The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a beautiful, poetic song, one of the four “Servant Songs” in which the prophet describes the climactic period of world history when the Messiah will arrive and the Jewish people assume the role as the spiritual leaders of humanity.
Isaiah 53 is a prophecy foretelling how the world will react when they witness Israel’s salvation in the Messianic era. The verses are presented from the perspective of world leaders, who contrast their former scornful attitude toward the Jews with their new realization of Israel’s grandeur. After realizing how unfairly they treated the Jewish people, they will be shocked and speechless. While the original Hebrew text clearly refers to the Jewish people as the “Suffering Servant,” over the centuries Isaiah 53 has become a cornerstone of the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Unfortunately, this claim is based on widespread mistranslations and distortion of context. In order to properly understand these verses, one must read the original Hebrew text. When the Bible is translated into other languages, it loses much of its essence. The familiar King James translation uses language which is archaic and difficult for the modern reader. Furthermore, it is not rooted in Jewish sources and often goes against traditional Jewish teachings. Modern translations, while more readable, are often even more divorced from the true meaning of the text. For an accurate Jewish translation of the Bible, read the “ArtScroll English Tanach.” The Context of Isaiah 53 The key to deciphering any biblical text is to view it in context. Isaiah 53 is the fourth of the four “Servant Songs.” (The others are found in Isaiah chapters 42, 49 and 50.) Though the “servant” in Isaiah 53 is not openly identified – these verses merely refer to “My servant” (52:13, 53:11) – the “servant” in each of the previous Servant Songs is plainly and repeatedly identified as the Jewish nation. Beginning with chapter 41, the equating of God’s Servant with the nation of Israel is made nine times by the prophet Isaiah, and no one other than Israel is identified as the “servant”: “You are My servant, O Israel” (41:8) “You are My servant, Israel” (49:3) see also Isaiah 44:1, 44:2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20 The Bible is filled with other references to the Jewish people as God’s “servant”; see Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28; Psalms 136:22. There is no reason that the “servant” in Isaiah 53 would suddenly switch and refer to someone other than the Jewish people. One obvious question that needs to be addressed: How can the “Suffering Servant,” which the verses refer to grammatically in the singular, be equated with the entire Jewish nation? The Jewish people are consistently referred to with the singular pronoun. This question evaporates when we discover that throughout the Bible, the Jewish people are consistently referred to as a singular entity, using the singular pronoun. For example, when God speaks to the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, all of the Ten Commandments are written as if speaking to an individual (Exodus 20:1-14). This is because the Jewish people are one unit, bound together with a shared national destiny (see Exodus 4:22, Deuteronomy chapter 32). This singular reference is even more common in biblical verses referring to the Messianic era, when the Jewish people will be fully united under the banner of God (see Hosea 14:6-7, Jeremiah 50:19). As we will see, for numerous reasons this chapter cannot be referring to Jesus. Even in the Christian scriptures, the disciples did not consider the Suffering Servant as referring to Jesus (see Matthew 16:21-22, Mark 9:31-32, Luke 9:44-45). So how did the Suffering Servant come to be associated with Jesus? After his death, the promoters of Christianity retroactively looked into the Bible and “applied” – through mistranslation and distortion of context – these biblical verses as referring to Jesus. Missionary apologist Walter Riggans candidly admitted: “There is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and more specifically the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense…” (Yehoshua Ben David, Olive Press 1995, p.155) The intention is not to denigrate another religion, but rather to understand the true meaning of the Divine word. Isaiah 53 – Line by Line Early in the Book of Isaiah, God predicts the long and difficult exile of the Jewish people. Chapter 53 occurs in the midst of Isaiah’s “Messages of Consolation,” which tell of the restoration of Israel to prominence as God’s chosen people. The key to understanding this chapter lies in correctly identifying who is speaking. Though the book was written by Isaiah, verses 53:1-10 are told from the perspective of world leaders. Following in the footsteps of the previous chapter (Isaiah 52:15 – “the kings will shut their mouths in amazement”), these verses describe how world leaders will be shocked with disbelief when God’s Servant Israel – despite all contrary expectations – is vindicated and blossoms in the Messianic age. (1) Who would believe what we have heard! For whom has the arm of God been revealed! מִי הֶאֱמִין לִשְׁמֻעָתֵנוּ וּזְרוֹעַ יְהוָה עַל מִי נִגְלָתָה In this opening verse, world leaders are shocked at the incredible news of Israel’s salvation: “Who would believe what we have heard!” This verse refers to “the arm of God.” Throughout the Jewish Bible, God’s “arm” (זרוע) always denotes a redemption of the Jewish people from physical persecution. For example, God took the Jews out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 26:8). (See also Exodus 3:20, 6:6, 14:31, 15:6; Deut. 4:34, 7:19; Isaiah 51:9, 52:10, 62:8, 63:12; Jeremiah 21:5, 27:5; Ezekiel 20:33; Psalms 44:3, 89:11, 98:1, 136:12). (2) He formerly grew like a sapling or a root from dry ground; he had neither form nor beauty. We saw him, but without a desirable appearance. וַיַּעַל כַּיּוֹנֵק לְפָנָיו וְכַשּׁרֶשׁ מֵאֶרֶץ צִיָּה לא תאַר לוֹ וְלא הָדָר וְנִרְאֵהוּ וְלא מַרְאֶה וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ This imagery of a tree struggling to grow in dry earth is a metaphor for the Jewish struggle in exile. A young sapling in dry ground appears that it will die. The Jews were always a small nation, at times as small as 2 million people, threatened with extinction. In this verse Isaiah describes Israel’s miraculous return from exile, like a sapling that sprouts from this dry ground. This idea appears throughout the Jewish Bible (see Isaiah 60:21, Ezekiel 19:13, Hosea 14:6-7, Amos 9:15). (3) He was despised and rejected of men, a man of pains and accustomed to sickness. As one from whom we would hide our faces, he was despised, and we had no regard for him. נִבְזֶה וַחֲדַל אִישִׁים אִישׁ מַכְאבוֹת וִידוּעַ חלִי וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ נִבְזֶה וְלא חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ This verse describes the Servant as universally despised and rejected. This has been a historical theme for the Jewish people, as a long list of oppressors have treated the Jews as sub-human (the Nazis) or as a pariah state (the United Nations). See similar imagery in Isaiah 49:7, 60:15; Psalms 44:14; Nechemia 3:36. While this description clearly applies to Israel, it cannot be reconciled with the New Testament account which describes Jesus as immensely popular (Matthew 4:25). “Large crowds” of people came from far and wide to hear him speak, and Jesus had to sail into the water to avoid being overrun by the crowds (Mark 3:7-9). Luke 2:52 describes him as physically strong and well respected, a man whose popularity spread and was “praised by all” (Luke 4:14-15). A far cry from Isaiah’s description of “despised and rejected.”