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Isaiah 53 - who is the prophet speaking of?

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Himself? - Someone else? - Israel? - The Messiah?

 

According to Rashi, the 11th century Rabbi, the answer is clear. The prophet

is talking about Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Most Rabbis today agree

that this is the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53. But not all Rabbis come

to this conclusion. Here is a selection of Rabbinic views which contract

Rashi.

 

'Behold my Servant Messiah shall prosper …' Targum (paraphrase) of Isaiah

52.13 (the introductory verses to Isaiah 53) by Jonathan ben Uzziel (First

century CE)

 

'Messiah our righteousness is departed from us; horror hath seized us, and

we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and

our transgression and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our

sin upon his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall

be healed by his wound at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah)

as a new creature. O bring Him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up

from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of

Yinnon.' Musaf prayer for the Day of Atonement, written by Rabbi Eliezer

Kalir around the 7th century CE.

 

(Writing of Isaiah 53) 'I shall flee from the forced and far fetched

interpretations of which others have been guilty. This prophecy was

delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to

us something about the nature of the future Messiah who is to come and

deliver Israel.' Rabbi Moshe Cohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova in Spain at about

1350.

 

'Our Rabbis with one voice accept and confirm the opinion that the prophet

is speaking of the King Messiah and we shall ourselves also adhere to the

same view.' Rabbi Alshech about 1550.

 

'But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the

meaning of which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which

produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not

admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and

suffer for them himself.' Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas about 1575.

 

All these Rabbis are saying that Isaiah 53 is about Messiah suffering for

sin not about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles.

 

So what about you? Who do you say it is about?

 

Is Rashi right when he says Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about Israel suffering

for the Gentiles? If so are those Rabbis, who claim that this is about the

sufferings of the Messiah, wrong?

 

If we examine the text, Rashi's interpretation raises some questions:

 

It means that Isaiah is a Gentile. 'He (Israel) was wounded for our (the

Gentiles') transgressions.' (v.5) All we (Gentiles) like sheep have gone

astray … and the Lord has laid on him (Israel) the iniquity of us all.'

(v6). In the passage the pronouns we, us, our must refer to Isaiah and the

people he identifies with while the pronouns he, him, his refer to the

'Servant.'

 

So was Isaiah 53 written by a Gentile?

 

It also means that Israel bears the sins of the Gentiles in some kind of

atoning way. So what did Isaiah mean in the first chapter of his prophecy

when he spoke in the strongest language imaginable about Israel's sins and

called his own people to repentance? How can someone who is sinful bear the

sins of others? Surely Israel suffers because of the sins of the Gentiles

not on behalf of the Gentiles. The Jewish people's sufferings bring judgment

on those Gentiles who oppress them (see Genesis 12.3 'I will bless them that

bless you and curse him that curses you'), not justification with God. The

Servant of Isaiah 53 brings justification and healing to those who accept

him. The servant of Isaiah 53 suffers willingly and without resistance,

whereas Israel has never willingly been oppressed by the Gentiles.

 

Rashi's interpretation implies that Jewish people are sin bearers

(scapegoats?) for the Gentiles. How comfortable do you feel about that?

 

It means that Israel / the Jewish people will cease to live. The Servant of

Isaiah 53 is literally put to death. 'He was cut off from the land of the

living' (v 8). 'He poured out his soul unto death' (v 12). Individual Jewish

people have been put to death. In the Holocaust a demon inspired leader

sought to destroy the whole Jewish people. But despite the evil intentions

of anti-Semites - 'Am Israel Chai' - The people of Israel live. This fulfils

the prophecy of Jeremiah 31.35-37 which says that as long as the sun, moon

and stars endure so long will Israel be a nation before the Lord. The

Servant of Isaiah 53 dies and is resurrected to 'see the travail of his

soul'. The Jewish people have never ceased to exist and today we see the

restoration of Israel as a testimony to the faithfulness of God to the

covenant He made with Abraham (Genesis 15).

 

So what if Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah?

 

So far we have treated this as a debate within Judaism about different

Rabbinic interpretations, which may be interesting, but not in itself earth

shattering. But if Rashi is wrong and the prophecy is not about Israel

suffering for the nations and is about the Messiah, there remains an

interpretation which does raise a very big problem for Judaism.

 

The prayer of Rabbi Kalir quoted above speaks of Messiah as one who has

departed from us and who bears our sins and who will bring us healing. Rabbi

Eliyah de Vidas tells us that whoever does not believe that Messiah suffers

for our iniquities, 'must endure and suffer for them himself.'

 

If the Messiah has 'departed from us' does that mean that he has already

appeared? Is there a figure in history who has already borne the sins of

others? If we do not believe in Him do we have to endure and suffer for our

sins ourselves?

