Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones (Conexiones Church) in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership. Author.
Introduction to The Issue
Christians claim Isaiah 53 (read it on Bible Gateway) is talking about Jesus, and Jews claim it is talking about Israel. This article will explain the text to help the reader understand whom Isaiah 53 (read it on the Jewish Virtual Library) is talking about.
Word Versus Context
According to verse 11, the protagonist of Isaiah 53 is God's righteous servant. Jewish rabbis (I am being specific because there are also Christian rabbis in Messianic Judaism) often state that God's righteous servant is Israel because, in many other verses in Isaiah, God calls Israel His servant (for example, Isaiah 41:8-9 and 49:3).
Nevertheless, the book of Isaiah also calls servants Israel's captives (14:2), Isaiah (20:3), Eliakim (22:20), workers (24:2, 37:5), the men Eliakim, Shebna, Joah, and Rabshake (36:11), and David (37:5). Therefore, it is the context, not the word itself, which will determine whether the word servant in Isaiah 53:11 refers to Israel or someone else.
The Train of Thought
If you start reading Isaiah 53 without looking at Isaiah 52, you are going to miss out on the train of thought that leads Isaiah to discuss God's righteous servant. Why does Isaiah 53 discuss God's righteous servant? Look back at Isaiah 52 to find the answer (read Isaiah 52 in Bible Gateway or The Jewish Virtual Library).
Read verses 1-6 in Isaiah 52. Israel (to be more specific, the Kingdom of Judah) had been conquered by the Assyrians and taken captive to Babylon (verses 2 and 4), but God tells them this will not happen again (verse 1).
In verse 3, God reminds Israel it is their fault they were conquered and taken captive: they sold themselves in exchange for nothing. The way in which Israel sold itself to the Assyrians for nothing is by sinning against God (2 Kings 24:1-3, Isaiah 1:1-7).
God has good news for Israel. He will buy them back (verse 3), but He won't buy them back with money. Instead, God will send them good news (verse 7).
What then is the train of thought that leads Isaiah to write about God's righteous servant? The train of thought that leads Isaiah to write about God's righteous servant is that God has good news for Israel in regards to how He will buy them back without money.
The Good News
The good news that God has for Israel is composed of several parts: God reigns (Isaiah 52:7), God will bring again Zion (verse 8), God has comforted and redeemed His people (verse 9), God has made bare His holy arm (verse 10), all the nations of the Earth shall see the salvation provided by God (verse 10), and God will go before Israel and be their reward when they come out of captivity (verse 12).
On verse 13, Isaiah introduces the servant of God. Here is what Isaiah says about God's servant: the servant will be lifted up very high (v.13), people will be amazed by the servant (v.14), and the servant will fulfill the role of a priest by sprinkling the nations to purify them (v.15).
The question regarding the identity of the servant emerges at this point. Is the servant Israel, now redeemed and restored to its priestly role before God for the benefit of the nations of the world, or is the servant someone else? In order to know the answer to this question, you will have to look ahead at Isaiah 53.
Lost in Ambiguity
In the first verse of the fifty-third chapter, Isaiah asks an interesting question: "Who has believed our message?" Isaiah's message needs to be believed, and the kings of the nations in Isaiah 52:15 will have to consider the message regarding God's servant.
Isaiah's question also indicates that the message is not only Isaiah's, but ours. The message could be God's and Isaiah's, for God is sending good news to His people Israel through the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 52:7); but the message could also be the message of Isaiah and people of Israel after God has delivered Israel from captivity and restored them.
Isaiah then asks a second question: "To whom has God's arm been revealed?" This again is a puzzling question. According to Isaiah 52:10, God made His arm bare for all nations to see. Maybe Isaiah wants his readers to remember that the arm was made bare to the nations. It is also possible, however, that this question is elaborating on the previous questions: that there is something hidden about the message that makes it difficult to be believed.
On verse 2, Isaiah says that someone Isaiah calls he will grow as a tender plant out of dry ground. This could be a reference to the nations of Israel experiencing growth after its desolation, or it could be a reference to some specific person from the nation of Israel bringing hope after Israel has been restored from its desolation. Nevertheless, the immediate antecedent of he is the arm of the Lord, although it is also possible that he is referring to the servant of the Lord (as you can see, much of the wording is ambiguous).
Thus far, the identity of the servant appears to be lost in ambiguity. Nevertheless, we make an important breakthrough in Isaiah 53:2 and Isaiah 53:3.
Isaiah says that when he is seen by a group of people Isaiah calls we, there is no beauty in him for we to desire him. Isaiah also says that we hid our faces from him, and that we did not esteem him.
Who are we and he? If we can identify who we and he are, we the readers will have made a great breakthrough in deciphering this ambiguous passage.
Let us the readers start by identifying the really easy one: he. There are only three possible antecedents for he: the Lord (mentioned in verse 1), the arm of the Lord (mentioned in verse 1), and the servant of the Lord (mentioned in Isaiah 52:13). The easiest antecedent is the Lord's servant: after all, the arm is an it, and all sorts of theological questions would arise if the antecedent were the Lord himself.
Nevertheless, it really does not matter whether we point the pronoun he to the Lord's arm or to the Lord's servant. Isaiah 53 opens by enquiring about the Lord's arm (see Isaiah 53:1), and it concludes by discussing the Lord's servant (Isiah 53:11. Isaiah 53 unequivocally equates God's arm with God's servant: both are the same.
