It is impossible, both contextually and logically, for Isaiah 53 to be speaking of the people of Israel. Rather, the text clearly speaks of one individual, and as many rabbis recognized through the ages, that individual was the Messiah.
For the last thousand years, religious Jews have often interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the people of Israel, but that has by no means been the consensus interpretation, and it is not the interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis. So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah—as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses117—while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous (for details on this, see 4.8). Note also that Saʿadiah Gaon influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest traditional Jewish sources—and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources—interpret Isaiah 52:13–53:12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah. As stated above (4.5), this is highly significant.
While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, “Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.” This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction? The Messianic interpretation is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works (for references, see below, 4.8). Thus, it is clear that there is substantial Jewish tradition—spanning a period of up to two thousand years—that differs with your objection.
Most recently—really, from the early 1990s and right up to this day—Isaiah 53 has been applied to Menachem Schneerson (1902–1994), the Grand Rabbi of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement. Obviously, his followers had no problem applying the prophecy to him as an individual (as opposed to the people of Israel as a whole), in keeping with the most ancient Jewish traditions.
All this is especially important when you realize that sections from Isaiah 52:13–53:12 are quoted several times in the New Testament, and the passage as a whole can arguably be called the clearest prophecy of Jesus in the entire Tanakh. Yet many traditional Jewish commentators and teachers have still interpreted the prophecy as Messianic. How tempting it would have been for the Talmudic rabbis and their successors to interpret this passage with reference to Israel—rather than to the Messiah or any other individual—seeing that it played such an important role in Christian interpretation and polemics. Yet they did not interpret the passage with reference to the nation of Israel in any recorded traditional source for almost one thousand years, nor did they interpret it with reference to national Israel with unanimity thereafter.
This is all the more striking when you consider that there is a tradition dating back to Origen, a scholarly Christian leader in the second century, who stated that some Jewish leaders in his day interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, not the Messiah.118 In other words, the national, non-Messianic interpretation was apparently used in some Jewish circles more than three centuries before the completion of the Talmud, yet it simply didn’t stick. It was known, it seems, but it didn’t take root in any Rabbinic source of any kind until the eleventh century. This is saying something!
Still, the bottom line is the scriptural text itself, and a careful examination of the evidence makes it clear that Isaiah 52:13–53:12 cannot refer to Israel as a whole for the following reasons.
1. Throughout Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the servant is depicted as completely righteous yet lowly and afflicted, despised and rejected (before his final exaltation). This cannot possibly apply to the people of Israel as a nation; otherwise, the Torah cannot be true. For the Torah plainly promises, again and again, that if, as a nation, we live righteously before God, we will be the head and not the tail, lifted high and not brought low, blessed and not afflicted, revered and not rejected. This is indisputably clear, as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 explain in great detail. Really, I see no way that an honest reading of these lengthy Torah passages (which do not stand alone but rather summarize what is taught throughout the Torah) can differ with this conclusion: If the people of Israel were righteous, as described in Isaiah 53, then they would be blessed and not cursed. (See vol. 1, 2.4.)
It was only when our nation as a whole (or as the clear majority) was sinful (and therefore hostile to God and his servants) that a righteous individual (like Jeremiah or one of the prophets) or a righteous remnant (like the few godly believers in Elijah’s day) could sufferfor their righteousness, since they would be going against the grain of a society that had rejected God and his laws. But the thought of the people of Israel, as a whole, being righteous and yet suffering for their righteousness is totally unthinkable from a Torah perspective.119 For righteous Israel to suffer humiliation, shame, and death at the hands of her enemies—going like sheep to the slaughter—would be a complete breach of the national covenant, since the Torah explicitly taught that Israel’s blessings and curses would first be experienced in this world as opposed to the world to come (see again vol. 1, 2.4). In Christian terms, such a reversal of the covenant promises would be similar to Jesus condemning a true Christian to hell. Yet according to your interpretation, God himself (see Isa. 53:10) would cause totally righteous and obedient Israel to be slaughtered by the Gentiles to the point of total, national disfigurement (interpreting Isaiah 52:14 according to your viewpoint, with reference to the nation, not an individual). Quite simply, this cannot be.
