There is no doubt that Isaiah chapter 53 is speaking of Israel's Suffering Servant, for the passage immediately preceding this chapter says,
"Behold My Servant will succeed, He will be exalted and lifted up and be very high. Just as many will be astonished over Him, thus His appearance is too marred to be a man's, and His description to be a human's. Thus many nations shall gaze upon Him, and kings will shut their mouths, because that which has never been told to them they will see, and that which they has never been told they will perceive." Isa. 52:13-15
There is also no doubt that Isaiah is speaking about the Messiah according the Talmud and Rashi's commentary on Sanhedrin 98. Therefore what does the reader learn about Messiah from Isaiah 53? This is the subject of this article. The chapter opens up with a call to be faithful to the proclamation that has been heard,
"Who has believed our report and unto who has the Arm/Seed/Son (see the previous article's discussion of this word) been revealed." Verse1
The subject of this verse, "the Arm of the L-rd" appears several of places in the prophecy of Israel (see Isa. 40:10, 51:5, 51:9, 52:10, 59:16, 63.5). It is clear from these passages that the "Arm of the L-rd" is the instrument that G-d uses to bring salvation, redemption, and the kingdom to His people Israel. This is exactly what the Messiah will do; hence, one sees an inherent relationship between the "Arm of the L-rd" and the Messiah. Although Isaiah uses different language in verse 2, the idea is the same as stated in Isaiah 11:1 (a shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse),
"He will rise as a sappling before Him, and as a root from arid land; He had neither form nor grandeur, we saw Him, but (He did) not have an appearance that we should desire Him." Verse 2
The primary message of this verse is that Messiah is not going to be an individual who draws others to Him by some beauty that He possesses. In fact the next verse tells how strongly Messiah will be rejected,
"He was despised and separated from men, a man of pains and someone who experienced sickness; (to the extent) one would hide his face from Him; He was despised and we did not give to Him any consideration. (Literally we did not consider Him) Verse 3
Hence, Messiah will not only suffer, but His suffering will be to the extent that it will cause Israel to reject Him and not afford to Him any consideration or significance. It is important to point out not only is Messiah rejected, but twice the text uses the word "despised". Messiah will be one for which Israel will have total contempt. Isaiah makes it clear in the beginning of the next verse that such a view is not based upon an accurate view of truth. For Isaiah writes in verse 4,
"In deed our sicknesses He bore our pains He did suffer, but we considered Him stricken- struck by G-d and afflicted."
As stated in the previous article, Rashi disagrees with himself in stating whom this chapter is about. When he writes about verse 4 from its use in the Talmud he states clearly that this chapter is about Messiah. However, in his commentary of Isaiah when he comes to this chapter he states that Israel (the Jewish people) is the subject. It is rather odd that Judaism, for the most part, adheres to Rashi's view from his Isaiah commentary rather than to assert the binding assertion of the Talmud (as the Talmud is considered to be Holy Scripture for Orthodox Judaism). Rashi's view that Israel is the subject is without foundation; the subject of Isaiah 53 is contained in the meaning of verse 4, "boreour sickness and our pains". One needs to ask the question who is being referred to with the word "our"? The obvious answer is Israel. Therefore, how could Israel be the one who bears the pains and the subject of the verse as well?
The first word of verse 4 is important in helping the reader understand the proper context. After stating the error of the people in not esteeming Messiah properly and even rejecting and despising Him, verse 4 opens up with the word that the Stone edition of the Hebrew bible translates, "But in truth". This phrase captures the intent of Isaiah. He wants to show how the previous two verses reveal an incorrect response of the people, a response that fails to believe the truth of the prophets. Whereas verse 4 emphasizes that the fact that Messiah's uncomely appearance was due to the suffering that He endured for Israel.
It is significant that this verse tells us that Messiah was "stricken and afflicted by G-d". This means that Messiah being the "Suffering Servant" was part of G-d's plan to bring about Israel's redemption. A point that the Talmud also emphasizes is that Messiah suffered and was afflicted in order to pay the price for our sins. This is also mentioned in the next verse of our text.
"He was profaned because of our transgressions and bruised because of our iniquities, the chastisement (for) our peace is upon Him and by His wounds we are healed." Verse 5
I translated the second word in the Hebrew with the word "profaned". The Hebrew word has an idea of desecration. The verse reveal that Messiah became sin for us; that is He Who never sinned, but is totally righteous, was afflicted and stricken by G-d because the sins of mankind were laid upon Him so that we could find redemption and peace with G-d (a spiritual healing). The next verse continues to emphasize that it was due to man's sin and guiltiness before G-d that Messiah endured a divine punishment.
