A Bible study prepared by Paul Beasley-Murray to supplement Comfortable Words – A Call to Restoration: Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF 2021) by Steven Croft. 08/07/2021
Isaiah 50.4-9 is the third of the four servant songs. Unlike the other three servant songs, there is no explicit reference as to who the speaker is. It is the attached comment in vv10-11 which makes clear his identity – it is God’s “servant” (50.10)
The servant sustains the weary with a word from God:
The song begins: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50.4) – or as the GNB puts it: “The Sovereign Lord has taught me what to say, so that I can sustain the weary”.
The “weary” are those who are in exile in Babylon – for almost 70 years they have been in a foreign land, and they are tired of being away from home and have almost lost hope in God.
Steven Croft links this verse with the great invitation of Jesus found in Matt 11.28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer they are described as one of “the comfortable words” of Jesus. As Croft rightly notes in the 17th century the word ‘comfortable’ did not mean ‘soothing’ but rather ‘strengthening’ – it is a word which is derived from the Latin word ‘fortis’, from which comes our word ‘fortitude’. Interestingly in the AV the Holy Spirit is called ‘the Comforter’ – he is the one who gives us courage and makes us brave.
Who are “the weary” today? Some years ago a team from the Manchester University carried out a survey to try to ascertain the most stressful occupation in Britain. They decided that the most stressful job to have was to be a coalminer (8.3 on a scale of 0-10) – with police officers coming second with stress-rating of 7.7, closely followed by construction workers, aircraft pilots and prison officers, all at 7.5. The easiest job to have from a stress point of view was to be a librarian (2.0). Ministers and beauty therapists were put on the same stress level of 3.5, while nannies and astronomers had it easier with a stress level of just 3.4.
In today’s context I think most of us are weary — we have become weary of the pandemic. Clearly it has been exhausting period for doctors and nurses, and for all those involved in caring for others. It has also been an exhausting period for parents, having to teach their children as well as holding down a job. But even those of us who are retired and mostly free from responsibility are weary of the pandemic. True we now have the vaccine, but nonetheless we wonder whether we will ever be free of coronavirus.
This strengthening word comes through listening
“Morning by morning he waken – wakens my ear, to listen as those who are taught” (50.4b).
The Message: “So I know how to encourage tired people, He [God) wakes me up in the morning”.
Here is a lesson all of us can learn. If we want to serve God, then we too need to make an appointment with him “morning by morning”. Although some of us are more ‘owls’ than ‘larks’, nonetheless I believe that we all need to make time at the beginning of the day to be consciously in the presence of God. To live the life Christ has called us to, we need to begin the day with prayer. “The prayer of the morning”, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “will determine the day. Wasted time, which we are ashamed of, temptations that beset us, weakness and listlessness in our work, disorder and indiscipline in our thinking and our relations with other people, very frequently have their cause in the neglect of the morning prayer.” Interestingly, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Victorian preacher who founded the college of which I was principal for six years, wrote a devotional book which included readings for every day of the year – it was called Morning by Morning!
- On a scale of 0-10, how weary do you feel?
- On a scale of 0-10, how easy do you find to listen to God ‘morning by morning’?
Listening to God does not guarantee a trouble-free life
“The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious [i.e. he was an obedient servant], I did not turn my backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (50.5-6). As a result of listening to God, he became a suffering servant!
Who his tormentors were, we do not know. Were the people beating him up Babylonians? Or were they some of his fellow exiles, who thought he was a religious nutcase? We don’t know. One thing for sure, putting God first can lead to trouble. Life can become tough for those who serve God.
God will come to the rescue of his people
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near…. It is the Lord God who helps me.“ (50.7,8). The prophet could face the pain and the humiliation because he was convinced that God would help him.
How would God help? According to John Goldingay (Isaiah 261): “The events that will bring the people freedom from Babylon will also bring the prophet vindication before Babylon.” The prophet has no doubt that God is at work – and will come to help not just his people, but his prophet.
In the meantime perseverance and determination, resilience and courage, are called for: “I have set my face like a flint and I know I will not be ashamed” (50.7) – GNB: “I brace myself to endure them. I know that I will not be disgraced”.
Or to return to the comfortable word of Jesus in Matt 11.28-20: “Come to me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. It has been suggested that here we hear the voice of Jesus the carpenter. The word translated “easy” (chrestos) literally means ‘well-fitting’. In Palestine yokes were made of wood. An ox would be brought to the carpenter’s house & measurements would be taken: the yoke would be roughed out & the ox brought back for fitting. The yoke was then adjusted so that would fit-well – just like a tailor-made suit! There is a lovely legend that tells of Jesus making the best yokes in all Galilee – people would came from miles around – they knew where to come, because above the shop was a sign: “My yokes fit well“. “Come to me – my yoke fits”. Ultimately, we come to church not to support the work of Christ, but to be supported by Christ.
To what extent has following Jesus brought difficulties to you? How have you coped when life has been tough?