The Suffering Servant and Recovery from Depression

In the last post, I laid out the background that led to Isaiah chapters 40-55, often referred to as Second Isaiah. This is its own section that addresses the Jews living in Exile in Babylon. They have experienced the harshness of God’s judgment and humiliation and suffering at the hands of the Babylonians. But the message of Second Isaiah is one of hope. He says their period of judgment is over, and they will soon be allowed to return to their home and rebuild Jerusalem.

You might ask why I believe this theory of Second Isaiah when it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. The main reason is the difference in tone between First and Second Isaiah. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is clearly addressed to people pre-judgment, while Second Isaiah only makes sense post-judgment, where sweeping announcements of forgiveness and restoration can be spoken in ways not possible for First Isaiah.

One of the most striking features of Second Isaiah is the figure of the Suffering Servant, a mysterious figure whose suffering brings healing for the nations. Bernhard Duhm is credited with first identifying the songs of the Suffering Servant in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. He recognized the four songs in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12. In some commentaries, the songs might be longer. But this designation will work for our purposes.

The Suffering Servant in My Principles of Recovery

My first principle for recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” I connected that with Isaiah 53:3-6. My second principle for recovery is “God will not kick you when you are down.” I connected that with Isaiah 42:2-3. So now I’m going to show you how those passages helped me formulate those first two principles for recovery. I’m going to go backwards in terms of the principles and start with the song of Isaiah 42.

The Second Principle: God Will Not Kick You When You Are Down

You might be wondering what does the Jews’ experience of Exile and Return have to do with your experience of depression.

A dark night of the soul happens at the intersection of faith and depression. Usually, something has happened to you that you think shouldn’t have happened, and you wonder why God would treat you this way. Sometimes, it’s not something that happened to you, but rather feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of injustice in the world and wondering why God would allow it to continue for as long as it has. You want to do something about it, but you feel helpless. You pray, but you don’t see it making any difference. Maybe you reach a point where you’re so depressed, you can’t pray at all. Maybe you are so angry you are no longer on speaking terms with God. Or maybe you have become so disoriented you no longer believe in God at all.

The Jews in Exile experienced all these things: disorientation, humiliation, confusion, anger, unbelief, you name it. Even if they still believed in God, they could not trust God anymore. God had let them down when they needed God most. In some of the Psalms, we see they were not shy at all about telling God exactly how they felt (Psa 137).

God could have responded with anger in kind. God could have reminded them how they let God down by failing to be the example of justice and righteousness God had called them to be. Instead, God’s answer to them begins with comfort (Isa 40:1-2). That sets the tone for all of Second Isaiah. Not that there are no reprimands from God, but they are much gentler than First Isaiah and balanced with the promise that they would return home.

Is It about Me?

I believe before we make any personal application of scripture, it’s important to understand the context where it was given initially. I imagined the Jews in Exile when they heard the words of Second Isaiah, learning to hope where hope before seemed impossible, learning to trust God again, basically rebuilding their faith from scratch, and finding the courage to respond when God reached out to them.

As I came out of one of my dark nights of the soul, these words leapt off the page at me.

… a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 

(Isa 42:3 NRS)

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the circumstances when I felt the full weight of those words. As I said, I had just come out of a dark night of the soul. During the dark night, I was filled with guilt over “disobeying” the Holy Spirit and “not believing” God’s word.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

(Rom 8:14 NRS)

For almost any Christian, that is great news. If you see yourself as a child of God, you want to be led by the Spirit of God. Through some bad teaching, I began to hear a voice I thought was the Spirit of God. The catch is, if you are being led by the Spirit of God, you must obey. And your obedience must be unhesitating and without doubt and fear. Whatever the Spirit commands, you must obey. If you hesitate, that is the same as disobedience. Some hesitation and doubt is okay in the beginning, as long as you obey. But over time, you should come to a place where you obey without hesitation and without doubt or fear.

For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. 