2. According to Isaiah 52:13–15, the servant of the Lord would not only suffer terrible disfigurement and suffering but would then be highly exalted, to the point that kings would stand in awe of him and bow down to him. While this applies perfectly to Jesus the Messiah, who is adored and venerated by kings and leaders around the world, no such exaltation has taken place for our people Israel. So, not only do the verses referred to not fit the corporate Israel interpretation, but the verses that follow can hardly be understood to be the words of the kings! How could these kings confess their wonder and amazement at Israel’s exaltation if such exaltation has never occurred?120
3. Isaiah presents a picture of a totally righteous, guileless servant of the Lord. According to the anti-missionaries, this is a picture of Israel. But when did our nation ever live like this? When do the Scriptures, or even our own history books, record a time when as anation, there was no deceit on our lips or violence in our midst (Isa. 53:9), when we were as silent as lambs going to the slaughter before our oppressors (v. 7)? What generation could be called God’s “righteous servant” (v. 11)? Yet if the national interpretation were true, Israel would have to be a righteous nation. At no point in our history has this been true. Is that the reason that the closest the Talmud comes to a national interpretation of Isaiah 53 is in b. Berakhot 5a, where verse 10 is applied to righteous individuals within the nation?
Note carefully that the servant was not smitten by God because of his guilt but rather because of the guilt of others (Isa. 53:4, 8). The servant was not guilty! The others transgressed, committed iniquity, and went astray (vv. 5–6). Not so the servant of the Lord! He bore the sin of many, but he himself did not sin (v. 12). This description fits Yeshua perfectly. In no way does it describe the people of Israel (or any other people for that matter).
4. According to Isaiah 53:4–6 and 12, the servant’s suffering brought healing to the people. We sinned, he suffered, and his suffering brought us redemption and forgiveness and mercy and healing. This cannot possibly apply to the sufferings of Israel. Our people’s terrible suffering did not bring healing to the nations who afflicted us. To the contrary, the nations who attacked us and punished us and abused us were judged by God for their deeds! (We will return to this shortly, when we deal with Isaiah 52:3–5, below.) In complete contrast with this, when our Messiah died on the cross, he prayed for those crucifying him, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), and he explained to his disciples prior to his death that his body was being broken and his blood was being shed as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He died for a sinning world. He died that we might live. All who have truly put their trust in him have found forgiveness of sin and transformation of life by the power of his death and resurrection.
Once again, it is only fair to ask, When can these truths be applied to the people of Israel? How is it right to apply Isaiah 53 to the nation as a whole? The answer by now should be obvious: Isaiah 53 does not apply to the nation but to a righteous individual who represents the nation—Yeshua, our Messiah and King.
“There’s still one problem with your argument,” you say. “You neglected to factor in Psalm 44, a lengthy passage of Scripture that demonstrates that even righteous Israel sometimes suffered terribly at the hands of its enemies. This undermines one of your main points and backs up my position that Isaiah 53 is speaking of righteous Israel suffering humiliation and pain at the hands of its oppressors.”
At first glance, Psalm 44 seems to back up your thesis, describing in detail the terrible sufferings that the nation was experiencing—rejected by God; plundered by their enemies; given up to be devoured by the nations; disgraced, taunted, and shamed; brought down to the dust—and then stating explicitly:
All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
and covered us over with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Indeed, some of these very verses have been quoted at the beginning of deeply moving studies on the Holocaust, especially verse 17, “All this happened to us though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.” Doesn’t this mean, then, that the Jewish people as a nation could be godly and righteous and yet be judged by God and defeated and destroyed by their enemies? Certainly not! As previously emphasized, that would make void the whole theology of the Torah and completely contradict fundamental passages in God’s covenant with our people (in particular, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) stating that national obedience would bring blessing, while national disobedience would bring judgment. Yet if your reading of Psalm 44 were correct, it would mean that national obedience brought judgment. This simply cannot be.
“But what about Isaiah 52:3–5, where the text explicitly states that the Jewish people were sold into captivity although they had done nothing wrong. And this is the very text that precedes Isaiah 53!”
As rendered in the NJPSV, Isaiah 52:3–5 reads:
For thus said the Lord:
You were sold for no price,
And shall be redeemed without money.
For thus said the Lord God:
Of old, My people went down
To Egypt to sojourn there;
But Assyria has robbed them,
Giving nothing in return.