Now, let us the readers examine who we is. We in Isaiah 53:2 could refer to either Isaiah and the Lord, Isaiah and the kings of the nations, or Isaiah and Israel. However, we can discard the possibility that we refers to Isaiah and the Lord: seeing the arm/servant of the Lord and desiring him is not something that we would expect to be said of God. After all, the arm/servant is rejected of men (verse 3) because there is no beauty in him (verse 2); and it would not be predicated of God that He hid His face from His arm/servant and esteemed him not (verse 3).
We are thus left with two choices. We in Isaiah 53:2 refers either to Isaiah and the kings of the nations, or to Isaiah and Israel. But it would not make much sense for Isaiah to count himself with the nations in contrast to his people, Israel. Why would Isaiah include himself with the kings of the nations (mentioned in Isaiah 52:15) when Isaiah was not a gentile? The most logical conclusion is that we refers to Isaiah and Israel.
In fact, go ahead and read Isaiah 53:4-5. The arm/servant of the Lord bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was wounded for our transgressions, was bruised for our iniquities, and received the chastisement of our peace. The griefs and sorrows to which Isaiah 53:4 makes reference are the griefs and sorrows endured by Israel during captivity (see Isaiah 52:4-5, where Isaiah states that the Assyrians oppressed Israel, and that they made them howl). The transgressions and iniquities to which Isaiah refers are the transgressions and iniquities for which God sent Israel into exile (Isaiah 52:3, 2 Kings 24:1-3, and Isaiah 1:1-7). And the peace to which Isaiah refers is the peace proclaimed to Isaiah's people (see Isaiah 52:7).
The Logical Interpretation
Isaiah 53 tells us that the arm and servant of the Lord is suffering for Israel. The arm and servant of the Lord is bearing the griefs and sorrows of Israel, he is being wounded for the iniquities and transgressions of Israel, he is being chastised for Israel to receive peace, and he is being bruised so Israel can receive healing. According to Isaiah, the LORD laid the iniquity of Israel on his arm and servant.
You don't need to believe me, you just need to believe what Isaiah says: "For the transgression of my people was he stricken" (Isaiah 53:8, AKJV). In fact, Isaiah also says that God "made his soul an offering for sin," (Isaiah 53:10, AKJV), that the arm/servant "shall bear their iniquities," (Isaiah 53:11, AKJV), and that the arm/servant "bare the sin of many" (Isaiah 53:12, AKJV).
There can be no doubt that the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 is not Israel, but someone who suffers for the griefs, sorrows, iniquities, and transgressions of Israel so Israel can have peace and receive healing.
Moreover, this servant of the Lord not only suffers, but he also dies for Israel: "he was cut off out of the land of the living" (Isaiah 53:8, AKJV), "he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death" (Isaiah 53:9, AKJV), and "he hath poured out his soul unto death" (Isaiah 53:12, AKJV). In fact, "he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7, AKJV).
Nevertheless, the arm and servant of the Lord, even after he dies, he continues to live. Isaiah states, "he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand" (Isaiah 53:10, AKJV).
Unfortunately, Isaiah 53 also warns us that Israel rejects God's servant. They do not desire him (Isaiah 53:2), they despise him, they reject him, they hide their faces form him, and they esteem him not (Isaiah 53:3). Why would they do this? Because, as Isaiah already stated, God's work is so wonderful, that it will be difficult to believe.
Nevertheless, for those who receive him in their hearts (those who believe in him), Isaiah also wrote at fifty-fourth chapter, which celebrates God's faithfulness, and unveils the ultimate identity of the arm and servant of the Lord. What is this ultimate identify?
Look at Isaiah 52:6. Here is what the Lord says: "Therefore my people shall know my name: therefore they shall know in that day that I am he that doeth speak: behold, it is I" (Isaiah 52:6, AKJV). In fact, the analogy in Isaiah 52:10 is absolutely astonishing: the arm that God unveils before the nations, the arm by which God will save Israel, is God's own holy arm; it is a part of Him. And in Isaiah 54:5, God identifies Himself as the Redeemer of Israel.
When you look at the information provided for us in Isaiah 53 and its context, you cannot overlook what Isaiah is saying: God's servant is His own holy arm (a part of God), and God's holy arm will suffer for Israel, die for Israel, continue to live after death, be rejected by Israel, be considered by the nations, and nevertheless be identified as God the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel by those who believe in Him.
No one else in history fits that description, only Jesus of Nazareth.
My dear reader, I realize that this article has presented many difficult concepts for you to accept, especially if you are a Jew: that God appointed someone to die for the sins of Israel, that Israel rejected God's means of salvation, and that Jesus of Nazareth (whom we gentiles call Christ, which means Messiah). But none of these concepts is as hard to accept as the idea that man could be Hashem. For this reason, I have written three other articles that deal with this topic: Did The Tanach Promise a Divine Messiah?, , and The Trinity: Is Jesus God? The last one was not written specifically for a Jewish audience, so please be especially patient with this one. If God is speaking to your heart, I ask you to read this other three articles to help you understand this topic better. And as you do, I ask you to carefully think about this: what does the Bible really say?
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© 2018 Marcelo Carcach