It is true that most Jews today do not consider the passage in Isaiah 53 as a prophecy pertaining to the first coming of the Messiah. We will discuss their rationale later in this Q&A. First, let us briefly point out that Jesus Christ was and is the Messiah; and that He fulfilled precisely the prophecy in Isaiah 53.
For instance, Isaiah 53:1 (“Who has believed our report?”) is quoted in John 12:37-38 in reference to Jesus.
Isaiah 53:3 (“He is despised and rejected by men”) finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ (compare John 1:10-11; Luke 19:14; Mark 6:3).
Isaiah 53:4 (“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”) is quoted in Matthew 8:17 in reference to Jesus.
Isaiah 53:5 (“And by His stripes we are healed”) is quoted in 1 Peter 2:24 in reference to Jesus.
Isaiah 53:6 (“All we like sheep have gone astray”) is quoted in 1 Peter 2:25 in reference to the Sacrifice of Jesus.
Isaiah 53:7 (“He opened not His mouth”) was fulfilled in Jesus during His “trial” (Matthew 26:63; 27:12-14), and the passage is directly quoted in Acts 8:32.
Isaiah 53:7 (“He was led as a lamb to the slaughter”) is a clear reference to Jesus Christ (John 1:29, 36)–“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Isaiah 53:8 was fulfilled in its entirety by Jesus Christ. It reads: “He was taken from prison and from judgment… For He was cut off from the land of the living.” It is quoted, in reference to Christ, in Acts 8:33. Our free booklet, “Jesus Christ–A Great Mystery,” explains that Jesus’ “arrest” and “trial” were illegal, even under Jewish law at the time, and it shows in what way He was taken “from prison” and from a “just” sentence.
Isaiah 53:9 (“He had done no violence. Nor was any deceit found in His mouth”) was fulfilled in Christ, and even Pilate admitted repeatedly that Jesus was innocent (Mark 15:14; John 18:38; 19:4, 6).
Isaiah 53:9 (“And they made His grave with the wicked–but with the rich at His death”) was fulfilled, even in death, by Jesus Christ, as stated in Matthew 27:57-60. He was placed in the grave of a rich man, while He was meant to be buried or disposed of like any other “criminal” (Luke 23:33) in the fire of the valley of Hinnom–“Gehenna.”
Isaiah 53:9 (“Nor was any deceit in His mouth”) is quoted in 1 Peter 2:22 in reference to Jesus.
Isaiah 53:12 (“And He was numbered with the transgressors”) was fulfilled by Christ in two different ways, compare Mark 15:28 and Luke 22:37. He was numbered with the transgressors because He was crucified as a criminal, together with two criminals, and also, because Peter used His sword to defend Christ at the time of His “arrest.”
Isaiah 53:12 (“And made intercession for the transgressors”) was fulfilled by Christ, as recorded in Luke 23:34.
In addition, there are further passages in Isaiah 53 which find their direct fulfillment in Christ’s first coming.
Isaiah 53:2 said that the “Servant” (Isaiah 52:13) did not have special beauty or comeliness in His appearance as a man. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, looking like an ordinary Jew who had to be identified to the soldiers by Judas Iscariot.
Isaiah 53:3 also predicted that men would despise the “Servant” of God and hide their faces from Him. We read in the New Testament that when Jesus was bleeding on the cross, onlookers, as it were, hid their faces from Him and despised Him (Matthew 27:39). Likewise, even His closest disciples fled from Him (Matthew 26:56), and Peter flatly denied that he knew Him (Matthew 26:75).
As Isaiah 53:5 prophesied that His “chastisement” was for our peace, the New Testament confirms that Jesus Christ fulfilled and fulfills this prophecy (Romans 5:1).
As Isaiah 53:5, 8, 11, 12 pointed out that the Messiah suffered and died for our sins, so the New Testament confirms in various places that Jesus did just that (Romans 4:25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13).
And it is of course well known that Jesus Christ died for our sins and transgressions, and that through His death and life we obtain forgiveness and justification–as this was clearly prophesied to happen in Isaiah 53:8, 10, 11.
