Isaiah 41:14 says, “‘Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” It’s a wonderful promise combined with an unflattering mode of address. Jacob (that is, the people of Israel) is called a worm.
Worms are small, and worms are lowly. That is the most obvious connection drawn in Isaiah 41:14 between Israel and the worm. In and of themselves, the children of Israel had no power or glory. They would be trampled by the other nations as easily as people would trample a worm. But God promises deliverance to His people, protection from their enemies, and triumph in the end. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (verse 10). Israel’s enemies will be vanquished: “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish” (verse 11). Though they are a mere worm, a symbol of insignificance, the Lord God Almighty is on their side.
It’s fascinating to look at the Hebrew word translated “worm” in Isaiah 41:14. In Hebrew it is tola, and it can be properly translated in two ways: either as “worm” or as “scarlet material.” The context determines the meaning. In Lamentations 4:5, a form of the same word refers to fine scarlet clothing.
The “worm” in question is usually identified as the Coccus ilicis, an insect that was used in ancient times to make scarlet dye. When a female “scarlet worm” is ready to have young, it permanently attaches itself to the trunk of a tree and lays its eggs. The insect then dies and in death turns crimson, staining the surrounding wood scarlet as well. The dead bodies of these insects were then collected and the scarlet fluid extracted; the resulting brilliant dye was prized for coloring fabric and thread.
The book of Exodus uses forms of the word tola over twenty times, almost always in the sense of “crimson” or “scarlet.” Scarlet was one of the colors in the curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1); in the veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (verse 31); and in the garments of the priests (Exodus 28:5–6). In each of these cases, scarlet is symbolic of the blood of the sacrifice.
Significantly, the word tola is also found Psalm 22:6, a messianic psalm. Here, the Messiah says, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people,” and goes on to describe His pierced hands and feet (verse 16), the mockery of the onlookers (verse 7), and the gambling over His clothing (verse 18). Like the little “crimson worm,” the Messiah was deemed frail, lowly, and insignificant. “He made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7). Like the “crimson worm,” Jesus hung from a tree, stained the wood crimson, and died giving life to others.