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KD Old Testament Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53

Posted by Karl D. on October 10, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Isaiah (#39)
Reading: Isaiah 50-53

PDF Version of Notes

1 Approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 Introduction

2.1 Isaiah 49-55

This week’s reading covers Isaiah 50-53. These four chapters are contained within the second major part of Isaiah (usually called Deutero-Isaiah) which is comprised of chapters 40-55. This second part of Isaiah is usually split into two sections: 40-48 and 49-55. How do chapters 49-55 (of which this week’s reading is a complete subset) differ from 40-48?1

  • No more references to Cyrus (does this mean these chapters refer to a time when Darius is the King?)
  • Less use of “New Exodus” language.
  • Less talk of Babylon; more talk of Jerusalem.

2.2 Servant Songs

Several pericopes in Isaiah 40-55 are often called servants songs. Of course, there is much academic debate about these songs (such as whether viewing these parts as distinct poems even useful). I just like the classification because it helps me think about how the theme of serving runs through this part of Isaiah. It also give me some nice somewhat distinct units of manageable size to think and ponder about.

Traditionally four servant songs are recognized:

Servant Song Verses
First 42:1-6
Second 49:1-7
Third 50:4-9
Fourth 52:13-53:12

The theme of the servant intensifies in the second part of Isaiah (40-55) and particularly in the second section (49-55). We see multiple speeches by servants or about servants. I think the servant voices and the servant theme intensifies until it climaxes in the last servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Of course, Christians throughout the ages have often or typically interpreted the servant songs as applying to Jesus Christ or as a type of Christ. The last servant song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, is applied to Jesus Christ by multiple New Testament writers (see Mt 8:17, Acts 32:33, and 1 Pet 2:22-25).

I am going to focus on the third servant song rather than the climatic servant song. Given that people are usually already familiar with the last servant song, I hope people will see how the third song builds toward the last and final servant song.

3 The Third Servant Song

3.1 The Lord Has Given Me

Read Isaiah 50:4-6

4 The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned,
that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is

he wakeneth morning by morning,
he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned.

5 The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear,
and I was not rebellious,
neither turned away back.

6 I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair:

I hid not my face
from shame and spitting.

Describe the servant in these verses? What qualities does the servant have?

3.1.1 Learned

  • Verse 4 indicates that the servant is learned. Are you surprised that learned is used in a positive sense?
  • When you hear “learned” in the context of the scriptures what usually comes to mind? Is the word “learned” being used differently here in these verses than other scriptures you can think of that talk about the learned or being learned (for example, 2 Nephi 9:28-29, 2 Nephi 26:20, or 2 Nephi 27:20-25)?
  • Does the second half of verse 4 give context to what is meant by learned in this poem?
  • The servant or at least his ears are awakened every morning by the Lord? What do you make of this imagery? Is having your ears awakened by the Lord every morning a necessary condition for becoming “learned?” Is it a sufficient condition for being “learned?”
  • Blenkinsopp, in the Anchor Bible commentary translates the second half of verse 4 as the following:2

Morning after morning he sharpens me hearing
to listen as disciples do

  • What do you think about the link between “learned” and “disciple” in the Blenkinsopp translation. Do you think they are basically the same thing in this pericope?
  • If these verses are referring to a servant in Israel during or right after the return from exile why might this have been an important skill or attribute for a “Servant of Israel” to have?”
  • How does the servant use his learned tongue?
  • How does being “learned” help someone “know how to help the weary with a word?”3
  • Do you see the idea of the learned helping the “weary with a word” as a generalizable principle to us, as the Lord’s servants, today? Is this a general responsibility of the “learned” in the church?

3.1.2 Not Rebellious

Notice the parallelism involving the servants lack of rebellion:

5 The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear,
and I was not rebellious,
neither turned away back.

  • The passage seems to link listening with the lack of rebellion. Is this important?
  • The verse says that God opened the ear of the servant. Is this suggesting that the ability of the servant to listen to God is a gift from God?
  • Do you think these verses support the idea that being able to listen to the Lord in general is a gift from God? Is this, an example, of prevenient grace is the scriptures? Or should we read it much more narrowly than that?
  • What does it mean that the servant “neither turned away back?”

3.1.3 Endured Persecution or Suffering Well

  • Another quality of the servant is that the servant endures persecution well. Is that a quality and if so is it a good description of verse 6?
  • Do you think there is a more fundamental quality that allows the servant to endure persecution well rather than his quality is “good sufferer?”
  • Blenkinsopp, in the Anchor Bible commentary on Isaiah, writes the following about the persecution, abuse, and suffering of the servant relative to the cultural backdrop:4

[T]He remarkable thing about this description is that the speaker offers himself as a victim of abuse and does so as the price to be paid for fulfilling his mission. In the world that the speaker and his public inhabited, insults and the resultant loss of honor, the public shaming, implied a diminution of humanity and called for immediate and drastic action of some kind to restore honor … Setting the face like flint …, the hardest kind of rock, makes the same point more strongly by saying, in effect, that no hint of shame appears on the face. It is also a prophetic topos, reminiscent of Jeremiah, who confronts his opponents like iron or bronze (Jer 1:18), or Ezekiel, whose face is sets as hard as diamond (… Ezek 3:8-9).