In its introduction to Isaiah 53, Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible states:
“This chapter foretells the sufferings of the Messiah, the end for which he was to die… the Messiah was to suffer for sins not his own; but that our iniquities were laid on him, and the punishment of them exacted of him… He shows the meekness and placid submission with which he suffered a violent and unjust death, with the circumstances of his dying with the wicked… and that, in consequence of his atonement, death, resurrection, and intercession, he should procure pardon and salvation to the multitudes… and ultimately triumph over all his foes… That this chapter speaks of none but Jesus must be evident to every unprejudiced reader who has ever heard the history of his sufferings and death.”
Why, then, do Jewish commentaries reject the clear meaning of Isaiah 53?
It should be pointed out that not all Jews do or did this. In fact, in ancient times, the Jews understood the passage to apply to the Messiah. The Ryrie Study Bible explains:
“Traditional Jewish interpretation understood the passage to be speaking of the Messiah, as, of course, did the early Christians, who believed Jesus to be the Messiah (Acts 8:35). Not until the 12th century did the view emerge that the NATION ISRAEL is referred to, a view that has since become DOMINANT JUDAISM. But the servant is distinguished from the ‘people’ (Isaiah 53:8). He is an innocent victim, something that could not be said of the nation (53:9).”
Sadly, however, as stated above, Judaism today rejects Isaiah 53 as applying to the Messiah, but teaches that it refers to the JEWISH NATION.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible states in his introduction to Isaiah 53: “The Jews have endeavored to apply it to their sufferings in captivity…”
The Jewish commentary, Soncino, states this view, as follows:
“The Babylonians, or their representatives, having known the servant, i.e. EXILED ISRAEL IDEALIZED, in his humiliation and martyrdom, and now seeing his exaltation and new dignity, describe their impressions and feelings…”
In line with this thinking, the Soncino commentary “explains away” rather obvious passages in Isaiah 53 in the following “unique” way:
Regarding verse 8 (“He was cut off from the land of the living”), the commentary says: “He was cut off from his homeland by the Babylonians.” Regarding verse 9, referring to “His grave,” the commentary says that this means “the graves of the Jews in exile.”
As the idea is that the “servant” refers to the people of Israel or Judah, passages which refer to the innocence of the “Servant” are interpreted in this way:
“[Regarding verse 9:] On account of his [the people of Israel’s] sufferings he was deemed to be a sinner, and, therefore, classed with them. He was, therefore, OFTEN put to death as a criminal… [Regarding verses 10-12:] The servant’s [the people of Israel’s] patiently borne suffering for other people’s sins will culminate in the spiritual uplift of many and in his own physical or spiritual rejuvenation. He will enjoy a glorious future, offspring, long life, prosperity and influence… [Regarding verse 11:] The servant will live to use his knowledge of God to justify his ways to man…”
These terrible misinterpretations do not only totally reject the saving work of Jesus Christ and with it Jesus Christ Himself, they even apply all what Christ would do FOR the people TO the people. According to their false understanding, it is now the PEOPLE of Israel and Judah–rather than the GOD of Israel and Judah–whom Isaiah is allegedly describing. It is the PEOPLE–NOT GOD–who will bring about the work of salvation!!!
Some who teach that the “servant” refers to the people–and not the individual Messiah–refer as proof to a passage in Isaiah 53:8, which reads, “For the transgression of My people HE was stricken.”
The Jewish Soncino commentary renders the passage as, “For he was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to WHOM the stroke was due.”
The highly unreliable Jewish Tanakh translation renders the English as follows, obscuring the true meaning even more: “For he was cut off from the land of the living, Through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.”
Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains that the phrase in Isaiah 53:8, “HE was stricken” is to be rendered, literally, as “the stroke upon HIM.” The commentary continues: “[The word for “HIM”] is properly and usually in the PLURAL FORM, and it has been seized upon by those who maintain that this whole passage refers not to one individual but to some collective body, as of the people, or the prophets… as decisive of the controversy… Aben Ezra and Abarbanel… maintain the same thing, and defend the position that it can never be applied to an individual.”
However, after a lengthy discussion, Barnes summarizes: “These considerations show that it is proper to render it in the singular number, and to regard it as referring to an individual.”
