“Of Whom Speaketh the Prophet This?”
In August of each year, the synagogue Scripture reading from the prophets is taken from the Book of Isaiah. Around the third Sabbath in August, the reading ends at Isaiah 52:12, just three verses before the end of that chapter. On the next Sabbath the reading picks up at Isaiah 54:1, omitting Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 from the readings of the prophets in the synagogue. That important passage is never read in the synagogue.
Why is there a big gap in the synagogue readings from Isaiah? Could it be that the rabbis simply do not want to expose their synagogue attenders to the contents of this chapter? Why would they be afraid of it?
This chapter speaks in the clearest and most detailed way of the Messiah of Israel, called the servant, who is rejected by Israel but approved in God’s plan as the means of salvation, atonement, and forgiveness for Israel and the whole world. According to Isaiah 52:14–15, God’s servant not only suffers for the people of Israel, but as a result of His suffering and death, His blood will sprinkle many nations. Thus, He is the Savior of the Gentiles as well. This is such an important passage that we must look at it closer in light of its role in Jewish tradition: how Jewish people view it, how it is viewed in the New Testament, and its relevance to our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior.
God has used Isaiah 53 in amazing ways in history, beginning in Acts 8, where Philip led the Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Jesus through the words of this chapter. Philip responded to the eunuch’s question, “of whom speaketh the prophet this?” (v. 34). Personally, I can’t think of any other passage that has been cited more by Jewish believers as the means God used to bring them to faith in Jesus than Isaiah 53.
In Isaiah 53:1–3, we see the servant’s submission; in verses 4–6, the servant’s substitution; in verses 7–9, the servant’s sinlessness; and in verses 10–12—the triumphant ending of this chapter—the servant’s satisfaction.
THE SERVANT’S SUBMISSION
“Who hath believed our report?” Isaiah asks. In other words, not many people will accept this message. “And to whom is the arm of the Lᴏʀᴅ revealed?” (v. 1). It will take the revelation of the Lord for people to understand this message of the suffering servant. Verse 2 says, “he shall grow up before him like a tender plant, and like a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” This speaks of the lowly beginnings of the servant. Miriam and Joseph had to bring the poor person’s offering when they presented Jesus at the Temple (Lk. 2:22–24).
Isaiah 53:2 says that when He would come forth, “there is no beauty that we should desire him.” There was nothing in the appearance of the Galilean peasant that attracted people. They would reject Him: “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (v. 3). He did not draw the admiration of the religious leaders of His day. They despised Him. But when He spoke, it was with power and authority, and the common people wondered at the gracious words that came forth from His mouth.
THE SERVANT’S SUBSTITUTION
Verses 4-6 tell of the servant’s substitution: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lᴏʀᴅ hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He did not suffer because of anything He did or because He was a martyr. He suffered for others. Over and over the words our and us are used here, indicating that He suffered for the sins of mankind; He died for all people.
In this regard, it is important to examine the matter of what the rabbis say about Isaiah 53. Prior to about AD 1100, even the rabbis acknowledged that Isaiah 53 must apply to the Messiah. For example, the Targum-Jonathan, written in the second century AD, says of Isaiah 52:13, “Behold my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper.” The rabbis of the Talmudic period always referred to the servant as the Messiah. But around AD 1100, a great teacher named Rashi inaugurated a new interpretation of Isaiah 53 that today is the general Jewish interpretation of this passage. Rashi said Isaiah 53 does not refer to Jesus, nor does it refer to the Messiah. Rather, it refers to Israel as a nation, as a people despised by the Gentiles, rejected by the Gentiles, and who have suffered at the hands of the Gentiles.
How do we respond to that in light of Isaiah 53:4–6? First, while there are some passages in the Book of Isaiah where the term servant does apply to Israel, there are other passages where it cannot refer to Israel. For example, consider Isaiah 49:6, “It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will also give thee for a light to the nations, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” In other words, the servant is not Israel but an individual who will bring Israel back to God.
Israel as a nation was called to be a light; they were called to be righteous. But Isaiah clearly stated that they proved to be unrighteous. There would be one who would come, however, called the servant, who would be the ideal Israel and would be successful where the people failed. God appointed this ideal person, this ideal Israel to be His servant to bring Israel back to the Lord. This is a clear indication that God’s servant is a person, as indicated by the pronouns used: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (v. 4). The singular pronouns cannot refer to Israel and must therefore be an individual. Israel cannot die for Israel, but this individual will die for Israel.
Furthermore, the servant is righteous: “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” (v. 11). He was sinless. This certainly has never been true of Israel. Isaiah himself told how sinful Israel was (cf. Isa. 1). Therefore, the submissive servant cannot be Israel. Also, the servant suffers voluntarily and silently: “He was oppressed … yet he opened not his mouth” (v. 7). Israel never suffered in this way. There were a number of instances, even during the awful experience of the Holocaust, when Jews rebelled. They formed underground resistance, fought against the Nazis with what strength and weapons they had, and suffered in secret but not in silence.
