What about Isaiah 53?
It should come as little surprise, by now, that numerous Christian scholars have come to the conclusion that this famous passage is not really a prophecy about Jesus. Indeed, they are in agreement with the way in which Jews have traditionally understood this chapter: as a passage about the historical suffering of Israel. (This view can be found in the New English Bible: Oxford Study Edition, The New Interpreters Study Bible, The Harper Collins Study Bible, etc.)
Many Christians who insist that Isaiah 53 is an incontrovertible proof that Jesus was the Messiah has never really carefully studied the entire book of Isaiah. But is it possible to truly understand the 53rd chapter in isolation? Could it be that if they were to approach this chapter in-context and without a bias of finding support for their belief in Jesus, they might see things differently? This has been the case for numerous Christian scholars and Bible commentators who have sought to understand this chapter from Isaiah on its own terms.
Again, it is obvious that if someone approaches this text with a prior belief in Jesus, they will see striking connections. But is this passage a clear Messianic prophesy? Would someone reading it prior to Christianity have necessarily understood it as such? And more importantly, even if one assumes that this passage is a Messianic prophesy, what evidence is there that it is speaking about Jesus? This is an important point. Imagine a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures that said, “The Messiah will come”. Many Christians would insist that it is referring to Jesus. However, this is only so because they already believe in him as the Messiah. The verse (which doesn’t exist) would merely be saying that the Messiah would come, but doesn’t clearly and unambiguously identify Jesus as the subject.
It is possible to see that in the 1st century, the followers of Jesus did not understand this passage in Isaiah as a Messianic prophecy. In the 16th chapter of Matthew, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. At that point, Jesus tells his followers that he will go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and ultimately be killed. Peter should have said, “Of course! You are the suffering servant from Isaiah 53!” But Peter doesn’t react this way. He protests and says that this will never happen to Jesus. In the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus teaches his disciples that he will be delivered up to evil men who will kill him. However, Mark tells us in verse 32, “But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him.” Clearly, these followers of Jesus did not assume that he came to the world in order to suffer and die. They were never led to believe that this chapter of Isaiah forecast the death and suffering of the Messiah.
Why is it that Jewish people (and numerous Christians) have understood this chapter of Isaiah as referring to the historical suffering of the Jewish people? Is there any basis for such an understanding?
This chapter is the 4th of four “Servant” poems in the book of Isaiah. It speaks about the Servant of the L-rd. Who is this servant? Someone approaching this chapter with the benefit of having read the prior chapters of Isaiah would know exactly whom the Servant is:
But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob who I have chosen, descendant of Israel My friend; You, whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts, and said to you: You are My servant; I have chosen you and not rejected you. Isaiah 41:8-9
You are My witnesses declares the L-rd, and My servant whom I have chosen: That you may know and believe in Me and understand that I am He, before Me there was no god formed, neither shall there be after Me. Isaiah 43:10
But now, listen, O Jacob My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. Thus says the L-rd who made you, and formed you from the womb, who will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob My servant, Yeshurun who I have chosen… Remember these things O Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant, I have formed you, you are My servant O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me. Isaiah 44:1-2, 21
For the sake of Jacob My servant, and Israel My chosen one, I have called you by your name. Isaiah 45:4
Go forth out of Babylon, flee from the Kasdim with a voice of singing, declare, tell this, say it even to the ends of the earth: say: The L-rd has redeemed His servant Jacob. Isaiah 48:20 And said unto me, you are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Isaiah 49:3
Actually, we see that in the Bible as a whole, not just in the book of Isaiah, the Jewish people are referred to as G-d’s servant (see Leviticus 25:42,55, Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28, Ezekiel 28:25, I Chronicles 16:13, Psalm 136:22, 79:10, 135:1, Isaiah 54:17, 63:17, 65:8-9, 13-15, 66:14, Nehemiah 1:10-11, Deuteronomy 32:36, 43). We could understand why it might be possible for the reader of Isaiah 53 to assume that this chapter, as well, is about G-d’s servant Israel.
In addition, the careful reader should consider the immediate surroundings of chapter 53. If we see that chapters 52 and 54 share a common theme, it would be reasonable to suspect that chapter 53 follows this pattern. Indeed, chapters 52 and 54 paint a picture that contrasts the historical degradation of the Jewish people at the hands of the nations of the world to their future redemption by G-d and glory. This is very helpful knowledge in trying to understand the meaning of chapter 53.
All scholars agree that Suffering Servant chapter of Isaiah 53 really begins with verse 13 in chapter 52. There, G-d announces that His servant will ultimately prosper, be exalted, lifted up and very high. In verses 14-15 G-d tells us that when this happens, the kings and nations of the world will be totally shocked and astonished. This is worth thinking about. If the Servant here were Jesus, why would his ultimate elevation and exaltation surprise the world? There is no one in the history of mankind who would shock the world less if he were to be lifted up and exalted in the future. In reality, the only people who will be shocked if the subject of this chapter were Jesus would be the Jewish people. But we are not told that the Jewish people will be shocked, rather the rest of the world will be shocked.
Indeed, the Bible never tells us that the Jewish people will be in for a big surprise in the future. Isaiah tells us that the nations and kings of the world will be shocked because they never expected to see the redemption and exaltation of G-d’s servant. The Bible repeatedly tells us that the only people who will be shocked at the climax of history will be the nations of the world, not the Jewish people (see Micha 7:15, Isaiah 41:11, Jeremiah 16:19, etc.).
The most critical question to ask when studying Isaiah 53 is: Who is speaking? Often, Christians assume that this is a speech that the Jewish people will make one day in the future when we recognize that we were wrong for rejecting Jesus. However, if we understand the flow of Isaiah 53 from the end of chapter 52 (and in the original texts, these chapter divisions don’t appear, they were inserted by Christian monks in the middle ages) we realize that the people exclaiming “Who would have believed what we are hearing?” in 53:1 are the shocked nations and kings of the world spoken of in the previous verses. In chapter 53, Isaiah is telling us the confessional speech that will be made by the nations and kings of the world as they reflect back on their history of scapegoating and persecuting the Jewish people.
This dynamic, which tells of how the historically persecuted Jewish people will ultimately be redeemed and exalted by G-d and ultimately acknowledged by the nations of the world is well-developed in scripture. We see this theme described very clearly in passages such as Isaiah 60:1-3, 10, 14-15; 61:6-9; 62:2-3, etc.
While these thoughts merely scratch the surface of understanding this chapter of Isaiah, it begins to explain why both Jewish and Christian scholars have understood it as a reference to G-d’s servant Israel.