New Medieval Bible Meditation: Isaiah 50:4-9a

April 5th, 2014

Palm/Passion Sunday
April 13, 2014

Isaiah 50:4-9a (Revised Common); Isaiah 50:4-7 (Roman Catholic)

Join me as we interpret Isa. 50:4-9 according to the fourfold way often practiced in the middle-ages: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. My hope is that this is especially helpful for generating thoughts and making connections for those of you preparing sermons!

With this passage there is a surprise: the literal sense and the allegorical sense will seem to be reversed. This is because this is one of those Old Testament prophecies which the Church regards as speaking most clearly of Jesus Christ. Hence, I take the Christological sense to be the literal sense, and the application to Isaiah himself to be the allegorical sense.

At the literal level, Isa. 50:4-9 speaks of Jesus Christ, both His person, and the events leading to His crucifixion (and implicitly beyond).

“The Lord has given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.” (v. 4) – Christ is given the tongues of all his disciples and preachers, who proclaim His passion and resurrection in all nations and tongues, as we begin to do with a special intensity on Palm Sunday. This is part of Jesus Christ’s Lordship over all creation, expressed with particular strength in the lives and words of those who devote themselves to Jesus fully. A vivid description of Christ’s Lordship is in Phil. 2:9-11. Jesus Christ sustains the “weary one” with His Word, through His Scriptures in the mouths of His preachers.

Christ says of his Father, “He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple” (v. 4). There are multiple meanings here. Jesus’ humanity, which awakens morning by morning, is utterly dependent on His divinity as the Son of the Father, a divinity which in itself never sleeps. This was the case during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and it is the case today in the sense that, even as Jesus Christ is in heaven bodily and seated at the right hand of the Father, His humanity is utterly united with, in harmony with, and dependent upon, His divinity, and the whole life of the Trinity. When it says, “He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple,” we learn that, just as the Son only does the things He sees His Father doing (Jn. 5:19), so also the Son listens to His Father and says only those things which are according to the Word of the Father – for the Son is the Word of the Father (Jn. 1:1).

Further, as we cross into v. 5, we see that Isaiah speaks of Christ’s prayerful resolution to be obedient, just as we see in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46): “The Lord GOD has opened My ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back” (v. 5).

We see the content of v. 6 in Mt. 26:67, as Christ allows Himself to be humiliated and spat upon.

The substance of vv. 7-9a is seen both in the passion narratives themselves, and in Phil. 2:5-11. In Isa. 50:8’s “Who has a case against Me?” we see prefigured the events of Mt. 26:47-68.

At the allegorical level, Isa. 50:4-9a speaks of the prophet Isaiah’s own discipleship. We notice, then, that the prophets all “prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk. 1:76) through various Christ-patterned forms of discipleship.

At the moral level, this passage indicates the essence of Christian discipleship as obedient listening to the Spirit of the Lord. In v. 4 we see the way disciples must strengthen the weary with the words of the Lord from Scripture. These are a supremely edifying and inexhaustible river of encouragement. We see that this takes place as we listen to the Lord “morning by morning” as he “awakens” our ears. Thus we are taught to begin each day with acts of devout dependence on our heavenly Father.

In doing this, Christian disciples learn to listen like Jesus (v. 4) – we listen to the rustlings of the Spirit (Jn. 3:8) that we may walk by the same Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 25). Whereas Adam and Eve, after the fall, heard God rustling in the Garden and hid (Gen. 3:8), the Christian hears God and listens joyfully, opening both heart and mind (Lk. 24:32, 45) to the service of the One who is simultaneously Way and Truth and Life (Jn. 14:6).

In verses 5-9a, each phrase prepares us to obediently follow Christ, propagating His way and His holy name, despite the persecutions. John Wesley grew worried if he wasn’t experiencing persecutions, for that was an indicator to him that his discipleship might be weak. In anything we experience – up to and including death – “He who vindicates” Jesus Christ “is near.” As Christ’s members, we are part of the “Me” of v. 8, for Jesus Christ will raise his body the Church and give us glorified spiritual bodies at the Last Judgment. We thus have a solid hope to ground our courage, for we abide in the presence of Him “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

This passage also has a meaning particular to preachers and others who share in the ministry of the Word. We preachers must abide in Christ and love our fellows so that we “know how” (v. 4) to be available for Jesus’ sustaining work in others. As Cornel West says, “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people, you can’t save the people if you won’t serve the people.” In this way, with the Scriptures ever in our mouths and hearts, we develop the tongue of a disciple. “The more edifying the speaker, the heavier his Galilean shibboleth weighs on our ears” (Hamann).

At the anagogical level, this passage leads us to worship Jesus Christ (Lk. 24:52). We worship Him for His relationship to the Father, for His life which patterns our own discipleship, for His passion by which He destroys all the works of the devil and overcomes our sin, and for His resurrection and ascension by which we will be raised with Him to heavenly glory. These are each visible both in Isa. 50:4-9 and in Phil. 2:5-11.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3).

+++ New Medieval Bible Meditations is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, ideally one shared by both Roman Catholic and Protestant (both Revised Common and Episcopalian) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, because it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not usually do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passages. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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