Sunday, November 21, 2010

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 50

In the first verse of this chapter the Lord answers the implied accusations of Israel. In response to their claim that the Lord has divorced them and sold them like slaves into bondage, God asks, "Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you?" Of course, the Lord has NOT divorced or sold Israel; rather, Israel has sold itself into bondage: "Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away" (50:1). But Israel's voluntary slavery is "for nought" (52:3) as Isaiah makes clear some verses later. And why is their slavery "for nought"? Because the Lord has already given himself into slavery to pay our debts.

In Deuteronomy the Lord explains the process by which an Israelite may voluntarily give himself into slavery: "And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. [. . .] And if it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee; Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever" (15:12, 16-17). In other words, those who voluntarily gave themselves into slavery had their ears pierced as a token of their love for and service to those whom they serve.

With these verses in mind, Isaiah 50:5-6 takes on new meaning: "The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting." These verses describe the Christ and the way in which he will be (mis)treated as a slave; we know that he is a slave because of the first phrase: "The Lord God hath opened mine ear." The verb "open" here might better be translated "engrave" (as it has been translated in Exodus 28:36, I Kings 7:36, and Zechariah 3:9) or, in our modern idiom, "pierce." Christ has willingly given himself as a slave in our place so that our backs would not have to receive the lashes of the smiter, so that our cheeks would not have to receive the spittle of antagonists. But if we, like Israel, refuse to acknowledge his sacrifice, we will ourselves become the slaves of sin.

In the Doctrine and Covenants Christ warns that "behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken" (19:16-20).

He reminds us, in effect, that he has already sold himself into slavery and that we need not endure spiritual and physical bondage--but those who refuse to acknowledge his sacrifice on our behalf must, like ancient Israel drink "at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling" (Isaiah 51:17).

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