Isaiah 53 is one of the all-time favorite passages of pastors, evangelists, and missionaries striving to convert non-believers. Over the centuries, it has been the subject of countless books, sermons, essays, and evangelism tracts, especially in outreach to Jews. The website isaiah53.com boldly proclaims that, “Hundreds of Years Before Jesus… The great Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote a detailed prediction of his death and resurrection”. Eager as many Christians are to declare that Isaiah 53 miraculously prophesied Jesus Christ many decades before the first century, it is important to remember the source and try to cut through any theological bias to reach the actual evidence. With every allegation of prophecy, whether biblical or of Nostradamus, it is crucial to carefully examine the material in question from as objective a standpoint as possible.
I. Determining the Speaker
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? -Isaiah 53:1
The first step in understanding any written work is understanding who is speaking and what is the subject of their writing. Isaiah 53 begins with a reference to an unidentified group, denoted by the question, “who has believed our message”. Undoubtedly, this is a hint at the speaker of the passage, and so before we go any further, we need to determine who is “our”. This can only be uncovered by looking back at the preceding chapter, Isaiah 52.
The beginning twelve verses of Isaiah 52 are encouragement to the nation of Israel, telling them not to lose hope, but to trust in God. Israel is described as “taken away for nothing” by the Assyrians, who mock them and blaspheme their god continuously (52:4-5). The author assures his audience that God will redeem Jerusalem and he will “lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations” (52:10). In the last three verses, Isaiah 52:13-15, the tone changes to focus on a servant who will be “raised and lifted up and exalted highly”. Verse 15 informs us that this servant will cause the Gentile kings to shut their mouths, “[f]or what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand”.
In Isaiah 53:1, the “our” is the Gentile kings who are made to see and understand the deliverance of Israel in Isaiah 52:15. The narrative is continued by the author as he speaks from the perspective of the kings and nations who marvel at how God redeems Israel from the midst of great suffering. The depiction of the woeful shock and regret of the Gentiles at the power of the Israelite god is not limited to this passage, but also appears in Zechariah 8:23, for example.
In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” -Zechariah 8:23
However, it is worth mentioning that the speaker in Isaiah 53 changes for the last two verses of the chapter. This is apparent from the switch of past tense to future tense as well as the difference in language. Verse 10 talks of how God will deliver and exalt his servant, setting the tone for the shift in verses 11 and 12, where it picks up with God discussing his plan for “my righteous servant”, who he will give “a portion among the great”. This is language that is characteristic only of God in the bible, and by contrast language in preceding verses would be very uncharacteristic of God, such as the confessions of “our infirmities” and “the transgressions of my people”. Clearly the speaker in the last two verses is not the same as the one in the first 9 or 10 verses of Isaiah 53, so while the Gentile nations are doing the talking in most of the chapter, they are not the speaker of the final two verses.
II. Determining the Subject
We have determined the speaker of Isaiah 53 as the Gentile kings/nations, but we still must determine the subject of the passage to gain a full and comprehensive understanding. Isaiah 53:2 begins to describe the subject.
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. -Isaiah 53:2-3
Isaiah 53 is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah known as ‘servant songs’. The first song is found in Isaiah 42:1-7, the second in 49:1-6, the third in 50:4-9, and the fourth is chapter 53. Throughout the four songs, the servant is foretold to suffer in the cause of God, who will at last vindicate him after some time. Technically, the fourth song should include Isaiah 52:13-15 too, where the servant is actually introduced (also of note is that Isaiah did not have chapter divisions until approximately 400 years ago).
Obviously, Christians believe the servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus Christ, but there are numerous problems with this interpretation. Most troublesome is the fact that the servant is specifically named in more than a few passages in Isaiah.
But you, O Israel, my servant… -Isaiah 41:8
But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen… -Isa. 44:1
Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant… -Isa. 44:21
For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen… -Isa. 45:4
He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” -Isa. 49:3
Additionally, Isaiah 52 sets the stage for chapter 53 in ways that further point to Israel being the servant. Chapter 52 describes the subjugation of Israel to the Gentiles (specifically Assyria) and tells of how Israel is made to suffer mockery and abuse at the hands of its captors. In 52:5, God mourns that his “people have been taken away for nothing”. Isaiah 53:8 tells us that under “oppression and judgment [the servant] was taken away” and verse 9 claims that, “he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth”. Not only do both chapters speak of the subject being taken away, but they also indicate that it was due to no real offense that the subject was taken, illustrating innocence. The question of “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed” (53:1) may implicate Israel as the servant too, since it is declared that, for Jerusalem, God will “lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations” (52:10). Thus, it seems very likely indeed that Isaiah 53 is a continuation of the narrative from chapter 52, from the perspective of the Gentile nations.
