Of Whom Does The Prophet Speak?
By Victor Buksbazen
The most amazing and mystifying passage in the whole Old Testament is undoubtedly the remarkable prophecy contained in the fifty-third chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Here is the mountain peak of prophecy.
Isaiah lived over 700 years before the Christian era and yet he gave an astonishing and most exact portrayal of the Servant of God.
Those who know the story of the Lord Jesus as described in the Gospels have no difficulty in identifying Him with the prophet's inspired vision.
For many generations, perplexed Christians have been asking how it is possible for the Jews to doubt that the prophet spoke of their own Messiah.
This pamphlet is dedicated to the task of seeking to present both the Jewish and Christian views on the great prophecy of Isaiah 53, in the hope that men of sincerity and goodwill may come to know the truth, which sets men free.
Is it too much to ask the reader to consider the message of this God-inspired prophecy with the necessary humility and openness of mind and heart which the Word of God demands of anyone who really wants to understand its life-giving message; for does not the Bible tell us, ". . . God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5)?
Along with the interpretation of the prophecy, we give the reader a new translation of Isaiah 53 based on the Hebrew text. We do not attempt to supercede other excellent translations which have endeared themselves by their beauty and are hallowed by tradition. Here is a humble effort to take the reader beyond the music and rhythm of the words, to the glory and grace of the message.
Translation of Isaiah 53 from the Hebrew, by Victor Buksbazen
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Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53
Why don't the Jews recognize the Messiah in Isaiah 53? Why don't they see that Jesus is portrayed there? Such questions are often asked by Christians who cannot understand how the Jews fail to recognize Messiah when they read this astounding and glorious prophecy. Here are some of the reasons:
From the earliest days, Isaiah 53 was interpreted by Jews as applying to the Messiah. Thus, Jonathan ben Uziel of the first century, in his Targum (an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible) paraphrases Isaiah 53: "My servant, the Messiah, will be great, who was bruised for our sins." Also, the Talmud in the Midrash Tanchumi, commenting on Isaiah 52:13, says: "He was more exalted than Abraham, more extolled than Moses; higher than the archangels."
- The majority of Jews are not acquainted with this prophecy of Isaiah 53, because it is carefully avoided in the synagogue. True, portions of Isaiah are read on Sabbath days, but this particular chapter is meticulously avoided in order not to provoke embarrassing questions and inquiries.
- Another reason why Jews fail to seee Messiah in Isaiah 53 is the fact that the Jews have usually been repugnant to the idea of a suffering Messiah. Throughout the centuries they have nurtured a dream of a great national hero, a Messiah who will be a descendant of David and will come in majesty and glory to conquer the nations and to establish peace in the world. But a Messiah destined to suffer and die vicariously for the sins of His people was never attractive to their way of thinking. It puts man too much in the position of a lost sinner who needs to be saved from sin.
- Those who, in spite of the above, read Isaiah 53, or have heard about it from others, have been provided with a ready-made explanation: that Isaiah speaks concerning Israel, the servant of God, who takes upon herself the griefs of the world to redeem the nations. However, this interpretation is of medieval origin, expressly invented to refute Christian arguments.
On Isaiah 53:5, the Midrash Samuel remarks: "All the sufferings of the world are divided into three parts. One of them is borne by the Messiah." This was also the position of the most outstanding Hebrew scholars and rabbis in the first centuries, acknowledging the messianic character of the prophecy.
The famous Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism, likewise interprets this prophecy in a messianic way. So does the Jewish prayer book in its liturgy for the Day of Atonement. It refers to Isaiah 53 in the following plaintive words:
Our righteous Messiah has departed from us,
Historically, the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is the most authentic and oldest Jewish understanding of this prophecy. Later non-messianic interpretations have been adopted purely with a view to refute the Christians and to deprive them of one of their strongest scriptural arguments. The non-messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is, however, intellectually dishonest and cannot be maintained without doing violence to the sense of the Hebrew text, as we shall see later. No wonder that the prophet Isaiah, the Old Testament evangelist, has led many Jews to a living faith in the Lord Jesus as their Savior and the God-promised Messiah of Israel. Already in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-39), we have the remarkable story of the Ethiopian eunuch, apparently a convert to Judaism, who was greatly stirred and puzzled by the reading of Isaiah 53. When he met Philip, the disciple of the Lord Jesus, he anxiously inquired: "'...I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? Of himself, or of some other man?' Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus", with the result that the Ethiopian made the confession, "...I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (Acts 8:34-35,37).