What therefore do I gain here?
—declares the Lord—
For My people have been carried off for nothing,
Their mockers howl
—declares the Lord—
And constantly, unceasingly,
My name is reviled.
Does this text indicate that Israel suffered without cause? Obviously not. Rather, the Hebrew words hinam (vv. 3 and 5, translated here as “no price” and “for nothing”) and ʾephes (v. 4, rendered here as “nothing”) simply compliment the words “without money” in verse 3. It is true that hinam can sometimes mean “without cause” (as in Job 9:17; Ps. 35:7), but it can also mean “in vain” (as in Prov. 1:17) or “without compensation” (as in Gen. 29:15). As for ʾephes, it simply means “nothing, none” and has no moral connotations in the Scriptures (see, e.g., Isa. 5:8, where ʾephes maqom means “no place”).121 How then can we be sure how these words should be rendered here? The context makes it obvious: As stated, the issue is one of “no money, no compensation,” as introduced in verse 3, “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed,” and that is the theme of verses 4–5, as quoted above. Also, Isaiah elsewhere states that Israel was “sold” because of its sins! This is the prophet’s theology of why his people suffered: “Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isa. 50:1b; the Hebrew verb for “sold” is identical in form to that found in 52:3).122
There is even a Talmudic interpretation of Isaiah 52:3 that states that the phrase “for nothing were you sold” means “[you were exiled] because you worshipped idols [which have no value],” while the phrase “and without money you will be redeemed” means “even without repentance and good deeds” (b. Sanhedrin 98a).123 So the Talmud states that the people of Israel were exiled because of their sins rather than without cause. Note also that Isaiah 52:4 specifically mentions Assyria’s treatment of the Jewish people. But in Isaiah 10:6b, God said of this same Assyria, “I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me.” Thus, our people’s suffering and exile were hardly without cause; rather, it was without compensation. This agrees with the consistent teaching of the Scriptures.124
How then should Psalm 44 be understood? Very simply, it is the prayer of the righteous remnant on behalf of the sinning nation. It is the godly “standing in the gap” for the godless, the righteous making intercession on behalf of the unrighteous.125 You see, when the nation as a whole persisted in sin, it brought divine judgment down on everyone, and even the righteous suffered in the midst of their guilty brothers and sisters (cf. Lam. 2:1–12). National sin made life miserable for one and all alike. Thus, in Psalm 44, the godly, suffering minority intercedes for the ungodly, suffering majority. Also, because of Israel’s sense of corporate solidarity—they were one body, one community, and one member was intertwined with another member, for better or for worse—as the righteous Israelites watched their sinning brethren being destroyed, they prayed for the others as if they were praying for themselves.
Normally, in the Tanakh the righteous intercessors would take on the guilt of the nation, as Daniel did in his prayer recorded in Daniel 9. Verses 5–8 express this clearly:
… we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets… . Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you.
Daniel himself was righteous, but he freely and fully confessed the sins of his people as his own as well, including himself by saying “we” and “our” instead of “they” and “their” (cf. also Neh. 1:4–7; Ezra 9:1–15).
In Psalm 44 the godly remnant makes an appeal to the Lord based on their innocence, crying out for mercy on the nation as a whole because of their devotion to him (or at the least, crying out for mercy on themselves because of their devotion). This is the only interpretation that makes sense in light of the explicit teaching of the Torah and the consistent historical testimony of the entire Hebrew Bible, both of which testify to the fact that obedient Israel was blessed by God, while disobedient Israel was judged by him. Moreover, this sheds light on the intercessory power of the Messiah, described in Isaiah 53 and further explained in the New Testament writings: Through his perfect righteousness, the Messiah was able to make multitudes of sinners righteous too (Isa. 53:11b; Rom. 5:15–21).
