A portrait of the suffering Messiah | Isaiah 53

with acknowledgements to David Baron, Dr. Kac and William Manson for much of the material.

Ancient Jewish Interpretation of Isaiah Fifty three.

Dr. C.H. Wright, in “The Servant of Jehovah,” has this remark: “This great prophecy was an enigma which could not be fully understood in the days before Christ, but which has been solved by the sufferings, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Him who was both Son of Man and Son of God.”

It is therefore, not surprising to find that in the Talmud and Rabbinic Midrashim there is much confusion and contradiction in the various interpretations advanced by the Rabbis. It is true that the messianic interpretation was not the general one, or the one officially recognised in Israel (any more than any of the other interpretations can be said to have been either generally or officially recognised), yet from most ancient times there have not lacked authoritative teachers who interpreted the chapter of the Messiah ­ in spite of the fact that the picture of the Redeemer which is here drawn is utterly opposed to the disposition and to the perverted hopes and expectations in reference to the Messiah which have developed in Rabbinic Judaism.

The following brief extracts are from ancient Jewish interpretations: First we quote Jonathan ben Uzziel (first century AD), who begins his Targum with, “Behold, my Servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high and increase, and be exceeding strong.” But in order to reconcile his interpretation of this Scripture of the Messiah with his reluctance to recognise that the promised Deliverer must suffer and die for the sins of the nation, he proceeds to juggle with the Scripture in a most extraordinary way, making all the references to exaltation and glory in the chapter, to apply to the Messiah, but the references to tribulation and sufferings to Israel. As an illustration of this method by which this is accomplished, we quote only his paraphrase of the very next verse of Isaiah 52: 14 which reads, “As the House of Israel looked to Him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men. . .”

In the Talmud Babylon, among other opinions, we find the following: The Messiah what is His name?. . . The Rabbis say the “leprous one” (those) of the house of Rabbi (say), “the sick one,” as it is said, “Surely He hath borne our sicknesses.” It must be pointed out, however, that this statement is based on a wrong interpretation of the word “Nagua” “stricken” or “plagued,” as meaning “leprous.”

That the generally received older Jewish interpretation of this prophecy was messianic is admitted by Abrabanel, who himself proceeds in a lengthy polemic against the Nazarenes to interpret it of the Jewish nation. He begins: “the first question is to ascertain to whom (this scripture) refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the second Temple, and who, according to them was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin’s womb, as is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uzziel interprets it in the Targum of the future Messiah; and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim.”

Similarly, Rabbi Mosheh el sheikh, commonly known as Alshech (l6th cent), who also himself followed the older interpretation, at any rate of Isaiah 52:13 15 which contain a summary of the whole prophecy, testified that “our Rabbis, with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah.”

In fact, until Rashi applied it to the Jewish nation, the messianic interpretation of this chapter was almost universally adopted by Jews, and his view, although received by Aben Ezra, Kimchi, and others, was rejected as unsatisfactory by Maimonides, who is regarded by the Jews as of the highest authority, by Alshech (as stated above), and many others, one of whom says the interpretation adopted by Rashi “distorts the passage from its natural meaning,” and that in truth “it was given of God as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when any should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non resemblance to it whether he be the Messiah or not.” This was the opinion of Rabbi Mosheh Kohen Iben Crispin, of Cordova and afterwards of Toledo (l4th Cent). He rightly says of those who, for controversial reasons, applied this prophecy to Israel and by so doing “the doors of the literal interpretation of this Parashah (portion or chapter), were shut in their face, and that they wearied themselves to find the entrance, having forsaken the knowledge of our teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and of their own opinions.”

Rabbi Eliyya de Vidas (1575 AD) says: “The meaning of ‘He was wounded for our transgressions,. . .bruised for our iniquities,’ is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.”

Before we proceed to an examination of the modern Jewish interpretation of this chapter, let us add two very striking testimonies to its more ancient interpretation, not from the Targums or Midrashim, which might be said to express the individual opinion of this or that Rabbi, but from Jewish Liturgy, which may be said to bear the seal of authority of the Synagogue.

The first in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement in the Musaph Service confesses: “We are shrunk up in our misery even until now! Our Rock hath not come nigh unto us; Messiah our Righteousness has departed from us: horror hath seized upon us and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgressions and is wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins upon His shoulders that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound at the time the Eternal will create Him (Messiah) as a new creature. Oh bring Him up from the circle of the earth, raise Him up from Seir to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.” This excerpt is conclusive proof that the writer of this section of the liturgy (which is no longer extant in modern day publications) likewise interpreted this passage as messianic.

