…that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Isaiah 50:4
This is the third of the four Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. Jesus knew these prophecies. They defined him in his own mind. This servant song is the most personal and vulnerable of them all. It shows us the deepest inner life of Jesus. It shows us that he is not only able to help us, he is willing to help us, though we treat him badly.
The key to the passage lies in the tension, even the collision, between “the Lord God” (NIV: “the Sovereign Lord”) and the servant of the Lord, on the one hand, and the abusers of the servant, on the other hand. We see the Sovereign Lord four times here, in verses 4, 5, 7 and 9. He keeps the action moving forward. We hear the servant of the Lord speaking throughout the passage, and all he wants to do is help people: “. . . that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (verse 4). But when the ultimate servant came into our world to help us, how did we respond? Verse 6 says we humiliated him, we mistreated him, and he didn’t fight back; he accepted it as the price love had to pay to win our trust.
The love of God moves toward us every day, and we fight it. A New York Times review of Tony Hendra’s book, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, starts out:
Saints are perhaps always best evoked by sinners. And it would be hard to think of someone more at ease in the world of modern sin than Tony Hendra. He is and has been a brilliant satirist, an alum of National Lampoon in its glory days, an architect of the parody rock documentary, “This is Spinal Tap,” a man who has known (and tells us of) serial sex and drugs and rock and irony. But this extraordinary, luminescent, profound book shows us something wonderfully unexpected and deeply true. These ideas of sin that we have are… the symptoms of sin, not its essence. And its essence is our withdrawal – our willful withdrawal – from God’s love.
All our problems stem from this one folly – not taking to heart the love of God for the undeserving. And we’re here in church today to open up to him.
The anger we see in this prophecy – we spit in the servant’s face, according to verse 6 – that is inside our hearts. We even sing about it: “Behold, the Man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders. Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.” We think of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Raising of the Cross,” where Rembrandt paints himself into the picture as one of the crucifiers raising the cross with Jesus nailed there. We think of the risen Christ confronting Saul of Tarsus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). It’s hard for us to admit it, hard for us even to see it, because we need our feelings of innocence, to justify ourselves. But the gospel is honest with us. Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps us see ourselves more realistically:
You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on very good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne told us so long ago what we all need to do: “For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ.” Should we own up? Yes. But should we look at Christ? Much more. We should stare at Christ, and not stop, until we start feeling loved and freed even as sinners. My purpose today is not to solve your problems. My purpose is to show you Jesus, the servant of the Lord, who did not turn away when we spit in his face. Let’s settle into a front row seat in the theater of Isaiah 50:4-9 and watch the drama unfold.
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.
Jesus comes to us as a wise man, a sage, a counselor. It doesn’t say, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher” but “the tongue of those who are taught.” We don’t like know-it-alls. They offend our own pride. So the Son of God humbled himself. He did not come into the world with a complete template of knowledge. We are born completely ignorant. The only way we ever know anything is by learning it. And the Son of God entered into our limitations. He had to learn the same way we do. The One who spoke the universe into existence had to learn his ABC’s. The One who created music had to learn scales. The one who thought up calculus had to learn 2 + 2 = 4. The Bible says that the boy Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The Bible says that he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). That doesn’t mean Jesus grew from disobedience into obedience; it means that, as he came to understand more and more the cost of obeying his Father, he kept saying Yes, though it was hard, and he knew it would cost him everything.
What was it he wanted so much to know? “. . . that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” Sometimes we don’t know what to say that will help someone in trouble. We might even make things worse. But Jesus sustains the weary with a word. He came into this world for exhausted people, people who are wondering how they can go on, people who have quit altogether. He wants to help them, not dump on them. And how does he help? In the best way – with a word. Anyone can listen. Just listen. What’s happening in this church right now exemplifies the gospel at work. You’re not doing anything but sitting there, listening, receiving it, taking it in, and the Lord is sustaining you with his Word. The president of my seminary used to ask the men on Monday mornings, after they had preached on Sunday, “Men, what did you give the people to believe?” Not “What did you give the people to do?” What sustains weary sinners is knowing what the Servant has done, out of love for us. And that makes encouragement one of the most important ministries of the church. The whole tone of a Christian church should be filled with encouragement, to sustain the weary. The Bible says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). It’s who God is. As his gospel comforts us, we’re hearing a word from Jesus himself, to sustain us.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
Jesus was taught by God. He has authority. We do not judge him; we listen to him. But he didn’t receive his wisdom in one blinding flash of insight. He learned the hard way, the way we do, day by day, little by little. It takes time and experience to become profound and helpful. Anyone can be glib in a moment. But the Bible is describing here the rich development of Jesus’ thought in the daily crucible of real life. It means that Jesus has carefully thought through what it means to be wonderfully human and what’s wrong with us and how we can change for the better. He not only know us, he understands us. He is not just a nice man with a warm heart. Let’s not be condescending. Jesus is wise and competent and brilliant. He is the world’s greatest expert on whatever you are facing. He faced it too, and without flinching:
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
This is one reason why the Servant Songs here in Isaiah cannot refer to ancient Israel or one of the kings of Judah, as some have proposed. Some scholars don’t want these Servant Songs to be messianic, because that leads to Jesus. But who else can these prophecies refer to? Can any of us honestly say we have not rebelled or turned backward, but we have obeyed without faltering? Jesus could say that, and he did say that: “I always do what pleases him who sent me” (John 8:28). Not often, but always. Only Jesus could say that.
