Isaiah 53 and the Messiah of Israel Part One
Editor’s Note: Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God led the Jewish prophet Isaiah to describe Him so clearly that the people of Israel—and the world—would recognize the Messiah. The incontestable accuracy of Isaiah 53 stands as one of the purest proofs that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. We are delighted, at this Christmas season, to run part one of an article by Israeli Pastor Meno Kalisher on this all-important chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures.
From the writing of Isaiah 53 in the 8th century B.C. until the 11th century A.D., all Jewish commentators believed this portion of Scripture spoke of the Messiah of Israel.
The first to object to this view and thus suffer severe criticism from other commentators of his time was Rabbi Solomon Ben Isaac (also called Shlomo Yitzhaki), known as Rashi (A.D. 1040–1105). Rashi argued that Isaiah 53 describes the people of Israel as suffering for the sins of the Gentile nations. Only in the last century have rabbis emphasized this interpretation and rejected the belief that Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah.
Unfortunately, Rashi based his interpretation on the assumption that “this [Servant] is not the Messiah since that is how the Christians interpret it.” It is a great shame to ignore the clarity of God’s Word for such a poor reason.
From Isaiah 52:13 to the end of chapter 53, God describes the character, ministry, and identity of the Servant of the Lord. (See also Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4–11.)
He is different here from other servants of the Lord described in Isaiah, such as the people of Israel and King Cyrus of Persia. This Servant offers His life as an atoning sacrifice to provide forgiveness of sins, both for the people of Israel and humanity in general. These verses describe the goal of God’s Word and speak of the salvation of human beings and the restoration of their holy and eternal relationship with God.
Our hope is that people will understand the Lord according to what is written in His Word so that they can receive the salvation of God that comes only through the Messiah.
The Servant’s Exalted Position
In Isaiah 52:13–15 God is clearly the speaker, and He describes the works and attributes of His Servant.
This Servant of the Lord would be exalted above all because He would deal prudently and perform the Lord’s will completely.
Jeremiah the prophet used the same Hebrew word, hiskil, to describe the King Messiah, the righteous Branch who would come from the house of David to reign over Judah and Israel and bring peace to our region (Jer. 23:5–6).
- 13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.
- 14 Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men;
- 15 So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.
- 1 Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
- 2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.
- 3 He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
- 4 Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
- 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
- 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
- 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.
- 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
- 9 And they made His grave with the wicked—but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.
- 10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
- 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.
- 12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgres- sors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Throughout the book, Isaiah spoke of the punishment the Lord will bring on the proud. Every time a sinful mortal coveted such an exalted position, he was punished and humiliated (2:12; 10:33; 13:11, 19; 14:11; 16:6; 23:9; 57:7). The prophet emphasized, in fact, that only God is worthy to be extolled and exalted. In chapter 6 it was the Lord who sat on a throne, high and lifted up; the same is true in 57:15.
Yet the Servant of the Lord is described as high and lifted up, righteous and prudent. Therefore, He is equal in status to the Lord, surpassing all human standing. All human eyes will look to Him (Isa. 45:23; Jer. 23:5; Phil. 2:9; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). Just as many were astonished at His marred, repulsive, and uncomely appearance, so will they be astonished when they see Him in His glory, exalted above all.
In 52:15, the prophet described a work of the Servant of the Lord that emphasizes His deity. The verb sprinkle describes the action of the priests when they purified the people of Israel or the Temple vessels (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 4:6; 8:11; 14:7; 16:14–15; Heb. 9:13). The priests, however, purified only Israel, whereas this Servant will purify “many nations.”
When kings will understand and recognize His identity, they will be speechless and understand their mistake (v. 15). The same One they despised and disregarded will be revealed as the only One who can purify them before God.
The Servant’s authority exceeds even that of the high priest who was the highest spiritual authority in Israel. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah declared,
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lᴏʀᴅ, “that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 23:5).
Jeremiah called this One “Tʜᴇ Lᴏʀᴅ [Yᴇʜᴏᴠᴀʜ] ᴏᴜʀ ʀɪɢʜᴛᴇᴏᴜsɴᴇss” (v. 6). Thus the Servant can only be God Himself.
