Isaiah 53

By The Late Rev. Sam Stern

Comments on Isaiah 53 with regard to the question, “Does this chapter refer to Israel delivering the Gentiles from sin or to a person who is the saviour?”

  1. Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
  2. For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
  3. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
  4. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
  5. 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.
  6. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way: and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  7. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
  8. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
  9. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
  10. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
  11. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
  12. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.*

 * All Scriptures are KJV

The Jewish people consider Isaiah to be their greatest prophet. Although they read many of his chapters in the synagogue, Chapter 53 is not one of them. They do read a portion of Chapter 52.

Those who are familiar with synagogue liturgy know that the Five Books of Moses are read in their entirety during the year. In addition, specified scriptures that relate to the chapters are included after certain portions. For example, Isaiah 47, 54 and 40 are read in that order at the completion of the first, second and third weekly portions of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. After readings from Deuteronomy, which is a review of the other four books, they read eight chapters from Isaiah during a period of eleven weeks.

Rabbinical Opinion

The most widely accepted rabbinical opinion on the meaning of Isaiah 53 is that the "he" referred to is the nation of Israel whom God chose to suffer for the sins of the Gentiles. This view is hard to comprehend because the Word of God never mentioned elsewhere that Israel would suffer for the sins of the Gentiles, either by Israelís own volition or by Godís will. If this teaching were true, it would necessarily appear somewhere else in the Chumash (Five Books of Moses).

On the contrary, God warned the nation of Israel that it was for their own sins that they would suffer — i.e., if they did not obey Him (Leviticus 26:14-41, Isaiah 17:10-14).

The Bible disclosed that Israel will go through a purging of her sins against God and against His word:

Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacobís trouble: but he [Jacob] shall be saved out of it (Jeremiah 30:7).

Why criest thou for thine affliction? thy sorrow is incurable for the multitude of thine iniquity: because thy sins were increased, I have done these things unto thee (Jeremiah 30:15).

On the other hand, God will judge the Gentile nations according to how they treated Israel. Isaiah deals with the subject of Godís judgment of the nations (the Gentiles) in Chapters 13 and 24. In addition, Jeremiah warns:

Therefore all they that devour thee shall be devoured; and all thine adversaries, every one of them, shall go into captivity; and they that spoil thee shall be a spoil, and all that prey upon thee will I give for a prey (Jeremiah 30:16).

God commanded Israel to believe that He is the only God and to testify of that fact to the nations:

Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me (Isaiah 43:10).

Although God called them to be His witnesses, they disobeyed Him and failed in their mission. They were to obey God as a holy nation and to preach to the Gentiles. God never called on Israel to suffer for the nations, but only to suffer for their own sins. Isaiah 53 speaks plainly, not about a nation, but about a Messiah who would voluntarily give his life for the sake of humanity.

Another important point to consider is that the rabbis usually interpret the Bible literally. The Talmudic rule of interpretation is as follows:

  1. No scripture can be changed from the simple meaning.
  2. If one says a certain expression means something else regarding the Word, he is wrong.
  3. The Bible means what it says. It is not allowed to change its meaning.
  4. The Rambam (Maimonides) said in his thirteen tenets, which are included in the Siddur (prayerbook):

    I believe in the words of the prophets. They are the truth.
    I believe that the Bible was given to Moses.
    I believe that the Bible cannot be changed.

In dealing with Isaiah 53, however, most Jewish interpreters depart from their literal view of the Bible and from the above-mentioned rules. Instead they consider this chapter as an allegory, metaphor or some other figure of speech in which Israel suffers for the sins of the Gentiles.

Kimchi, Beuer Hainian and Joseph Caro, for example, follow this line of thought.

On the other hand, the Talmudic book Sota, page 14b, interprets that Isaiah 53 means Moses, while Eben Ezra suggests that it could mean Jeremiah. These Jewish sages refuse to interpret Isaiah 53 as an allusion to the Messiah.

