This chapter can easily be divided into three sections: verses 1-3 form the assurance of the LORD’s help, verses 4-9 are the third Servant Song, and verses 10-11 the final exhortation. The question raised by the commentaries is whether or not these sections belong together as a flowing argument. It seems to me that the unit does work; moreover, even if they were originally different pieces they have been placed together in this section because their themes go together. Some expositors prefer to work only with verses 4-9 because it is one of the Servant Songs. That is fine; but the context it is now in must contribute something to the argument of the Song, and so must be covered anyway.
This short section is an address to the exiled Israelites who are slow to respond to the LORD’s calls because they have come to believe that the ties they had with the mother land had been irretrievably broken. The message assures them that they are redeemable (meaning that they still have a covenant relationship with the LORD128).
Verse 1 asks a series of rhetorical questions, each one of them expecting a negative answer. There was no bill of divorcement—they still belonged to the LORD; there was no bill of sale—they were never given up. In Israel, if there was a bill of divorcement given, the person was free to remarry; but the LORD gave no such bill to Israel, or to the preceding generation. The nation—that generation—was temporarily put away; but there was no divorce. So the image is an implied comparison between the idea of a divorce and the LORD’s disowning Israel. He sent the nation into exile to purge those who were not His people; but Israel still belonged to Him.
Likewise, if a man sold (into employment) children to help pay off a debt, they would be permanently lost to him. But God had no such debt; neither was He forced to sell Israel into the hands of a creditor (cf. 52:3). The nation was His possession; but He would bless only that generation of the nation that was faithful.
Rather, that wicked generation of Israelites sold themselves because of sin; and such sin the LORD could cancel by His grace. But the “nation” was not cast off forever. There would always be a remnant of God’s people, and with revival there would be a faithful generation.
Verse 2 assured them that the LORD was fully able to redeem, although they were slow to respond. “When I came” may refer to the LORD’s intervention to deliver them through Cyrus, or when He announced that He was going to do it; when the LORD did this, there was no immediate response of faith. The verse suggests that they were not convinced that the LORD could or would do this, and so were slow to get their hopes up. They had interpreted the exile to mean that the LORD cast them off, or was not able to protect them.
Again, the LORD used rhetorical questions, expecting negative answers. “Is my hand shortened that it cannot redeem?” His hand was by no means shortened that it could not redeem. To make the point, the LORD alludes to past acts of deliverance. The references are to miracles beginning with the Exodus, the drying up of the sea, the provision of wilderness water, or unnatural droughts that brought death. The main idea of them all seems to focus on the crossing of the Sea on dry ground to deliver them from Egypt. The two key words for study in this claim of God’s ability to deliver are nasal (pronounced nah-tsal) and padah (pah-dah).
Verse 3 probably refers to the darkening of the skies with storm clouds (clothing and sackcloth being implied comparisons); but there may again be a reference to the plague of darkness in Egypt, or the darkness at Sinai. The LORD was claiming sovereignty over the elements of nature to show that all power in heaven and on earth belonged to Him.
So this first section is rather short but its point is clear enough. God was fully able to redeem His people with as great a deliverance as the Exodus. Moreover, God was fully willing to do this because He had not cast them off altogether, but had sent them into exile for their sins (purging the unbelievers for the land). God can both forgive sinners and deliver them from bondage.
The song seems to be made up of three quatrains: it records the soliloquy of the Servant about his experiences in the past and his hopes for the future.
Verse 4 begins the words of the Servant: in order to teach God had equipped him with a trained faculty of speech. He says, “The LORD gave me the tongue (metonymy of cause) of them that are taught, in order that I might know how to sustain with words them that are weak.” The meaning of “sustain” is problematic here; some suggest “to answer,” “to revive,” or “to feed.” The Greek reads “how to speak a word in due season.”
The question of who the weary are depends in large measure on who the Servant is. If the Servant is the nation of Israel, or the remnant, then the weary would be the pagan nations (including unbelievers of Israel) who are weary of their darkened existence. If the Servant is typological for the Messiah, then in that case the weary would be any people who were tired of their bondage to sin. Jesus would welcome the weary to Himself, for He could give them rest (Matt. 11:28).
