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The Mystery of Isaiah 53

By Dr. Michael Rydelnik, Founder of Olive Tree Messianic Jewish Congregation
              and Chairman of the Jewish Studies Dept, Moody Bible Institute

An Old Testament passage thousands of years old still sparks debate between Jews and Christians today. To whom does this mysterious passage refer?

Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12:

"Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonished at thee; his appearance was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men. So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as 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. 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. Surely he has 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 punishment 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 LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 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. He was taken from prison and from judgment and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 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.

Yet it pleased the LORD 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 LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied. By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 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 bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

One of the key Old Testament passages debated by Jewish and Christian scholars is Isaiah 53. Jewish sources say the suffering servant depicted here refers to the nation of Israel. Christians contend it refers to the Messiah.

Can the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 be Israel? The text of the passage itself plainly says no. Here are the reasons:

The Pronouns

In Isaiah 53:1-9, there is a clear distinction in pronouns. The speakers uniformly identify themselves in the first person plural (we, us and our), while the Servant is consistently described in the third person singular (he, him and his). Isaiah the prophet, a Jew, in speaking of himself and his own nation Israel, uses the pronouns we, us and our. He describes the Servant as someone other than himself and his people in using the pronouns he, him and his. Since the speakers are plainly Isaiah's people Israel (we), the Servant whom they describe (he) must be someone other than Israel. They both cannot be Israel.

The People

In Isaiah 53:8, Isaiah declares that the Servant was put to death "through the transgressions of my people". Obviously, Isaiah's people are the Jewish people. If the Servant died for the children of Israel, the Servant cannot also be the children of Israel.

The Sufferer's Innocence

The passage repeatedly claims the innocence of the Servant. Isaiah 53:4-6 says that His suffering was not for His own sin but for the sins of others. Verse 9 specifically states, "He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth." However, the prophets, especially Isaiah, never characterize Israel (or any nation) as perfectly innocent. Isaiah says of Israel, "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as a filthy garment" (Isaiah 64:5). Since Isaiah affirms the Servant's innocence while at the same time affirming Israel's guilt, Israel cannot be the Servant.

The Servant's Willingness

Isaiah 53:7-12 describes the Servant as a voluntary and unresisting Sufferer. He is characterized as willingly accepting His suffering (verse 7), rendering Himself as a guilt offering (verse 10), and laying open His soul unto death (53:12). Certainly the Jewish people have suffered immensely at the hands of anti-Semites, who must still answer to God for their awful deeds. But despite the enormity of Jewish suffering, they never received it willingly.

The Servant's Death

The passage says that the Servant was "cut off out of the land of the living" (53:8) and that "he hath laid open his soul unto death"(53:12). Were the Jewish people ever, as a whole, put to death? No, we joyfully sing, "Am Yisrael Chai!" ("The People of Israel Live!"). In fact, in Jeremiah 31:34-36, God promises that the children of Israel will exist forever. Thus, since the Servant was "cut off," it is impossible to say that Israel is the Servant.

The Servant's Substitution

One of the main points of the passage is that the Servant died as a substitute for the sins of others. Nowhere do the Scriptures teach that Israel would suffer for the sins of others, only at the hands of others. For this reason, Israel is not the Servant in Isaiah 53.

The evidence is clear. The characteristics of the Servant cannot and do not apply to the Jewish people. The only One who fits the description is the Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah.

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