I said last week that in the first part of this chapter, which is the second of the Servant Songs, I believe we see God accept Israel’s rejection of him and respond by sending the Servant beyond Israel to the nations; rather than trying to force his people to accept their part in his plan, this is the point at which he simply incorporates their refusal to do so into his plan and moves forward despite them. I noted that this isn’t the common reading of that passage, but it is what the passage says, and there’s really no good reason to reject it, while there are a number of good reasons not to.
One good reason is the way Israel responds, beginning in verse 14—which, granted, could be just another ridiculous complaint, since we’ve seen a few of those from them already; but it fits. God tells the Servant, “Don’t worry that Israel has refused to respond to you—that’s too small a job for you anyway; I will make you a light for the Gentiles and my salvation for all people,” and Israel complains, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” You can see where they’re coming from, right? It is, again, the same concern that Paul wrestles with in Romans: if God broke the branches from the olive tree that he might graft the Gentiles in, does that mean that he’s replaced his people? Has he simply written off the Jews and dropped them from his plan?
As we saw last week, Paul says, “no,” and for good reason; here, God says the same thing. He has allowed his people to reject the work he had prepared for them, he has given that work to the Servant instead, but that doesn’t mean he’s rejected them in turn. His care and concern for them isn’t just for what he can get them to do—he didn’t choose them merely as a tool to accomplish his purposes; his love for them is real and sincere and unfailing, and he will never forget them. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Not likely, but even if she does, I won’t,” declares the Lord. Take the highest and greatest example of human devotion and faithfulness you can think of, and God still exceeds it—and it isn’t close.
Note what he says. He’s been promising his people that he would bring them back to their own land, the land he had given them, and that they would be blessed on the way; now he promises them great blessing in the land. Note the blessing he offers, and how he describes it—not material wealth, not power or conquest, but family. The Lord will gather his people, his children, home to Jerusalem, and they will see far more people gathered than there were in the nation before the exile—so many more, in fact, that there won’t be enough room for everyone. The nation that seemed to be in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth will be larger than before; the family that was afraid it would die out will instead find children returning—so many, in fact, as to raise the question, “Where did they all come from?”
Where did they come from? This is what God says: they came from the nations. They came from the Gentiles, from all those folks out there who aren’t Jews—from us; we are part of the fulfillment of this promise. The terms of his blessing haven’t changed, because his heart hasn’t changed. He loves the Israelites, yes, but not exclusively; he loves everyone else, too, and his blessing on them involves all the nations, as it always has, going all the way back to the beginning. What they need to understand, what Isaiah is moving them towards, is what Paul’s talking about: God’s promise isn’t just for those who are descended from Abraham, and it isn’t automatically for everyone descended from Abraham regardless of their faithfulness to God (or lack thereof); God’s promise to Abraham is greater and broader than that. What matters most isn’t whether you have Abraham’s DNA, but whether you have his heart for God and his willingness to follow.
As such, in order to accept God’s blessing, the Israelites have to let go of the idea that they alone are God’s people, that his blessings are for them and no one else, that they are somehow superior to and favored above all others, and let the nations join them. It’s important to note, God isn’t asking Israel to take a secondary place; quite the contrary, the nations will honor them and bow before them in recognition of how much they owe the people of Israel. That said, it can be hard to forgive your enemies, and even harder to welcome them into your home as friends, let alone as family, and that’s what God is inviting Israel to do—making it clear in the process that he isn’t giving them the option of returning his blessing and asking for another one. But then, God never does give us blessings that are just for us—he blesses us so that we can use them to bless others. We aren’t merely recipients of his blessings, we’re conduits. That’s just how God works.
For all his reassurances, Israel still wonders: is it really possible? Can plunder really be taken away from mighty warriors? With the second line, I think we’re better off following the Hebrew rather than changing it: can captives be rescued from the righteous? Which is to say, can lawfully-taken captives, captives whose fate was just and right, really be set free? Can a warrior who has both might and right on his side really be deprived of his captives? This is the situation for Israel: the country that conquered them is a great power, and their conquest of Israel was just, for it was ordained by God as his judgment on his people for their faithlessness.
In response, God makes it clear that he both can and will set them free. He has the power to overthrow the fierce warriors, to strip them of their plunder and free their captives; and he has the force of right to make his case against them. The word the NIV translates “contend” is a legal term; those who hold Israel captive can make their case that they have the right to do so, but God will make his own case against them, and as we’ve seen several times in Isaiah already, he’s unstoppable in a courtroom. His action in setting his people free is entirely righteous, and no claim to the contrary will stand before him.