"We are all like sheep and have erred, we have turned each man to his own way; and the L-rd inflicted upon Him the iniquity of all of us." Verse 6
There can be no debate that Messiah suffered vicariously for humanity. Another significant fact is that Messiah did all of this willfully and without any complaining or self-justification. Isaiah beautifully relates this with the following verse,
"He was oppressed and afflicted and He did not open His mouth, as a sheep is led before the slaughter and as a ewe before the shearers is silent, He did not open His mouth." Verse 7
It is worthy of attention that sacrificial animals are used in this analogy. In the next verse Isaiah speaks that the punishment and suffering finally ended and He (Messiah) was taken away (died). The prophet also speaks that this event was something that those of His generation could not have even discussed; that is, a suffering Messiah was too painful to even be considered. Such sentiments are exactly what the disciple Peter voiced when Jesus revealed G-d's plan for Him to go to Jerusalem and to lay down His life (see Mt. 16:21-22). The verse ends with another statement that Messiah suffered on behalf of His people.
"From imprisonment and judgment He was taken, His generation could not have even discussed for He was cut off from the land of the living because of the transgression of His people; an affliction for them." Verse 8
Verse 9 speaks once again of His innocence, yet His willingness to submit to the outcome of sin, not His sin, but as already been discussed, the sins of mankind. This verse is rather difficult to translate if one does not utilize the laws of Hebrew poetry and possess a competent understanding of Hebrew parallelism. In order to assist in a proper translation I will lay out the verse in a manner that shows the parallels.
It was given among the wicked (plural) His tomb (singular)
XXXXXX before a rich one (singular) His death (plural)
Concerning no violence He did
XXXXXX no deception (was) in His mouth
The first phrase (His tomb was among the wicked ones) shows that although He never sinned, Messiah suffered the outcome of all sinners and died and was buried. The second phrase (He submitted before a ruler His death) is important to understand because it does not contain the "It was given/ He submitted" wording; however it is understood that those words needed to be added in order to complete the idea of the parallel section. Rabbinical commentators point out that the word translated "rich" is better understood as a ruler as rulers were rich. Hence it was one certain ruler who gave to Messiah a death sentence. The end of the second phrase has death in the plural, which does not make any sense until one understands that in Messiah's death, many died. For it says in I Cor. 5:14b-15
"…that since one (Messiah) DIED for all, then were all dead:
And that he DIED for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which DIED for them, and rose again.
A smoother English translation for Isaiah 53:9 would be,
"His tomb was among the dead and he was sentenced to death by one ruler, He did no violent act nor was there any deception in His mouth."
The next verse reiterates that it was G-d's desire to bring the punishment of sin (death) for all humanity upon the Messiah. It also tells that since Messiah suffered the shame; that the "seed", Israel will eventually understand this truth and be blessed. (The phrase for have one's days lengthened is an idiom for being blessed.) All of this the L-rd desired for His people and because of the redemption that would befall Israel, G-d delighted in afflicting the Messiah. The verse ends with a statement that Messiah will successfully complete His work
"The L-rd delighted (in) crushing Him-He (The L-rd) afflicted (Him)! Since you place guilt on His soul, (the) seed (Israel) will see, he will lengthen days, the delight of the L-rd is in His hand-He (Messiah) will succeed"! Verse 10
The prophet then makes a statement that the L-rd will see the labor of Messiah and be pleased with it. That Messiah, My Servant (the L-rd's Servant) will succeed in bringing righteousness upon Israel. How will Messiah do this? Verse 11 says boldly, "and their iniquity He suffered."
"The toil of His soul He (The L-rd) will see, He will be satisfied with the knowledge (Lit. His knowledge) that My Servant will justify many, for He suffered their iniquity." Verse 11
The chapter ends with the following verse,
"Therefore I will divide to him among the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of the mighty in return for having poured out his soul to death, he was numbered among the transgressors and he carried the sin of many and for transgressors he will be afflicted."
This verse informs the reader that as Messiah receives His reward that it will be distributed among those He justified. This reward will be the spoils of mighty nations. This is to fulfill the verse that we shall inherit the earth and that in the last days; i.e. the nations will bring up to Jerusalem their treasures. The reason that we can receive these blessing (both physical and spiritual) is because Messiah did the work of redemption and pour out His Holy Soul unto death, bearing our sins and transgressions. It was for this reason He was afflicted and G-d delighted in doing so.
It is amazing that in the twelve verses of Isaiah chapter fifty-three the prophet tells the reader that Messiah must suffer for sin multiple times, but yet Judaism fails to convey this most important truth.
Author: Dr Baruch Korman