The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Who is this prophet talking about?
An issue coming out of Isaiah’s prophecy centres on this passage:
‘Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so his visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men; so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.
Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him; He was despised, and we did not esteem him.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare his generation? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people he was stricken. And they made his grave with the wicked, but with the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; He has put him to grief. When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the labour of his soul, and be satisfied. By his knowledge my righteous servant shall justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’ Isaiah 52.13-53.12.
Who is the prophet talking about?
According to Rashi, writing in about 1050, the answer is clear. The prophet is talking about Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Today the almost universal view taken by Rabbis is that this is the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53.
However according to Arnold Fruchtenbaum: ‘Every rabbi prior to Rashi, without exception, viewed this passage as describing Messiah. When Rashi first proposed that this passage spoke of the nation of Israel, he sparked a fierce debate with his contemporaries. The most famous of these was Rambam, better known as Maimonides. Rambam stated very clearly that Rashi is completely wrong and going against the traditional Jewish viewpoint.’ (1)
The Targum is an ancient paraphrase of the Bible by Jonathan ben Uzziel from the first century. His Targums were often quoted by early Rabbis and he was considered an authority on the Jewish view of the Bible. His Targum of Isaiah 52.13 clearly connects this passage to the Messiah, saying, ‘Behold my Servant Messiah shall prosper …’ (2)
A prayer written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in around the 7th century reads: ‘Messiah our righteousness is departed from us; horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sin upon his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.’ (3) This prayer quotes from Isaiah 53 and connects this passage to Messiah who ‘bears our sin’ and who has ‘departed from us’ which has become a matter of horror because now ‘we have none to justify us’. Yinnon is a name for Messiah so the prayer even speaks of Messiah coming a second time to ‘assemble us’.
(Ed. note: Please notice that the above-mentioned prayer- seen in the photo below – comes immediately after the ‘Shema’, which declares the composite Unity of God. This portion also follows directly on from the declaration, in this Musaph service, of God’s holiness, as found in Isaiah 6: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, God of Hosts’. God’s holiness is declared 3 times and God is the sum of His parts. His title, ‘Saviour’, below, is, in Hebrew: Yeshua.)
Rabbi Moshe Cohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova in Spain at about 1350 wrote about Isaiah 53 in a refutation of Rashi’s view: ‘I shall be free from the forced and far fetched interpretations of which others have been guilty. This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah who is to come and deliver Israel.’ (4)
Rabbi Alshech wrote in about 1550 about Isaiah 53: ‘Our Rabbis with one voice accept and confirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.’ (5)
Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas wrote in about 1575 that not only is Isaiah 53 about the Messiah, but those who refuse to believe this must suffer for their sins themselves: ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the meaning of which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.’ (6)
All these Rabbis are saying that Isaiah 53 is about Messiah suffering for sin not about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles.
So is Rashi right when he says Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about Israel suffering for the Gentiles? If so, are those Rabbis who claim that this is about the sufferings of the Messiah wrong? If we examine the text, Rashi’s interpretation raises some questions:
It means that Isaiah is a Gentile. Verses 5 and 6 have to mean the following: ‘He (Israel) was wounded for our transgressions.’ ‘All we (Gentiles) like sheep have gone astray … and the Lord has laid on him (Israel) the iniquity of us all.’ In the passage the pronouns we, us, our must refer to Isaiah and the people he identifies with while the pronouns he, him, his refer to the ‘Servant.’ In this case the people Isaiah identifies with are Gentiles and the people identified with the Servant are Israel.
So was Isaiah 53 written by a Gentile?
It also means that Israel bears the sins of the Gentiles in some kind of atoning way. So what did Isaiah mean in the first chapter of his prophecy when he spoke in the strongest language imaginable about Israel’s sins and called his own people to repentance? ‘Alas sinful nation. A people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel.’ Isaiah 1.4. How can someone who is sinful bear the sins of others?
In reality Israel suffers because of the sins of the Gentiles not on behalf of the Gentiles. Gentiles who reject the true understanding of God and the Messiah have often persecuted the Jewish people. But this does no good to the Gentiles responsible and puts them under God’s curse according to Genesis 12.3 ‘I will bless them that bless you and curse him that curses you’. There is no way that anti-Semitism brings any good on those responsible, but the Servant of Isaiah 53 offers justification and healing even to those responsible for his suffering, provided they turn to him that he may bear their iniquities (verse 11).
Rashi’s interpretation implies that Jewish people are sin bearers for the Gentiles. That lines up in a way with the stereotype which Gentile anti-Semites have put on the Jewish people making them the scapegoats who are responsible for all that is wrong in their own society. Another point on this issue is that Jewish people have never willingly suffered at the hands of Gentiles, whereas the Servant of Isaiah 53 offers himself of his own will as a sacrifice.