The other passage is also from the Machsor and will be found among the prayers on the Feast of Passover. It is as follows: “Flee my beloved, until the end of the vision shall speak, hasten and the shadows shall take their flight hence: high and exalted and lofty shall be the despised one; he shall be prudent in judgement, and shall sprinkle many! Lay bare thine arm! cry out and say: The voice of my beloved; behold he cometh!”

David Levi, the English translator of the Machsor, a Jew, says in a note that this verse referred to “the true Messiah.”

Modern Jewish Interpretations

The writer Pusey, points out in his Introduction to “The Jewish interpreters of Isaiah Fifty three” that, “the objections raised by Jewish controversialists (and by non messianic Christian interpreters) in only four, or at the most five, words turn on the language.” He goes on, “the characteristics in which all agree are, that there would be a prevailing unbelief as to the subject of the prophecy, lowly beginnings, among circumstances outwardly unfavourable, but before God, and protected by Him; sorrows, injustice, contempt, death, which were the portion of the sufferer; that he was accounted a transgressor, yet that his sufferings were, in some way, vicarious, the just for the unjust; his meek silence; his willing acceptance of his death; his being with the rich in his death; his soul being (in some way) an offering for sin; and God’s acceptance of it; his prolonged life; his making many righteous; his continued intercession for transgressors; the greatness of his exaltation, in proportion to the depth of his humiliation; the submission of kings to him; his abiding reign.”

Now these characteristics stand out in all literal translations, whether made by Jews or Christians. It is also not necessary for us to examine those interpretations which apply the chapter to Jeremiah, Isaiah himself, Hezekiah etc., for they have been sufficiently refuted by Jewish writers themselves. The most generally accepted modern Jewish interpretation of this prophecy is that which makes it apply to the Jewish nation.
The first of the Jewish commentators who applied chapter 53 of Isaiah to the Jewish nation was Rashi, and since his time, it has become more and more the ‘generally received’ interpretation among the Jews, despite the fact that at an earlier period of his life Rashi, when he wrote his commentary on the Talmud actually followed the older interpretation which applied Isaiah 53 to the Messiah. But it is certain that his new interpretation was influenced by the hideous massacre of Jews in Spire, Worms, Mainz, Cologne. The Jewish historian and apologist, Graetz avers, “Before the time of the first Crusade, the Jews in Germany were neither in a condition of oppression nor contempt, nor were shut out from holding property. In what has been called the ‘iron age of Judaism,’ there was too much occasion for representing them (as far as man was concerned) as guiltless sufferers.”

The modern interpretation was also used as a device in order to answer “heretics” (Jewish Bible believers) who were pressing the Rabbis with the remarkable resemblance between the prophecy and its fulfilment in Jesus.

One of the foremost exponents of the modern view was Rabbi Maasseh Manasseh ben Israel who lived in the l7th century, whose work formed the embodiment of practically all that Jewish controversialists and rationalistic Christian writers have to say on the subject. We cannot go into this in detail but will highlight certain passages and later will append our comments. He says on chapter 52:13: “Servant” was one of the many titles of honour with which God blessed Israel. They as loyal servants suffered persecution. He finds proof of this chapter referring to Israel because of the connection with the previous chapter where the prophet says, “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion,” etc. and then continues in vs. 13 “Behold my servant. . .The nations of the world wonder at the low estate and fortunes going so far as to charge them with being disfigured and being not like other mortals. Suddenly the nations are speechless at the change in Israel’s fortunes.”

On verses 4 7 he puts the following words in the mouth of the gentiles. “We deserved the troubles and calamities which this innocent people suffered in their captivity. But we were so blind that we considered him to be wounded, smitten and afflicted by God. . . but our wickedness alone was the cause of his troubles. . . the discipline of our peace was upon him. . . ultimately we shall find health in wounding him. We have erred and gone astray like sheep for we did not believe them. We subjected them to torture and affliction but they were silent.” On verse 9 he says: “The nations continue, “We have frequently condemned this people to death and buried them with malefactors and the rich. . . there was no deceit in his mouth….” From verse 10 onwards the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord. Their being made sick will be the means of purifying them. Israel is regarded as a righteous servant, who justifies many by his knowledge and wisdom, bringing them with brotherly love over to the true religion. This is where he bears their iniquities patiently suffering the tyranny of their wickedness. This then, is the modern Jewish view of this prophecy.

