If you want to know what Isaiah 53 is talking about, just read Isaiah 52 and 54. The context is the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile, 550 years before Jesus.
There is some truth to what you are saying. The prophet saw the future glory of Israel and the work of the Messiah against the backdrop of the end of the exile. But the context is larger—beginning in Isaiah 40. It spells a new beginning for Israel, a new creation and a new exodus, a time when all the world will ultimately see the glory of the Lord. The events predicted in Isaiah 53 are far greater than the return of about forty-five thousand Jews from Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. Rather, in these passages in Isaiah, the exile serves as a symbol of the spiritual bondage of the Jewish people, while the return from exile serves as a figure of their redemption. These prophecies of redemption culminate in the glorious Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is one of the most important Messianic prophecies in the entire Hebrew Bible, and I would not be exaggerating to say that more Jews have put their faith in Jesus as Messiah after reading this passage of Scripture than after reading any other passage in the Tanakh. To the unbiased reader, it clearly speaks about the death and resurrection of the righteous servant of the Lord on behalf of his sinful people. It speaks of Yeshua! Not surprisingly, anti-missionaries have raised numerous arguments to this interpretation, frequently claiming that the passage speaks of the people of Israel as opposed to the Messiah (that is to say, they argue for a national interpretation rather than an individual interpretation).
Interestingly, the national interpretation is not found once in the Talmuds, the Targums, or the midrashim (in other words, not once in all the classical, foundational, authoritative Jewish writings). In fact, it is not found in any traditional Jewish source until the time of Rashi, who lived in the eleventh century C.E.105 That is saying something! For almost one thousand years after the birth of Yeshua, not one rabbi, not one Talmudic teacher, not one Jewish sage, left us an interpretation showing that Isaiah 53 should be interpreted with reference to the nation of Israel (as opposed to a righteous individual, or righteous individuals, within Israel), despite the fact that these verses from Isaiah are quoted in the New Testament and were often used in Jewish-Christian debate.
We will take up the subject of the national interpretation of this passage more fully when we deal with the next objection, below, 4.6. For now, we will answer two important questions: (1) In the preceding chapters of Isaiah (namely, 40–51), is “the servant of the Lord” always speaking of thenation of Israel as opposed to an individual who represents Israel? (2) Does the surrounding context speak only of the exile of the Jewish people from Babylon?
The servant of the Lord (Hebrew, ʿebed) is mentioned a total of seventeen times in Isaiah 40–51, sometimes with reference to the nation of Israel as a whole (41:8–9; twice in 42:19; 43:10; twice in 44:21; 45:4; 48:20), and sometimes with reference to a righteous individual within the nation (49:3, 5–7; 50:10). In several verses, it is not clear whether an individual or the nation (or a righteous remnant within the nation) is referred to, although a good case can be made for the individual interpretation (42:1; 44:1–2).106 Significantly, the most personal, specific, individual language is found in Isaiah 52:13 and 53:11, roughly the beginning and the end of this glorious prophetic passage. Reviewing the data just presented, we can see something very important: The references to the servant as a people actually end with Isaiah 48:20, while the references to the servant as an individual come into indisputable focus beginning with Isaiah 49 and continuing through the end of chapter 53. Thus, by the time we reach Isaiah 52:13, the spotlight is on a person, not a people. The picture is becoming clearer! (We will take up this discussion again in the next objection.)
Let’s look at the evidence in a little more depth. There are some unmistakable national references to the servant in Isaiah 41–48. In the following verses, the “servant” refers to the Jewish people:
• “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you” (Isa. 41:8–9). Notice that here the servant consists of the descendants (plural) of Abraham.
• “ ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me’ ” (Isa. 43:10). God clearly identifies his servant as his witnesses (plural).
At times, however, this servant is nonresponsive to the purposes of God:
• “Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing” (Isa. 42:18–20).
In fact, even as God’s servant—the Jewish people—is being led out of Babylonian exile, the servant is still deaf and blind: “Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf” (Isa. 43:8). This hardly sounds like the righteous servant of the Lord who elsewhere opens the eyes of the blind. The contrast is quite stark:
• “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.… I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:1, 6–7).