If you check Yahoo Answers on the question, Did Jesus ever sin?, the answers include, “If he did, nobody noticed,” “Messengers of Allah may sin, but their sins are not like other people’s sins,” “He lost faith when he said, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’”, and others. What many people want to do is admire Jesus as a good man, some kind of idealist, but they don’t believe he was sinless. But wait a minute. If Jesus was just a man, he was an evil man, because he claimed to be more than a man, he claimed to be the Son of God. The one thing we can’t believe about Jesus is that he was an imperfect but really good man. He didn’t leave that option open to us.
What happened, then, when we began to notice the Servant of the Lord in our midst 2000 years ago? Did we roll out the red carpet for him? No. Our pride was threatened. We knew our status quo would be disrupted, our sin exposed. So we abused him, we cut him down to size. And he took it. If there is any place in the Bible that shows us how willing Jesus is, how ready and open, to love people like us, verse 6 is it:
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.
He didn’t hit back. He didn’t even shield himself. He didn’t even complain. He accepted it. There was no length he wouldn’t go to, to win our hearts. Being beaten, his beard pulled out, disgrace and humiliation and abuse and finally crucifixion – we dished it out, and he took it. God came down to show us his loving face. He never harmed anyone. He only healed and helped. His only motive was to love the undeserving. And we spit in his face. Luke’s gospel says he was mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon (Luke 18:31). Matthew’s gospel says they spit in his face and struck him and slapped him (Matthew 26:67). He was flogged. He was crucified. There was no cruelty the human heart withheld when God came down. And he knew what was coming, and he didn’t run, he didn’t hide, he didn’t hate. He gave his back to those who strike and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard. He offered his face to disgrace and spitting. And every sin since then, every sin of mine and every sin of yours, spits in his face again. Every sin is a personal insult to the holy and gracious God. He thinks so. He says, “Come, let us reason together,” and our hearts say he’s oppressive. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and our hearts say he has an ulterior motive. He says, “It is finished,” and our hearts say it’s never finished, never complete, never enough. Something inside us – the Bible calls it sin – is never satisfied, because it is unsatisfiable. Something inside resents him for being God, because that puts him over us. We don’t want him. We don’t need him. We spit upon him.
It’s hard for us to see our sin in the naked light of the gospel, but let’s walk in this light, because Jesus is in this light. When we see our bitterness toward our King and Friend, and yet how loving he is to us – then, when we’re rightly ashamed of ourselves, and yet loved and embraced by him, forgiven by him, accepted by him through his cross, then our hearts crack open, and our repentance pours out, and his love pours in. Our tears flow, and so does his love. The Bible says that, having loved his own, he loved them to the end (John 13:1), because only his sufferings could persuade us that he really is willing to love us at our worst. The willing love of Jesus for the undeserving means we either bow down in reverence, or it would be better for us never to have been born. The servant says,
But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
We will never wear him down; he will outlast us, he will outlast the whole world. The real story of history from the cross, through the resurrection, all the way to the end is the story of the Sovereign Lord vindicating his Servant Jesus against this entire world. Compared to the servant, the whole world has the staying power of a moth-eaten old garment. He wants to sustain with his word him who is weary. But if you reject him, the humble servant who willingly suffered for his enemies, it would be better for you if you had never been born. What you need to do right now is change your mind as quickly as you can and receive his love with the empty hands of faith. You cannot defeat him, but you can receive him. He is willing. Are you? Here’s what you do. You humbly admit your sin and receive his mercy with the empty hands of faith. Will you? Right now?
But if his love for you has broken your heart, and you love him now, you too will be spit upon, but he will vindicate you too. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). His heart knows what you’re going through. He knows all about it. He felt it too. He feels it again in you. Slander, ridicule, rejection, cruel jokes, exclusion – Jesus can sympathize with you as no one else can. The pain deep in your heart he feels in his own heart for you, he bears it with you, he shares it with you. Go and tell him. Tell him everything. Pour your heart out. Tell him how much it hurts you. Others might not understand you, but he does. He willingly chose to experience it all, because he loves you. Settle into his love, and live all-out for him no matter what the cost. When every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, you will say, “It doesn’t matter what they did to me, what they said about me. It doesn’t matter any more at all. I have the love of Jesus, and he will love me forever, and willingly.”