The four Servant Songs – a Progressive unity

It is maintained that this chapter has been quite artificially and wrongly separated from the last three verses of the previous chapter, without which it cannot be understood. Further there are three other Servant Songs which belong together and can be regarded as forming one cohesive unit. The first is Isaiah 42:1 4 where the Servant is described as one chosen and upheld by Jehovah, spiritually endowed for His mission. The second is found in Isaiah 49:1 6 in which He addresses himself to all men and He has been equipped with a powerful message. His purpose is not merely to restore scattered Israel but to be a light to all nations. In the third Song He shows faithful execution of His message from God, but suffers shame and suffering. Isaiah 52:13 — 53:12 shows His ultimate triumph over death and the grave.

This is acknowledged by the kings of the nations who are overwhelmed with astonishment. There has been nothing in the previous history of the Servant to prepare them for this, for He had been despised and forsaken of men. But now they see a hidden meaning in His sufferings, which have been endured not for His own sin, for He was sinless but for the healing of others, who were under God’s wrath. That which He has borne was really their due, yet He submitted quietly even to actual death. In the issue Jehovah restores Him to life, and His vicarious suffering brings Him to glory and honour.

Such is the Christian argument of the four Servant Songs, of which the progressive unity is apparent. To the true Christian Church, as long as she possessed Christ and acknowledged His authority, she could do nothing less than to follow Him, whom to know is life eternal.

The rejection of the Messianic interpretation of the passage which is under revue found impact with the sceptics, Jewish and Gentile because of the prevalence of Naturalism.

The Untenableness of the Modern Interpretation.

Before we proceed to show the untenableness of this modern interpretation, it is necessary to mention that, like most false teaching, there is usually an element of truth in their system, which lends plausibility to error. Indeed, the term “Servant of Jehovah,” is applied to Israel in the second half of the book of Isaiah. (Is.41:8; 43:10 and 44:1).

Yet Israel’s unfaithfulness as Jehovah’s servant is forcibly depicted in many passages of these very chapters of Isaiah. But Israel’s sins and disobedience cannot frustrate the purpose of God. The ideal to which the nation could not rise is gloriously realised in Him who is both the Head and Heart of Israel.

In the words of Von Orelli, “The idea, ‘Servant of Jehovah,’ which was united from the first in God’s purpose with the people of Israel, outgrew this national limit, even as the idea, ‘Son of God,’ which was likewise at first attributed to the people, also became a separate Person and was definitely assigned to the Messiah — i.e., the Lord’s Anointed” (as for instance in Psalm 2).

Yet God’s grace is upon the nation through the merits of Messiah and in their restoration and conversion to Him they will receive honour. Now, the term “Servant of Jehovah” detaches itself from the national multitude and becomes a personally conceived ideal, which acquires such independence that the nation itself becomes the object of the Servant’s redeeming work.

In chapter 49 especially we see this One individual, who is out of the nation, and yet towering high above it, invested with the name and the mission to which Israel was called in the first instance: “…And He said unto me,‘Thou art my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified … and now said Jehovah who formed me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob again to Him, and that Israel be gathered unto Him… He said,‘lt is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will give thee for a light to the gentiles, and that thou mayest be My salvation unto the end of the earth’” (Isaiah. 49:1 6).

That it is not of the nation of Israel that this prophecy speaks is clear and manifest to every unbiased mind, since the One who is here thus dramatically introduced as proclaiming His own call and induement for His office, and Whom Jehovah addresses, is the One who is sent as the Redeemer of Israel, namely, “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel,” i.e. not only to their land but to their God.

As in chapters 42, 49 and 53 where the figure of the Servant of Jehovah unfolds its fulness of’ meaning, He is clearly and definitely distinguished from the nation. Thus, for instance, we read in the 8th verse, “For the transgressions of my people was He stricken.” The speaker is either Jehovah or the prophet, but in either case ami (my people) can apply only to Israel, and if the servant is stricken for Israel he cannot be Israel.

There are other conclusive reasons why the 53rd chapter of Isaiah cannot be applied to Israel:

(1) The subject of the prophecy is an absolutely innocent sufferer who bears the guilt of others, who has Himself “done no violence, nor can deceit be found in his mouth,” but is “stricken,” “smitten” and “afflicted of God” for others.
(2) He is a voluntary sufferer, one who willingly “pours out his own soul unto death.” [vs.12]
(3) He is an unresisting sufferer one who is “led as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, He openeth not his mouth.”
(4) His sufferings end in death.

