Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2024

Isaiah 50:4-9 Commentary

A Turn Toward the Passion

Interestingly, the Lectionary provides two sets of readings for this last Sunday in Lent: (1) a Psalm and Gospel that celebrate the procession with the Palms and (2) a full set of four readings that look ahead to all that stands between the false and frivolous praise of Palm Sunday and the exuberant and eternal praise of resurrection morning.  Isaiah 50 is the only Old Testament reading and it falls in the latter set, a turn toward the Passion.

One Song Among Many

This Sunday’s passage from Isaiah is known as a “servant song” and it is one of four (maybe five) other servant songs in the book of Isaiah.  Each captures a unique nuance of the Messiah that is to come, the one who will redeem Israel finally and completely. Judaism typically turns to these passages about a suffering servant and sees their own sorrow and oppression represented, favoring an interpretation that makes Israel, herself, the main character in these hymns. Not surprisingly, Christianity reads these same texts and sees a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry.  After all, in numerous citations, the New Testament demonstrates this approach to Isaiah’s servant songs.

The first hymn is in Isaiah 42 and it features the servant’s Spirit-empowered work of justice.  The gospel writer Matthew uses these words to verify Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The second hymn is Isaiah 49 and it focuses on the servant’s pre-destined role as prophet to call all the nations.  The priest Simeon quotes these words in Luke 2 as a celebration of Jesus’ birth.  This Sunday’s lectionary text, Isaiah 50 is the third song that honors the servant’s faithfulness in suffering. According to Paul Hansen, equipped with a word to speak, “that empowerment in turn allows the Servant to accept the hostility his message evokes with the quiet confidence that the final victory lies with those who are faithful to God.” In this, Luke 9:51 may offer a parallel in its description of Jesus who “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”  The fourth song is likely the most well-known, spanning Isaiah 52 and 53. This hymn tells the story of an intercessor, one who stands in for others, receives their punishment and so provides their freedom. This song, particularly Isaiah 53:12, are frequently cited in the New Testament as testimony to Christ’s substitutionary death.

The central point of all these songs, and especially if they are taken together, is that “the world that God created and in which God is present as Redeemer is not an amoral order. It is built on a structure of justice assuring that the righteous will be vindicated and the community will be healed.” This is, according to Hansen, a “process of reclaiming the world for God’s righteousness.”

Reading Poetry with the Early Church Fathers

At some point in history it became verboten to read Scripture through a metaphorical or analogical lens.  But we best not tell the early church fathers that lest we miss out on their insights, particularly on a text of poetry like Isaiah. While categorized with the prophets, Isaiah’s turn-of-phrase is unmistakably Hebrew poetry — each line expands beyond itself, evokes and draws out stories, past and future. Robert Louis Wilkins translates and offers these ancient fathers’ commentaries on this text.

  • Eusebius of Caesarea (among others) see Jesus standing silent before Pilate in verse 4, which is alternately translated, “I may know in season when it is necessary to speak a word.”
  • Cyril of Alexandria hears echos of the Garden of Gethsemane in Isaiahs’ assertion that the servant in his song “did not disobey nor contradict.”
  • Multiple early Christian theologians and preachers tackled verse 6, offering us a prism insight into the suffering and death of Christ.
    • Cyril of Alexandria wrote “the sole aim of the one who suffered was to carry out the good will of the Father to its end…Therefore to procure life for those who believe on him, he did not spur the injuries, the scourges or the trial of spitting, although he was God by nature and the true Lord.”
    • Origen of Alexandria (like the Lectionary) pairs this text with Paul in Philippians 2, “If someone wanted to enumerate how many ways Christ humbled himself, it would not be inappropriate to go beyond what Paul has expounded and to say that he humbled himself and became obedient unto blows, to the shame of spiting, and scourges, and death…For (God) exalted him not only because he died for us, but also because of the blows, the spitting, and the rest.”
    • Ambrose of Milan: Christ “embarked on the way of the New Covenant, so that ew might make smooth he path of genuine devotion. If we fast, he fasted before us. If we suffer wrongs in the name of God, he first suffered wrongs for our redemption…He mounted the cross to teach us not to fear death.”


All preachers face the temptation of falling back on the same favorite or preferred way of encapsulating Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  As a thought experiment, you might ask some married congregants to one attribute or role their spouse plays that is central to the health and vibrancy of their marriage. Some might say friend, others teammate, wise counselor or lover.  But if you were to ask a follow up question: “And is that all your spouse is to you?” One hopes their immediate answer will be an emphatic, “NO!”

Similarly, we preachers — owing to our tradition, experiences, or present moment — may prefer one metaphor over another but should never think that is the only thing Christ has done for us, for God’s people and the world.  Thankfully Scripture itself grants us a deep well of understanding who Jesus is and what he has done for us: Emmanuel/God-with-us; Rabbi, Healer, Miracle-Worker, Lord, Messiah, Son of Man, Redeemer, Savior, Lord of Life, Resurrected and Ascended King. This morning’s text — one of four “servant songs” — demonstrate layers of meaning to Christ’s work on our behalf.  Similarly, the early church fathers were not afraid to understand Christ’s work, specifically on the cross, through the lens of multiple metaphors. This last Sunday before the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday is a good time to remind God’s people to be on the look-out for all of the ways God loves us in and through Jesus Christ.


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