It means that Israel / the Jewish people will cease to live. The Servant of Isaiah 53 is literally put to death. ‘He was cut off from the land of the living’ (v 8). ‘He poured out His soul unto death’ (v 12). Individual Jewish people have been put to death. In the Holocaust a demon inspired leader sought to destroy the whole Jewish people. But despite the evil intentions of anti-Semites – ‘Am Israel Chai’ – The people of Israel live. This fulfils the prophecy of Jeremiah 31.35-37 which says that as long as the sun, moon and stars endure so long will Israel be a nation before the Lord. The Servant of Isaiah 53 dies and is resurrected to ‘see the travail of His soul’. The Jewish people have never ceased to exist and therefore do not need to be resurrected as a whole people.
So what if Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah?
So far we have treated this as a debate within Judaism about different rabbinic interpretations, which may be interesting, but not in itself earth shattering. But if Rashi is wrong and the prophecy is not about Israel suffering for the nations and it is about the Messiah, there remains an interpretation which does raise a very big problem for Judaism.
The prayer of Rabbi Kalir quoted above speaks of Messiah as one who has departed from us and who bears our sins and who will bring us healing. Rabbi Eliyah de Vidas tells us that whoever does not believe that Messiah suffers for our iniquities, ‘must endure and suffer for them himself.’
If the Messiah has ‘departed from us’ does that mean that he has already appeared? Is there a figure in history who has already borne the sins of others? If we do not believe in him do we have to endure and suffer for our sins ourselves?
The New Testament claims that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross are the fulfilment of Isaiah 53. Does this interpretation make sense of the text? We invite you to study this text and look up the references given in the New Testament.
These verses introduce the Servant who is described in detail in the verses that follow. The servant will be exalted very high. Prior to his exaltation he was to be humiliated and physically abused to the point where he became almost unrecognisable. As a result he would ‘sprinkle many nations’ and kings would be silent before him.
The crucifixion account is brief and graphic:
‘So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged him, to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison. And they clothed him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they struck him on the head with a reed and spat on him; and bowing the knee, they worshipped him. And when they had mocked him, they took the purple off him, put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him. Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear his cross. And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull.
Then they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but he did not take it. And when they crucified him, they divided his garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take. Now it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the inscription of his accusation was written above: THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ Mark 15.15-25.
Anyone going through this level of physical abuse and humiliation would become almost unrecognisable as Isaiah prophesied. Yet despite this humiliation he was to be raised to life again and ascend to the highest place, just as Isaiah said he would be. Peter explains this in his speech on the Day of Pentecost:
‘“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know. Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it. For David says concerning him: ‘I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in Hades (Sheol), nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of joy in your presence.’ (Psalm 19.8-11)
“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, he would raise up the Messiah to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah, that his soul was not left in Sheol, nor did his flesh see corruption.”
“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’ (Psalm 110.1)
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Acts 2.22-36.
Isaiah 52.15 also speaks about the Servant ‘sprinkling’ many nations. This is the teaching of the New Testament that the blood of Jesus replaces the blood of the animal sacrifices as the means whereby God can forgive our sins:
‘But Messiah came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood he entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason he is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.’ Hebrews 9.11-15.
‘This is the message which we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus the Messiah, his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ 1 John 1.5-7.
Isaiah 53.1-3. These verses speak of the rejection which would accompany the ministry of this Servant. His message would not be believed. His origin and appearance would not meet the expectations of the people and therefore they would reject him. This rejection would cause him grief.
The New Testament records the rejection of Jesus throughout the time of his public ministry, for precisely these reasons. He was rejected by those who thought he was born in Nazareth not in Bethlehem the place prophesied for the coming Messiah (Micah 5.1, John 1.46, John 7.40-44, John 9.29, John 12.37-41). He was rejected by his own family and the people he had grown up with who said of him ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ (See Matthew 13.55, Luke 4.16-30). He was rejected by the religious leaders who objected to the miracles he did on the Sabbath (John 9.16), his association with people they considered to be sinners (Matthew 9.11, Luke 15), and above all because of his claim to be equal with God (Matthew 26.65, Mark 2.7, John 8.58, John 10.30). He was even rejected at his hour of need by the disciples who could not stay awake to pray with him at the time of his arrest (Matthew 26.36-46), who ran away and left him and denied even knowing him (Mark 14.27-72). On the cross he was even rejected by the Father as the sins of the world were placed upon him. This was why he quoted the words of the Messianic Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27.46).
In all of this Jesus experienced grief just as Isaiah said the Servant would: ‘And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and he began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is extremely sorrowful even unto death.”’ Matthew 26.37-8.
Isaiah 53.4-6. These verses take the sufferings of the Servant further and describe the purpose of his suffering. His death would be misinterpreted by those who said he was stricken by God and afflicted (in other words he was suffering for his own sins). In fact the whole meaning of his sufferings was to atone for the sins of others. Because he experienced the worst sorrows life can throw at any one, he can sympathise and carry the griefs of those who are going through suffering now. The Lord has placed on him the iniquity of us all so that we can be forgiven.
