MBS011 THE SUFFERING MESSIAH OF ISAIAH 53
By Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah has laid on him the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:6
This Messianic Bible study will focus on the Suffering Messiah of Isaiah 53. This chapter will be dealt with rather extensively because the proper interpretation is the major bone of contention between Jews who believe in Yeshua (Jesus) and Jews who do not believe in Him.
This passage will be divided into five main sections: the paradox, the source of the paradox, the text, clues to the interpretation of the text, and the conclusion.
I. THE PARADOX
Anyone who sets himself to the task of seeking to know what the Old Testament has to say about the coming of the Messiah soon finds himself involved with a seeming paradox. At times, one even seems to be faced with an outright contradiction, for the Jewish prophets gave a twofold picture of the Messiah who was to come.
On the one hand, the inquirer will find numerous predictions regarding the Messiah, which portray Him as One who is going to suffer humiliation, physical harm, and finally death in a violent manner. This death was stated by the Jewish prophets to be a substitutionary death for the sins of the Jewish people. On the other hand, he will find that the Jewish prophets also spoke of the Messiah coming as a conquering king who will destroy the enemies of Israel and set up the Messianic Kingdom of peace and prosperity.
Thus there is the twofold picture the Jewish prophets gave of the Messiah. For centuries past, during the formulation of the Talmud, the rabbis made serious studies of messianic prophecies and concluded that the prophets spoke of two different Messiahs. The Messiah who was to come, suffer, and die was termed Mashiach ben Yosef or Messiah, the Son of Joseph. The second Messiah who would then come following the first was termed Mashiach ben David or Messiah, the Son of David. This One would raise the first Messiah back to life and establish the Messianic Kingdom of peace on earth. That the Old Testament presents these two lines of messianic prophecy was something that all the early rabbis recognized. The Old Testament never clearly states that there will be two Messiahs. In fact, many of the paradoxical descriptions are found side by side in the same passages in which, it seems, that only one person is meant. Nevertheless, for the early rabbis, the Two Messiahs Theory seemed to be the best answer.
For centuries, Orthodox Judaism held to the concept of two Messiahs. However, since the Talmudic period in the history of the Jewish people, Messiah, the Son of David alone was played up in the imaginations of Jewish hearts and minds. The other messianic figure—Messiah, the Son of Joseph, the Suffering One—was ignored. He was there in Jewish theology when needed to explain the Suffering Messiah passages contained in the Old Testament, for His existence provided an escape clause when thorny questions were raised. Otherwise, this messianic figure was largely ignored. Today, few Jews have heard of Messiah, the Son of Joseph or know of his existence in Jewish theology of days gone by. Today, the Messiah that Jews know of is Messiah, the Son of David, the Conquering One.
II. THE SOURCE OF THE PARADOX
One of the major sources from which the rabbis developed their concept of the Suffering Messiah, the Son of Joseph, was Isaiah 53. The present-day bone of contention regarding what the Old Testament says about the Messiah centers on this chapter. The passage speaks of the Servant of Jehovah. This Servant undergoes a great deal of suffering, ending in death. The chapter goes on to state that this suffering is a vicarious suffering, that the death is a substitutionary death for sin. He is suffering and dying for the sins of others. The passage goes on to indicate that this Servant is resurrected. The bone of contention is not so much over what the passage says, but of whom it speaks.
The question today is, “Of whom was Isaiah speaking?” Did he prophesy concerning the Messiah here? Rabbis say that this is the “Christian” interpretation of this passage, not the Jewish one. “The Jewish interpretation,” they would say, “is that Isaiah is speaking about the people of Israel, the Jewish people suffering in the Gentile world, and it does not speak of the Messiah at all.”
But to make the passage speak of the collective body of Israel seems almost to force an interpretation. Taken by itself, the passage seems to have only one individual in mind.
In a book I wrote several years ago, titled “Jesus was a Jew,” I quote source after source showing that the historical Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 is that it speaks of the Messiah, not of the nation. In fact, the first rabbi ever to interpret Isaiah 53 to speak of the nation and not of an individual was Rashi, about a.d. 1100. I might add that he was opposed in this interpretation by the majority of the rabbis of his day and they continued to oppose that interpretation for centuries after him. Historically speaking, it was not until the 1800s that the national interpretation of Isaiah 53, instead of the messianic interpretation, actually became the dominant view among the rabbis.