  • Why isn’t the speaker shamed by his beating?
  • This servant song introduces the theme of the suffering servant. Thus this servant song connects with the final servant song (52:13-53:12) where the suffering of the servant is central to the song. I think this may suggest that it may be useful to read the servant songs as connected and examine closely how they are related to each other.

3.1.4 A Non-Servant Question

Oswalt, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, indicates that this is the only servant song where the phrase “Lord GOD” (or Sovereign Lord) is used.5 It is used four times in this poem. What does such language emphasize? How does it affect the overall tone of the poem?

3.2 The Lord Will Help Me

Read 50:7-9

7 For the Lord GOD will help me;
therefore shall I not be confounded:

therefore have I set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

8 He is near that justifieth me;
who will contend with me?

let us stand together: who is mine adversary?
let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord GOD will help me;
who is he that shall condemn me?

lo, they all shall wax old as a garment;
the moth shall eat them up.

  • What is the servant talking about here? How would you describe the servant’s message? Tone?
  • Do you think the servant’s tone is best described as triumphant?
  • How does this triumphant message or tone connect with the persecution described in verse 6?
  • Is it strange that a servant (particularly this servant) would feel triumphant?
  • Do this verses help explain why the servant wasn’t shamed by the beating described in verse 6?

3.3 Identification

  • Who do you think is the servant talked about in this pericope?
  • Certainly, the suffering imagery almost certainly reminds Christians of the suffering of Christ. When the servant exclaims, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,” it reminds the Christian reader of the great suffering of the Messiah. Are there other parts of this pericope that help remind you of Jesus, his atonement, and his mission?
  • Do you think there is value in seeing the servant as someone other than the Jesus?
  • How about as an idealized servant in Israel? Of course, for Christians, Jesus stands as the only true ideal servant in Israel so maybe I should phase the question differently. Are there any advantages of seeing the servant in this pericope as a model but non-divine servant? What can we learn about being the Lord’s servant if we view the pericope this way?
  • How about as a beleaguered teacher still determined to follow the Lord despite being in charge of a down trodden people and being persecuted by others (Maybe by other returning exiles who have rejected Jehovah as their God)? What messages in these verses pop out if you view the servant this way?
  • Suppose you are a BCE 5th century Jew. Who do you think is the servant talked about in this pericope? Could the servant be a leader or prophet struggling to unite Judah and rebuild Jerusalem as the Jews return from exile?
  • Do you think an ancient reader might have viewed the servant in this pericope as an ideal version of Israel (the way the Israelites should feel and act as they return)?

3.4 Walking in Darkness

Read Isaiah 5:10-11

10 Who is among you that feareth the Lord,
that obeyeth the voice of his servant,

that walketh in darkness,
and hath no light?

let him trust in the name of the Lord,
and stay upon his God.

11 Behold, all ye that kindle a fire,
that compass yourselves about with sparks:

walk in the light of your fire,
and in the sparks that ye have kindled.

This shall ye have of mine hand;
ye shall lie down in sorrow.

  • Notice in verse 10 we actually finally get a specific indication that the Lord’s servant was speaking in the previous verses. Who is speaking in these verses?
  • What is different about these last two verses compared with the first nine?
  • What does the phrase, “stay upon his God” mean?
  • The first part of verse 4 asks who fears the Lord. Do you think verses 4-9 were about what it means to fear the Lord? What it means to live “in that reverent awe of God that shapes one’s behavior?”6
  • Does verse 10 make sense to you? How is the first third of the verse related to the second third of the verse? Is the verse indicating that those who fear the LORD and obey the voice of his servant are the ones walking in darkness? Is that how we should read verse 10?
  • Suppose that those who fear the Lord really are the ones that are walking in darkness. This reverses the way we usually use the metaphor. However, does it make sense? Do verse 4-9 support the reversal of the metaphor? Can we learn anything about discipleship from this reversal?
  • Do you think this imagery suggests a deep division exists in the community? Maybe hinting that there were factions deeply divided over how to rebuild Jerusalem? A faction committed to serving Jehovah as God (the servant community?) and a faction that doesn’t?7
  • Suppose we are dealing with a deeply divided community after the return from exile. Does such a backdrop help us understand the message of the servant in verses 4-9 better?
  • Does the metaphor reversal continue into verse 11?


1 Coggins, R., 2001, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 473.

2 Blenkinsopp, Joseph, 2002, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, 317.

3 Oswalt John N., 1998, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Eerdmans, 320.

4 Blenkinsopp, Joseph, 2002, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, 321.

5 Oswalt John N., 1998, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Eerdmans, 320.

6 Oswalt John N., 1998, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Eerdmans, 320.

7 Coggins, R., 2001, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 473.

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