This servant is obedient and righteous, setting captives free, and according to the Targum, this servant is none other than the Messiah.107 This is confirmed by Rabbi David Kimchi—one of the so-called “big three” medieval Rabbinic commentators—who also interpreted the words “Behold my servant” in Isaiah 42:1 with specific reference to “King Messiah.”108 And this image occurs even more plainly in Isaiah 49, where the servant is called Israel and yet is sent on a mission to redeem Israel. The servant is a righteous individual who represents the nation.109 The servant, as in Isaiah 42, is the Messiah!110
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” This is what the Lord says—the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”111
According to the next verses, it is the servant who actually leads the people out of captivity—quite supernaturally. This is because the Babylonian captivity is a type and symbol of the nation’s spiritual captivity and exile from God. Their return from exile typifies their deliverance from all bondage, a time of new creation, a new—and in some ways, greater—exodus, and the servant who leads the way functions in some ways as a new Moses.112
How do we explain the fact that the servant is called Israel in Isaiah 49:3 if, in fact, the text is speaking of an individual rather than the nation? This is actually not just a “Christian” problem, since (as stated in n. 110) the three leading medieval Jewish commentators interpret the servant of Isaiah 49 as referring to an individual (namely, the prophet) rather than to the nation. Thus, they too must explain why the servant (a person) is called Israel. But this is really not an obstacle at all, as indicated by the interpretation offered by Metsudat David, another leading medieval Jewish commentator: “Behold, before Me, you [meaning the prophet] are like the entire multitude of Israel [hamon yisraʾel], and I glory in you as in all of them.” If this could be said about a prophet of Israel (as interpreted by these medieval rabbis), how much more could it be said about the Messiah of Israel, who both represents and fulfills the destiny of the people of Israel? It simply means that Israel realizes its goals through her greatest King and Leader, the Messiah; therefore it should come as no surprise to us if, at times, the Messiah is referred to as “Israel.” This presents no problem at all. In fact, it reinforces the connection between the Messiah and his people.
How then do we put this all together in the immediate scriptural context, which constantly refers to the Babylonian exile? If the prophet was announcing the end of the exile and the release of the Jewish people from bondage, then in some of these passages the national interpretation makes good sense, as if to say, “Behold God’s servant, Israel, marching out of exile and back to the Promised Land.” But if the prophet was only speaking of an individual—either himself or the Messiah—in some passages, the reference to the exile seems to make less sense. Yet this is clearly the backdrop to several of the chapters in Isaiah under discussion here (e.g., Isa. 48:20).
This also seems to be the context in the verses immediately preceding Isaiah 52:13, namely, 52:11–12: “Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord. But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” Wouldn’t this suggest that the very next verse would be speaking about the same time frame, namely, the deliverance of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile more than five hundred years before the time of Jesus? Not necessarily!
First, we must remember that many traditional Jewish interpreters—from the Targum until today—had no problem reading Isaiah 52:13–53:12 with reference to the Messiah, thus reading this section of Isaiah as a distinct passage in its own right. In other words, the passage was interpreted independent of the preceding context of the return from the Babylonian exile. Otherwise, how could followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in our day interpret this passage with reference to their leader who lived and died twenty-five hundred years after the return from exile? Or how could the Targum paraphrase this passage to reflect the events of the Bar Kochba War, which took place more than six hundred years after the return of the exiles?113 And why did Rashi begin his comments on Isaiah 52:13 by stating that the passage applied to the righteous remnant within Jacob who would prosper at the end of days?114
Second, those traditional Jewish commentators—from Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak to contemporary Orthodox commentators—who interpret the passage with reference to Israel as a whole (as opposed to the Messiah as the chief representative of Israel) generally do so with reference to Israel’s sufferings through the ages, right up to the Holocaust in the twentieth century. Therefore, the context of the exile from Babylon has long since been forgotten.