To interpret Isaiah 53 as speaking of Messiah is not un Jewish. In fact, if the traditional Jewish interpretation is spoken of, it would be that this passage speaks of the Messiah. Again, the first one to expound the opposite view was Rabbi Rashi who lived from 1040 to 1105. As I mentioned, this view was to go contrary to all rabbinical teaching of that day and the preceding rabbinical teaching of 1,000 years.
Today, Rashi’s position has become dominant, but it is not the traditional Jewish view. When one speaks of the traditional Jewish view, it is that Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah, not of the nation.
III. THE TEXT OF ISAIAH 52:13 TO 53:12
Before dealing with some specific details given in the text, several things by way of introduction should be discussed.
There are four Servant passages. The first is found in Isaiah 42:1–4, which spelled out the ministry of the Servant at His First Coming.
The second passage is found in Isaiah 49:1–13 and contains three main points: first, the Servant came as described in Isaiah 42:1–4 and accomplished His mission with great difficulty because He was rejected by Israel (vv. 1–4). Secondly, because of His rejection, the Servant will now become a light to the Gentiles (vv. 5–7). Thirdly, all Israel will ultimately come to a saving knowledge of this Servant and then the final regathering and restoration of Israel will take place.
The third Servant passage is found in Isaiah 50:4–9 and deals with the sufferings of the Servant, just short of His coming death.
The fourth and most strategic passage is Isaiah 52:13–53:12 because it deals with two things: first, the reason for the sufferings of the Servant, and secondly, the death of the Servant.
One way of dividing the text is to see that verses 13–15 of chapter 52 are God’s introduction to the entire section. Verses 1–9 of chapter 53 contain Israel’s confession. These are future events that are viewed as having already taken place. Finally, verses 10–12 give the theology of the Suffering Servant.
For this study, the text will be divided into five basic strophes or stanzas, with the theme given in each opening line. This is followed by a summary of each strophe. The text itself should be able to help determine whether the Suffering Servant is the individual Messiah or the nation of Israel.
A. Behold, My Servant Shall Deal Wisely—Isaiah 52:13–15
Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Like as many were astonished at you (his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men), so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they understand.
In the first strophe, God is doing the speaking. He is calling the attention of all to the Suffering Servant. God declares that His Servant will act wisely, and His actions will gain Him a position of glory. God further states that His Servant will suffer, but this suffering will eventually gain the silent attention of world rulers when they begin to understand the purpose of His suffering. Furthermore, the Servant will be terribly disfigured but will, in the end, save many.
B. Who Has Believed Our Message?—Isaiah 53:1–3
Who has believed our message? and to whom has the arm of Jehovah been revealed? For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he has no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we esteemed him not.
The second strophe contains Israel’s confession for not recognizing the Servant in His person and calling.
In verse 1, the faithful Remnant asks two questions: “Who has believed our message?” and “To whom has the arm of Jehovah been revealed?” The arm of Jehovah, a motif developed in previous sections of Isaiah (Is. 40:10; 51:5, 9; 52:10), is identified here as God the Son, not God the Father.
Verse 2 brings out the humanity of the Servant. They claim to be surprised at what they have just learned from the three preceding verses. They note that, at the time the Servant was with them, there did not seem to be anything special about Him. His childhood and growth were no different than that of others. He was not particularly charismatic in His personality that would attract men to Him. His outward features were hardly unique.
On the contrary, verse 3 points out that the opposite was true. Instead of drawing people to Him in general, He was despised and rejected of men; He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with personal grief; He was a man acquainted with pain and disease. His rejection was not merely passive, it was active and the people did their best to avoid Him.
C. Surely He Has Born Our Griefs, and Carried Our Sorrows—Isaiah 53:4–6
Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
In the third strophe, the people confess that at the time of His suffering, they considered it to be the punishment of God for His own sins. Now, however, they acknowledge that the Servant’s suffering was vicarious: He suffered for the sins of the people, not for His own sins. The people confess that it was they who went astray; they each one had gone their own selfish ways, and the punishment of their sins was laid upon this Servant of Jehovah. This passage, then, is a confession of a change of attitude on the part of the people toward the Servant as they recognized the true nature of His sufferings. The severe judgment that the Servant had suffered led the people to form an opinion of Him, since His suffering seemed to mark Him as a special victim of Jehovah’s anger. But now confession is made concerning the reversal of this opinion, marking the beginning of repentance.
