The most crucial passage in the whole book of Isaiah is 52:13-53:12. This long section of Isaiah is so clear in its description of the suffering Messiah that it has caused enormous problems for teachers of Judaism. It is quite common today to hear rabbis say that this passage speaks not of Messiah, but of Israel suffering in a Gentile world. They may even go as far as to say that this has always been the traditional view of Judaism. At that point, they are entirely dependent on the ignorance of their listeners. All of the ancient Jewish writings—the Mishnah, the Gemara, (the Talmud), the Midrashim, and many others—all regard this portion of Scripture as relating to the Messianic Person. The first rabbi to suggest otherwise was Rashi, around A.D. 1050. 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, perhaps better known as Maimonides. Rambam stated very clearly that Rashi was completely wrong in going contrary to the traditional Jewish viewpoint. As evangelists, particularly from the early 1800s onward, began to make greater use of this passage in their work among the Jewish people, an increasing number of rabbis found Rashi’s view an attractive way of countering Christian teaching. Reading through the passage will show that there are several statements which could not possibly be applied to the nation of Israel. This passage is not read in synagogues; public readings of Isaiah will jump from Isaiah 52 to Isaiah 54.
Previously, in Isaiah 49, it was said that Messiah would at first be rejected by Israel but would eventually be accepted at some later stage. This passage of Isaiah is dealing with that final acceptance when the leaders of Israel will acknowledge their failure at Messiah’s first coming and, using these very words in Isaiah, make their national confession. This description of Messiah, then, is not given as something still to happen, but from a point of time in the future, immediately prior to Messiah’s second coming, looking back to His first coming.
After this introduction, we will now study the whole passage which divides easily into five sections, each having three verses. The first line of each section is the title of that section.
Behold My Servant Shall Deal Wisely — Isaiah 52:13-15
Isaiah 52:13-15 summarizes chapter 53 of Isaiah; verses 1-12 of chapter 53 elaborate on these three verses. By referring to the Messiah as the Servant, Isaiah connects Him with the previous Servant of Jehovah passages. In 42:1-6, Isaiah described the mission of the Servant; in 49:1-13, the mission of the Servant was accompanied by difficulties; in 50:4-9, the Servant was seen as suffering physically but short of death, and no reason was given for His sufferings. Now, in 52:13-53:12, it is revealed that His physical sufferings will lead to His death, and the reason for His suffering and death will be given.
Verse 13: The emphasis in this verse is the exaltation of Messiah, speaking of His ascension to heaven and sitting down at the right hand of God the Father. “Exaltation” speaks of Yeshua’s resurrection, “lifted up” describes His ascension, and “very high” refers to His session at the right hand of God the Father. Summary: The Servant will act wisely, and His actions will gain Him a position of glory.
Verse 14: This verse explains that prior to His exaltation, Messiah is to suffer humiliation. His body was so badly disfigured that He no longer resembled a man. In the sufferings of Yeshua, this would have happened at His scourging. The 40 lashes were given with a multi-strand whip, each strand having a nail or a piece of glass attached to it. These literally lifted the flesh off bones, not only from the back but also by wrapping around to all parts of the body. There were many who were never crucified because they did not survive the initial scourging. By the end of His scourging, when Pilate said, “behold the man,” Yeshua was so disfigured He was hardly recognizable as a man. Summary: The Servant will suffer and be terribly disfigured.
Verse 15: Despite the appalling suffering of verse 14, in verse 15, Messiah is destined for eventual success and victory. Those who once mocked Him will be silenced by Him. A day will come when their mouths will be closed in awe at Him. Summary: The Servant’s suffering will eventually gain the silent attention of world rulers when they begin to understand the purpose of His sufferings.
With this overview, chapter 53 now elaborates on these points.
Who Has Believed Our Message? — Isaiah 53:1-3
Verse 1: The emphasis of verse 1 is on the unbelief of Israel. The Jewish people did not believe the message; the message that Yeshua is the Messiah. Isaiah, besides referring to Messiah as “the Servant of Jehovah,” also refers to Him as “the Arm of Jehovah” as he does here. Earlier, in 40:10, Isaiah declared that the Arm will rule for God; in 51:5, the Gentiles will trust in the Arm; in 51:9, the Arm will redeem; in 52:10, the Arm will provide salvation. Now, in 53:1, Isaiah reveals the identity of the Arm to be the same as the Servant of Jehovah, the Messiah. Summary: Israel expresses surprise at what was just stated in 52:13-15.
