The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. Isaiah 50.4-6.
This morning’s reading is the start of one of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, so-called because of the opening words of another of them: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights …” (Isaiah 42.1). Although Isaiah sometimes identifies the “servant” in the songs as Israel (Isaiah 41.8), it is quite impossible for Christians looking back at these prophetic word portraits not see the servant as Jesus; and indeed the Gospels make that identification clear. Matthew, quoting from the Greek version of Isaiah 53.4, another of the Servant Songs, can say, “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases'” (Matthew 8.17). He can say that because he knows that Jesus is the perfect expression of all that Israel was meant to be; that he comes as representative Israel to be the Suffering Servant. And that is how I see Jesus in the second part of this morning’s passage — the Suffering Servant, scourged, beaten and spat upon (Matthew 27.26 and 30) just as Isaiah said he would be.
But my eyes were really caught by the first part of the reading. There, Isaiah is saying that the Servant will be someone who has an awakened ear … someone who will be able to hear God in a unique way; and who, hearing him, will know how to sustain the weary with God’s word. What a picture that is of Jesus! In Mark we are told, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1.35). Morning by morning, Jesus waits on God to have his ear awakened so that he can hear what his Father wants to say to him … what he wants him to do. This is where he gets his words. “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” Jesus tells the people in the temple (John 7.16).
Jesus listens to the Father “as those who are taught” — he listens as a rabbi’s disciple. It is often remarked that, though Jesus himself is everywhere in the gospels acknowledged to be a rabbi himself, there is no mention of his ever undergoing the necessary discipleship at the feet of some other rabbi to qualify him for that role. Oh yes there is. It is here. Jesus served his discipleship at the feet of the Father himself.
Thus Jesus acquires a rabbi’s tongue — “the tongue of those who are taught” — and it is a tongue for … what? Laying the heavy yoke of the law on the shoulders of folk who cannot bear it? That’s what most rabbis did. No! “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. “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” (Matthew 11.28-30, NIV). Here is his “word for the weary”.
It is a word of invitation … to enter into Life with a capital “L”. It is a call to be part of the Kingdom of God. It is an invitation to “live freely and lightly” and to learn what Eugene Peterson has called “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11.29-30, The Message).
All that is for me as one of the “weary” to whom Jesus speaks; but it occurs to me as I draw this to a close that it is also for me as one who is himself a “servant” of the Lord. God wants to awaken my ear each morning, just as he awakened the ear of Jesus; and just as he gave Jesus a tongue to speak God’s words, so he wants to give me a tongue that can do that too … that can sustain with a word those who are weary.