Himself? – Someone else? – Israel? – The Messiah?
According to Rashi, the 11th century Rabbi, the answer is clear. The prophet is talking about Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Most Rabbis today agree that this is the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53. But not all Rabbis come to this conclusion. Here is a selection of Rabbinic views which contract Rashi.
‘Behold my Servant Messiah shall prosper’ … Targum (paraphrase) of Isaiah 52.13 (the introductory verses to Isaiah 53) by Jonathan ben Uzziel (First century CE)
‘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.’ Musaf prayer for the Day of Atonement, written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around the 7th century CE.
(Writing of Isaiah 53) ‘I shall flee 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.’ Rabbi Moshe Cohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova in Spain at about 1350.
‘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.’ Rabbi Alshech about 1550.
‘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.’ Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas about 1575.
All these Rabbis are saying that Isaiah 53 is about Messiah suffering for sin not about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles.
So what about you? Who do you say it is about?
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. ‘He (Israel) was wounded for our (the Gentiles) transgressions. (v.5) All we (Gentiles) like sheep have gone astray … and the Lord has laid on him (Israel) the iniquity of us all.’ (v6). 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.
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 Israels sins and called his own people to repentance? How can someone who is sinful bear the sins of others? Surely Israel suffers because of the sins of the Gentiles not on behalf of the Gentiles. The Jewish peoples sufferings bring judgment on those Gentiles who oppress them (see Genesis 12.3 ‘I will bless them that bless you and curse him that curses you’), not justification with God.
The Servant of Isaiah 53 brings justification and healing to those who accept him. The servant of Isaiah 53 suffers willingly and without resistance, whereas Israel has never willingly been oppressed by the Gentiles.
Rashi’s interpretation implies that Jewish people are sin bearers (scapegoats?) for the Gentiles. How comfortable do you feel about that?
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 today we see the restoration of Israel as a testimony to the faithfulness of God to the covenant He made with Abraham (Genesis 15).
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 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?
There is a book which claims that its central figure is the fulfilment of Isaiah 53. According to the New Testament Yeshua / Jesus is the one of whom Isaiah 53 speaks. 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.
Isaiah 52.13-15. These verses introduce the Servant who is described in detail in the following chapter. 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.
Read Mark 15.15-25. Imagine how Jesus would have looked after going through all this. Can you reach a lower point in human experience?
Read Acts 2.29 -35, Philippians 2.5-11. Where is Jesus now according to Peter and Paul? Can you reach a higher place?
Read Hebrews 9.11-15, 1 John 1.5-2.2 What effect does the blood of Jesus have when sprinkled on those who accept the sacrifice of Jesus?
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.
Read John 1.46, John 7.40-44, John 9.29, John 12.37-38. Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. According to the prophecy of Micah 5.1 Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. How did this effect peoples reaction to him? Where was he born in fact? (Matthew 2.1-6) Read Matthew 13.55, Luke 4.16-30. How did people who knew Jesus respond to him? Read Matthew 26.36-46. How did Jesus feel about being rejected?
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.
Read Mark 14-15. How many different experiences of suffering can you find that Jesus experienced in these chapters?
Read Luke 19.10, John 3.16-17, Hebrews 9.28, 1 Peter 2.24, 1 John 3.5. What reason do these verses give for the life and death of Jesus? Read Romans 3.9-23. What does this say about how we stand before God? Does this agree with Isaiah 53.6?
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.
Read Matthew 26.59-68, 27.11-14. What defence did Jesus offer for himself? How fair were his trials? Read Luke 23.44-56. Can we be sure that Jesus was literally dead at this point in the Gospel? What unusual act was performed by Joseph of Arimathea (a rich man)? NB. 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, no doubt influenced by his wifes dream not to have anything to do with that just man (Matthew 27.19), perhaps by 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). Because the body of Jesus was placed in a sealed tomb with a stone rolled across it, when the resurrection happened it was a public event, which could not seriously be denied with foolish rumours that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28) as would have been the case if the body had been thrown into the common grave. There is no record of the accusation of the body being stolen ever being taken seriously following Jesus resurrection by the opponents of the Messianic movement. This is remarkable since the disciples who were preaching less than two months later in Jerusalem that Jesus was risen from the dead.
Isaiah 53.10-12. These verses tell us the purpose of the Servants death and speak of his resurrection from the dead. He would be satisfied by seeing his seed and bringing 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.
Read Acts 4.25-28. In the light of Isaiah 53.10 what do these verses tell us about who was ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus? What answer does this give to the anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews killed Jesus and are therefore under a curse? According to Isaiah 53.8 the Servant would literally die. According to verse 10 he shall see his seed. How can this be possible? See Luke 24, especially verses 44-48. Read Acts 1.4-8. What does this tell us about the spread of the Gospel? Has this happened? In what way would this fulfil Isaiah 53.11? Read John 1.12-13, 3.16-21, Ephesians 2.1-18. What do these verses say about the way we are justified / put right with God? Read Luke 23.34, Hebrews 7.25. What do these verses say about Jesus intercession for others?
How many statements can you find in Isaiah 53 about the Servant bearing the sins of others? Since this is what the New Testament says was the prime purpose of Jesus coming into the world and claims that he is the Messiah, surely there has to be a connection between this passage and 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 shouldnt you consider that it is about the Messiah who has come, Yeshua / Jesus, not about a Messiah who is still to come?