Verse 2: Some of the reasons for this disbelief are given in verse 2. There was nothing about His first coming which seemed unusual. He was born in normal—indeed rather poor—circumstances. This is a reaffirmation of Isaiah 11:1. Furthermore, there was nothing in His outward appearance to draw men to Him. This militates against the portraits and portrayals of Yeshua so often seen. Yeshua was a Jewish man with a Jewish beard and dark eyes, and He was probably not very tall. According to this verse, He was not particularly good looking. Summary: Israel confesses that, when the Servant was with them, they did not notice anything special about His outward appearance that would have attracted them to Him; His childhood and growth were no different than those of others.
Verse 3: In this verse, we are told that His whole life was characterized by rejection and suffering. Men turned away from Him, and at no time was He accorded the respect due to royalty. Summary: The Messiah was despised and rejected, and people in general did their best to avoid Him.
Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs, and Carried Our Sorrows — Isaiah 53:4-6
Verse 4: The emphasis in verse 4 is on the substitutionary nature of Messiah’s suffering. At the time (verse 4b), Israel did not understand this, but considered His sufferings to be a punishment from God. He was seen to be suffering for His own sins, not for the sins of others. Summary: The nation which formerly despised the Servant now recognizes that He suffered vicariously. They thought that He was suffering for His own sins, but now realize He was suffering for theirs.
Verse 5: They now recognize that “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,” that His death was indeed substitutionary so that “with his stripes we are healed.” Summary: The nation confesses that the substitutionary sufferings resulted in reconciliation and spiritual healing for He was the chastisement for their sins.
Verse 6: Messiah was not suffering for His own sins but, in verse 6, “Jehovah has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Messiah was suffering for the sins of Israel. Summary: Israel confesses that it was they who sinned and went astray, and God laid the iniquity of Israel upon the Servant, and therefore He suffered.
Note the personal pronouns throughout this passage: “we,” “our,” etc. Isaiah was not a Gentile but a Jew, talking to a Jewish nation. The pronouns mean that Isaiah and the Jews must be included; they cannot refer to Gentiles. Furthermore, none of the things happening to this individual could be said to apply to the nation of Israel. Isaiah is clearly talking of one person. The nation is only included in the pronouns.
He Was Oppressed; Yet When He Was Afflicted, He Opened Not His Mouth — Isaiah 53:7-9
Verse 7: According to this verse, in the course of His affliction, Messiah remains silent. This was true of Yeshua at both His Jewish and Roman trials (Matthew 26:63, 27:12-14; Luke 23:9). He uttered no words against the manifold accusations brought against Him. This is hardly true of Israel. One thing Israel has not been is silent in her sufferings; she has written many books describing her suffering and accusing those responsible. The modern state of Israel has not remained silent in the face of Arab attacks; she has bombed Iraqi nuclear installations and Palestinian military encampments. This verse about suffering in silence cannot possibly be applied to the nation of Israel past or present. But it does fit the Messianic Person. Summary: The Servant humbly subjected Himself to the suffering and unjust treatment saying nothing in His own defense or making any complaint.
Verse 8: The Messiah undergoes a legal trial at which He is condemned to death. He is then “cut off”—legally executed. He suffered the penalty of the law for “the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.” He was executed for the transgressions of the people. “Transgression” is a word for sin which emphasizes the breaking of a law. This One, who is Messiah, is quite distinct from “my people,” who are Israel. Throughout both Old and New Testaments, “my people” is always a reference to Israel. Messiah will be killed because of the sins of Israel. Here, for the first time in Scripture, it clearly states that Messiah is to die. There have been many previous references to His suffering, but it was never suggested that He would die. It is important to remember that Messianic prophecy was a progressive revelation. Summary: After a judicial trial and judgment, the Servant was taken away for execution, and Israel did not realize that He died for the sins of the people.
Verse 9: This verse talks about the burial of Messiah. Having been executed as a criminal, it would have been expected for Him to be given a criminal’s grave. God intervenes, however, and, though treated with injustice and dishonor in execution, He is justly laid in a place of honor: in a rich man’s tomb. Yeshua was indeed taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb of a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60). God ordains this because “there was no deceit in his mouth”; His death was purely substitutionary. Summary: The Servant was assigned a criminal’s grave, but, in divine justice, He was instead buried in a rich man’s tomb.