Third, the universal glory that was to follow Israel’s release from Babylonian captivity simply did not take place as a result of Israel coming out of captivity. Consider what Isaiah prophesied:
A voice of one calling:
“In the desert prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Many similar verses in Isaiah could be cited (see, e.g., Isa. 41:17–20; 43:16–21; 51:9–11), but there is no avoiding the obvious conclusion: The return from exile of less than forty-five thousand Jews (see Nehemiah 7) was hardly an earth-shattering, heaven-opening, miraculous event of cosmic proportions. It did not reveal the glory of the Lord and all the earth did not witness his salvation. Therefore, being true to the larger context and carefully interpreting the specific verses, the following picture emerges with clarity: It is the Messiah as the servant of the Lord who leads the way for his people, the Messiah as the new Moses who liberates them in a new exodus, but this time it is not from Egypt or even from Babylon. Rather, he leads his people out of spiritual bondage—symbolized here by the Babylonian exile—and into the fulfillment of their spiritual destiny. As stated above, the exile serves as the backdrop for these Messianic prophecies, and marching out of the exile, fulfilling the mission of God’s servant Israel, is God’s servant the Messiah, the ideal representative of the people, setting the captives free and bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
It is with good reason, therefore, that the New Testament authors cited Isaiah 40 with reference to John the Immerser, who came to prepare the way for the Messiah (see Matt. 3:1–3). This means that the Lordhimself in the person of Yeshua the Messiah would come to Zion, as Isaiah also prophesied in chapter 52: “Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes” (Isa. 52:8)—and this would be the cause of great rejoicing and victory. God would come to deliver his people!
You could picture it like this: Out of the Babylonian exile the prophet sees a mighty deliverance, as Yahweh makes a way in the desert, a highway for the redeemed (Isaiah 35), a new exodus. In prophetic vision, a people marches out from the exile, and as this people draws closer, it becomes clear that it is actually a person, not a nation; an ideal Israelite, not the people as a whole; the Messiah and true Redeemer, not a sinful brood who always falls short of the mark (Isa. 57:3–13a; 59:1–8). Out of the shadows of the exile, the light of God’s redemption begins to dawn, and as the sun reaches its zenith, we can see clearly that Israel’s salvation does not center on a partial, national deliverance from exile but on a true and lasting deliverance from sin. The Messianic interpretation makes perfect sense!
The Messiah, the righteous servant of the Lord, fulfills the destiny of his people and nation. In his triumph, Israel triumphs; in his obedience, Israel—along with the nations—becomes obedient. In fact, this is the only fair, logical, and consistent way to interpret Isaiah 52:13–53:12 in context.115 If it is not Messianic, then Isaiah prophesied falsely, since the glorious salvation and deliverance he prophesied did not come to pass. If it is Messianic, then we see how the Messiah—a Jew, an Israelite, one of his own people—enables Israel to fulfill its calling. Just consider how literally these verses have come to pass (or continue in their process of coming to pass):
• According to Isaiah 42:4, “he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law [torah] the islands will put their hope.” We can watch this progressive prophecy being fulfilled before our eyes, as Yeshua the Messiah, through his followers on earth and by the power of the Spirit, continues to bring justice and liberty and equality to more and more peoples of the earth (see vol. 1, 2.1). And at this very hour, in the most distant, formerly godforsaken places on the earth, on scattered islands in the middle of vast oceans, multitudes of people eagerly await and embrace Yeshua’s teaching, revealing the one true God, the God of Israel.
• According to Isaiah 49:1–7, the servant of the Lord would first be rejected by his own people, Israel, before bringing salvation to the nations. As proclaimed by the Lord himself in verse 6: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” How perfectly this speaks of Jesus!
• According to Isaiah 50:4–10, the servant of the Lord, most definitely an individual,116 would suffer rejection and beating. This is how the servant described his sufferings (because of his obedience to God): “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (v. 6). This accurately describes some of the sufferings endured by Jesus because of his obedience to God.
• Finally, Isaiah 52:13–53:12 describes in great detail the glorious exaltation of the servant of the Lord after suffering rejection and death at the hands of his people. Yet his very death provided atonement and redemption for the world! (Because of the importance of this passage, the next twelve objections will deal with specific points raised against the standard Christian and Messianic Jewish interpretation, which applies the prophecy to Yeshua.)
Israel, as the national servant of the Lord, failed in its mission, often being unrighteous. But through the Messiah—the ideal Israelite and the righteous servant of the Lord—the servant’s mission was fulfilled, culminating in the grand announcement of Isaiah 53:12, where God says: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” What a wonderful Savior! And this leads right into the joyful proclamation of Isaiah 54, where the salvation and blessing and prosperity of Jerusalem are announced.
