Suppose you are walking down a city street one day when a man thrusts a gun in your face and steals your wallet. What a traumatic experience. You tell your friends and they are all properly sympathetic. “I was scared out of my wits,” you say.
Then, two months later, a new coworker has the exact same thing happen to him. When he tells you about it in the break room, he says, “I was scared out of my wits.”
“I know just what you mean,” you say, “that’s what I said when it happened to me two months ago.”
Then he looks at you and says, “Oh, you mean two months ago you had a vision of what was going to happen to me? Eerie.”
“What are you talking about?” you protest. “I was robbed also. It was just like you described.”
“That’s impossible,” he says. “You must have some kind of sixth sense and you just saw something in the future. It happens to people.”
“Are you crazy?” you protest. “Do you think you’re the only person on the planet to ever get robbed? And why would I have a vision about you? I didn’t even know you two months ago!”
He just shrugs and says, “That’s the only possible explanation.”
This is how ridiculous we often sound when we go through the Old Testament trying to turn every passage into a Messianic prophecy. There’s a big difference between God saying “One day I’ll send a Savior,” and someone like Isaiah talking about the rotten treatment he receives as a prophet of God. Real prophets of God always get treated lousy in this world because their messages are so offensive. It’s only the phony prophets that everyone loves, because they are speaking sweet messages from Satan. By the time God raises up prophets to declare His words in public, He’s pretty ticked, and His manner is far from polite. Phony prophets, on the other hand, go around petting people’s egos and assuring them that God is delighted with their rebellion. Phony prophets end up getting rich and famous, while real prophets get harassed and assaulted. Isaiah was describing his own personal experience as a prophet when he said these famous words:
“The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of His servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the Name of the Lord and rely on their God.” (Isa. 50:4-10)
When we hear this description of Isaiah being physically abused, we are reminded of the pre-crucifixion beating that Jesus received. He also had His beard yanked on, and He was mocked and spit on. But does this mean that no one else could ever have had the same experiences on this earth? Was Jesus the first person in the world to ever be beaten? Not hardly. People were finding sick ways to torture each other long before Jesus ever showed up. They naturally used the tools at hand. Beards were all the rage on Jewish men, both in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time. If you want to be mean to a man with a beard, trying to tear it off his face is one obvious option. The people who tortured Jesus were acting like creeps, but so were the people who assaulted Isaiah. Is the prophet’s misery somehow less important because he wasn’t the Son of God? Not hardly.
When we make everything about Jesus, we miss many important lessons. Jesus was God in the flesh. He was able to do things that our tiny minds can’t fathom. He had supernatural powers. He could heal people. He could read people’s minds. He could persevere under incredible strain. It’s hard for us to identify with Jesus. We can’t walk on water. We can’t sleep through a raging storm at sea and then still the waves with one word. We can’t feed 5,000 people with one boy’s lunch. But Isaiah was a human being. He didn’t have any special powers. He was every bit as frail and limited as we are, and yet he somehow persevered in the face of intense opposition.
When we read the passage above, we should be thinking, “Wow, listen to Isaiah’s incredible faith and confidence, even in the midst of such brutal persecution. If God could help a man like him persevere, He can help me stay faithful as well.” Isaiah gives us a real life example of how God’s empowerment can transform a frail human being into a tower of strength. Because Isaiah was just a human, and not God walking among us, his example is very inspiring to us. We feel like we have a chance of being like Isaiah if God is willing to empower us. But we all know there are limits to how much we can be like Jesus.
We will never be God’s equal. We will never be given carte blanche to go around the earth doing whatever we want with His power. As humans, we are God’s eternal servants. We are totally dependent on His strength. Jesus was not dependent on His Father for anything. Jesus and His Father are equals. Jesus submitted to His Father’s wishes on earth because that was the plan They had personally decided on, but Jesus is in no way less than His Father. Because He is equal to His Father in power and Divinity, Jesus’ submission had a different flavor to it than ours does. Jesus chose to submit to His Father’s agenda as an act of love. We are required to submit to all three of our Creators because They command us to do so. We aren’t doing Them some amazing favor by obeying Them. On the contrary, if we refuse to meet Their minimum requirements on earth—which means reverentially submitting to Jesus as our Lord and Savior—They will throw us into Hell. So while we applaud and admire Jesus for His incredible devotion to His Father, we also know that such devotion is completely out of reach for us. We can’t do anything without God’s empowerment. We can’t even breathe unless He makes our lungs work and provides the right elements in the air around us. We can’t take credit for our faith, our physical perseverance, our good attitudes, or anything else. Without the mighty Holy Spirit infusing His Divine empowerment into our bodies and souls, we would all be sniveling cowards, who run at the first sign of trouble, and deny God a thousand times rather than suffer one teensy bit of pain for His sake.
