Isaiah 50:4-9a (NRSVCE)
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
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.
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.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
This almost reads as if Isaiah is trying to convince himself, as much as he is trying to teach the audience. Not only is he trying to make sense of the communal pains of a life lived in exile, the pains of a nation without a land to call home, but he is trying to make sense of the persecution and pain he has personally suffered as a prophet in a foreign land. He has been given the great gift of good teaching, in order to fulfill what God has called him to do. But because of this he has been mocked, spit on, and beaten. He has faced constant hardships because of his calling. But he tells us that he endures all of that, without even providing resistance (“I did not hide my face”), because he has faith that what he is doing is righteous and just. He has faith that whatever happens to him is God’s will. No matter how much people may persecute and judge him, the true Judge is the only one who matters. “It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”
It takes a tremendous amount of resolve and faith to do what Isaiah did, and I wonder how many of us would be able to do the same. Could we endure constant mockery, constant attack, constant fearing for who might come after us next, all because of who we are? What must it be like to walk down the street and be accosted by everyone you see, for no reason other than it is you? I have had the luxury of growing up a white male middle class American in the late 20th century, so I have never had to endure persecution of any kind. I don’t know how I would deal with that even on a small scale, let alone a constant barrage. I would love to say my faith is strong enough to cling to God through something like that, but I fear that it is not. And I think Isaiah feared that as well. I think Isaiah is worried his resolve is beginning to fail due to the endless assault. He knows why he must endure, but he is praying for the strength to be able to do so. He is clinging to God with everything he has left, and asking God to carry him through the trouble.
I can’t help but think of the people today who still deal with that kind of persecution. I pray that they are graced with the strength of faith and resolve to endure, like Isaiah and the people in exile were. I pray that they are able to cling to God through those times, and find strength and purpose in Him. I don’t know what it’s like to be persecuted, and I pray that one day, every person will be able to join me in that ignorance.