In verse 4, those who formerly misunderstood and despised the Servant on account of His miserable condition are now better instructed. They now recognize that the Servant of Jehovah was vicariously suffering for them and took upon Himself what was actually due to them. They confess that His sufferings were of an altogether different nature than they had supposed. They are now bearing witness against themselves, lamenting their former blindness to the mediatorial and vicarious character of the deep agonies of body and soul that were involved in His suffering. The error being confessed is that they had considered His sufferings as a punishment for sins He Himself had committed.
In verse 5, the people confess that the vicarious suffering of the Servant of Jehovah resulted in reconciliation and spiritual healing. Seeing the connection between His passion and their sins, this verse penetrates more deeply into the meaning of the Servant’s sufferings. The connection is twofold: first, the chastisement for our sins; His suffering was the penalty due to the people’s transgression, not for His own sins. Secondly, the means of reconciliation; it was the remedy by which the people are restored to spiritual health.
In verse 6, the people confess that the necessity of the sufferings spoken of in the preceding verses was that the people were so wholly estranged from God that substitution was required for reconciliation. They had strayed and selfishly sought their way; yet Jehovah laid their sins on the Servant. Thus the people confess with penitence that they have long-mistaken Him whom God has sent to them for their good, even when they had gone astray to their own ruin.
D. He Was Oppressed, Yet When He Was Afflicted He Opened Not His Mouth—Isaiah 53:7–9
He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
In the fourth strophe, the Prophet Isaiah appears to be doing the speaking as he describes and details the sufferings of the Servant that lead to His death.
In verse 7, the Servant is pictured as humbly submitting Himself to unjust treatment. He does not speak a word in His own defense. He suffers quietly, never crying out against the injustice done to Him. All four gospel writers emphasize the fact that He suffered in silence (Mat. 26:62–63; 27:12–14; Mk. 14:60–61; 15:3–5; Lk. 23:8–9; Jn. 19:10).
In verse 8, we find the death of the Servant of Jehovah. Here we are told that, after a judicial trial and judgment, He was taken away for execution. The Servant of Jehovah was being executed for the sins of the prophet’s own people, the ones who deserved the judgment of judicial execution. But no one seemed to realize the holy purpose of God in this event. Verse 8 is a key verse to the entire passage in that we learn that this was a sentence of death pronounced in a court of law and then executed. This verse clearly states that He did not deserve death. Those for whom He was dying never realized the true reason for His death. But, as verses 4–6 have related, they assumed He was dying for His own sins.
In verse 9, the burial of the Servant is described. After His death, those who executed Him assigned a criminal’s grave for Him along with other criminals. A criminal is what they considered Him to be, and that is the way He was executed. Yet He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb! This is true poetic justice since, in actuality, the Servant had done nothing wrong nor was there anything wrong in His character. The fulfillment of this is found in all four Gospels (Mat. 27:57–60; Mk. 15:42–46; Lk. 23:50–54; Jn. 19:38–42).
E. Yet it Pleased Jehovah to Bruise Him; He Has Put Him to Grief—Isaiah 53:10–12
Yet it pleased Jehovah to bruise him; he has put him to grief: when you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The fifth strophe contains the results of the sufferings and death of the Servant of Jehovah. These results, in the end, are very beneficial.
Verse 10 records how God was pleased to allow the Servant to suffer and die. This was the means by which God was going to make the atonement for the people. The death of the Servant was an offering for the sins of the people. The ones who had gone astray and sinned would now be forgiven on the basis of the death of the Servant for, by His substitutionary death, He provided the atonement for the people. God punished the Servant instead of the people, and thus the sins of the people were atoned for. This verse further states that the Servant will see his posterity, and His days will be prolonged. How can that be if the Servant is killed? The only way this would be possible is by means of resurrection. So the pleasure of the Lord, the verse concludes, will continue to prosper in His hand, for He will live again because of His Resurrection.
Verse 11 declares that God will be satisfied with the work of the Servant. The Servant of Jehovah dies a substitutionary death for the sins of the people. The question now is, “Will God accept this substitution?” And the answer is, “Yes.” For God will see the sufferings and death of the Servant and God’s justice will be satisfied. This is the meaning of the word “propitiation.” Therefore, God can make the next statement: it is because of the Servant’s vicarious suffering and death that the righteous Servant will justify many. To justify means to “declare righteous.” So the Servant, who suffered and died and is now resurrected, will be able to make many righteous. The people who were sinners and could do nothing because of the separation from God will be able to be made righteous by the Servant. This verse concludes by telling us how this is possible: the Servant bears their sins. In other words, their sins are put on the Servant’s account, and the account is considered “Paid In Full” by the Servant’s blood. So to be justified in the knowledge of himself, for He will bear their sins.
