“Don’t call people names!” How many times did you hear some variation of that reprimand when you were growing up? Almost from the time we were able to form words we were warned to address one another kindly. Furthermore, the Scripture is replete with admonitions about misusing the tongue, and we are warned against many sins of the tongue including gossip, tale-bearing, and backbiting. By contrast, we have frequently heard or remarked ourselves on the fact that the Lord Jesus never sinned in thought, deed, or word. So we may find ourselves initially taken aback when we read these words from God recorded by the prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel” (41:14). Did God just disparage “Jacob”; did He sin with His lips? The short answer is “no,” but allow a little further elaboration.
A fitting figure. The use of this metaphor conjures at least two ideas. First of all, a worm (perhaps a maggot or a grub) is a defenseless creature. Having no teeth, claws, stinger, or any other weapon, having no shell or other protective covering, having no ability to flee quickly and escape or hide, it is easy prey for birds or other predators. Virtually helpless, it is a feast awaiting consumption by any creature that cares to eat it. A worm is the epitome of powerlessness. Second, a worm pictures something that revolts or repels. The appearance of a grub is unpleasant, and we naturally shrink from the sight of maggots swarming a carcass.
Both ideas reflect the state of God’s people. How many times have they been helpless before the onslaught of an enemy? Assyria, Babylon, and Rome to name three. Invariably outnumbered and under-armed, they always appear ripe for the taking. And what people or nation has been more universally despised than they? Whether by Egypt, the Philistines, Nazi Germany, and today, by not only the Islamic nations but virtually the entire world, Israel is viewed as a worm evoking revulsion.
A tender term. Rather than being taken aback that God should call His chosen nation a worm, we should note the context in which the term occurs. The larger context of the chapter is overwhelmingly solicitous toward Israel. We need quote only the immediately surrounding words to get a proper appreciation for the tenderness with which God is addressing His people: “Those who war with you will be as nothing and non-existent. For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you. Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (41:12b-14). It is impossible to read the entire passage without a deep sense of the great love and devotion God has for this helpless, despised worm. In using that term, He is acknowledging both how they are universally despised and how helpless they are against such vast hatred. He assures them thus: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (v. 10).
A linguistic link. But perhaps the ultimate blessing to be noted in the use of this pejorative may be found in the fact that in Psalm 22 it is used in foretelling the suffering of Christ. Prophetically describing the events of the crucifixion, David expresses the state of the dying Savior as in the first person: “But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. All who see me sneer at me; they separate the lip, they wag the head, saying, ‘Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, because He delights in Him” (vv. 6-8). But, of course, God “was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isa. 53:10). He crushed Him as completely as a worm might be crushed—thoroughly and without mercy. That One, the Perfect Son of God, was “despised and forsaken of men” (v. 3) and worse yet “smitten of God, and afflicted” (v. 4) all so that He might redeem and restore Israel to Himself. And more to the point from our perspective, Christ became crushed as a worm so that we—helpless, hopeless, despised sinners—might through faith “become the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor. 5:21). Oh, holy, blessed word, breathed with all reverence: Worm.
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