Of course, this won’t happen gently, for those who conquered Israel are fierce, greedy, rapacious, and bloodthirsty; they’re very like the greedy python in the classic children’s picture book by Richard Buckley and Eric Carle: “Half hidden in the jungle green, the biggest snake there’s ever been wound back and forth and in between. The giant snake was very strong and very, very, very long. He had a monstrous appetite, his stomach stretched from left to right.” In the book, the python proceeds to eat everything in his path, from a mouse to a porcupine to a leopard to an elephant, before his greed becomes too much for him: “And when they all began to kick, the snake began to feel quite sick. He coughed the whole lot up again—each one of them—and there were ten.”
Now listen to the ending here: “He soon felt better, and what’s more was hungrier than just before. He hadn’t learned a single thing: his greed was quite astonishing. He saw his own tail, long and curved, and thought that lunch was being served. He closed his jaws on his own rear, then swallowed hard . . . and disappeared!” His greed was so far out of control that when there was no one else he could turn on, he turned on himself, and destroyed himself. That’s the Babylonians: their sin is self-destructive in the end, as in truth all sin is; the appetite that drove them to empire will ultimately drive them to ruin.
Despite all this, Israel still feels forsaken and forgotten; and so God asks, “When I sent you into exile, was there anything to seal that and make it permanent? When I sent your mother away, was there a certificate to finalize the divorce?” Implicitly, the answer is “no”; and then the Lord turns the tables on them. Who was it who created this separation? Was it God? Did he fail to answer when his people called on him? No: when he answered their cries and came to them, there was no one to answer—not a single response—and so he asks them the question, “Why? Did you not believe I could answer you, or that I have the strength to save you? I can do things far greater than this; I can dry up the sea and turn the rivers to desert—remember all the things I did for you to lead you out of slavery in Egypt—why do you not trust me?” In the end, the separation of which Israel complains is their own doing—they blame God for what is their own fault, and accuse him for the consequences of their own insistence.
And here again, into God’s grief at his people’s refusal to understand, the Servant speaks—this time, with a new sense of the cost of his mission. “The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears,” he says, “and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.” He has heard, and he has listened “like one being taught,” which is to say, like a disciple, with close and careful attention—and not just occasionally, but “morning by morning,” day by day, beginning each day by listening to God, and then following through by living as God teaches him to live. And look at the consequences: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” This is the obedience God required from his Servant? Well, yes, in part because that tended—and tends—to be the lot of a true prophet. A prophet who stood at the center of power and told the powerful that they were OK would be either unnecessary or lying—and given human nature, rather more of the latter than of the former. True prophets stood, and stand, on the edges, challenging godless behavior, challenging society’s comfortable assumptions, challenging people’s unwillingness to change and to deny themselves; and that’s never a popular message, and so it brings retribution.
More than that, however, the Servant must accept suffering without even trying to avoid it; he’s called to trust God to vindicate him in the end, to hold fast to God’s promise that he will not end in disgrace, but will be found righteous and will see his victory at the last, and set his face like flint to take the mockery and the beatings. He is confident that his trust in God will be justified and his message and mission will be proven true and right, and so he accepts the abuse and the punishment that his enemies hand out without fighting back, knowing that their end will come in due time.
And his reward for this? Because he listened as a disciple, he has the tongue of a disciple, to know the word that sustains the weary. This is a precious gift, and a gift the world cannot match. You can’t get that from the world’s conventional wisdom, or from self-help books; you can’t get it from anything the world has to offer, because the world really doesn’t do grace, and isn’t half so good at love as it thinks it is. The world is impatient with human weakness, intolerant of human frailty—of any frailty it takes seriously as such, anyway—and it’s afraid of death, so anything to do with death, dying, and loss, it just wants to put out of its mind as quickly as possible. Its advice is always about doing this or that—“Just do it,” “Just work harder,” or perhaps “Work smarter, not harder,” as the case might be—and tends to be of the sort that only burdens the weary, rather than sustaining them. Or perhaps I might say, us?
No, the word that sustains the weary is a word from God, and can only come from one who has not bowed the knee to the way of the world and its expectations, and who has accepted the world’s abuse and not fought back. It can only come from one who trusts in God, not in human strength, and so is able to see clearly just how limited human strength really is, and how little it really counts for in the end. Ultimately, it’s a word that can only come from Jesus Christ, though he gives his followers the privilege of speaking it through us to those who need to hear it. It’s a word of grace and mercy, of forgiveness and healing—that says that it’s OK if we can’t suck it up and “just do it” in our own strength, because that’s not what God asks of us anyway. It’s God saying to us, “Just trust me—it’ll be all right. I’ll take care of you, I’ll provide for you, I’ll guide and protect you if you’ll follow me—just trust me.”