In addition, some Jewish Bible expositors maintain that Isaiah 53 is a continuation of Chapter 52. They claim that the "he" of Isaiah 53 refers to the person mentioned in Chapter 52, but stop short of accepting that "he" is the Messiah.

Further, some of these rabbis believe that there is no way to tell who the Messiah will be before he comes and that the Jewish people will have to wait until he rules in Jerusalem before they accept him. In this way, as we shall see, they negate the Biblical passages that God gave through His prophets. However, God revealed in His Word knowledge regarding the Messiah so that we would recognize him. He did not want us to rely on the philosophy that "Seeing is believing," but left us a whole body of Messianic Prophecy in His Word.

Some of the messianic references follow:

Regarding the relationship between Chapter 52 and 53 of Isaiah, Sota 14b also cites Isaiah 53:12 in its comment on 52:14, which reads as follows:

Rabbi Simlai preached, Why did Moses want to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat the fruit of the land? Or satisfy himself with the bounty? But so said Moses, Many laws were given to Israel which can be done in Israel only. I will go to the land in order to fulfill the laws.

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, Only to receive the rewards? I ascribe it to thee as if you did it. As it is written, Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death; and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors [Isaiah 53:12].

Here the Talmud ascribes Isaiah 52:14 to the person of Moses. It relates the verse to 53:12, which it attributes to the fact that when God threatened to destroy the Israelites for building the golden calf, Moses pleaded:

Yet now if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written [Exodus 32:32].

If we accept that the preceding comment in Sotah 14b speaks about a person and that it relates to Chapter 53, why canít we accept that Chapter 53 describes a person? We must ask ourselves why Isaiah could not have written Chapter 53 to describe a person rather than the nation of Israel — more specifically the suffering Messiah who was to die for the sins of the world.

Original Language and Grammar

Further, we cannot dismiss the crucial roles that the original language and grammar play in our understanding of the true meaning of Isaiah 53. On these counts, the rabbisí interpretation that Israel would suffer for the Gentiles breaks down. We must pay special attention to the pronouns used in this chapter of Isaiah. For example, the prophet speaks about the "him" in the third person when he says in verse 6:

All we [Jews] like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all [emphasis added].

Isaiah is Israelís greatest prophet. Since he wrote as a Jew, he would not suddenly write as a Gentile. The "we" (anachnoo) refers to the Jews: We Jews have gone astray. The LORD, therefore, has laid on "him" (oto) the iniquity of us all. If the Bible means that the nation of Israel was to suffer for the Gentiles, the verse would read: The LORD has laid on us (the Jews) the iniquity of them all.

The original Hebrew of Isaiah 53:4 reads as follows:

Ochain chalooyenu hu nasah, which literally translated means:
Therefore our grief he carried.

oomachoveinoo sevalom, which literally translated means:
And our sorrow he suffered.

Vaanachnu chashavnoo nogua mookeh Elohim umooneh, which literally translated means:
And we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.

The next verse, Isaiah 53:5, reads as follows in the Hebrew:

Veehu mecholul meepshaenoo, which literally translated means:
And he was wounded for our sins.

Medooka meavonoteinoo, which literally translated means:
bruised for our transgression.

moosar shlomeinoo alloy, which literally translated means:
The chastisement of our peace was upon him.

Ooyachavoorato neerpa lahnoo, which literally translated means:
and with his stripes we are healed.

Since Isaiah was a Jew, the "we" referred to in his Chapter 53 means the Jews. The distinction is made between "we" (us, our) the Jews, and "he" who bore our sins. The "he" is an individual, someone other than the Jewish nation as a whole.

Further, Isaiah 53:12 reads in part:

ha-erah lamavet nafshaw, which literally translated means:
he poured to death his soul.

The above verse refers to the death of Jesus on the cross. These numerous passages show that the most consistent and convincing interpretation is that "he" is a person, the Messiah, who suffered and died for the sins of Israel and of the world.

Why Did The Jewish People Suffer?