III. But Why Not Jesus?
I have discussed much of this evidence with Christians who have tried to use Isaiah 53 in defense of their faith, and often times it has ultimately come down to the question of, “why can’t Jesus fit?” Maybe it does refer to Israel, but maybe it still refers to Jesus as well. There are verses in Isaiah 53 that speak of how the servant was “pierced for our transgressions” and how God “laid on him the iniquity of us all”. Even more puzzling are the mentions of how the servant was “cut off from the land of the living” and “assigned a grave with the wicked”. Are these references characteristic of the nation of Israel?
As a matter of fact, they are. In Ezekiel 37:11-14 we read of a vision wherein the house of Israel is compared to dry bones and described specifically as “cut off”. Verses 12-14 speak metaphorically of the “graves” of Israel too, and how God will open them to deliver his people. The references to the bearing of iniquity and punishment for transgressions can easily be understood when approached from the appropriate perspective of the Gentile kings from Isaiah 52:15. Throughout Isaiah 53, these kings and nations frequently remark on how badly they treated Israel, although Israel had done nothing to provoke them. The Gentiles then lament that Israel suffered at their hands, for their sins. We also find that Gentile nations had previously laid blame for their conquest of Israel on Israel itself, as Jeremiah 50:7 mentions that the enemies of Israel said, “We are not guilty, for they sinned against the Lord, their true pasture…”
While Israel fits the bill of Isaiah 53 with no problem, applying Jesus to the passage results in some pretty interesting theological difficulties. First of all, when Isaiah 53:5 states that, “he was crushed for our iniquities”, when exactly was Jesus ever crushed? If any of Jesus’ body was literally crushed so that his bones were broken, it would disqualify him from another so-called prophecy beloved by Christians – Psalm 34:20. On the other hand, if believers argue that this is metaphor, then they must not demand such literal coherence of Israel with the statements of being “cut off” or “assigned a grave”, unless they offer some useful standard of assessing metaphor and literalism in Isaiah 53. Secondly, Isaiah 53:7 stresses twice that the servant kept quiet during persecution, and although Jesus does stay silent at most of his trial in Matthew, Mark and Luke, he definitely speaks up in the gospel of John, conversing both with the high priest and with Pilate.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days… -Isaiah 53:10
If the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus, how can verse ten apply to him? Jesus had no offspring, and his days were certainly not prolonged, as tradition has long stated that Christ died around the age of 30. Unless one simply ignores this problem or interprets verse ten as heavy on metaphor – which is not clearly supported by the text – there is a real and insurmountable issue here. Another one is found with Isaiah 53:11, which says that, “by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many”. Even if you accept the footnote in NIV bibles that suggests an alternate translation of “by knowledge of him…”, this verse is still troublesome. Is it knowledge of Jesus that saves us, according to Christianity, or is it faith?
Lifting Isaiah 53 from the surrounding context and viewing it in a vacuum may help Christian apologists easily project Jesus onto the passage, but it is a total butchery of the text and creates far more problems than it pretends to solve. However, there’s still more to be said on the Christian distortion of Isaiah 53.
IV. Unusual Prophecy
Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew scripture are typically marked with references to a king, the root or branch of Jesse, and associations with King David (Jeremiah 23:5, Isaiah 11:1-5). The passages also speak in a future tense, with terms of finality, such as “in the last days” (Isaiah 2:2, Hosea 3:4-5). If Isaiah 53 is about Jesus, whom Christians consider the Jewish messiah, why are there no indications of messianic prophecy in the chapter? There is mention of a shoot and a root in verse two, but the connection is never made to Jesse or to David. Even more intriguing is the fact that most of Isaiah 53 is in past tense.
Christians may read chapter 53 of Isaiah and note similarities to Jesus, without noticing how it ‘prophesies’ the servant in past tense. To modern believers, Jesus is in the past, but for the author of Isaiah 53, Jesus would have been a few hundred years into the future. What sort of prophecy uses past tense to predict a future event? Not all of Isaiah 53 is in the past though. The first nine verses describe the servant in past tense, and then verses 10-12 shift the tense to the future, speaking of how God will reward and deliver his servant. This is an important detail, because then Isaiah 53:1-9 are NOT prophecy – they simply set the stage for the prophecy in the last three verses of the chapter. Once again, this gives good support to the interpretation that Israel is the servant, as Isaiah 52 encourages Israel to have hope and chapter 53 then predicts their redemption.
