Isaiah 53 – The forbidden chapter

The 17th century Jewish historian, Raphael Levi, admitted that long ago the rabbis used to read Isaiah 53 in synagogues, but after the chapter caused “arguments and great confusion” the rabbis decided that the simplest thing would be to just take that prophecy out of the Haftarah readings in synagogues. That’s why today when we read Isaiah 52, we stop in the middle of the chapter and the week after we jump straight to Isaiah 54.

What happened to Isaiah 53, you might be wondering? That is exactly what this article is about.

In the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, chapter 53 the prophet prophesies about the Messiah that he would be rejected by his people suffer and die in agony and that God would see his suffering and death as an atonement for the sins of humanity. Isaiah lived and prophesied about 700 BCE. According to his prophecy in chapter 53 the leaders of Israel would recognize they had made a mistake at the end of days when they rejected the Messiah, so Isaiah put the prophecy in past tense and because he saw himself as part of the people of Israel he used third person plural (we).

At the end of chapter 52 Isaiah writes an introduction to chapter 53:

“Behold, my servant shall prosper…” 

The term “servant” is supposed to connect back to sections earlier in the book that speak of “the Servant of the Lord” (for example, in chapters 42, 49 and 50, where the Messiah is described as a servant that suffers).

“He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.”

This is to emphasize the eminence of the Messiah who would in fact rise from the dead, and ascend to the heavens and sit next to the Father.  His actions would give him a higher status that every human king or ruler. 

“Just as many were appalled at You—His appearance was disfigured more than any man, His form more than the sons of men.”

Before the Messiah is exalted he would suffer and be humiliated. His body would be abused and tortured so badly that he would be completely disfigured and unrecognizable.

“So He will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of Him, for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will perceive.”

Despite the horrific suffering the day would come when even kings would come to look to him with reverence.

And now, let’s dive into chapter 53 itself…

“Who has believed our report?”

This is describing the lack of faith among the people of Israel who don’t believe what they’ve heard.

“To whom is the arm of Adonai revealed?”

Isaiah calls the Messiah the “Arm of the Lord”. Earlier, in chapter 40 Isaiah declares that the “Arm of the Lord” would rule for him. In chapter 51 the gentiles put their hope in the “Arm of the Lord”, and the “Arm of the Lord” would redeem. In chapter 52 the “Arm of the Lord” brings salvation. Now, in 53, Isaiah reveals to us that the “Arm of the Lord” is in fact the Messiah. The Messiah is very much part of God himself.

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
   like a root out of dry ground.
He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him,
nor beauty that we should desire Him.

He was a shoot in spiritually dry ground – there had been no word from God for 400 years. 

“He had no beauty that we should desire Him”.

He was not appealing to us. We didn’t want him. His appearance wasn’t particularly glorious or impressive, and the way he showed up didn’t cause people to desire him. In contrast to what rabbinic Halacha teaches today, according to this prophecy, the Messiah would not be born to a prestigious rabbinic family or grow up in the grand residences of wealthy rabbis. We can say with near certainty that the external appearance of the Messiah was nothing extraordinary at all.

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,
One from whom people hide their faces.
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

The life of the Messiah was characterized by pain, rejection and suffering. He didn’t get the honor due to the Messiah, but was despised and rejected by the leaders of his people. We considered him some kind of social misfit – someone we might hide our faces from when we pass someone on the street that we are embarrassed to see.

We didn’t think he was the Messiah. We didn’t even register it could be him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
   and carried our pains.
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
   struck by God, and afflicted.

The Messiah suffered in our place – he carried our sicknesses, our suffering, our pain… and the sins we committed, while our people – while we – thought he was being punished, and that his suffering was God’s punishment for sins that he himself had committed. We didn’t understand that it was for OUR sin.

But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities.
The chastisement for our shalom was upon Him,
and by His stripes we are healed.

The Hebrew says wounded, pierced. He died. Like someone who has fallen wounded, or someone perforated with bullets – not for any fault of his own, but it was our wrongdoing. He was crushed because of our inequities, our sins – the punishment and discipline we deserved went to him. The “stripes” are hard blows that leave marks, and by his scars we are healed. In exactly this way, hundreds of years later, the prophecy was fulfilled. Yeshua was went to the cross in order to take the death we deserved.

We all like sheep have gone astray.
Each of us turned to his own way.
So Adonai has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

The Hebrew talks of going astray like sheep wander off and get lost. We all, people of Israel, ignored him and went on our way, but despite this, God put all our sin and iniquity on him – on the Messiah.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted
yet He did not open His mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughter,
like a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so He did not open His mouth.

The Hebrew says he was exploited, abused… his dignity and right to a fair trial were taken from him. The Hebrew says he was afflicted – tortured – but he didn’t open his mouth. This shows that he did not resist his unjust sentence. He didn’t try to rebel or escape, and he didn’t take legal representation in spite of the fact he was facing a death sentence, but he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, or to be sheared without resisting the injustices being done to him.

Because of oppression and judgment He was taken away.
As for His generation, who considered?
For He was cut off from the land of the living,
for the transgression of my people—
the stroke was theirs.

They arrested him and took his to trial. As a result of the trial he was “cut off from the land of the living”. A death sentence. Not for his own crimes, but those of his people. In the Scriptures, “My people” always means the people of Israel. The Messiah would die not for his own sin but for the sin of his people – the people who should be taking the punishment for their own sins – but the Messiah took it upon himself. He is the one who died.

His generation wouldn’t care to bring him up in conversation, but would rather sweep his existence under the carpet. So for the last 2000 years, Yeshua the Messiah has been the best kept secret in Judaism, and this is precisely why he was labelled “Yeshu” in Judaism, which stands for “May his name and memory be blotted out”.

His grave was given with the wicked,
and by a rich man in His death,
though He had done no violence,
nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

Even though he was taken out to be executed like a criminal, even though he did nothing wrong, and never lied, in his death he was to be buried in the fancy tomb of a rich man. Yeshua really was killed on the cross and was buried in the grave of a rich man a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea. It’s a clear symbol of the ironic situation in which the Messiah receives honor for the noblest deed of them all – taking the death sentence we deserve on himself.

Yet it pleased Adonai to bruise Him.
He caused Him to suffer.
If He makes His soul a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days,
and the will of Adonai will succeed by His hand.

So who is responsible for the death of the Messiah? “The Jews”? As so many Catholics have accused us of in the past? Maybe the Romans? They were the ones who actually crucified him? No. 

“God was pleased to bruise him”. God is the only one able to forgive and bring salvation to the world and he turned himself into a sacrifice. What kind of sacrifice? A guilt offering. The death of the Messiah was no accident – God used his own stiff-necked people as priests in order to bring about the forgiveness of sins not only for his people Israel, but for the whole of humanity. In contrast to the Yom Kippur sacrifice which was only valid until the following year and just ‘covered over’ sin, the atonement of the Messiah took away our sin once and for all! None of us as human beings are perfect – we are not able to be that perfect sacrifice. Only God himself could do that.

After that comes a very interesting statement:

“He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days,”

In spite of the fact he would be killed, he would also prolong his days. He would rise again from the dead and would see the “fruit of his seed”, planted in his resurrection. By the way, we also have a video on the resurrection of Yeshua.

As a result of the anguish of His soul
He will see it and be satisfied by His knowledge.
The Righteous One, My Servant will make many righteous
   and He will bear their iniquities.

The Messiah would see and be satisfied by his labor, because many would be made righteous by the suffering he endured, as a righteous man when he took on himself the sins and iniquities of many. All who recognize him as the Messiah will be his “seed” in a spiritual sense.

Therefore I will give Him a portion with the great,
and He will divide the spoil with the mighty—
because He poured out His soul to death,
   and was counted with transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many,
   and interceded for the transgressors.

The Messiah was the one interceding for us an advocate for us as sinners before a holy God. The Messiah took on his shoulders the sin of all who believe in him. It’s an encouraging prophecy of hope and a future. God is not just interested in forgiveness expressed in words but also demonstrated in actions. That’s why he took on the appearance of a servant and took the punishment that we deserve on himself.

The Jewish Sages thought Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah

It’s important to understand we’re not just talking about a Christian interpretation here – the Jewish Sages of ancient times also always interpreted Isaiah 53 to be about the Messiah. In fact, the well-known term “Messiah ben Yosef” is actually from this very text. 

In the ancient Jewish translation of Yonatan ben Uzziel (Targum Jonathan) from the first century opened the section with the words “The Anointed Servant” that is to say Ben Uzziel connected the chapter to the Messiah, the Anointed One.

Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel who lived centuries ago admitted that “Yonatan ben Uzziel’s interpretation that it was about the coming Messiah was also the opinion of the Sages (of blessed memory) as can be seen in much of their commentary.”

The Book of the Zohar recognizes the principle of substitution that the suffering of the Messiah would come to take the suffering that others deserved for their sins. On the verse “Surely He has borne our griefs”, the Book of the Zohar says, “There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel: All of these come and rest upon Him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgression of the law.”

Midrash Konen in discussing Isaiah 53 puts the following words in the mouth of Elijah the prophet: “Thus says the Messiah: Endure the sufferings and the sentence your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Yisroel. Thus it is written, “He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities”, until the time the end comes.”

Tractate Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud (98b), writes about the name of the Messiah
“His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted”.

In Midrash Tanhuma it says, “Rabbi Nachman says, it speaks of no one but the Messiah, the Son of David of whom it is said, here a man called “the plant”, and Jonathan translated it to mean the Messiah and it is rightly said, “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”.

Midrash Shumel says this about Isaiah 53: “The suffering was divided into three parts: One for the generation of the Patriarchs, one for the generation of Shmad, and one for the King Messiah”.

The prayers for Yom Kippur, the ones we all know also relates Isaiah 53 to the Messiah. The prayer added for Yom Kippur by Rabbi Eliezer around the time of the seventh century: “Our righteous Messiah has turned away from us we have acted foolishly and there is no one to justify us. Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions he bears and he is pierced for our transgressions. He carries our sins on his shoulder, to find forgiveness for our iniquities. By his wounds we are healed.”

The deeper we go into this prayer for Yom Kippur the more significant it gets. The prayer brings the sense that the Messiah left his people. “The righteous Messiah turned [away]”. That is to say, the Messiah has already come and left. Also, the Messiah suffered in the place of the people, and the sins of people were put on him then after the Messiah suffered, he left them that was the reason for their concern and so the people are praying for his return. A large part of this prayer is taken straight out of Isaiah 53, so from this we can prove that up to the 7th century the Jewish perception – also among the rabbis – was still that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah.

In Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Moshe haDarshan says that God enabled the Messiah to save souls but that together with that, he would suffer greatly. Also Maimonides relates Isaiah 53 to the Messiah in his Epistle to Yemen. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote, “And Messiah of Ephraim died there and Israel mourns for him as it is written: ‘He is despised and rejected of men’, and he goes back into hiding, for it says: ‘and we hid, as it were, our faces from him’.”

Also in Tractate Sotah 14, Midrash Rabbah Parasha 5, Midrash Tanhuma, Midrash Konen, Yalkut Shimoni and actually the whole Talmud always related the chapter to the Messiah, as did all the rabbis until about a thousand years ago. Everyone agreed that Isaiah 53 prophesies about the Messiah.

Rashi’s revision in the Middle Ages

Rashi lived, as we know, in Spain, at a time when Jews and Christians lived together and so naturally, arguments arose between them. Christian friends and neighbors of Rashi tried to convince him that Biblical prophecy pointed to Yeshua. Among other prophecies, they of course showed him Isaiah 53. Because the prophecy in Isaiah 53 is so sharp and clear, Rashi had no choice. He obviously didn’t want to admit that Yeshua was the Messiah, so he had to try to reinterpret the prophecy so that it was no longer about the Messiah but instead about the people of Israel. Rashi’s claim was that the suffering servant is a metaphor of the people of Israel who suffered at the hands of the gentiles.

Many different rabbis – Gaon Rabbi Saadia, Rabbi Naphtali ben Asher, and Rabbi Moshe Alshich adamantly opposed Rashi’s new interpretation, and demanded that the Sages of Israel should ignore him and return to the original interpretation, the most famous of among them was Mamonides, who categorically declared that Rashi was completely mistaken.

But today, it is Rashi’s interpretation that is accepted among the rabbis who also are not interested in admitting that Yeshua could have been the Messiah who was rejected, suffered and died exactly as Isaiah prophesied.

A good example comes from Rabbi Haim Rettig, who writes, “Is it possible that any Christian anywhere in the world could fit the description of the Servant of the Lord that is led like a sheep to the slaughter? It cannot be that Isaiah the prophet could prophesy about a Christian event rather than a Jewish one. The prophecy of Isaiah is talking about the people of Israel throughout the generations, the Israel has given itself to be the innocent lamb”. What irony! Despite the fact that rabbis twisted Yeshua’s name into “Yeshu the Christian”, changing his name didn’t turn him into a Christian. The official religion of Christianity was only established in the third century. Yeshua was in fact Jewish, from the line of David, who lived here in Israel.

Also, when Rabbi Rettig claims that the prophecy of Isaiah 53 is not about the Messiah but about Israel, that gave itself up as an innocent lamb, can we really say that the people of Israel could be described as “an innocent lamb”? Innocent lamb is a Biblical definition for one without sin, who is blameless, spotless, never does evil and would never sin, but is perfect, pure and clean from sin. Does the people of Israel really this description? It’s enough just to open the paper or listen to the news to get your answer.

And since we’re talking about Isaiah the prophet, we’ll let Isaiah answer this question as well. Notice the words to the people of Israel just six chapters after chapter 53:

“For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity. Your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one sues justly, and none pleads a case honestly. Their feet run after evil. They rush to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity. Violence and ruin are on their highways. They do not know the path of peace, and there is no justice in their tracks. They have made their paths crooked. Whoever walks in them will not experience shalom.”

One thing’s for sure, as far as Isaiah’s concerned Israel was no “innocent lamb”! 

Here are a few more reasons that make it impossible for the chapter to be about Israel

The Suffering Servant is consistently presented as an individual and not as a plurality or collective noun, like a people group. Verse 8 says, “For the transgressions of My people He was stricken”. What people was Isaiah part of? The people of Israel, of course. So “my people” refers to the people of Israel. Therefore Israel cannot be the Suffering Servant of the Lord. If the people of Israel was the Servant of the Lord here, who would be “my people”? 

Moreover, the Servant of the Lord suffers willingly submissively and without objection. The people of Israel have never suffered willingly! According to the Torah, the suffering of Israel was a result of sin not because of their righteousness whereas the Servant of the Lord suffered as a righteous person not because he had sinned The Servant of the Lord was guiltless but according to the Torah the people of Israel were always punished and suffered because of their sin and the gentiles didn’t get healing from God because Jewish people were persecuted.

The Servant of the Lord died in our place as a sacrifice for our sin. The people of Israel, on the other hand, didn’t suffer for the gentiles but because of their wickedness. 

The Servant rose from the dead, but the people of Israel were never “cut off” completely and so could not “rise from the dead”. If the Servant of the Lord is Israel and not the Messiah, the concept of “Messiah ben Yosef” suddenly disappears as if it never existed.

In summary, we did wrong, the Messiah was punished. We sinned, and he suffered. We deserve death, and he was crucified in our place. A perfect God took on the likeness of a Servant in order to reveal himself to us as one of us. He allowed us to humiliate him, reject him, and to torture him to death in order to take our sins upon himself. So it’s also up to us to suffer for the good of others who sin against us. If God who is perfect can forgive us, imperfect as we are, how much more should we forgive one another? This is the wonderful message of the Suffering Servant: The God who loves us has done for us what we could never do for ourselves!

Eitan Bar

Eitan Bar is a native Jewish-Israeli who was born and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel (1984). Graduated with his B.A. in Biblical Studies from Israel College of the Bible (Jerusalem, 2009), his M.A. in Theology from Liberty University (2013) and is now pursuing his Doctorate with Dallas Theological Seminary. Eitan currently serves as ONE FOR ISRAEL's Director of Media & Evangelism. (From 2006 to 2013, Eitan worked for CRU, in which his roles included serving as Israel's VLM-SLM leader.)

Eitan's professional background is in "Multimedia Design and Visual Communications" working for various secular advertising agencies in Tel-Aviv.

Eitan is the producer of:
1) I MET MESSIAH (Jewish testimonials).
2) Answering Rabbinic Objections to Jesus.

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