Finally, the servant dies: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (v. 10). Israel has never died, so the chapter cannot speak of Israel. The language must speak of an individual who would die for Israel. As verse 6 states, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lᴏʀᴅ hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. The servant died a substitutionary death to atone for the sins of Israel.
THE SERVANT’S SINLESSNESS
In verses 7–9 we see the servant’s sinlessness. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (v. 7). This is exactly what happened in the trial of the Lord Jesus when false witnesses were brought against Him and brought false charges against Him. He did not speak. He did not object to the treatment. He did not strike back at the abuse. He willingly accepted it. Certainly the silence of Jesus at His trial was the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.
Verse 8 says, “He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation [who will declare His physical descendants]? For he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was he stricken.” “My people” clearly refers to Israel, while the servant dies for the transgression of Israel. He was cut off from the land of the living—a clear reference to His death. This cannot be Israel. Israel was not cut off from the land of the living but is in existence today. According to the promises of God, this individual would die as a sinless sacrifice for others.
Verse 9 is fascinating: “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” Even though He was sinless, He died with the wicked. But the verse says more than that. It literally says that His grave was appointed to be with wicked men, but He was with a rich man in His death. The word “wicked” in the first part of verse 9 is plural. The word “rich” in the second part of the verse is singular. Why a plural “wicked” but a singular “rich” man?
Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 are graphic descriptions of the Roman method of execution called crucifixion. People who were crucified were stripped of their clothes in shame and disgrace. Their hands and feet were pierced, and to hasten their death sometimes the side was pierced. The amazing thing is that in the time of Isaiah, as well as at the time when David wrote Psalm 22, crucifixion was not used as a method of execution among the Jewish people.
Jewish people are very concerned about burial. A body could not be left to die on a cross overnight and could not be buried with other bodies. Reverent hands must take that body, wash it, anoint it, and bury it in a single tomb. Victims of crucifixion, however, did not have those privileges. Their bodies were usually cast into a common grave with other thieves and robbers who had also been crucified. But there was an exception to that practice in Jesus’ case. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret believer in the Lord Jesus, interceded for the family and requested His body. Loving hands took the body of Jesus down from the cross, wrapped Him, and put Him into the tomb, thus fulfilling Isaiah 53:9. How else can we explain, but by the fulfillment of prophecy, this amazing statement?
THE SERVANT’S SATISFACTION
Finally, in verses 10–12 we read of the servant’s satisfaction. Verse 10 says, “Yet it pleased the Lᴏʀᴅ to bruise him.” Often we hear, “Did the Jews kill Jesus, or was it the Romans?” Actually, both were involved, but ultimately it was God’s plan that His servant suffer. “It pleased the Lᴏʀᴅ to bruise him; he hath put him to grief. When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lᴏʀᴅ shall prosper in his hand” (v. 10). Thus, His death would be an offering for sin. And after He became an offering for sin, the servant would “see his seed, he shall prolong his days.”
There is a modern Jewish objection to this passage being used to apply to Jesus. “Isaiah 53 cannot be talking about Jesus,” some Jews say, “because it says He will have many children and will live to be an old man.” But this verse does not teach that. When it says “he shall see his seed,” it is not describing His physical seed. Rather, it is talking of His spiritual seed. Psalm 22:30 says, “A seed shall serve him.” The word seed is often used in the Old Testament for followers. Also, “he shall prolong his days” does not mean that He will live a long life. It actually means that He will lengthen His days after he dies. That can only mean that He will come back to life after He dies as a sin offering. So not only did Isaiah speak of the Messiah’s death, he also prophesied the Messiah’s resurrection.
Verse 10 also speaks about the multitude of spiritual followers who will come to believe in Him. As a matter of fact, that is also the meaning of verse 11: “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.” In other words, His death would not be a disappointment. There would be a purpose to His death, and He would be satisfied: “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” When the Messiah comes and bears the iniquities of people, many will believe in Him and be justified—declared righteous. How will they be justified? By knowing Him as Messiah and Savior.
This amazing chapter ends with the words, “Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he hath poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12). This verse is a summary statement of all that has happened to the Messiah—He is numbered with transgressors, bearing the sin of many and pouring out His soul unto death. But, He also has a reward—dividing a portion with the great and dividing a spoil with the strong. Jesus will be satisfied. He will be rewarded in His death by seeing a multitude come to know Him and thus He will make intercession for the transgressors.
Throughout the millennia a multitude of Jewish people have come to know the Lord through reading about the suffering Messiah in this chapter. They have trusted Jesus of Nazareth as their sin-bearer, the one who fulfilled in His work the prophecy of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Perhaps the rabbis don’t want their people to come to the same conclusion that these Jews have—that Isaiah 53 prophesied a suffering Messiah, and that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy in dozens of amazing ways.
In light of what you have read, will you join them and trust Him as your sin-bearer and Messiah?