Verse 12 records that the Servant will be tremendously and greatly blessed by God in the end, above all others. Four reasons are given for this. First, He willingly and voluntarily suffered and died. Secondly, He was humble enough to allow others to consider Him a sinner and to consider Him as suffering and dying for His own sins. However, thirdly, He actually bore the sin of many. For the many who are justified and made righteous are made so only because He has put their sins on His account. And fourthly, the Servant makes intercession and pleads to God on behalf of the sinners.
This, essentially, is the summary of the content of the passage. If the Servant is Israel, then the people are the Gentiles. If the Servant is the Messiah, then the people are Israel, the Jewish people. Until Rashi, all Jewish theology taught that the passage refers to the Messiah. Since the 1800s, most of rabbinical theology teaches that it refers to Israel. But if the passage is taken literally and read simply, it speaks of a single individual.
IV. CLUES TO INTERPRETATION
The text itself provides a number of clues as to which interpretation is really meant. In itself, it makes plain whether it refers to an individual Messiah or to the collective body of Israel.
A. The Consistent Usage of Pronouns
An important clue as to whom this passage refers is the consistent usage of pronouns. A distinction is maintained between my, we, us, they, them, and our as over against he, him, and his. The use of my, we, they, us, them, and our in the passage must refer to Isaiah the Prophet and the people to whom Isaiah is speaking. The use of he, him, and his must refer to the Suffering Servant. Now Isaiah was a Jew, as were also the people to whom he was speaking.
It will be good to re quote a portion of this passage to bring out the emphasis of the various pronouns in order to get a clearer understanding of the point being made. The following quotation is Isaiah 53:4–9:
Surely HE has borne OUR griefs, and carried OUR sorrows; yet WE did esteem HIM stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But HE was wounded for OUR transgressions, HE was bruised for OUR iniquities; the chastisement of OUR peace was upon HIM; and with HIS stripes WE are healed. All WE like sheep have gone astray; WE have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah has laid on HIM the iniquity of US all. HE was oppressed, yet when HE was afflicted HE opened not HIS mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so HE opened not HIS mouth. By oppression and judgment HE was taken away; and as for HIS generation, who among THEM considered that HE was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of MY people to whom the stroke was due? And THEY made HIS grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in HIS death; although HE had done no violence, neither was any deceit in HIS mouth.
Obviously, the MY, WE, THEY, US, THEM, and OUR are the Jews: Isaiah and the people. Isaiah is speaking to the nation of Israel, the Jewish people as a whole. He is including himself with the collective body of Israel. Isaiah represents the Suffering Servant as being in a different category: HE, HIM, and HIS. HE is the One who is suffering for US; HE is the One upon whom God is laying OUR sins; HE is the One who is going to die for OUR sins so that WE can have salvation through HIM.
The constant and consistent use of pronouns and the identification of the pronouns exclude the Suffering Servant from being interpreted as the nation of Israel. Rather, the Suffering Servant is the Messiah Himself!
B. Isaiah’s View of the Servant’s Death
The second clue is in the closing sentence of verse 8, which also serves to exclude Israel from being the Suffering Servant. It reads: he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?
As Isaiah the Prophet views the death of the Suffering Servant, he discloses that His death is for the sins of my people. Who are Isaiah’s people? No one questions that Isaiah was a Jew. Thus, Isaiah’s people must be the Jews; they must be the people of Israel as well. And if my people are Israel, they cannot also be the Suffering Servant. Hence, the Suffering Servant must refer to the individual Messiah.
C. A Single Human Personality Portrayed
A third clue lies in the fact that throughout the entire passage, the Suffering Servant is portrayed as a singular human personality. There is no hint of allegory or any clue that the Suffering Servant is to be taken allegorically as referring to Israel. The Servant goes through all the functions that an individual personality goes through. There is no personification of Israel at all in this passage. Israel is kept distinct from the Suffering Servant. The Messiah is being viewed as a future, historical person who would accomplish the prophecy of Isaiah. Israel is the people looking on while this is happening. Again, this is no personification of Israel—only the view of a future, historical person.