We are horror-stricken, and have none to justify us.
Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
He carries who is wounded because of our transgressions.
He bears on His shoulder the burden of our sins,
To find pardon for all our iniquities.
By His stripes we shall be healed-
O Eternal One, it is time that thou shouldest create Him anew!
During the following centuries, countless other Jews encountered Christ face to face while reading the astonishing prophecy of Isaiah 53 and yielded their lives to Him. This became a very real threat to Rabbinical Judaism. As a result, Isaiah 53 came to be looked upon as the most embarrassing and dangerous prophecy, to be silenced if possible, or explained away if necessary.
Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki, or Rashi for short, the most outstanding medieval commentator of the eleventh century, understood this real peril to Rabbinical Judaism. Here is one of his statements: "Since Christians interpret Isaiah 53 as being a prophecy concerning Jesus, we maintain that this is a prophecy concerning the people of Israel."
Obviously, this interpretation cannot be maintained at all, because it flies in the face of the plain meaning of the text, where the suffering Servant is an individual, God-appointed Redeemer - not a people. He is despised and rejected of men, and by His own people. Here Israel is not the Savior but the object of salvation.
This modern Jewish interpretation, prevalent among reformed Jews and even to some degree among the orthodox, is a desperate attempt to explain away a very clear but embarrassing prophecy. It is sad to say that even some so-called "Christian commentators", blinded by their prejudiced unbelief in predictive prophecy, have accepted this Jewish interpretation.
A Messianic Age - Without a Messiah
Inevitably the misinterpretaion of Isaiah 53 and of the messianic prophecies was bound to undermine the faith in a personal Messiah. In the place of this great life-giving hope, which sustained generations of Jews in the darkest hours of tribulation and tragedy, mass slaughters and exile, a new, pale, vague, and lifeless dream has been substituted -- a dream of a golden era of a universal brotherhood and peace among the nations. They dream of a messianic age but without a personal Messiah. This golden age is to be brought on the wings of human progress and enlightenment.
Even the cruel display of all the evil forces in our times, which have caused such havoc as the world has never witnessed before, not even the gruesome extermination of one-third of all Jews by demonic men, have done anything to dispel this dangerous delusion of a golden age of progress and universal peace. "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." (Isa 57:21)
Today, many orthodox Jews continue to repeat daily in their prayers: "I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of Messiah, and though he tarry I shall wait for him until he come." Yet, the living faith in a Savior, the fervent hope, the enthusiasm, and the sustaining power are gone. To many Jews, the coming of Messiah means little more than a pious phrase to be treated with the indulgence due to a venerable but worn-out myth.
Even the Messiah of orthodox Jewish hopes, who is to be a glorified national King, wise and powerful, totally lacks the qualities of a Savior of men from their sin. There is nothing in Him to make men love Him or give their lives to Him. Nor does He possess the power to regenerate man and make of him a new, pure and holy creation, a child of God. Compared with the matchless, holy, sinless, and regenerating Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah of Jewish tradition pales into utter insignificance. He does not bring salvation from evil and sin. Spiritually, the Messiah of orthodox Jewish expectation is a failure.
Christian Interpretation of Isaiah 53
From the earliest days, believing Christians have always considered Isaiah 53 as the golden page of messianic prophecy. Some speak of this passage as being the gospel according to Isaiah, or the gospel in the Old Testament.
One of the ancient Christians expressed himself that this is a prophecy which seems to have been written beneath the cross of Calvary. Undoubtedly, in this prophecy the messianic hope of Israel has reached its highest pinnacle. It is the most transcendent and lofty passage of Old Testament vision. Here stands the exalted figure of the matchless Servant of Jehovah in the full glow of divine revelation, faithful and full of redemption.