Jesus was accused of blasphemy and treason against Rome and executed as a common criminal. The Roman governor responsible had the mocking sign, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ placed above the cross which ironically contained the truth about who Jesus was. However the intention was to mock both Jesus and the Jewish people whom he despised. The religious leaders also mocked him and implied that it was his own fault for making false claims to be the Messiah and the King of Israel that he had been executed (Mark 14-15). Even today scoffers say ‘Jesus suffered for his own sins not mine.’
Yet every person who turns to Jesus in sincerity discovers that he is able to forgive their sins and give them eternal life. The reason for the death of Jesus is made plain in the New Testament:
‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’ Luke 19.10.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ John 3.16.
‘Messiah also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness, by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’ 1 Peter 3.21-25.
Isaiah 53.7-9. These verses tell us about the sufferings of the Messiah from a human point of view. He would be brought to trial and willingly accept the death sentence handed down to him, despite its injustice. He would be literally put to death and once again it is stated that his death would be for the sins of ‘my people’. Although he would be expected to be put in a grave with the wicked there would be some intervention of ‘the rich’ at the point of his death.
Jesus’ trials before Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were both unfair and a denial of both Jewish and Roman law. ‘Now the chief priests, the elders and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but found none.’ Matthew 26.59. Jesus did not try to defend himself, knowing that it was necessary for him to go to the cross in order to redeem the world. ‘And while he was being accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he answered him not one word, so that the governor marvelled greatly.’ Matthew 27.12-14.
The Roman soldiers who had witnessed countless similar executions were in no doubt that Jesus was dead before he was taken down from the cross (John 19.32-35). What happened next is very interesting in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy. The usual practice was for crucifixion victims to stay on the cross as a warning to others not to go against the power of the occupying Romans, or for their bodies to be taken down and thrown into a common grave in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. If either had happened to Jesus the next event, the resurrection, would have lost its force.
So God caused a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea to intervene and ask Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus so he could bury him in his own tomb (Matthew 27.57-60). Pilate agreed to this, perhaps influenced by his wife’s dream not to have anything to do with ‘that just man’ (Matthew 27.19), perhaps because of Roman superstitions about Jesus as a miracle worker (the Roman authorities would have known that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11.47-48). The body of Jesus was placed in a sealed tomb with a stone rolled across it, so when the resurrection happened it was much easier to verify or discredit the story than it would have been if the body had been thrown into a common grave. It therefore became much more difficult to take seriously the rumours that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28). It would have been relatively easy for the authorities to verify this rumour and thereby discredit the whole Messianic movement by simply producing the body of Jesus if they had been able to, thus showing that the disciples were liars. Less than two months later the disciples were preaching in Jerusalem that Jesus was risen from the dead and facing opposition, imprisonment and even death for doing so. You don’t do that for a story you have made up.
Isaiah 53.10-12. These verses tell us the purpose of the Servant’s death and speak of his resurrection from the dead. He would be satisfied by seeing his ‘seed’ and bring justification to many by bearing their iniquities. God would highly exalt him because he was willing to be considered a transgressor and die. He would make intercession for transgressors.
As we have already seen in Chapter 1 the ultimate responsibility for the death of Jesus is with God. Isaiah 53.10 tells us that ‘it pleased the Lord to bruise him; He has put him to grief’. The New Testament agrees entirely with this and places responsibility for Jesus’ death on the sins of the world and the will of God (Acts 4.25-28). His death was to be literal, as Jesus’ death was, and yet he would ‘see his seed and be satisfied.’ How can this be possible? The only way is because he rises from the dead. Jesus explained this to the disciples and then commissioned them to go into all the world and tell people about him. In this way others would come to know him and he would be satisfied as he saw that all the pain of the cross was worthwhile because it would bring multitudes of people all over the world into the kingdom of God:
‘Then he said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me. And he opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.’
‘Then he said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”’ Luke 24.44-49.
The Book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel beginning in Jerusalem and then going out to ‘Judea and Samaria’ and to the ends of the earth. In this way multitudes of people would be justified, put right with God:
‘But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah. For he himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that he might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.’
Finally to remind us that the idea that he wanted his followers to avenge his death was the very furthest thing from his mind, we read in Isaiah that he made intercession for sinners. Jesus’ words from the cross were ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Luke 23.34.
What I have written above is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which Isaiah 53 points to the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. If Rashi is wrong about the passage being about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles and if Rabbi Alshech is right that it is about the sufferings of the Messiah is there any other candidate who can be found apart from Jesus who does fulfil it? The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is the Messiah who redeems his people from their sins. Isaiah of course is not a Gentile, but the great Jewish prophet to whom God revealed truths which were to be fulfilled centuries later in the person of Yeshua / Jesus the Messiah.
1. Messianic Christology by Arnold Fruchtenbaum page 54.
2. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc, 1969) page 5.
3. Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement (New York Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931) page 239
4. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 99-102.
5. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 258.
6. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 386.