The comment of Radak (David Kimchi) typifies the rabbisí attempt to get around the above interpretation regarding the Messiah:

Why then did the Jews suffer? It was not for their sin because they had the right religion, and we Gentiles who had a false religion did not live a good life of peace, so the Jews suffered the pain the Gentiles were supposed to suffer, so that with the suffering of the Jews, we Gentiles are healed and our sin is forgiven. The Jews became our kaporah [sin-forgiver]. Israel suffered not for their sins, but for our sins…

Kimchi insists that Israel did not sin, although the Bible teaches that Israel did sin and that God would punish her for her transgressions. The commentatorsí attitude of neither admitting Israel's sins nor repenting of them leads to an incorrect interpretation of this chapter. In advancing the idea that following the right religion makes a person righteous, Kimchi neglects to point out that the Jews did not follow their religion righteously and that the Word of God itself is replete with Godís warnings of the consequences to Israel of her sins.

Another Jewish rabbi, Eben Ezra, comments on Isaiah 53:3, emphasizing the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles:

He is despised and rejected of men. The Jews are despised and rejected of men, Gentiles. A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. The Jews are suffering from the Gentiles. And we hid as it were our faces from him. The Gentiles donít want to look as the Jews are being persecuted; they hide their faces. They hate the Jews even when they [the Jews] suffer.

Eben Ezra seems to take into account only the suffering of the Jews at the hand of the Gentiles and sees no further teaching in Isaiah 53. Similarly, Beuer Hainian, in his comment on Isaiah 53:5, says that the sin of the Gentiles is to cause the Jews to suffer. Both commentators, Eben Ezra and Beuer Hainian, avoid the issue of Israelís sins.

The Jewish commentators in general insisted that Israel was a righteous nation that suffered for the sins of the Gentiles, an idea typified by the following comment made by Joseph Caro on Isaiah 53:5:

God created a righteous nation to carry the sins of the world so that the world could exist.

In other words, some of the rabbis believe that the Jews suffer for the healing of the nations. Perhaps a nation that is pure could purge the idolatrous nations. But the nation of Israel itself failed to keep Godís commandments. Hence, the most plausible view is that God sent the only One who could save the world: the Messiah.

The learned rabbis know their own rule that the writing of prophecy can refer to the past, present or future. A Biblical prophet may speak in the past tense, but the pronouncement can apply also to the future. Isaiah 53 is just this kind of pronouncement about the future—a prophecy by Israelís greatest prophet of the coming of the Messiah to suffer and die for the sins of the world.

Commentators See More Truth in Isaiah 52

Biblical commentaries on Isaiah 52 come closer to the truth than those applying to Isaiah 53; some even mention the Messiah:

Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.

As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: (Isaiah 52:13, 14).

The Targum interprets Isaiah 52:13, quoted above, as follows:

Behold my servant will succeed. The Messiah will be lifted up and very strong.

Here the Targum calls the servant the Messiah, not the nation of Israel, not Moses, not any Jewish king!

On the very same verse, Eben Ezra, taking controversy into consideration, presents two contradictory views:

Behold my servant…This passage is very difficult. Some of our adversaries say that this speaks of their God. They interpret that "my servant" means the body, but this is not right because the body has no wisdom even when he is alive. My servant is Israel. Every Jew who lives among the Gentiles is Godís servant.

Eben Ezra continues his comment on Isaiah 52:13, giving the contradictory view that "my servant" means Messiah:

However, most of the rabbis say that "my servant" means the Messiah. Our forefathers, blessed be their memory, said that in the same day when the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.

On the other hand, Rabbi Joseph Caro does not identify the servant as the Messiah referred to in Isaiah 52:13, 14 when he makes the following comment:

My servant Israel will be lifted up. Our rabbis in the Medrash say, He will be higher than Abraham …greater than Moses…greater than the angels.

Who else can be higher than Abraham, Moses and the angels, but the Messiah, who in the person of Jesus was despised and rejected of men?

© 2001 Dorothy Stern