The latter part of the verse says that the LORD wakens his ear (metonymy of cause, the instrument of hearing and obeying). The LORD gives revelation to him continuously, morning by morning. The simile is a comparison with those who are taught—the servant is made ready to receive the Word every day of his life.
Verse 5 is, according to some, a needless duplication with only the latter part of it belonging here. But their view misunderstands Hebrew rhetoric. The verse begins with a little different way of saying that the LORD has prepared him to obey—he opened my ear (see Ps. 40). God prepared him to hear and respond. The conclusion is that the Servant was not disobedient to hear the message and to teach it (contra Jonah). “I was not rebellious” (mariti [pronounced mah-ree-tee]) and did not turn away “backward.”
Verse 6 introduces the second quatrain. The verses do not fit the suffering of the nation as well as one might expect because it presents suffering as an act of loyalty to God. If the immediate reference is to Israel, then the Servant might have to be considered to be the remnant of true believers who suffered on behalf of the whole nation, for the whole nation was far from loyal.
“I gave my back to the smiters” starts the report. The words are those of a martyr who willingly accepted the strokes and the abuse. The image of a man being beaten, his beard plucked out, of being spat upon, figuratively works for Israel or a remnant of Israelites (personification), and perhaps of the prophet, but becomes literally true in Jesus Christ.
Verse 7 introduces us to the major theme of this chapter: the LORD Yahweh will help me (ya’azor). This word “help” means that the LORD did for the Servant what he could not do for himself. The result of divine help was that he was not confounded, but set his face like a flint, the simile indicating his determination was unflinching. There would be no denial or suppression of the truth through the suffering, for God was enabling the Servant to endure triumphantly.
Verses 8 and 9 again use rhetorical questions that require negative answers. Who is the adversary who contends with the Servant, or who condemns the Servant? Suffering was usually a sign of guilt, a condemnation. But the Servant is convinced that by the deliverance from exile the LORD would justify him (masdiqi [pronounced mats-dee-kee], from sadaq [tsah-dak]). So the wording: “He is near who justifies me; who then will contend with me?” The LORD who is near at hand (to deliver) will justify or vindicate those who are delivered. When God delivers the sinner, no one can condemn successfully, for the charges have been dismissed. Part of this verse was quoted by Paul in Romans 8:33.
The motif of the LORD helping the Servant is repeated in verse 9. If the LORD will help us, then who condemns us? This the grand theme of all of God’s acts of redemption, for redemption from bondage is accomplished through forgiveness.
The last part of verse 9 refers to Israel’s oppressors: they shall grow old and wear out like (simile) garments. The last line is an implied comparison, built off the simile—they will be old and moth-eaten.
These two verses change abruptly the flow of the passage, for now the address is given to people to respond to the message that the Servant had to teach. Two groups are addressed, those who would walk by faith in the LORD and find deliverance eventually, and those who were faithless and doomed (Isa. 66:5).
The first group are those who fear the LORD and obey the voice of the Servant. The Servant is not now the speaker in the first person, but is referred to in the third person. In historic times the faithful remnant would call to those who walked in darkness (see the imagery in Isa. 9) that if they feared the LORD they could trust in His Name. If they were living under oppression because of sin and had no other hope, they should trust the LORD.
Of course, as a type the passage works well with the fulfillment, Jesus Christ, the true Seed, whose message to those in darkness was to be believed.
The exhortation is that they trust the name of the LORD. The “name of the LORD” is a metonymy that refers to God’s attributes—what He is able to do. The idea of trusting (from batah [pronounced bah=tack]) here refers to total reliance on the LORD for safety and security (see the parallel clause “and stay upon his God”). The verb “trust” carries the idea of complete confidence and dependance. It comes with throwing oneself on the mercy of the court.
There are those who are faithless, who kindle fire and gird themselves with firebrands. The implied comparison concerns evil workings against other people they seek to destroy and their own devices for their false worship. One thinks of the firey darts in Ephesians 6:16. Fitting themselves with fire darts could refer to weapons, figuratively to words, or pagan forms of religion (so a choice between metonymy and hypocatastasis). But the people and their actions described here are obviously antagonistic to the LORD and the true faith, and therefore to His people.
