“He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; he hid not his face from shame and spitting.” Isaiah 50: 6
Familiar words from Handel’s Messiah – for many of us – but what is involved in these words of humiliation?
Handel links these words with the famous words of Isaiah 53, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” in the second item of part two of the Messiah. Part one deals with the coming of the Messiah, part two with the passion and part three with the lasting significance and glory of the Messiah. The first item of part two of the Messiah quotes John the Baptist’s words, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). Handel saw Isaiah’s words as a clear prophecy of Jesus’ sufferings on our behalf.
Verse 5 of Isaiah 50 speaks of the Suffering Servant’s obedience. Verse 6 gives three details of his humiliation. Firstly, he willingly offers his back to those who would strike and lash and whip him. Secondly, he “turns the other cheek” to those who pull his hair or his beard. 900 years of English-Irish animosity date back to King John pulling the beards of Irish nobles. Thirdly he offers his face to the disgrace and shame of spitting. To spit at someone is humiliating. Today in football it is regarded as seriously as deliberately kicking another player. Jesus endured all these humiliations. Matthew and Mark both record two cases of people spitting at Jesus. In front of the high priest, “some began to spit on him and to cover his face and strike him” (Mark 14.65). Then the Roman soldiers “were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him” (Mark 15.19). In these days when people stand up for their rights, are we willing to suffer these humiliations for Jesus’ sake – if that is needed?
Modern scholars recognise four Servant Songs in Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 53. Our verse is in the middle of the third Song in verses 4-9 of Isaiah 50, which is probably the least well-known of the four Songs. It is remarkable that Handel linked two of these Songs before scholars had identified them. Perhaps this is another indication of the inspiration of the Messiah.
How does Jesus the Messiah inspire you? Are you willing to suffer the humiliations that Jesus suffered – if that is necessary? We are fortunate in our land, but many of our brothers and sisters around the world suffer today just as Jesus did.
Lord God, please teach us to follow where you lead, even into suffering or danger. Amen.