Now none of these points is found in the Jewish nation. Israel has suffered but is not innocent. Her sorrows and suffering are a direct consequence of her sin.

ln spite of the statement “for the transgressions of my people” (Israel) that the righteous Servant was stricken, the modern Rabbis insist on putting these statements into the mouth of the gentiles; but this is only part of the self deception which characterises the modern teachers and leaders of the Synagogue, and which has led them to perversive views of their own Scriptures and facts of history. lt is the same spirit of pharisaic self satisfaction which regards the dispersion among the nations as a blessing, and denies the necessity of atonement and of a mediator between God and man.

Israel’s dispersion among the nations, and their many sufferings during the long period of their wanderings from the presence of God, are the direct consequences of their apostasy and sin (Lev.26: 14 45). What Moses announced in advance in Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy chapter 28 etc. is repeated and confirmed by all the prophets. Far from being itself innocent and suffering for the guilt of others, the prophet speaks of them as a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil doers” whose iniquities have separated between them and their God, and whose sins have caused His face to be hid from them that He will not hear (Is. 1:2 9, Is. 59:2 l.).

The 42nd chapter of Isaiah depicts Israel’s suffering among the nations. “Who is there among you that will give ear to this. . . who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers? Did not Jehovah? He against whom we have sinned, and in whose ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient unto His law.”

To evade the force of this truth, that the nation could not be the innocent sufferer set forth in the personal portrait of the Servant of the Lord in chapters 42, 49 and 53, some Jewish and rationalistic writers have interpreted this great prophecy of the godly remnant of the nation. But, though relatively the pious in the nation may be spoken of as righteous when compared with the godless majority, they are not absolutely righteous, and, far from being able to render a vicarious satisfaction for others, they cannot even stand themselves before God on the ground of their own righteousness. It is indeed the godly remnant in the nation which is described as “contrite and humble…” They are waiting for the salvation of God which is wholly of grace. These righteous ones confess for themselves and for the entire nation that “we are unclean…our righteousness is filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6)

Furthermore, Israel does not suffer voluntarily. Hengstenberg observes, “the Jews did not go voluntarily into captivity, but were dragged into it by force…they were forced to submit to the gentile nations who God used as His scourge.” Whereas Christ bore all sorts of afflictions and oppression without even opening his mouth to utter reproach (He who had the meekness and gentleness of a lamb …inoffensive as a sheep), the Jews cannot be described as unresisting sufferers. History is sufficient to convince us of that.

We acknowledge that their provocations were great and there is no intention to defend the wickedness of the gentile nations. Their treatment of the Jews is a blot and a stain. But these nations cannot be ‘lumped together as Christians.’ Furthermore, neither have the sufferings of the Jewish nation ended in death, as is the lot of the Servant of Jehovah in Isaiah 53.

To quote from another writer, concerning the fact that the chapter relates to a Person and not to a collective body. “Not one analogous instance can be quoted in favour of a personification carried on through a whole section, without the slightest intimation that it is not a single individual who is spoken of. In verse 3 the subject is ‘a man’; in verses 10 and 12 a soul is ascribed to him; grave and death are used so as to imply a subject in the singular. Scripture never leaves anything to be guessed. It is different in those passages where the prophet designates Israel by the name of the Servant of the Lord. In them, all uncertainty is prevented by the addition of the names ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel’; and in them the prophet uses the plural by the side of the singular to intimate that the Servant of the Lord is an ideal person, a collective.”

In the whole of history the picture fits only one Person….Jesus the Messiah. In Him this prophecy found fulfilment (see also Psalm 22, 40 and Hebrews 10:5). That there is a marked resemblance between the picture of the Servant of Jehovah in chapter 53 and the Jesus of the gospels is acknowledged by many Jews.

Thus Rabbi Abraham Farissol (early 16th century) says, “In this chapter there seem to be considerable resemblances and allusions to the work of the Christian Messiah and to the events that are asserted to have happened to him — so that no other prophecy can be found, the gist and subject of which can be so immediately applied to him.”

As a matter of fact this glorious prophecy of the sufferings of the Messiah and the glory that should follow, has been used by God more than any other Scripture, in opening the eyes of Jews to recognise in Jesus Israel’s Redeemer–King. Is this perhaps the chief reason why this chapter is omitted from the public readings in the synagogue?

It is sad that the nation still despises and rejects the Saviour, who considers Him “smitten of God and afflicted.” But this very feeling and attitude on the part of the Jewish nation, is one great proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it is to Him that this prophecy refers. He still calls the Jewish people (and the gentiles) to come unto Him and that He will give them rest.