Why Isaiah 53 cannot
refer to the nation of Israel, or anyone else, but must be the
1. The servant of Isaiah 53 is an innocent and guiltless
sufferer. Israel is never described as sinless. Isaiah 1:4 says
of the nation: "Alas sinful nation, a people laden with
iniquity. A brood of evildoers, children who are
corrupters!" He then goes on in the same chapter to
characterize Judah as Sodom, Jerusalem as a harlot, and the
people as those whose hands are stained with blood (verses 10,
15, and 21). What a far cry from the innocent and guiltless
sufferer of Isaiah 53 who had "done no violence, nor was any
deceit in his mouth!"
2. The prophet said: "It pleased the LORD to bruise
him." Has the awful treatment of the Jewish people (so
contrary, by the way, to the teaching of Jesus to love everyone)
really been God's pleasure, as is said of the suffering of the
servant in Isaiah 53:10 ? If, as some rabbis contend, Isaiah 53
refers to the holocaust, can we really say of Israel's suffering
during that horrible period, "It pleased the LORD to bruise
him?" Yet it makes perfect sense to say that God was pleased
to have Messiah suffer and die as our sin offering to provide us
forgiveness and atonement.
3. The person mentioned in this passage suffers silently and
willingly. Yet all people, even Israelites, complain when they
suffer! Brave Jewish men and women fought in resistance movements
against Hitler. Remember the Vilna Ghetto Uprising? Remember the
Jewish men who fought on the side of the allies? Can we really
say Jewish suffering during the holocaust and during the
preceding centuries was done silently and willingly?
4. The figure described in Isaiah 53 suffers, dies, and rises
again to atone for his people's sins. The Hebrew word used
in Isaiah 53:10 for "sin-offering" is
"asham," which is a technical term meaning
"sin-offering." See how it is used in Leviticus
chapters 5 and 6. Isaiah 53 describes a sinless and perfect
sacrificial lamb who takes upon himself the sins of others so
that they might be forgiven. Can anyone really claim that the
terrible suffering of the Jewish people, however undeserved and
unjust, atones for the sins of the world? Whoever Isaiah 53
speaks of, the figure described suffers and dies in order to
provide a legal payment for sin so that others can be forgiven.
This cannot be true of the Jewish people as a whole, or of any
other mere human.
5. It is the prophet who is speaking in this passage. He says:
"who has believed our message." The term
"message" usually refers to the prophetic message, as
it does in Jeremiah 49:14. Also, when we understand the Hebrew
parallelism of verse 1, we see "Who has believed our
message" as parallel to "to whom has the arm of the
Lord been revealed." The "arm of the Lord" refers
to God's powerful act of salvation. So the message of the speaker
is the message of a prophet declaring what God has done to save
6. The prophet speaking is Isaiah himself, who says the
sufferer was punished for "the transgression of my people,"
according to verse 8. Who are the people of Isaiah? Israel. So
the sufferer of Isaiah 53 suffered for Israel. So how
could he be Israel?
7. The figure of Isaiah 53 dies and is buried according to
verses 8 and 9. The people of Israel have never died as a whole.
They have been out of the land on two occasions and have
returned, but they have never ceased to be among the living. Yet
Jesus died, was buried, and rose again.
8. If Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Israel, how about Isaiah
himself? But Isaiah said he was a sinful man of unclean lips
(Isaiah 6:5-7). And Isaiah did not die as an atonement for our
sins. Could it have been Jeremiah? Jeremiah 11:19 does echo the
words of Isaiah 53. Judah rejected and despised the prophet for
telling them the truth. Leaders of Judah sought to kill Jeremiah,
and so the prophet describes himself in these terms. But they
were not able to kill the prophet. Certainly Jeremiah did not die
to atone for the sins of his people. What of Moses? Could the
prophet have been speaking of him? But Moses wasn't sinless
either. Moses sinned and was forbidden from entering the promised
land (Numbers 20:12). Moses indeed attempted to offer himself as
a sacrifice in place of the nation, but God did not allow him to
do so (Exodus 32:30-35). Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were all
prophets who gave us a glimpse of what Messiah, the ultimate
prophet, would be like, but none of them quite fit Isaiah 53.