God has created human beings with a strong aversion to pain and a very powerful instinct for self-preservation. Then He stuck us in bodies that crave evil, and made us so prideful that we spend our entire lives trying to be the center of everyone’s universe. It is from this incredible disadvantage that He calls us to be fully devoted to Him. Yeah, right. You might as well tell a flower to perform brain surgery. We can’t do ANYTHING on our own. Without God, we wouldn’t even exist. So when He calls us to be fully devoted to Him, all we can do is sigh wistfully and say, “Wow, Lord, I only wish I could be, but it’s just not in me. Unless You completely take me over, I’ll never be able to treat You right on my own.” This is all we can do, and yet this is all that God asks of us. He wants us to fully recognize our total dependence on Him. This is not something Jesus ever did because He depends on no one. But Isaiah was just like us. He was a fallen, selfish human being who was called to serve God in an inhuman way. In Isaiah 50, well into the prophet’s career, we hear him describing his personal perspective as a prophet.
“He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.”
Isaiah wakes up every morning and receives new instructions from God. He is conscious of God’s Presence with him every day. He hears the Holy Spirit constantly educating him.
“I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced.”
How does Isaiah deal with the abuse? Because God helps him. God keeps him strong, and Isaiah gives Him all the glory for it.
“Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!”
Wow, can you hear the confidence in this man’s voice? He has learned how to put all of his trust in God alone, and as a result he’s afraid of no one. When God brings suffering his way, he patiently endures it. His body hurts, but his spirit is unbroken. It sounds pretty humiliating to get publicly beaten, yet Isaiah rejects all shame. He says he will not be disgraced. Hm. We’d feel pretty embarrassed if someone yanked our hair out. We’d look pretty ugly afterwards, too, with blood and bruises all over us. Yet Isaiah is so confident that he’s even egging his enemies on—daring them to challenge him. He speaks like a victorious man while he describes himself being treated like a loser. How is this possible? Because Isaiah is empowered by God. The Holy Spirit has infused this frail mortal with such faith and confidence in his Maker that Isaiah was able to walk around totally naked in public for three years, and still command an audience with kings (Isa. 20:3). This man is doing and saying things that completely blow our minds. “How?” is the question we should be asking over and over again as we study this passage. Isaiah tells us how:
“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of His servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the Name of the Lord and rely on their God.”
Isaiah is God’s servant. Through his mouth God has spoken many words to His people, urging them to put their trust in Him alone. Isaiah challenges the people around him: “Hey, are you listening to what God is saying through me? Are you obeying His commands?”
Today, God continues to give us the same challenge as He gave the ancient Jews through prophets like Isaiah. Today He is telling us, “Don’t focus on your enemies or what terrible things might happen in the future. Just focus on Me. Don’t trust in your own strength or in the strength of others. Instead, put all of your trust in Me.” The thrilling truth is that we, too, could talk like Isaiah one day, if we surrender all that we are to God. Isaiah wasn’t born with super powers. He was a sinful human, just like us. His life on earth was temporary, yet even now he continues to bring great glory and honor to God as we read his inspiring testimony. This is why it is so important to read passages like Isaiah 50 in their proper context, instead of just blowing through them thinking, “Oh, yeah, another Messianic prophecy.” No Messiah is mentioned in this chapter. It starts off with God speaking to Israel, and then Isaiah, the man, inserts a personal side note about his experience as a prophet. If you use one of the few translations that still capitalizes pronouns for God, you might see this passage capitalized, reflecting the common view that the whole thing is just a foreshadow of Jesus, when it so obviously isn’t. Unfortunately, our translators get caught up in the trends within the Church instead of relying on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Don’t let foolish men block you from receiving important insights that God wants to teach you. Be open to the “experts” being wrong. Think for yourself. Always pray as you read, and you’ll find the Holy Spirit teaching you all kinds of fascinating insights that you’ll never hear in church.