All will see the Servant’s greatness and glory because His return will be accompanied by supernatural events in the skies and on Earth (Zech. 14; Acts 1:9–11). As soon as people see the Servant, they will understand that He is Jesus. Jeremiah 23:5–6 will be fulfilled completely when Jesus returns to reign over the world from Zion in Jerusalem (Ps. 2; Zech. 14:4; Mt. 24:30–31).
Since this is a unique and extraordinary message (the Lord coming as a Servant to serve His creatures), Isaiah then described the difficulty of believing the message, beginning with 53:1.
The Nation’s Lack of Faith
The prophet ached because of his people’s lack of faith. They found it difficult to identify the Servant of the Lord and believe in Him, despite clear Bible prophecies about Him and a show of His sovereign power and supernatural works.
Yet Israel’s spiritual blindness came as no surprise. Isaiah had already said, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider” (1:3). So the prophet asked with pain, “And to whom has the arm of the Lᴏʀᴅ been revealed?” (53:1).
The phrase arm of the Lᴏʀᴅ refers to the Lord’s strength and power, as manifested by His salvation of men (Ex. 6:6; Isa. 40:10; 42:6). The prophet actually said, “Look and see who is working out the salvation of God. It is the Servant of the Lord!”
Verses 2–3 describe how the Servant will appear and how the people will receive Him. He grew up before the Lord supernaturally and wonderfully—like a tree that springs up in a dry desert, like life that flows in a dry and hostile place.
Although the Lord raised up and nurtured His Servant, it becomes apparent that Isaiah’s people, the Israelites, neither recognized the Servant nor honored Him as they should. They saw no difference between Him and any other person.
Apparently, the driest place was the nation’s heart. It was a spiritual “desert” in every respect.
Verse 3 emphasizes Israel’s spiritual blindness. The Lord’s Servant came to His people, but they despised Him and distanced themselves from Him. (See John 1:11.) We despised what He said and did. We did not regard Him as an honorable dignitary, since we did not think He was of any importance. And when He passed by us, we turned aside and walked away.
The Servant’s Sacrifice
In 53:4–6, the people finally understand the reason for the Servant’s infirmities, pain, and suffering, which the prophet described in order to emphasize the great sacrifice offered up for us, as well as the depth of repentance that will come over Israel in the future.
The people of Israel thought the sufferings of “That Man” came upon Him because of His own sins. The truth is that, to this very day, many Jewish people believe Jesus was crucified as punishment for alleged apostasy.
But the day will come when they will recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ accepted the affliction they should have received (Zech. 12:10). He suffered in our place and because of our sins; He had no sin of His own (53:9).
Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law: “‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Dt. 27:26). The Lord’s Servant became a curse in our place so that God’s blessing would come upon us (Gal. 3:13). Thus we can be counted righteous and “sons” worthy of inheritance. (See also Matthew 8:16–17; Romans 3:21–26.)
“But He was wounded for our transgressions” tells us plainly that the Servant of the Lord was pierced because of our sins. He took our uncleanness on Himself (Isa. 53:5).
Throughout the entire passage, Isaiah emphasized the motive of this great exchange: The Servant of the Lord took on Himself the punishment that was supposed to come on us, so that good would come to us instead.
As it says in Galatians 1:3–4, “Our Lord Jesus Christ…gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
The meaning of the phrase the chastisement for our peace was upon Him is extremely significant (Isa. 53:5). When a lawbreaker hurts someone, he injures his relationship with the society in which he lives. To “reenter” society, he must first pay his debt, be it imprisonment and/or a fine. The chastisement is the penalty, or price, the lawbreaker must pay to rectify relationships.
By giving His own life and blood, the Messiah paid the penalty for our sins. He fully paid the price God had determined was necessary to make peace between Him and us. The chorus of Elvina Hall’s 1865 hymn “Jesus Paid It All” says it well:
Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain, |
He washed it white as snow.