Friday, May 24, 2013

The despondency of Jesus: some thoughts on Isaiah 49:4

When reading Isaiah 49 the other day I was struck afresh by the Suffering Servant's expression of despondency in Isaiah 49:4. The Servant is conscious of being divinely called and commissioned (Isaiah 49:1-2). The Lord assures him, 'You are my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' (Isaiah 49:3). Yet, the Servant feels that his work has been in vain, 

But I said, "I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity"

We take it that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52/53 is the Lord Jesus Christ, who took 'the form of a servant' (Philippians 2:7) and gave his life a 'ransom for many' (Matthew 20:28). Matthew identifies Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant (Matthew 8:16-17 cf. Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 12:15-21 cf. Isaiah 42:1-4). Jesus was conscious that he was the Father's 'beloved Son' in whom he was 'well pleased', (Matthew 3:17 cf. Isaiah 42:1). And of Isaiah 49:4 E. J. Young writes, 'It is, we believe, Jesus Christ in His humiliation of whom the prophet speaks.' (The Book of Isaiah, Volume 3, 1984, Eerdmans, p. 272). 

This is a little explored aspect of our Lord's incarnate life, but Matthew does not hide from us the fact that Jesus sometimes felt despondent in his ministryHe laboured to teach and instruct his followers in the way of the kingdom, yet they were often slow to learn (Matthew 16:5-12). Despite having witnessed his miracles, they failed to believe in his power to heal the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-21). The Lord did not simply shrug off the disciples' lack of understanding and faith. It seems he found it deeply exasperating, 'do you not yet understand?', 'how long shall I be with you?' The fact that one of the Twelve was going to betray him disturbed his spirit, John 13:18-21. 

The despondency of Jesus when faced by the unresponsiveness and failure of his followers is an indication of the reality of his humanity. He emerges from the pages of the Gospels as as Emmanuel, God with us as one of us. In his human nature the Son of God was vulnerable to disappointment and pain. In his compassion he longed to gather the inhabitants of Jerusalem to himself, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39). The heart of God disclosed anthropathically in texts such as Genesis 6:5-6 beat in the breast of the incarnate Son. But didn't Jesus as the Son of God who know all things, even that his own followers would be slow to understand and believe?  Yes, but all that Jesus knew as the omniscient Son of God was not communicated to his human mind. His despondency was the product of disappointed hope in Christ's soul. Not that he was disappointed in God, but in man. He hoped that with all that he had taught and shown his disciples, they would have understood more and believed more, but sadly they did not. 

Anyone who has been involved in serving the Lord in any way will have experienced despondency at some point. Our evangelistic efforts seem to bear little fruit and conversions are few. Valued church members sometimes move on. The revival for which we have long prayed has not yet happened. Above all, perhaps there is the despondency over our own lack of progress in the life of faith. We ask,

And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?

However, Jesus' despondency did not descend into embittered unbelief. I have not quoted the whole of Isaiah 49:4, which continues,

But I said, “I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God.”

Although the situation looked bleak and the Servant felt that his efforts had been wasted, he was assured that  the Lord would justify him and reward his labours. Our Lord was 'tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that he sometimes felt despondent tells us that such emotions are not necessarily sinful, but we should resist the slide into hope-destroying, strength-sapping discouragement. Whatever appearances may suggest the contrary, our labours are not in vain in the Lord. Jesus battled through despondency and accomplished the work his Father gave him to do. He 'endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down on the right hand of the throne of God' (Hebrews 12:2). Alec Motyer comments, 
Resting in faith is the answer to despondency. Thus, Isaiah foresaw a Servant with a real human nature, tested like we are, and proving himself to be the author and perfecter of faith, a real, personal faith that can say my God when nothing any longer seems worthwhile. (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 1993, IVP, p. 387). 
Feeling overwhelmed  by the task that was set before him drove Jesus to cry out to his God and Father in prayer  (Hebrews 5:7). Isaiah records the Lord's answer to his despondent Son, Isaiah 49:8. God upheld his Servant (Isaiah 42:1), even as he bore the sins of many. He raised him from the grave. Exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on High, the Suffering Servant, 'shall see the labour of his soul and be satisfied' (Isaiah 53:11). The Lord's promise to his Chosen One is fulfilled, 'You are my whom I will be glorified' (Isaiah 49:3). The hope of resurrection glory drives despondency from the hearts of all the Lord's servants, 1 Corinthians 15:58. 

1 comment:

Ben said...

Thank you very much for this thought-provoking piece on a profound theme.