"Behold, my servant shall deal wisely" (Isa 52:13) is the majestic introduction of the Servant of God by the Lord himself. Some Jewish commentators have maintained that the servant of Jehovah is Israel and quote the following to prove this:
But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, my friend. (Isa 41:8)
Undoubtedly, Israel is called the servant in these passages, but, alas, this servant of God has failed in his vocation disastrously. God contends with him in these words:
Yet now hear, O Jacob, my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen. (Isa 44:1)
Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see. Who is blind, but my servant? Or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? Who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord's servant? (Isa 42:18-19)
The Servant Who Failed and the Servant Who Succeeded
Israel, God's blind and deaf servant, proves herself unwilling and incapable of fulfilling her high calling. It was therefore necessary that the servant of Jehovah should be a person who would fulfill the mission of salvation. In fact, Israel herself becomes the object of His redemption.
"Behold, my servant shall deal wisely; he will rise up, be lifted up, and be very high." (Isa 52:13) The three Hebrew verbs are prophetic of His resurrection, ascension, and His final exaltation on the right hand of the Father. "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." (John 12:32)
Isaiah 52:13-15 [compare the author's translation] describes the crucified and risen Servant as the Redeemer of many, and as the One exalted above any human being. It is like a prelude to the divine prophecy of Isaiah 53. It introduces the Servant as well as summarizes His divine mission.
The Confession of Repentant Israel
The opening verse of Isaiah 53 introduces repentant Israel who exclaims: "Who has believed our report, the good tidings which were proclaimed to us? Who comprehended the mighty arm of Jehovah which has revealed itself so wonderfully before our very eyes?" These are the words of a repenting people as they face and recognize their crucified and once rejected Savior.
The terms "tender shoot" and especially "root" have a messianic connotation both in the Bible as well as in later rabbinical and liturgical literature. These terms describe the Messiah.
The "dry land" indicated His humble background, which was not that of a prince born in the home of a ruling monarch. It also points to the spiritual poverty of Israel at the time, without a prophet to bring the Word of God to the people.
There was nothing in Him of physical or social splendor to make Him desirable. He sprang from the ground of sinful and barren Israel.
"He was despised and shunned by men." The word "men" as used in Isaiah, the plural of Yish, signified men of stature and standing. None of the Hebrew leaders would recognize Him. Only the despised ones and the poor and the humble followed Him, as Paul had occasion in later years to point out.
For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many called, are called. (1Cor 1:26)
He still is despised and shunned by men, by Jew and Gentile alike. There is a sad truth in the hymn which begins like this:
Our Lord is now rejected,
Even so, are those of His brethren who follow Him today despised and rejected, just as He foretold that they would be: "... The servant is not greater that His Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you..." (John 15:20)
and by the world disowned,
By the many still neglected,
and by the few enthroned.
But soon He'll come in glory,
the hour is drawing nigh,
Oh, the crowning day
is coming, by and by.
"He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." (v.3) He was a man of sorrows because here on earth He was a stranger, whom even His loved ones and nearest failed to understand. He was a man of sorrows because He supremely suffered with all the sorrows of men. No one had greater compassion than He did for the suffering and perplexed. The magnitude of His love was the measure of His sorrow. The selfish sorrow only over themselves, but "He was afflicted in all their afflictions."
He drank the bitter cup to its last dregs when He finally was Himself made sin upon the cross and separated from His Heavenly Father: "... Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mat 27:46). He became a man of sorrows that He might save us.
Now comes the declaration of His repenting nation, "But indeed He has borne our diseases and was burdened with our sorrows. But 'we the people' thought of Him as one afflicted and stricken by God."
Shunned Like a Leper
Verse 4 is significant in its emphasis that He suffered vicariously, while the people looked upon Him as stricken of God. The word stricken (nagua) is the same which appears later in verse 8 and is used in the case of leprosy. It is on the basis of Isaiah 53:4 and 8 that the Talmud calls Messiah, "the leprous one".
Messiah was shunned like a leper, while all the time He carried the leprosy of our own sin. He and His own today still are shunned by the world as if they were stricken with leprosy.
In verse 5, the word "wounded" means "mortally wounded", literally "pierced". "He was mortally wounded for our transgressions." "The chastisement for our peace" could perhaps better be rendered, "He paid the price of our well-being, and by His stripes healing came to us."
