Without a doubt, Isaiah 53 is one of the most significant chapters in the Old Covenant regarding the Messiah. It’s also one of the most troubling chapters for the rabbis, because it prophesies very clearly that the Messiah will be rejected by His own people, will suffer, and will die for the sins of humanity. Since the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth (who was rejected, suffered, and died) this chapter has caused great confusion among the rabbis. Eventually, about 1,000 years ago, attempts began to reinterpret the whole chapter, claiming that it doesn’t speak about the Messiah.
What are the primary elements of Isaiah 53?
Isaiah 53, ‘Who has believed he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that bought us peace, and with His wounds 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; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearer’s is silent, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment, He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief; when His soul makes an offering for guilt, He shall see His offspring; He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. Out of the anguish of His soul, He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, my Servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will divide Him a portion with the many, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
- The strong arm of the Lord revealed an individual, this individual would grow up but wouldn’t be considered anything special to look at.
- This man would be despised and rejected, He would know sorrow and grief and loneliness.
- In fact, this man would carry the sorrows and griefs of those who despised and rejected Him and they wouldn’t esteem or honour Him for His efforts.
- This man would be stricken and afflicted by God, pierced and crushed for the sins of others but His suffering would result in peace and healing for those He suffered for.
- When He suffered, He would do so silently and without complaint or protest.
- This man would killed for the sins of others, but He Himself would be guilty of no sin, no violence and no deceit, in fact, His soul would be an offering for the guilt of others.
- When He died, He would be numbered among other sinners (in spite of the fact that He Himself was sinless), and when His body was buried, it was buried among the rich and wealthy.
- His offspring, or more precisely, those who would obtain life because of His sacrifice, would prosper, but His own life would be prolonged, meaning that after His life was taken, He’d gain it back again. He’d rise from the dead.
- Out of His anguish and suffering, He’d receive reward and honour, that He’d previously been denied.
- After His sacrifice and willingness to pay for the sins of others, He now makes intercession for them.
Until approximately 1,000 years ago, all the wise men of Israel – the sages – understood that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah. The claim of present day rabbis that the chapter speaks about the people of Israel and not about the Messiah is relatively new. For example, Rabbi Haim Ratig answered a question on the moreshet.co.il when the question was asked if Isaiah 53 points to Jesus. You can read the rabbi’s complete answer on the website, but here’s a brief excerpt: “Your question raised a smile on my lips, after all, how can it be possible that any Christian in the world would fit the description of “The Servant of the LORD” who is brought like a lamb to the slaughter?! It is not possible that Isaiah would prophesy regarding a Christian event rather than a Jewish one. Isaiah’s prophecies spoke about the people of Israel. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people offered themselves as an innocent lamb.”
It’s really important to understand that most Jews have a dim view of Jesus, they don’t like Him at all and they see Him as the reason for Christian’s hating and persecuting them so viciously over the past 2,000 years. Many don’t even know or acknowledge Him as being Jewish, rather they call Him a Christian.
But Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was and is a Jew from the line of king David himself and He lived in the land of Israel. Christianity wasn’t even considered a legitimate religion until around the 3rd century and it didn’t become the official religion of the Roman Empire until the 4th century. Believers in Jesus weren’t called Christians until Paul’s ministry years and the first time the name was used was in Antioch and it was a term of derision.
This particular rabbit also believes that Isaiah 53 has nothing to do with the Messiah but that rather, it’s describing the role of the Jewish people being offered as an innocent lamb and that they’ve done that many times throughout their history.
The problem with his interpretation is that this was never the historical understanding and interpretation of Isaiah 53, in fact historically, rabbis and Jewish sages always taught that Isaiah 53 was prophetically referring to their expected Messiah and that didn’t change until after Jesus lived.
I want to share with you a short and very incomplete list of Jewish sages who interpreted Isaiah 53 as being a picture of the Messiah, a single individual and not a national or group of people collectively.
- Targum Jonathan, a translation originating in Jerusalem from the post-Talmudic era, attributes a messianic character to Isaiah 53.
- The Talmud itself never attributes Isaiah 53 to the people of Israel as a nation.
- Tractate Sanhedrin 98 and Sotah 14 attribute Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.
- Midrash Rabbah 5:1, Midrash Tanhuma and Midrash Konen attribute Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.
- Yalkut Shimoni 4 attributes Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.
- The Jewish Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement attributes Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.
- The Zohar, a book of Jewish Mysticism, also attributes Isaiah 53 to the Messiah.
- Even Rabbi Saadia Gaon, who confronted Christians in debates, did not attribute Isaiah 53 to the people of Israel as a nation, but to a single person.
There are many more within the Jewish religious community who hold to this traditional and historical view that Isaiah 53 speaks of one man being the Messiah. Just the few examples provided already demonstrate that this was the classical Jewish view; that the source and authority of the Jewish religion believed completely that Isaiah 53 is clearly presenting a single individual – not the national collective people of Israel – as the long awaited and expected Jewish Messiah.
There’s the claim by rabbi Ratig that the people of Israel are an ‘innocent lamb’ that needs to be addressed. Is it right and even demonstrable that the people of Israel can be considered the innocent lamb?
The term ‘innocent lamb’ is definitely Biblical, it’s a definition for someone being sinless and without any kind of sinful blemish, it’s a description of someone who’s never wrong, has never committed any kind of evil act or behaviour. It’s a picture of someone who is perfect, pure, sinless and without any kind of guile either internally or externally. So with that understanding, can the national people of Israel – the Jewish people – meet those criteria and therefore be accurately labelled as the ‘innocent lamb’ described in Isaiah 53?
We’re going to examine this claim in our next program to see if it holds any water and if it doesn’t, we’ll take another look at Isaiah 53.