None of this can be said about the so-called righteous remnant of Israel. Certainly, the Hebrew Scriptures indicate that in every generation in Israel’s history there were righteous individuals—never the majority of the people but always the decided minority—and these individuals often went against the grain of the sinful society and corrupt religious establishment. I have no problem with the concept of a righteous remnant.126 The problem arises when we try to make them into a distinct entity, as required by the text of Isaiah 53. In reality, this “remnant” has no history and cannot possibly be described with words such as, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2a), since the righteous remnant does not have a specific origin or upbringing. Nor do verses such as Isaiah 53:7, speaking of the servant’s lamblike silence and submission in the midst of his suffering, apply to the remnant, which was sometimes actively opposed to the sinful majority and even led resistance movements to overthrow their oppressors (as the Maccabees did in the second century B.C.E.). Nor was the righteous remnant ever highly exalted to the point that kings bowed down before it/them, as stated explicitly in the end of Isaiah 52. Quite simply, a concrete person, not an abstract group of hardly identifiable individuals, is described by the prophet in Isaiah 53.
This is driven home by reading some of Rashi’s comments to Isaiah 53, all of which make far more sense when applied to Jesus, our Messiah, than when applied to the righteous remnant. As you read, ask yourself, Who does this describe? (For an enlightening experiment, when Rashi says “Israel,” substitute “Yeshua” instead.)
4 Indeed, he bore our illnesses Heb aken an expression of ‘but’ in all places. But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he bore. yet we accounted him We thought that he was hated by the Omnipresent, but he was not so, but he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities.…
5 the chastisement of our welfare was upon him The chastisement due to the welfare that we enjoyed, came upon him, for he was chastised so that there be peace for the entire world.
11… and their iniquities he would bear He would bear, in the manner of all the righteous, as it is said (Num. 18:1): “You and your sons shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary.”
12… and with transgressors he was counted He suffered torments as if he had sinned and transgressed, and this is because of others; he bore the sin of the many. and interceded for the transgressors through his sufferings, for good came to the world through him.
Again I ask, Who does this describe?
117 See above, n. 113 (Levey); cf. further vol. 2, 3.23.
118 See Origen, Contra Celsum, bk. 1, chap. 55, cited in 4.8.
119 It is for this very reason that followers of Jesus are promised persecution, namely, suffering for righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world, living as strangers and pilgrims in an often hostile environment (see, e.g., Matt 5:10–12; 10:16ff.; John 15:18ff.; Acts 5:41; Phil 1:29, among many references); see further vol. 1, 2.6, and cf. Joseph Ton (Tson), Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewardsin Heaven (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1997).
120 Ibn Ezra, in harmony with other classical Jewish commentaries, claims that Isaiah 49:7 (“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.’ ”) refers to the prophet himself rather than to the nation. But this passage clearly parallels the promise to the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52:13–15, a passage interpreted by Ibn Ezra with reference to the nation of Israel as a whole.
121 According to Delitzsch (Isaiah, 772), beʾephes in this context means, “ ‘for nothing,’ i.e., without having acquired any right to it, but rather serving in its unrighteousness simply as the blind instrument of the righteousness of Jehovah, who through the instrumentality of Asshur put an end first of all to the kingdom of Israel, and then to the kingdom of Judah.” The NIV renders this as “lately,” a translation rightly rejected in its day by Delitzsch (ibid.). The Stone edition appropriately renders hinam as “for naught” in Isaiah 52:3, 5 but then translates beʾephes as “without justification”—a rendering that is without justification. For other usages of ʾephes (related to the meanings of “end, extremity, nonexistence”), see further D. J. A. Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993–), 1:359.
122 A number of Christian translations (such as the NLT and NRSV) render some of these terms with “without justification” or “without cause.” See, e.g., the NLT’s rendering of v. 4a, “Now they have been oppressed without cause by Assyria”), apparently overlooking the teaching of Isaiah and the other prophets that God used Assyria to judge Israel and Judah because of sin (see, e.g., Isa. 10:5ff.).
123 As rendered by Asher Finkel, Ein Yaakov, CD Rom ed. (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson).
124 Isaiah 57:1 is no exception. Rather, it says that the reason righteous individuals sometimes die before their time is to spare them from a greater calamity that is about to befall the sinning nation; cf. 1 Kings 14:1–13.
125 Cf. Ezek. 22:30–31; also 13:4–5; Ps. 106:23; cf. further Yohanan Muffs, “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession,” in idem, Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 9–48. Cf. also Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1–20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 236; and idem, Ezekiel 21–37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 463.
126 Cf. the standard study of Gerhard Hasel, The Remnant: The History and Theology of the Remnant Idea from Genesis to Isaiah, Andrews University Monographs, 5 (Berrien Springs: Andrews Univ. Press, 1974).