(1Sa 15:23 NRS)

Do not rebel against the Holy Spirit. I would hear the voice saying, “Witness to this person, witness to that person. Lay your hands on that sick person. Give money to this ministry. Give money to person.” And I would hear stories from people who said they heard the same voice, and they weren’t sure at first if they should do it, but they obeyed. They prayed and laid hands on the sick person, and they were instantly (or after a few tries) healed. They gave money to whom the Spirit told them, and they received more money just a few days later. They witnessed to the person, and the person gave their lives to Christ. In their stories, success and reward always followed obedience and faith. You hear those stories, and eventually you start asking yourself, “Why am I not getting the same results?”

When I looked for answers, one of my TV mentors said, “Either you or the Bible is wrong. Which is it?”

Well, if it’s between me and the Bible, it has to be me. I still have too much doubt. Doubt creates fear. Fear creates hesitation. And after you’ve followed for some time, hesitation is the same as disobedience. You’ve been a believer for six years or however long. You should know by now God’s word is the truth no matter what the circumstances say. If the voice you hear agrees with God’s word, hear and obey.

How do I know I’m supposed to witness to everyone the Spirit tells me to?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

(Mat 28:19-20a NRS)

And again,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

(Act 1:8 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to pray for and lay hands on every sick person the Spirit tells me to?

And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

(Mar 16:17-18 NRS)

And again,

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

(Mat 10:1 NRS)

How do I know I’m supposed to obey the voice of the Spirit in giving money to this person or that ministry?

… give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

(Luk 6:38 NRS)

and again,

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

(2Co 9:6 NRS)

So there you have it. The voice of the Spirit I’m hearing and the Word of God are in agreement. Now, I understand they were taking all these verses out of context. But at the time I didn’t know that. And every time I failed or hesitated to obey, I would be wracked with guilt afterwards. I would pray for forgiveness and repent and promise never to do it again, but of course I did it again. And each time, the guilt doubled, because I promised to obey but did not. I would beat myself up, and the voice of the Spirit would pile on.

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? (Luk 6:46)

I can’t help it. I’m afraid, and I don’t know how to stop being afraid.

Didn’t I tell you in my Word I have not given you a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Tim 1:7)

Yes.

So why are you afraid?

It might not work.

What do you mean it might not work?

I might not have enough faith for it to work.

Why wouldn’t you have enough faith? I have promised you everything in my Word. I have given you my Spirit, the same spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Why do you still not believe me?

I don’t know.

Let’s be honest. You’re afraid of looking foolish, aren’t you?

No! Well, maybe.

So you are disobeying because you love the praise of men more than the praise of God (Joh 12:43).

NO! That’s not it! I love you, Lord!

But you love the praise of men more. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3:16)

No, Lord! Please! Anything but that! Lord? Lord? Are you there?

{Silence}.


No matter how low I felt, the voice of God could always make me feel lower. And no matter how many times I fell down, the voice of God would kick me. Except … it wasn’t the voice of God.

What Was Really Happening?

There are two explanations I think are most likely: 1) The voice came from internalizing bad teachings; or 2) the voice was the product of a clinically depressed brain. I believe it was a combination of the two. A chemically imbalanced brain will speak to you, and it will sound like the truth. Add to that a belief that it is the voice of God, and you are sure to get kicked when you are down. You are sure to be led astray.

Why did I believe it was the voice of God? Because, as I said, it spoke from the Bible. It has to be true, because the Bible is the Word of God, right? On the factcheck.org scale, I would categorize that statement under “True, but misleading.” This is going to be a controversial statement, but it needs to be said. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied. Let that sink in. The Bible is the word of God, if and only if it is rightly interpreted and rightly applied.

There are many different interpretations, many different rules people have formed for how to apply the Bible. How do we know which is right? I have spent the last forty years trying to answer that question. I can’t give you everything that came of that in one blog post, but I can tell you this. The Bible has to be read in context. That is why, in the last post, I gave you a basic historical background of events leading up to Second Isaiah, and the background of Exile and Return in which Second Isaiah was written. That is called context.