Some will point out that ancient Hebrew language did not have indicators of tense in it, and while this is true, what is more important and interesting is the fact that every Hebrew bible and virtually every Christian bible (NIV, NAS, ESV, NLT, NCV, etc.) agrees on a past tense rendering of Isaiah 53:1-9. With all of these translators/language scholars in agreement, an objection to the oddity of past tense prophecy on the basis of ancient Hebrew lacking tense indicators is largely irrelevant. It is unlikely that they would put the passage in past tense without finding some indications in linguistic style, expressions, or other details that support a past tense rendering, as well as a return to future tense in the final two verses.
It is also worth noting how vague the comments in Isaiah 53 actually are. There is only reference to suffering, not specifically to crucifixion. Nothing is said about Nazareth, Bethlehem, a virgin woman, or any of the identifiable characteristics of Jesus Christ in the bible. Isaiah 53:10 states that God made “[the servant’s] life a guilt offering” too, which is not an offering of atonement like a sin offering, but is the sacrifice made for restitution or compensation, such as when a person would steal, take a false oath, or extort another individual. This seems to fit nicely with the view that Israel, though innocent, was taken captive by the Gentiles, who mocked and abused God’s chosen. Thus to make Israel a guilt offering for the transgressions of the Gentiles would be far more appropriate than Jesus being a guilt offering that somehow redeems the sins of all mankind.
V. Back to the Ancients
Christian apologists fond of Isaiah 53 are known for arguing that the interpretation of Israel as the suffering servant is a relatively new phenomenon, developed in the middle ages by stubborn Jews resisting Christian imperialism. The Talmud and Targum, they say, both discuss the subject of Isaiah 53 as being the messiah, not Israel. Although this is correct, it is not as significant as Christians pretend. There is uncertainty as to when the Talmud and Targum were composed, but modern scholarship places their various passages no earlier than the 4th century CE (and no later than the 10th century CE). The book of Isaiah is generally dated to the 6th century BCE, but some sections may possibly go back even to the 8th century BCE. The commentaries of the Talmud and Targum come at quite a late date then, and they are the earliest references to a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 that apologists have to offer.
This poses a problem for those who allege that Judaism adopted the nationalistic interpretation of Isaiah 53 in the middle ages, because the early church father Origen actually makes note of the fact that the majority of Jews in his day did see the servant as Israel.
I remember that once in a discussion with some whom the Jews regard as learned I used these (Isaiah 53) prophesies. At this the Jew said that these prophesies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual.1
Origen lived in the late 2nd to mid 3rd century CE, meaning this testimony predates the accounts of the Talmud and Targum and demolishes the accusation that Israel was not considered the servant until much later. It may also be interesting to note that according to the gospels, Christ’s disciples often found it objectionable that their teacher would endure suffering. If the concept of a suffering messiah a la Isaiah 53 was supposed to have been popular in the first century, and Jesus’ disciples were practicing Jews, why would they not have realized that the suffering of Jesus was a good sign? An obvious answer may be that a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was actually not developed and popularized until a later time.
Regardless, the earliest source we have for Jewish opinion on Isaiah 53 does endorse the nationalistic interpretation, it turns out, in clear rejection of the messianic one.
VI. Still Unconvinced
Isaiah 53 is such a beloved passage by Christians that it will be rare indeed to ever persuade them of its true meaning. Even if presented with all this evidence and more, they will continue to believe the chapter is a prophecy of Jesus Christ that happens to interrupt the discussion of Israel’s fall and redemption in the surrounding context. Why? Because they have convinced themselves that their holy book is truly miraculous in nature, and Isaiah 53 is justification of that belief for them. Like much of Christianity, the prophetic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is maintained, at its core, by faith, not evidence.
But what is truly gained from dogmatically believing the chapter prophesied the coming of Christ? If Israel is recognized as the subject of Isaiah 53 instead of Jesus, no major or minor tenets of Christianity are undermined. Those who cling to the passage as ‘proof’ of their faith are merely preferring to delude themselves in favor of possessing some sense of comfortable (but nonetheless false) certitude. Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus, it’s about Israel, and all the faith in the world won’t change the fact that this is what is overwhelmingly supported by the text. And so another alleged prophecy fails to be anything but wishful thinking on the part of its followers.
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1. Origen. Contra Celsum. Book I, Ch. 55.