Verse 6 continues Israel's confession: "All we like sheep have gone astray. But the Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all."
Whatever our position in the world, whether rich or poor, common man or powerful ruler, highly educated or simple, depraved or of high moral integrity, still God's verdict upon all of us - the whole of humanity - is, all of them have "gone astray".
"But Jehovah laid upon Him the guilt [or iniquity] of us all." These words sum up and climax the meaning of the life and ministry of the suffering Savior, the Christ of God. He is our Sin-Bearer.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament taught us this lesson: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." (Lev 17:11) And "... without shedding of blood is no remission" (Heb 9:22). The lesson is that it costs a life to save a life.
If the righteousness of God is not to be outraged, if His holiness is not to be trampled under foot, then it can only be bought at the price of suffering, the price of a life. Thus, all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, beginning with the Passover lamb and the other Levitical sacrifices, pointed to the supreme sacrifice, the sacrifice of God himself in the person of His only begotten Son.
Wounded for Our Transgressions
In Christ, God himself became our Sin-Bearer and suffered vicariously, in our stead and on our behalf.
As the Apostle Paul expresses it: "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." (Eph 1:7)
Love, true and unselfish, always suffers vicariously. Supreme love suffers supremely. "... God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son..." (John 3:16). He took upon Himself the burden of all sin, of all injustice, and suffered, the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust.
In considering the vicarious character of Messiah's suffering, we must always bear in mind that it is not what people did to Him that matters most, but rather what God did for us. Christ did not die a victim, but as a Savior; not forced by brute power, but by the eternal love of God. "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself..." (John 10:17-18)
A Contrast in Suffering
"He was tormented and He opened not His mouth..." (v. 7). Our Jewish brethren generally maintain that the prophecy of Isaiah speaks of the Jews. But perhaps no other verse in Isaiah 53 points up more the utter untenability of this interpretation. Only Jesus did not open His mouth when He was oppressed and led to the slaughter like a lamb. But we Jews as a people throughout our history, and more especially in these last years, have always vehemently protested against any wrong, any insult, any hurt that has happened to us or to our brethren. Whatever our virtues, suffering in silence is not one of them. Suffering in silence is a divine token of grace vouchsafed only to some of the choicest of God's saints. The natural man cries out in agony protesting his hurts. But of the Son of God it is written: "He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth."
And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. Then said Pilate unto him, Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee? And he answered him never a word, insomuch that the governor marveled greatly. (Mat 27:12-14)
"His grave was assigned with the ungodly and he had part with the rich men in his death." (Isa 53:9) This recalls the gospel account of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who provided for his burial (Mat 27:57-60; John 19:39).
Verse 10 states that it was God who willed to crush Him. "Bruised" does not express the Hebrew strongly enough. It was the Lord who willed to crush His body, like the fine ingredients of the Temple offering, crushed in the preparation of the sacrifice.
It Was Jehovah's Will That Messiah Should Suffer
When thou shalt make his soul a trespass offering, he will see his seed, prolong his days, and the desire of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand.
Jewish commentators have sought to disprove this passage applies to the Lord Jesus Christ, because He had no physical offspring. But Scripture speaks in many places very clearly of spiritual seed, where no physical seed could be meant.
In Psalm 22:30 we have the expression: "A seed shall serve him." This points not to a literal but a spiritual seed, namely, a faithful flock of followers who will serve Him.
Significant is the expression, "Thou shalt make His soul a trespass-offering." In Hebrew "trespass-offering" is "Asham". The trespass-offering described in Leviticus 6:6-7 (also in Lev 7:1-7) is most holy. It was a perfect male lamb or ram. It was compensation made by the sinner to God. Thus, the vicarious satisfaction which Messiah gives in His death as a trespass-offering is clearly indicated.
Furthermore, the trespass-offering pays the sinner's debt, not as a member of his people, but as an individual. It is a personal transaction between the sinner and his God. He must be redeemed as a person, not merely as a member of a nation.
"He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied." (v.11) The significance of this passage is that it takes place after He was already crushed and His soul made a trespass-offering, after His death upon the cross. This clearly implies His resurrection. He is satisfied with His divine work of salvation as He looks back upon His atoning death upon the cross.