The prophet calls for their destruction as they walk into their own evil. The verb used is an imperative; but it conveys the suddenness and certainty of the point—their devices will be for their own destruction (so “walk” is a metonymy). Talionic justice is a major theme throughout the Old Testament.
The words of the LORD conclude the verse: “This you shall have from my hand; you shall lie down in sorrow”—literally, a place of pain (see Genesis 3). “Lie down” is metonymical, for it means in the grave—they will die. But they will not have a peaceful repose as the righteous. Their death will be in pain.
So this passage, if taken as a unit, makes it clear that there is no reason whatsoever to hinder the LORD’s delivering His people from bondage. The people have suffered for their sins and are weary and discouraged. So the LORD sends a Servant to comfort them, one who was able to endure the suffering for the people because of the LORD’s sustaining power. This Servant would then be able to call the people to faith in the LORD, for therein was the only way to deliverance because the LORD would judge the wicked by their own devices. Moreover, the people would see that suffering did not necessarily mean rejection by the LORD, for He suffered in the service of the LORD.
In the Old Testament period the “Servant” role might well have been fulfilled by the prophet, or the schools of the prophets, if not the core of the believing remnant. The LORD sustained them through the suffering to encourage the whole nation to trust the LORD.
But more importantly, the passage is prophetic of the Messiah’s work, as indeed the Servant Songs are as a whole. Jesus declared that He was the Servant; He was the Son of Man who came to serve and not to be served, to give His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).129 The idea of “serve” and “ransom” and “many” are all from the servant songs (we shall see the latter two in Isaiah 53). So on the physical-spiritual level of the New Testament, people who were in bondage to world powers as well as (and because of) their sins were burdened and discouraged and without hope. Jesus came and took all the sins and sorrows of the world on Himself, calling for people to trust in Him to find rest for their souls, to learn of Him. So in this passage the emphasis on the Servant’s learning and teaching of the weary, His obedience, His suffering at the hands of smiters who plucked His beard and spat on Him, His confidence in the God Almighty, and His setting His face like flint to do the will of the Father, not fearing human opposition—all are clearly prophetic of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the conclusion reverses the negative opinions expressed in the first section. If people who are walking in darkness (see Isa. 9) fear God, then they should trust in the name of the LORD. This is the point that Paul makes in Romans 10:9,10: there is no difference, for today it is the same truth for Jews and Gentiles alike, that if they call on the name of the LORD they shall be saved. Of course, his treatise to the Romans has been arguing that by “Lord” he means “Yahweh” of the Old Testament—that Jesus is Yahweh God. So the logic is obvious—if you do not believe in Jesus, you are rejecting God—Yahweh—and cannot and will not escape judgment.
Beuken, W. A. M. “Jes 50,10-11: Eine kultische Paranese zur dritten Ebedprophetie.” ZAW 85 (1973):168-182.
Corney, R. W. “Isaiah 50:10.” VT 26 (1976):497-498.
Grether, Herbert G. “Translating the Questions in Isaiah 50.” Bible Translator 24 (1973):207-212.
Hempel, John. “Zu Jes. 50:6.” ZAW 76 (1964):327.
Lindsey, F. D. “Isaiah’s Songs of the Servant. Part 3: The Commitment of the Servant in Isaiah 50:4-11.” BibSac 139 (1982):216-229.
Maggioni, B. “Le troisieme chant du Serviteur Yahve, Is 50,4-9a.” AsSeign 19 (1971):28-37.
Morgenstern, J. “Isaiah 50:4-9a.” HUCA 31 (1960):20-22.
Schwarz, Gunther. “Jesaja 50:4-5a.” ZAW 85 (1973):356-357.
128 We need to remind ourselves that the verb "redeem" in these oracles refers to deliverance from exile, even though for many participants is was probably also their spiritual redemption.
129 It is important to remember that Matthew presents Jesus as the true Israel. Many of the passages that he cites from the Old Testament had the nation in view in the original context, but Christ as the focus in the fulfillment.