If Isaiah 54 was interpreted in terms of Israel’s coming out of exile (as claimed in this objection), we can safely say that the prophecies of this chapter of Isaiah were not fulfilled. Many of the Jewish people did indeed return from exile, but Jerusalem was not gloriously rebuilt (see vv. 11–12), nor was it established in righteousness and peace (vv. 13–14), nor was it supernaturally protected from its enemies (see vv. 15–17 in light of the wars with Rome in 67–70 and 132–135 C.E. that devastated Jerusalem, just to mention two major examples of bloody conflicts endured by the city and its people). Once again, the salvation and glory depicted here are far greater than that which the exiles experienced when they returned to their land more than twenty-five hundred years ago. There really is no comparison. But when we read the text rightly—in other words, in light of the Messianic prophecies of the preceding chapters—everything becomes clear: Salvation has come! For a time, Israel has rejected her Messiah, but soon her day will come and Jerusalem will be delivered and established as the praise of all the earth (see Isa. 62:1–7), the center of God’s kingdom (see Isa. 2:1–4), the place of Messiah’s return (see Zech. 14:1–4).
We can see, then, that it is the Messianic interpretation of these critically important “servant of the Lord” passages that is in harmony with the larger context and true to both the letter and spirit of the words. Those interpreting these prophecies with reference to Jesus have every reason to be totally confident in the soundness of their interpretation.
105 As we will see in 4.8, the Christian scholar Origen in the second century made reference to Jewish leaders who interpreted Isaiah 53 with regard to the people of Israel as a whole, and there is one midrashic reference to Isaiah 53:10 being applied to the righteous in general.
106 Regarding Isaiah 42:1–7, note that the servant is given as a covenant to/for the people (meaning the people of Israel) and as a light for the nations (meaning the Gentiles). This would clearly point to the servant as an individual. A further “servant” reference is found in Isaiah 44:26, which seems to refer to God’s prophetic servants in general, not to one particular servant or to the nation of Israel as a whole.
107 The Aramaic reads, “Behold my servant the Messiah.”
108 Note also that Metsudat David interprets Isaiah 42:1 with reference to King Messiah.
109 Craig Keener’s comments on Mark 10:45 (“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”) are simple, to the point, and relevant to our discussion: “By calling himself a ‘servant’ and defining his mission as ‘giving his life a ransom for the many,’ Jesus identifies himself with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:10–12 (despite the contrary view of some interpreters today). Although the servant’s mission had been given to Israel as a whole (Isaiah 41:8; 43:10; 44:2, 21; 49:3), Israel through disobedience could not fulfill it (42:19), so that the one who would fulfill it had to restore Israel as well as bring light to the Gentiles (49:5–7; 52:13–53:12). Because hardly anyone else had yet applied this passage to the Messiah, Jesus is trying to redefine their expectation about his messianic mission.” See Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 163–64.
110 According to Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and some of the other classic commentaries, the servant here is the prophet, rather than the Messiah or Israel. This means that these important Rabbinic commentaries do not interpret this passage in a national sense, recognizing the individual nature of the servant. This completely undercuts the whole anti-missionary argument—a major argument of the anti-missionaries, given the importance of Isaiah 53—that the servant in Isaiah 40–55 is always Israel. This is simply not so!
111 The marginal rendering suggested in the NJPSV footnotes is possible but highly unlikely.
112 Cf. Klaus Baltzer, Deutero–Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40–55, trans. Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2001).
113 See Samson H. Levey, The Messiah, an Aramaic Interpretation: The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, 1974), 63–67.
114 Note also Rashi’s comment on Isaiah 53:8: “For because of the transgression of my people [this is allegedly a Gentile king speaking] this plague came to the righteous among them.”
115 It is clear that the text cannot be speaking of a still future deliverance from exile, since, in particular, masses of Jews are not in exile in Babylon today.
116 Rashi interprets the clear, noncollective language of Isaiah 50:4–8 with reference to Isaiah himself (he explains verses 10–11 with reference to the prophets in general—specifically, the reference to “the word of his servant” in verse 10—and therefore not as pertaining to the nation as a whole). Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 82, commenting on the Septuagint’s translation of some key servant passages in Isaiah 40–55, noted that “maintaining the collective interpretation of the Servant became more difficult with the detailed allusions to rejection, physical abuse, disfigurement, and eventually death, in 50:4–9 and 52:13–53:12.”