When I made the decision to go to seminary, people in the church I was in at the time said, “They’ll teach you not to believe the Bible.” Again, true, but misleading. What they did was teach me how to read the Bible in context. As a result, I started to believe the Bible again but not in the way they taught it.

The hallmark of bad teaching is they quote the Bible, but they never teach the context in which it was written. We have to understand what Second Isaiah would have meant to the Jews in Exile, because that was who it was written for originally. Then, maybe we can glean some message for us today. The same goes for all of the Bible.

The Suffering Servant and the Voice in My Head

In addition to the bad teachings and the clinically depressed brain, I had even more dysfunction. I listened to that voice in part because I thought I deserved it. I deserved to be kicked when I was down, because I repeatedly disobeyed the voice of the Holy Spirit.

So going back to that voice that said Christ was going to spit me out of his mouth, at the same time, I heard another voice underneath my guilt and depression, a still, small voice that did not come from the deepest depths of my soul. That voice said, “I love you.” Not “I love you, but you need to start obeying me.” Not “I love you, but you need to change.” No “but”s at all. Just “I love you.” Period.

That voice comforted me at first, but then I rejected it. I chose the voice I thought I deserved over the voice God graciously offered. But then I lost faith in the voice kicking me when I was down. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I rejected that one. What was left of the voice of God? I read again this suffering servant song, and when I came to the line that said, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” then I understood. Even though Second Isaiah wasn’t speaking to me directly, I am the bruised reed he will not break. I am the dimly burning wick he will not quench. God will not kick me when I’m down. That’s how I know that other voice is a false God.

And with that old voice bound, gagged, and kicked out of my head, I listened, and again I heard the voice of the Spirit saying, “I love you.” A voice as gentle and mild as the suffering servant, not crying aloud and making itself heard in the street, so soft you can only hear it if you quiet the false gods in your head and listen for it. “I love you,” with no qualifiers, as if I had already received from the LORD’s hand double for all my sins. That was the voice of the Holy Spirit. That was the voice I finally learned to listen to.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

(Rom 8:1-2 NRS)

What about You?

Have you ever heard a voice you thought was God? What was it like? Did it kick you when you were down? Hopefully, I have convinced you that was not God. If you have clinical depression, you might be more prone to hearing that voice (and thinking you deserve it) than most people. I overcame it, and so can you. So I want to invite you to take this little spiritual exercise.

Go into a quiet room with a notebook and pen. Not a phone or laptop, nothing electronic. Sit quietly and listen. Try to quiet your mind and listen from deep within. Just give it a few minutes, as long as you feel comfortable. Write down whatever you hear.

Do you think it is the voice of God? Why or why not? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

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Translation Notes

קָנֶ֤ה רָצוּץ֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁבּ֔וֹר וּפִשְׁתָּ֥ה כֵהָ֖ה לֹ֣א יְכַבֶּ֑נָּה (Isa 42:3 WTT)

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (Isa 42:3 NRS)

Halladay’s lexicon would translate qaneh ratzutz as “a crushed reed,” as in 2 Ki 18:23. However, most translations render it “a bruised reed,” probably because of the phrase lo’ yishbor, “he will not break.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “he will not break a crushed reed.” How can you break something that’s already crushed?

Uphishtah kehah, Halladay’s lexicon says phishtah is a wick of flax, but it calls phishtah kehah is a dimly glowing wick. Lo’ yichbennah, “he will not extinguish.”

These are two beautiful metaphors for gentleness toward vulnerability. The reed is already bruised. Just a little pressure will make it break. But the servant of God will not break it. A dimly glowing wick is easily extinguished, but he will not quench it. In modern vernacular, we might say, he will not kick you when you’re down.

References

Duhm, Bernhard. Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892). Cited in Wikipedia, “Servant Songs.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_songs