Why Isaiah 53 cannot refer to the nation of Israel, or anyone else, but must be the Messiah

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 his people.

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 atonement.

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 click here.

To learn about the curious idea of the Leper-Messiah click here.

To learn about the "Two-Messiah" theory of some rabbinic thinkers click here.

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