Yet It Pleased Jehovah to Bruise Him — Isaiah 53:10-12
Verse 10: Note who is ultimately responsible for Messiah’s death. It is not the Jews, nor the Romans, but is Jehovah Himself. It was God’s will to bruise Him and God Himself who made “his soul an offering for sin.” The only one able and qualified to provide salvation to the world is God. Messiah’s death was not accidental nor due to force of circumstance, but part of God’s divine plan. It is a biblical principle that there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. As a temporary measure, a system of animal sacrifice was instituted, but these sacrifices only covered sin, they did not remove it. Even then, the covering only lasted for one year until the next Yom Kippur, the next Day of Atonement. But Messiah will be the final sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice which finally removes sin, and the One who will provide it will be God Himself. God is the One who is ultimately responsible for the death of Messiah. And then comes a strange line: “He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days.” If He has been killed, how can He see His spiritual progeny? If He is dead, how can His days be prolonged? The only way that these things can happen is by means of the resurrection, which will be described later. Having been told for the first time that Messiah will die, we are immediately given clear indication that He will be raised from the dead. After resurrection, Messiah will see the success of His mission, and because of that, “the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” Summary: God was pleased to allow the Servant to suffer and die because this was how He was going to make atonement for the people; though the Servant dies, He will see His posterity, and His days will be prolonged.
Verse 11: The Messiah who has died will be able to see the results of His sufferings. By His self-knowledge, as the Messiah who died for sin, He will be able to bring justification to many. While He died for all, His death is applied only to those who believe. For those who believe, “he shall bear their iniquities.” Summary: God will be satisfied with the work of His Servant, for He dies a substitutionary death for His people and by His death justifies many, as He bears their iniquity.
Verse 12: He will finally come into His kingdom, “because he poured out his soul unto death.” He was reckoned as a sinner although He was not, but rather He bore the sins of others and has, by His death and resurrection, made intercession for others’ transgressions. Summary: The Servant will be greatly blessed in the end above all others because He died on behalf of others and thus bore their sin and now intercedes for them.
Summary of Isaiah 52-53
Having read through the passage, it should now be very clear that this prophecy cannot possibly be applied to the nation of Israel. Israel is not silent. Israel has never been legally tried and condemned; Israel as a nation has never died through legal execution. All of the ancient rabbis without exception held the view that this is a Messianic passage. There is of course an apparent conflict between passages such as this that describe Messiah as suffering and other passages which describe Messiah as conquering, ruling, and reigning in Jerusalem. To believers, this is easily understood as Messiah coming twice, once to suffer and a second time to establish His kingdom and to rule in peace in Jerusalem. The ancient rabbis resolved the problem in a different way: by inventing the concept of two Messiahs. They taught that the first Messiah, whom they called “Messiah son of Joseph,” who suffered in Egypt, would come to suffer and die in fulfillment of the servant passages, one of which they listed as Isaiah 53. The second Messiah, “Messiah son of David,” would then come and raise the first Messiah back to life. He would then establish His kingdom to rule and to reign. They clearly recognized the teaching of death and resurrection contained in the Messianic prophecies, but failed to correctly interpret that Messiah must first come to die for our sins and then come a second time to rule in Jerusalem.
To summarize why this passage must refer to Messiah and not Israel, the following ten points should be noted:
- This was the view of all the ancient rabbis.
- The distinctive pronouns we, us, and our must refer to Isaiah and his Jewish audience while the he, him, his refer to the Messiah.
- Throughout the passage, the Servant is portrayed as a singular personality and not a nation; there is no allegory or personification of the Servant as Israel.
- In verse 9, the Servant’s suffering is voluntary, willing, and silent, which has never been true of Israel.
- In verse 8, the Servant dies for “my people”; Isaiah’s people were the Jews; the Servant and Israel are therefore clearly distinguished.
- The Servant is an innocent sufferer (verses 4-6, 8-9), but Israel always suffers for its own sins as Isaiah himself stated in 1:4-8.
- The Servant suffers a substitutionary death (verses 4-6, 8, 10, 12) while Israel does not suffer on behalf of the Gentiles, but because of the Gentiles.
- The sufferings of the Servant bring justification and spiritual healing to those who accept it (verses 5b, 11b), but Israel has not done this for the Gentiles.
- The Servant dies (verses 8, 12), but the people of Israel always survive.
- The Servant is resurrected (verses 10-11), but since the people of Israel have never passed away, they have no need for a resurrection.