 

There is a book which claims that its central figure is the fulfilment of

Isaiah 53. According to the New Testament Yeshua / Jesus is the one of whom

Isaiah 53 speaks. Does this interpretation make sense of the text? We invite

you to study this text and look up the references given in the New

Testament.

 

Isaiah 52.13-15

 

These verses introduce the Servant who is described in detail in the

following chapter. The servant will be exalted very high. Prior to his

exaltation he was to be humiliated and physically abused to the point where

he became almost unrecognisable. As a result he would 'sprinkle many

nations' and kings would be silent before him.

 

all this. Can you reach a lower point in human experience?

 

Peter and Paul? Can you reach a higher place?

 

have when 'sprinkled' on those who accept the sacrifice of Jesus?

 

Isaiah 53.1-3. These verses speak of the rejection which would accompany the

ministry of this Servant. His message would not be believed. His origin and

appearance would not meet the expectations of the people and therefore they

would reject him. This rejection would cause him grief.

 

in Nazareth. According to the prophecy of Micah 5.1 Messiah was to be born

in Bethlehem. How did this effect people's reaction to him? Where was he

born in fact? (Matthew 2.1-6)

 

him?

 

 

Isaiah 53.4-6. These verses take the sufferings of the Servant further and

describe the purpose of his suffering. His death would be misinterpreted by

those who said he was stricken by God and afflicted (in other words he was

suffering for his own sins). In fact the whole meaning of his sufferings was

to atone for the sins of others. Because he experienced the worst sorrows

life can throw at any one, he can sympathise and carry the griefs of those

who are going through suffering now. The Lord has placed on Him the iniquity

of us all so that we can be forgiven.

 

that Jesus experienced in these chapters?

 

reason do these verses give for the life and death of Jesus?

 

this agree with Isaiah 53.6?

 

Isaiah 53.7-9. These verses tell us about the sufferings of the Messiah from

a human point of view. He would be brought to trial and willingly accept the

death sentence handed down to him, despite its injustice. He would be

literally put to death and once again it is stated that his death would be

for the sins of 'my people'. Although he would be expected to be put in a

grave with the wicked there would be some intervention of 'the rich' at the

point of his death.

 

How fair were his trials?

 

point in the Gospel? What unusual act was performed by Joseph of Arimathea

(a rich man)?

 

NB. The usual practice was for crucifixion victims to stay on the cross as a

warning to others not to go against the power of the occupying Romans, or

for their bodies to be taken down and thrown into a common grave in the

Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. If either had happened to Jesus the next

event, the resurrection, would have lost its force. So God caused a rich

man, Joseph of Arimathea to intervene and ask Pontius Pilate for the body of

Jesus so he could bury him in his own tomb (Matthew 27.57-60). Pilate agreed

to this, no doubt influenced by his wife's dream not to have anything to do

with 'that just man' (Matthew 27.19), perhaps by Roman superstitions about

Jesus as a miracle worker (the Roman authorities would have known that Jesus

had raised Lazarus from the dead- John 11.47-48). Because the body of Jesus

was placed in a sealed tomb with a stone rolled across it, when the

resurrection happened it was a public event, which could not seriously be

denied with foolish rumours that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew

28) as would have been the case if the body had been thrown into the common

grave. There is no record of the accusation of the body being stolen ever

being taken seriously following Jesus' resurrection by the opponents of the

Messianic movement. This is remarkable since the disciples who were

preaching less than two months later in Jerusalem that Jesus was risen from

the dead.

 

Isaiah 53.10-12. These verses tell us the purpose of the Servant's death and

speak of his resurrection from the dead. He would be satisfied by seeing his

'seed' and bringing justification to many by bearing their iniquities. God

would highly exalt him because he was willing to be considered a

transgressor and die. He would make intercession for transgressors.

 

about who was ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus? What answer

does this give to the anti-Semitic accusation that 'the Jews killed Jesus'

and are therefore under a curse?

 

10 he shall see his seed. How can this be possible? See Luke 24, especially

verses 44-48.

 

this happened? In what way would this fulfil Isaiah 53.11?

 

the way we are 'justified' / put right with God?

 

intercession for others?

 

Conclusion

 

How many statements can you find in Isaiah 53 about the Servant bearing the

sins of others?

 

Since this is what the New Testament says was the prime purpose of Jesus

coming into the world and claims that he is the Messiah, surely there has to

be a connection between this passage and the Messiah Jesus?

 

If Rashi is wrong about the passage being about Israel suffering on behalf

of the Gentiles and if Rabbi Alshech is right that it is about the

sufferings of the Messiah shouldn't you consider that it is about the

Messiah who has come, Yeshua / Jesus, not about a Messiah who is still to

come?

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