So what can we conclude? Isaiah 53 cannot refer to the nation
of Israel, nor to Isaiah, nor to Moses, nor another prophet. And
if not to Moses, certainly not to any lesser man. Yet Messiah
would be greater than Moses. As the rabbinic writing
"Yalkut" said: "Who art thou, O great mountain?
(Zech. iv.7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he
call him`the great mountain?' because he is greater than the
patriarchs, as it is said, `My servant shall be high, and lifted
up, and lofty exceedingly' --he will be higher than
Abraham...lifted up above Moses...loftier then the ministering
angels..." (Quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah
According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House,
1969, Volume 2, page 9.)
Of whom does Isaiah speak? He speaks of the Messiah, as many
ancient rabbis concluded. The second verse of Isaiah 53 makes it
crystal clear. The figure grows up as "a young plant, and
like a root out of dry ground." The shoot springing up is
beyond reasonable doubt a reference to the Messiah, and, in fact,
it is a common Messianic reference in Isaiah and elsewhere. The
Davidic dynasty was to be cut down in judgement like a felled
tree, but it was promised to Israel that a new sprout would shoot
up from the stump. The Messiah was to be that sprout. Several
Hebrew words were used to refer to this undeniably Messianic
image. All the terms are related in meaning and connected in the
Messianic texts where they were used. Isaiah 11, which virtually all
rabbis agreed refers to the Messiah, used the words
"shoot" (hoter) and branch (netser) to describe the
Messianic King. Isaiah 11:10 called Messiah the "Root
(shoresh) of Jesse," Jesse being David's father. Isaiah 53
described the suffering servant as a root (shoresh) from dry
ground, using the very same metaphor and the very same word as
Isaiah 11. We also see other terms used for the same concept,
such as branch (tsemach) in Jeremiah 23:5, in Isaiah 4:2 and also
in the startling prophecies of Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12.
Beyond doubt, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 refers to Messiah Jesus. He
is the one highly exalted before whom kings shut their mouths.
Messiah is the shoot who sprung up from the fallen Davidic
dynasty. He became the King of Kings. He provided the ultimate
Isaiah 52:13 states that it would be the Messiah who will
"sprinkle" many nations. What does that mean? What was
Messiah's ministry to be toward the nations? The word translated
"sprinkle" or sometimes "startle" is found
several other places in the OT. The Hebrew word is found in
Leviticus 4:6; 8:11; 14:7, and Numbers 8:7, 19:18-19. The
references cited all pertain to priestly sprinklings of the blood
of atonement, the anointing oil of consecration, and the
ceremonial water used to cleanse the unclean. Is Isaiah 52:13
telling us that the Messiah will act as a priest who applies
atonement, anoints to consecrate, sprinkles to make clean? (This
vision of the Messiah as both priest and king is also found in
Zechariah 6:12-13). But, priests were to come from the tribe of
Levi and Kings from the tribe of Judah! What kind of priest is
he? David told us Messiah would be a priest of the order of
Melchizedek (see Psalm 110 and Hebrews chapters 7-9).
Isaiah 53 must be understood as referring to the coming
Davidic King, the Messiah. King Messiah was prophesied to suffer
and die to pay for our sins and then rise again. He would serve
as a priest to the nations of the world and apply the blood of
atonement to cleanse those who believe. There is one alone who
this can refer to, Jesus, whom millions refer to as Christ, which
is from the Greek word for Messiah. Those who confess him are his
children, his promised offspring, the spoils of his victory.
According to the testimony of the Jewish Apostles, Jesus died for
our sins, rose again, ascended to the right hand of God, and he
now serves as our great High Priest who cleanses us of sin and
our King. Jesus rules over his people and is in the process of
conquering the Gentiles. The first century Jewish disciples were
willing to die rather than deny they had seen the risen Messiah.
Only if one has presupposed Jesus cannot have been the Messiah
can one deny that which is obvious. Israel's greatest son, Jesus,
is the one Isaiah foresaw.
(c) 1997 Fred Klett
To see quotations from ancient
rabbinic sources that interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Messiah
To learn about the curious idea
of the Leper-Messiah click here.
To learn about the
"Two-Messiah" theory of some rabbinic thinkers click
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for further study click here.
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