Isaiah 50: A Case against God

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Prologue

Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 50 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 50:8 – The One who justifies Me is near; who will contend with Me? Let us confront each other. Who has a case against Me? Let him come near Me!

Quick summary:

This chapter is a contrast between two servants: faithless Israel and the faithful Messiah. Israel has failed God, not because He divorced the nation but because, in effect, the nation divorced Him. By contrast, the faithful Servant humbly learns from Yahweh and even endures persecution in carrying out His will. Ultimately, Israel must choose: The people can walk in God’s light or in the light of their own campfires, which already are only temporary comforts.

Take note:

The suffering of the Servant in verse 6 is a stunningly accurate portrait of Jesus’ physical torment at the hands of His Roman executioners. In obedience to the Father and for the sake of lost humanity, Jesus willingly endures flogging, scorn and spitting. Compare the elements of this verse with the New Testament fulfillments:

  • “I gave my back to those who beat Me …” (Matt. 27:26; Luke 22:63; John 19:1)
  • “My cheeks to those who tore out My beard” (while there is no specific reference to this in the Gospels, it is likely the Roman guards carried this out as a way to produce pain and humiliation; to pluck the hair is the highest insult against an Oriental)
  • “I did not hide My face from scorn and spitting” (Matt. 26:67; Mark 14:65, 15:19; John 19:3)
  • Yet the Servant does not strike back, knowing “the Lord God will help Me” (v. 7; see 1 Peter 2:22-23).

The Correction of Israel (Isa. 50:1-3)

Judah’s captivity in Babylon is a direct result of the people’s sins, and the Lord illustrates this truth in two ways. First, He compares the nation to a divorced woman. According to Mosaic Law, the husband could give his wife a divorce certificate detailing her faults and she would have to leave the home (Deut. 24:1). Judah has so transgressed its covenant relationship with Yahweh that He is compelled to send her away. Second, the Lord compares the Jews to children being sold into indentured servitude because of a great debt (see Ex. 21:7; 2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5).

Yet there is another way of looking at these verses. Since Yahweh is posing two questions – “Where is your mother’s divorce certificate?” and “[W]ho were My creditors that I sold you to?” – it’s possible that He is assuring the people that He has not completely written them off or abandoned them because of their sins. In fact, this perspective is more in line with the whole of Isaiah. While the people have indulged in grievous sins and the nation has turned a cold shoulder to Yahweh, the Lord must discipline them as an act of love but will fulfill His promises to them. The Babylonian captivity is but for a time; it will not last forever.

In verse 2, the Lord reminds the people that their rejection of Him is unreasonable. He has sent the prophets and performed miracles among them, yet like an unfaithful wife the nation has preferred idolatry and social injustice. If only the people would call to Him in repentance. “Is My hand too short to redeem?” He asks, using Oriental imagery of weakness. “Or do I have no power to deliver?” Of course He does. He dries up the sea by his rebuke, a reference to His work in the exodus (Ex. 14:21). He turns rivers into wilderness, perhaps an indication of the coming disaster for Israel’s wealthy and powerful enemies. He causes the enemies’ fish to rot, a reminder of His judgment on the Egyptians (Ex. 7:18, 21). And He dresses the heavens in black, another of Yahweh’s judgments on the Egyptians (Ex. 10:21). In short, the people are responsible for their sins and deserve divine discipline, yet their gracious and all-powerful God will remain faithful to His promise never to forsake them.

The Obedient Servant (Isa. 50:4-9)

The Lord teaches the Servant to comfort the weary, and the Servant obediently carries out His will. From a New Testament perspective, we can see that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, comes to do the Father’s will (see, for example, Matt. 26:39, 42) and in His humanity learns obedience (Heb. 5:8). Jesus provides comfort through His teaching, miracles and physical presence among the outcast. He willingly endures hardship, including rejection, false trials, mocking, scourging, slapping and crucifixion. Undeserving of any of this, He walks through His ministry with His face set toward Jerusalem and a destiny with death. Ultimately, He knows He will be vindicated (through His resurrection and exaltation to the Father’s right hand) and sit in judgment over those who have rejected Him.

Four times in this passage the Servant uses the name “Lord God.” Coming from the Hebrew Yahweh Adonai, this name may be translated “Sovereign Lord.” According to Robert B. Girdlestone, the name means that “God is the owner of each member of the human family, and that he consequently claims the unrestricted obedience of all” (Synonyms of the Old Testament, p. 34). So the emphasis in this passage is the Servant’s willing submission to the Lord in every aspect of His life and ministry.

Warren Wiersbe notes that the Servant’s mind and will are yielded to the Lord. His mind is submitted so that He may learn the Word and will of the Father. Everything Jesus says and does is taught to Him by the Father (John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 8:28). He prays to the Father for guidance and meditates on His Word (Mark 1:35; John 11:42). At the same time, His will is submitted so that those who see Him see the Father (John 14:9). The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day are neither willing nor obedient, but the Servant models perfect yieldedness to the Lord God even though His obedience results in severe persecution and even death (Matt. 26:67; 27:26, 30-31).

Finally, it’s vital to remember that the Servant, though divine, operates on faith while ministering on earth. “Keep in mind that when Jesus Christ was ministering here on earth, He had to live by faith even as we must today. He did not use His divine powers selfishly for Himself but trusted God and depended on the power of the Spirit” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Comforted, An Old Testament Study, S. Is 50:4).

The Challenge to Israel (Isa. 50:10-11)

This chapter closes with an exhortation from the Servant to follow His example: “Who among you fears the Lord, listening to the voice of His servant?” Jesus lays down a similar challenge when He says, “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Me” (John 5:23b; see also Luke 10:16b). The Servant reminds his listeners that even the godly sometimes face dark moments and must trust in the Lord. Consider Jesus who, while bearing our sin debt on the cross, cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matt. 27:46b). “[T]he servant of God is never wholly without ‘light.’ A godly man’s way may be dark, but his end shall be peace and light. A wicked man’s way may be bright, but his end shall be utter darkness (Ps 112:4; 97:11; 37:24)” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, S. Is 50:10).

In contrast to the godly, the wicked face the darkness, not by trusting in God, but by trusting in themselves. They kindle fires and set ablaze firebrands (pieces of burning wood), walking in their manmade light that all too quickly becomes extinguished. Those who reject God’s light, preferring their own schemes, will “lie down in a place of torment” (v. 11). King Solomon once wrote, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it is the way of death” (Prov. 16:7), and one day Jesus will tell even those who claim the name of Jesus but seek salvation their own way, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:23).

The stark yet simple truth is that salvation is found only in the Lord and His Servant. Jesus proclaims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Peter echoes this truth with these words, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). For those who reject the truth – and the Author of truth – there is a place of everlasting separation from God (Luke 16:23, 28; Rev. 20:13-15; 21:8).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry comments: “Those that make the world their comfort, and their own righteousness their confidence, will certainly meet with a fatal disappointment, which will be bitterness in the end. A godly man’s way may be melancholy, but his end shall be peace and everlasting light. A wicked man’s way may be pleasant, but his end and endless abode will be utter darkness” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume,  S. Is 50:10).

Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips