is like that of Jeremiah, who, when surrounded by a large crowd clamoring for his death, continues courageously to speak the hard words that the LORD had given him (Jer 26:7-13) and ends his message of judgment with words that could easily have been in the mouth of the Servant (Jer 26:14-15): "But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."

Alternatives to acceptance of abuse

This passage about the Servant in Isa 50:4-9 does not address the situation where one sees danger coming and has an opportunity to escape. In this circumstance the wisdom of Prov 22:3 has validity: "The clever see danger and hide, but the simple go on, and suffer for it." We observed earlier that there were times, according to the Gospel of John, when Jesus acted on the wisdom of this passage from Proverbs; he avoided his enemies by hiding or escaping from them.

The disciples of Jesus, like their master, were also threatened by enemies. Matthew records Jesus on one occasion cautioning his disciples (10:16-17): "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues." This admonition occurs in the context of opposition that awaited the disciples as they embarked on their mission to "proclaim the good news." Jesus is calling upon his disciples to use good sense, to be aware of their situation, and to exercise wisdom in dealing with the danger before them. If they experience persecution in one town they are "to flee to the next" (Matt 10:23). They are to be "innocent as doves," but this does not mean they are to be naive. They should do all that they can to avoid being trapped by the "wolves." If it turns out, however, that, despite their carefulness, they are picked up and brought before their enemies, they are not to panic. At that time, when they are at the mercy of their enemies, they will be able to give witness of their faith and confidence in God. With the guidance of the Spirit they will find the right words to say (Matt 10:19-20). In such a circumstance their situation would be similar to that of Jeremiah (26:14-15) and of the Servant in Isa 50:4-9--that is, powerless to escape, they hold firm to their confidence in God.

Such also was the response of Jesus. When he could escape he did so, but when he was surrounded by "a large crowd with swords and clubs" (Matt 26:47), he counseled against violence (Matt 26:52) and any attempt to avoid capture.

Did Jesus view this decisive, public act of his enemies to be a signal that his "hour" had come? Seemingly so. John 7:30 records a conflict between Jesus and "some of the people of Jerusalem." They tried to arrest him, but it did not happen because Jesus' "hour had not come" (cf. John 8:20). However, Mark records Jesus' words to his disciples in Gethsemane: "The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." These words anticipate what will "immediately" take place, that is, the betrayal of Judas who comes accompanied by a "crowd with swords and clubs" (Mark 14:41-43). This event turns out to be Jesus' "hour," but, as Luke observes, it is also the "hour" for Jesus enemies (Luke 22:47-53).

Commenting on this same event, Matthew records Jesus' insistence that he could have escaped if he had sought divine intervention, but he refused to do so (Matt 26:53). Apparently, in Matthew's view, Jesus did not call on God for intervention because he considered this full display of power by his enemies to be an indication that his "hour" had finally come. It was the "hour" that he and his Father knew would come, the "hour" toward which he ever journeyed.

Our discussion of the actions of Jesus and the disciples indicates that there are times and places when one must respond as did the Servant (Isa 50:4-9), Jeremiah (26:14-15), and Jesus (Matt 26:47-55). These impressive witnesses to nonviolence, however, should not be seen as standard behavior for every situation in which one comes face to face with violence. Different responses from Jesus and the disciples indicate that one may be wise as well as faithful if one avoids or escapes danger when it is possible to do so. But finally, when one is fully overpowered--when the "hour" has come--one should stand unafraid with full reliance on God.

--Dedicated to the memory of a good friend and colleague, Timothy A. Sporrong.

Fredrick C. Holmgren

Research Professor of Old Testament

North Park Theological Seminary
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Author:Holmgren, Fredrick C.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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