The Jamieson Fausset and Brown commentary sets forth the rationale for this conclusion, as follows:
“‘…was he stricken’ — Hebrew, ‘the stroke (was laid) upon Him.’ Gesenius says the Hebrew means ‘them’; the collective body, whether of the prophets or people, to which the Jews refer the whole prophecy. But Jerome, the Syriac, and Ethiopiac versions translate it ‘Him’; so it is singular in some passages [compare Psalm 11:7 ‘His’; Job 27:23, ‘Him’; Isaiah 44:15, ‘thereto’ (in the New King James Bible, the word is translated as “to it.’)].”
Another explanation is that, as we explained in our last Q&A on Zechariah 12:10, when Christ was stricken, so was the Father:
“Rather, we need to understand that the Father suffered when Christ suffered. Even though Jesus Christ was pierced, it was God the Father who GAVE His only begotten Son to DIE for the world (John 3:16). We read that the Father was IN the Son (2 Corinthians 5:19). He experienced the Son’s suffering as well. When the Son was pierced, the Father was pierced too in that sense–God the Father who loved the Son felt the pain and suffering of His Son; He suffered WITH Christ; He felt the piercing as Christ did. Today, in the same way, both the Father and the Son feel also our pain and suffering when we go through severe trials (compare 2 Corinthians 1:5).”
But even some of the ancient Jewish commentaries which did understand Isaiah to be speaking of the Messiah–an individual–and not the nation, terribly misunderstood the meaning of the prophecy.
Let us note the following misapplications of some Jewish and other commentaries regarding the “servant,” as described in Isaiah 53.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible states regarding Isaiah 53:3:
“Mourners covered up the lower part of their faces, and their heads… and lepers were commanded by the law… to cover their upper lip. From which circumstance it seems that the Vulgate, Aquila, Symmachus, and the Jewish commentators have taken the word nagua, stricken, in the next verse, as meaning stricken with the leprosy.”
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds the following in his comments to verse 4:
“‘yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…’ it was not for any sin of his own, as the Jews imagined, but for the sins of those for whom he was a substitute; they looked upon all his sorrows and troubles in life, and at death, as the just judgment of God upon him for some gross enormities he had been guilty of; but in this they were mistaken… the Jews call the Messiah a leper… ; they say, ‘a leper of the house of Rabbi is his name’, as it is said, ‘surely he hath borne our griefs’… which shows that the ancient Jews understood this prophecy of the Messiah, though produced to prove a wrong character of him…”
The concept that the Messiah was a sinner and that He was punished for His own sins, is, of course, blasphemous. Both Isaiah 53 and the New Testament establish that Jesus Christ was sinless (Hebrews 4:15) and that He suffered and died for OUR sins (Hebrews 9:28)–not for any sins which He had committed. The concept that the Messiah was “a leper” is equally preposterous. Isaiah 53 and the New Testament confirm that the Messiah bore OUR sicknesses; not, that He suffered Himself from sicknesses such as leprosy.
Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible sheds more light on the Jewish misconceptions regarding the Messiah, when making the following comments regarding Isaiah 53:12:
“‘And he shall divide the spoil with the strong’-… It is language derived from the conquests of the warrior, and means that his victories would be among the great ones of the earth; his conquests over conquerors. It was from language such as this that the Jews obtained the notion, that the Messiah would be a distinguished conqueror, and hence, they looked forward to one who as a warrior would carry the standard of victory around the world…
“Notwithstanding the evidence that it refers to the Messiah, yet it is certain also that the Jews expected no such personage as that here referred to. They looked for a magnificent temporal prince and conqueror; and an impostor would not have attempted to evince the character, and to go through the circumstances… here described. What impostor ever would have attempted to fulfill a prophecy by subjecting himself to a shameful death?…
“We are then prepared to ask an infidel how he will dispose of this prophecy. That it existed seven hundred years before Christ is as certain as that the poems of Homer or Hesiod had an existence before the Christian era; as certain as the existence of any ancient document whatever. It will not do to say that it was forged – for this is not only without proof, but would destroy the credibility of all ancient writings…”
The clear answer is that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus Christ who, being God, became man to die for our sins. He was brutally tortured, murdered, buried and resurrected. He is acting today as our merciful High Priest, and He WILL return as a conquering hero, as many New Testament Scriptures confirm (compare Revelation 19:11-16).
There is no “salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The time will come when everybody will understand this, and also, that Isaiah prophesied about the true and only Messiah–Jesus Christ. Then, everyone will bow his knee “at the name of Jesus,” confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Lead Writer: Norbert Link