If you read my last post, you probably already understand that when I look at Isaiah 53, I tend to not interpret it as being a direct prediction of Jesus and the atonement. I briefly mentioned how most Hebrew scholars today view Isaiah’s Suffering Servant as referring to the nation of Israel. Also, last time I talked about things like typology, and prophetic fulfillment, and Miss Cleo, and whatnot. But, this time I would like to focus specifically on this chapter from Isaiah. As one respondent pointed out, a good number of the verses in this chapter (of which there are only twelve) seem to be pretty obviously about Jesus. For instance…
Things that seem rather Jesus-ish (and not very people of Israel-ish)
Isaiah 53 says that the Servant has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v 4). He “was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities” (v 5). Clearly, this is referring to Jesus’ vicarious sacrifice to atone for our sins, right? As opposed to Israel, who was destroyed because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, the Servant was destroyed for the sins of mankind since “the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v.6).
We are told that the Servant did not open his mouth while being led to slaughter (v 7) and that he was buried alongside the wicked and the rich (v 9). How could this be a reference to the nation of Israel?
Again, the substitutionary idea of atonement seems to come across pretty strong since the Servant is said to be “making a guilt offering for sin” (v 10). Furthermore, he “makes many to be accounted righteous” by “bearing their iniquities” (v 11), and “makes intercession for the transgressors” (v 12). That doesn’t sound much like Israel, does it? But it sure does sound like the sort of thing Jesus did.
Last of all, apparently1 the ESV Study Bible concludes, “to be clear on which parties are described, it helps to observe the pronouns: ‘I’ in this passage is typically the Lord, ‘he’ the servant, and ‘we’ the servant’s disciples, who themselves need the servant to bear their guilt (53:4–6), which is why the servant cannot be Israel or the pious within Israel.”
“Well,” you might be thinking, “that seems pretty cut and dried. How on earth do you read that and not conclude that Isaiah is very obviously predicting the suffering of Jesus?” That is a very good question, and it is toward answering this question that we now turn…
Reasons why the Suffering Servant is Israel and not Jesus
Let me begin by saying that while the interpretation that I am going to argue for is the dominant view among Hebrew scholars, I understand that it is not the dominant view among evangelical Christians (including pastors). There are theologians that I admire very much who don’t hold this view. I say this because I understand that in the realm of evangelicalism this view bears the burden of proof. So, I’ll just offer a few general considerations (and outsource the specifics), and you can be the judge of whether or not you think this view makes sense. So, let’s get on with it, shall we?
I am not going to go into a verse-by-verse exposition for why I think the things that so very obviously point to Jesus actually don’t.2 However, I think it would be helpful for us to approach Isaiah 53 with the same basic interpretive framework with which Jewish tradition has treated this chapter. To begin with, we have to understand that Isaiah 53 is actually the last among the four Servant Songs (Isa 42; 49; 50; and 53). While chapter 53 does not directly provide the identity of the Servant, beginning in chapter 41 Isaiah does identify the Servant as Israel – “You are My Servant, O Israel” (41:8); “You are My Servant, Israel” (49:3; cf. 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20). It would be odd for Isaiah to suddenly switch the identity of the Servant in the last song – also elsewhere in the Old Testament Israel is referred to as God’s “servant” (cf. Jer 30:10; 46:27-28; Ps 139:22). I think it would be appropriate then for us to begin by assuming that Isaiah is referring to Israel as the Servant, and only change this understanding if the text requires us to.
With regard to the use of pronouns, I do not think that the use of the singular pronoun is a hard and fast indicator that Isaiah is referring to an individual as opposed to a community of people. For instance, the nation of Israel is often referred to in the singular throughout the Old Testament (Exod 4:22; 20:1-14; Deut 32) to demonstrate unity among the people. This is especially true when referring to the unity of Israel under the messianic age (Hos 14:6-7; Jer 50:19), which is exactly the era that Isaiah is envisioning in chapter 53.
Now, the ESV editors seem pretty convinced that in this passage “I” refers to God, “he” refers to the Servant, and “we” refers to the Servant’s disciples, and because of this we can be sure that the general Christian understanding of this passage is correct. But is that actually what each of those pronouns refer to? Jewish scholars don’t seem to think so. We have to understand chapter 53 in the context of where it lands in Isaiah’s writings.3 The prophet spends a large amount of time spelling out the hardships of the coming exile, and then goes into a section sometimes called the “Messages of Consolation,” which is where we find chapter 53. We see in the previous chapter that “The LORD has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations” (52:10). God has redeemed the people of Israel and now their oppressors (the pagan nations) are starting to realize how awesome Israel and their God is. These rulers who had previously howled blasphemies at the name of the Lord (52:5) have now had their mouths shut (52:15); “what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand” (v 15).
And what is it that these pagan rulers now see and understand? Enter chapter 53. You see, contrary to the ESV Study Bible, this passage is not written from the perspective of the Servant’s disciples. Rather, 53:1-10 is written from the viewpoint of these pagan rulers who have now come to understand the holiness and majesty of Israel, and this changes a whole lot of how we should understand each verse in this chapter. So, take that mindset with you and read through Isaiah 53 again.
Also, if you would like a blow-by-blow analysis of this chapter from the Jewish perspective,4 check out this post that I borrowed pretty heavily from.5 It addresses how we take this framework into our understanding of each verse, and also addresses some of the apparent mistranslations in the text (which I am not at all qualified to speak to).
If you would like to read more from the Jewish perspective, check out…
And for a distinctly Jewish translation of the Bible, go here.
Last of all, I just want to say that I am totally with the New Testament writers when they claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53 (cf. Mt 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24). I think he is! But, typologically (he is the perfect suffering servant), and not in the predictive way that a lot of Christians think.
Anyhow, what do you think?
1: I say apparently because I don’t actually own an ESV Study Bible, so I couldn’t tell you exactly where it says this. However, this quote was sent to me by an intelligent person in a rebuttal to last week’s post, and I’ve found it quoted numerous times elsewhere on the internet (albeit, never with proper citation). So, I’m just going to give folks the benefit of the doubt and assume that it actually does say this.
2: If you want that, go here
3: Remember context, context, context!!!
4: Which seems like an appropriate thing to consider when dealing with a Jewish text, you know.
5: I think that it goes without saying (though I’m going to say it anyway) that I do not agree with everything on this sight. I am a Christian and the author is a Jew, and that alone means we are going to come down differently on how we understand Jesus. Nevertheless, I think a lot of what he says makes sense, and since I’m not a Hebrew scholar I’m going to assume that he is right on the mistranslation stuff (unless another Hebrew scholar explains to me otherwise).