D. An Innocent Sufferer
The fourth clue lies in the fact that the Suffering Servant is presented in the passage as an innocent sufferer (vv. 4–6, 8b, 9b). It is easy to see how this can be true of the Messiah, but not of Israel. Moses and the prophets never told Israel, “You will suffer for being innocent.” But rather, “You will suffer for your sins unless you repent and conform to the revealed will of God.” God punished Israel many times and in various ways, and it was always because of sins. According to the prophets, both the Babylonian Exile and the present-day Dispersion were results of disobedience on the part of Israel to the revealed will of God. This is in sharp contrast with the Suffering Servant, who is portrayed as an innocent sufferer.
E. A Voluntary, Willing, and Silent Sufferer
The fifth clue is the fact that the Suffering Servant is further portrayed as a voluntary, willing, and silent sufferer (v. 7). He willingly submits to the suffering He undergoes and voices no complaint as to the injustice done Him. Furthermore, as He undergoes these sufferings that lead to His death, He is silent. In Israel’s history, the Jews have been oppressed, gone into captivity, exile, and finally into present-day Dispersion. But none of these occurred on a voluntary basis on Israel’s part. Israel has generally fought back. These things fell on Israel only because she was defeated and Israel was never defeated willingly. But the Messiah would be a willing sufferer. Furthermore, reading through the literature of Jewish history, it can hardly be said that Israel was a silent sufferer. Rather, during her sufferings, Israel has always cried out against the inhumanity of those who were perpetrating the sufferings on her. Israel has produced a long line of literature cataloging her sufferings and complaints. The activities of the Jewish Defense League show that there is a violence directed against anti-Semites and a desire to see them destroyed. So this, too, rules out interpreting the Suffering Servant as the personification of Israel and again points to it as referring to the Messiah.
F. The Servant’s Vicarious and Substitutionary Death
The sixth clue is that in this passage the Suffering Servant suffers a vicarious and substitutionary death (vv. 4–6, 8, 10, 12). He suffers for the sake of others, so that they need not suffer for their own sins. Nowhere in the Scriptures or in Jewish history do we ever see Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Israel often suffers because of the Gentiles, but never for the Gentiles. Israel suffers, but Israel always suffers for her own sins. There is no substitution where Israel is concerned, only where the Messiah is concerned.
G. The Servant’s Justification and Spiritual Healing
The seventh clue that is given is that the sufferings of the Servant of Jehovah bring justification and spiritual healing to those who accept it (vv. 5b, 11b). The sufferings of Israel have failed to bring justification and spiritual healing to the Gentiles. After three thousand years of Jewish suffering, the Gentiles are hardly justified and are still spiritually sick, as became obvious by the way; the Gentile nations were involved in the Holocaust. But Messiah’s suffering was to bring this justification and spiritual healing to Jewish lives.
H. The Death of the Servant
The eighth clue is a crucial one. The Suffering Servant dies (vv. 8, 12). The sufferings of the Servant lead to and end in death. This especially makes the personification of Israel in this passage impossible. The Jewish people are alive and well and have never been destroyed in spite of many attempts to destroy them by anti-Semites throughout the centuries. This again forces one to the conclusion that the Suffering Servant cannot be Israel personified, but rather, the individual personality of the Messiah. As for the people of Israel, they live.
I. The Resurrection of the Servant
The ninth and final clue naturally follows: the Suffering Servant is resurrected (vv. 10). The One who died for sins does not stay dead, but is resurrected. And we can see the results of His suffering in that He brings justification and spiritual healing to many. Since Israel never died, there is no need for a resurrection. But if a person like the Messiah dies, God will certainly resurrect Him to life again.
This, then, is the conflict over Isaiah 53. If one simply reads the chapter as one would read any chapter of another book, no other conclusion can be reached than that Isaiah speaks of an individual person suffering for the sins of the Jewish people. And for centuries, this was the only conclusion that Judaism ever had; they labeled the Suffering Servant as the Messiah, the Son of Joseph. Later rabbinical interpretation that made the Suffering Servant the personification of Israel seemed more like an attempt to explain away rather than an actual explanation of the passage. This chapter must be read without prejudice and taken simply for what it is saying. It must not be interpreted in any way that is only a defense against Christian polemics, but only for what the content of the passage really is. The traditional Jewish viewpoint is most in harmony with the simple statements of the text itself, speaking of the sufferings of the Messiah for the sins of Israel.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS BIBLE STUDY, DR. FRUCHTENBAUM RECOMMENDS: