5.5.1 Christian And Jewish Interpretation Of Isaiah 53
6) Isaiah 53
a) This shows that suffering leads to purification, but there is no hint here that it is speaking of a sacrifice which will provide future atonement.
(b) Parts of Isaiah 53 are in the past tense, e.g. " Who hath believed our report?" . Therefore it cannot be a prophecy of the future. Phrases like " He hath borne our griefs" occur, rather than " he shall bear our griefs" . The present tenses in Isaiah 53:3 show that at least part of that prophecy is referring to the times of Isaiah. There are some future tenses in Isaiah 53 showing that the whole passage cannot refer to the future; only parts of it can.
(c) The " servant" of Isa. 53 refers to the Jewish people as a whole - the term " My servant" is used like this in Isa. 49:3.
(d) Isa. 53:7 says that the servant would not open his mouth, yet Jesus did do so in his sufferings (Matt. 27:46). By contrast, the Talmud (Berochos 61 b) gives examples of how Jewish martyrs died in silence.
(e) Isa. 53:10 describes the servant having children and living a long life. This does not apply to Jesus.
This passage was discussed earlier in the transcript, and therefore only the specific objections raised will be discussed here:
a) Isa.53 does speak of sacrifice; God would make " his soul" , i.e. " him" , " an offering for sin" (v.10). The Law required that the offerer lay his hand on the sin offering before it was killed, to associate himself with it (Lev.4:4,15,24,29). In this way the animal bore the offerer's sins, in the same way as the scapegoat bore Israel's sins on the day of Atonement. This fact is definitely alluded to here: " Bearing their iniquities" (v.11), " He bare the sin of many" (v.12), " the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v.6). These verses are conclusive that a human offering and sin-bearing sacrifice is being described here . It is noteworthy that the bullock's blood was to be " sprinkled" seven times before the Lord to make atonement (Lev.4:6,17); and the same Hebrew word occurs earlier in this same suffering servant prophecy: " My servant...his visage was so marred more than any man...so (on account of his sufferings) shall he sprinkle many nations" (Is.52:13-15).
We have shown earlier that the blood of the slain animals was not in itself a valid way of atoning for sin -it pointed forward to " the blood" of the perfect sacrifice. That perfect sin-bearing sacrifice, which Isa.53 shows was to be made by the willing death of the suffering servant, therefore gained forgiveness of sin for all time. The seed of the woman was to destroy sin, the seed of the serpent, through his own temporary sufferings (the bruising on the heel, Gen.3:15). " Sin" in this context must include all the transgressions which have ever been committed, and all those which ever would be after the time that perfect sacrifice was made on Calvary's cross. This perfect sacrifice would not be so if there were other sacrifices still needed after it had been made. Therefore this perfect sacrifice which the " volume of the book" of the Old Covenant constantly pointed forward to (Ps.40:7), would provide atonement for future sins. Thus in the same way as the efficacy of the perfect sacrifice reached back to provide forgiveness of the sins committed under the Old Covenant, so its efficacy reaches forward as well. It is noteworthy that the Orthodox Jewish book of Zohar interprets Isaiah 53 by saying that it illustrates how God chooses to smite one just man in order to save many others.
b) Unlike tenses in the Greek New Testament, tenses in the Hebrew Old Testament are frequently used as part of linguistic idiom. To accept arguments based upon them is something very few who appreciate Old Testament Hebrew would be willing to do. A good example of the problem with Hebrew tenses is found in Gen.17:5,6: " Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee (past tense). And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will (future) make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee" . The use of the past tense in " a father of many nations have I made thee" shows that this tense can be used to show Divine intention. The same principle is applicable in Isa.53 -the past tenses there indicate God's intention to do things which elsewhere in the same prophecy are spoken of in the future tense.
This " prophetic perfect" tense in Hebrew grammar is definitely recognized by Jewish expositors (e.g. A. Cohen in the Soncino Commentary on Obadiah 2). The apparent use of past and then future tenses is surely to teach that there was to be a certain order in Messiah's work as outlined in this passage -first sacrifice, and then honour. We have shown elsewhere that Messianic prophesies normally had a primary fulfilment; in this case the minor fulfilment was in Hezekiah, and therefore it is fitting that there is a mixture of tenses, as parts of the prophecy are more specifically relevant to him than others.
Another significant example of this is found in Ps.110:1: " The Lord (God) said to my (David's) Lord (Messiah), Sit thou at my right hand" . Seeing that Messiah was to be a descendant of David, it follows that he could not have existed before he was born, and therefore God could not have literally spoken to him. Thus David is using the past tense (" the Lord said" ) in a prophetic sense.