"By His knowledge shall the righteous one my servant justify many;
Some commentators understand this to mean that by the knowledge of Messiah, the righteous Servant, shall many be justified. This is, from the standpoint of our text and spiritual experience, correct.
and their iniquities He shall take upon Himself."
Others explain that it refers to the knowledge of Christ, through which,
He makes righteous those who come to Him. It is only in knowing Christ that one truly knows God.
The righteous one my servant - the Hebrew construction here is very emphatic - Tsadik Avdi. He is the perfect Servant of Jehovah, who has laid down His life in a vicarious sacrifice to justify many.
Victory Through Seeming Defeat
"Therefore he will give him a share with the great." The victory of Christ became possible only through defeat and humiliation. The great of this world - their vaunted victories and their vast empires - fade away like shadows of night; Christ alone endures through time and eternity. He rules from a cross and His crown is a crown of thorns. His trophies of victory are the countless human hearts who have found forgiveness, redemption and peace through His blood.
"Father, Forgive Them!"
Here is the ultimate reality of God's love. Messiah took it all upon Himself voluntarily and while suffering at the hands of blinded sinners, still pleaded for them - "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do..." (Luk 23:34)
In Hebrew "pleads" ["makes intercession", v.12] is "Yafgia" and is used in the future tense. It describes a continuous action. He pleaded for sinners upon the cross. He still goes on pleading for them. He pleads for His people before His Father that they may return to Him. He pleads with His followers, those who call themselves Christians, that they may deal kindly with His earthly people, the Jews. He pleads with His people to repent.
Thus we have reached the pinnacle of prophetic inspiration. Nothing more lofty or holy has ever been uttered by the lips of prophet or seer than that which we have in this divinely inspired portion of Scripture - a matchless jewel set in a framework of pure, choice, and costly gold.
As if in a blinding flash of light from above, Isaiah 53 reveals the glory of God's salvation and His love personified in the matchless Servant of God. There is only one, in all history, whose life and work of salvation fits so perfectly into this inspired portrait of the Servant of God. He is none other but Yeshua Ha Maschiach - the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Glory of His people Israel, and your own eternal Friend and Savior.
- Isaiah 53 as translated from the Hebrew
- by Victor Buksbazen
- Isaiah 52:13-15
- 13. Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he will rise up, he will be lifted up and be exalted.
- 14. Even as many were astounded at him, because his appearance was marred more than any man's and his form more than that of the children of men.
- 15. So shall he sprinkle many nations; kings will shut their mouths; for what has not been told to them they have seen; and what they have not heard they have understood.
- Isaiah 53
- 1. Who has believed our tidings? And the arm of Jehovah to whom was it revealed?
- 2. And he sprang up like a tender shoot before him, and as a root from a dry land: he had no form and no beauty; and when we saw him there was no appearance that we might desire him.
- 3. He was despised and shunned of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their faces; thus he was despised and we regarded him not.
- 4. But he indeed hath borne our diseases, and was burdened with our sorrows; and we considered him stricken, and smitten by God and afflicted.
- 5. But he was mortally wounded for our transgressions, crushed by our sins; the penalty for our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.
- 6. We all have gone astray like sheep; every man turned to his own way; but Jehovah laid upon him the guilt of us all.
- 7. He was tormented and afflicted, but he opened not his mouth; like a lamb he was led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before her shearers he was dumb, and opened not his mouth.
- 8. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and of his generation who considered? He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people the stroke fell upon him.
- 9. His grave was assigned with the ungodly, and his death with the rich man; and yet he did no wrong and there was no deception in his mouth.
- 10. Yet it was Jehovah who desired to crush him; he put him to grief. When thou shalt make his soul a trespass-offering he will see his seed, prolong his days, and the desire of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand.
- 11. He shall look upon his soul's travail and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one my servant justify many; and their iniquities he shall take upon himself.
- 12. Therefore I will give him a share with the great, and with the mighty he will divide the spoil; because he exposed his soul unto death and was counted with the transgressors; but he carried the sin of many and pleads for the transgressors.
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