It is also evident that the present tense is also used in Old Testament prophecy to describe future events: " Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee" (Isa.60:1) describes Israel's future glories; similarly Isa.9:6 " For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" . Due to His foreknowledge God can speak of things which are not as though they are.
c) We have shown in our comments on Ps.22 how on the cross Jesus bore many of the punishments for disobedience that were to come on Israel.
Therefore Christians see in this a confirmation of the fact that the suffering servant prophecies do often have a dual application to both Messiah and the people of Israel. However, the Targums interpret Isa.53 as specifically referring to Messiah (Sanhedrin 98b); there is good reason to support their implication that not all references to the " suffering servant" are to the people of Israel. Isa.49 speaks of the servant being called by God out of the womb (hinting at a virgin birth?), and being " His (God's) servant to bring Jacob again to him...to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel" (v.1,5,6). This clearly differentiates the " servant" and the people of Israel. The " we" referred to in Isa.53 is Israel: " When we shall see him (the servant) there is no beauty that we should desire him (as Jews today claim that they see nothing attractive in Jesus)...we esteemed him not...for the transgression of My (God's? Isaiah's) people (Israel) was he (the servant) smitten" . Similarly the same servant in Isa.49:7 is described as " him whom man despiseth... whom the nation abhorreth" when he came to save them from their sins. This is further proof that the Jews were firstly to reject their Messiah and subject him to tremendous mockery and death. No other individual has been so mocked by the Jews as Jesus. Israel desperately need a Messiah now -and that Messiah must be one whom previously they rejected, mocked and killed. The only candidate is Jesus Christ. There are many connections between the language used of the suffering servant in Isa.53, and that of Ps.22:6 and Ps.69:7,10,19 which also describe the suffering of Messiah. These verses again show how one individual is mocked by his Jewish brethren; seeing that the person spoken of here is the same as in Isa.53, this further proves that the person there is not the nation of Israel.
It must also be borne in mind that notable Rabbis have interpreted Isa.53 as referring to a personal Messiah:
- The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, a Rabbi broadly contemporary with Jesus, comments on Isa.53: " Behold, my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper..." . Aben Ezra writes: " Jonathan ben Uzziel has interpreted it (Isaiah 53) of the Messiah who is to come, and this is also the opinion of wise men of blessed memory (i.e. Rabbis), in many of their Medrashes" .
- The book of Zohar and also Solomon ben Isaac make the same identification.
- Jarki, the 12th century Rabbi, comments on Isa.53: " King Messiah was among the generation of the wicked....as it is said, 'He was wounded for our transgressions'" .
- Rabbi Moses Alschech of the 15th century comments on the passage " Our Rabbis, with one mouth have reverently received by tradition that King Messiah is here spoken of" .
d) This quotation from Matt.27:46 concerning Jesus speaking during his sufferings supposes a certain degree of acceptance of the New Testament record. By this token it must be significant that Matt.27:12,14 emphasize how Jesus remained silent before his accusers " insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly" . Isa.53:7 is specifically speaking about Messiah's attitude before those who condemned Him: " He opened not his mouth...as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth" . That Messiah was to speak during his sufferings is shown by Ps.22:1-4 describing his agonized prayers during this time; Ps.69:3 is similar, describing how " I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried" . This definitely implies a verbal expression of prayer. We have mentioned above that there are many linguistic and conceptual links between Isa.53 and these Psalms, showing that prophetically they speak of the same suffering servant. Therefore it is to be expected that he was silent before his accusers, but later cried mightily unto God whilst enduring the sufferings they inflicted on him. This is precisely what the New Testament records of the passion of Jesus.
e) This verse 10 seems to be teaching a death and resurrection of Messiah; he would be " bruised" (cp. Gen.3:15 -i.e. to conquer sin), so that " his soul (was) an offering for sin" , entailing his death. But then the verse continues " He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days" , implying that he is then given eternal life and many children (compare Ps.45:16). The fact that Jesus died young without literal children therefore fits the requirements of this verse, because Messiah was only to be given those things after his death and resurrection. To take " children" here as literal children tends to do violence to the fact that most of the other 37 references in Isaiah to children refer to them in a figurative, often spiritual, sense. To suddenly insist on a literal application here is quite out of keeping with this. It is understandable how through Messiah's perfect offering to overcome sin, he should be able to beget a new generation of men and women, figurative children, who would also overcome sin through his sacrifice. Hence the New Testament's emphasis on the doctrine of the new birth, as a result of hearing and responding to the word of Christ's Gospel (John 3:3-5; 1 Pet.1:23; 2 Cor.5:17).