The rabbis only applied Isaiah 52:13–15, not 53:1–12, to the Messiah son of David.
Absolutely not. In fact, an Orthodox anti-missionary made this very claim—quite emphatically—in a live radio debate with me in 1991. Needless to say, he had to come back on the air and admit his error.
The question here is not whether the traditional rabbis applied this passage to Jesus (obviously, they did not, or else they would not have been traditional rabbis). Rather, the question is whether they applied it to the Messiah son of David (as opposed to the Messiah son of Joseph, the suffering Messiah of Jewish tradition; see vol. 2, 3.23)—and it is a question in which I have a special interest. As I explained in volume 2 (pp. 225–26):
I am especially familiar with these interpretations due to an unusual event that took place when holding a live radio debate with anti-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer in May of 1991. As we were discussing Isaiah 53, Rabbi Singer stated that not one traditional Jewish Bible commentary interpreted the passage with reference to Messiah son of David. I differed with him emphatically, stating that several traditional commentaries did, in fact, say that Isaiah 53 referred to the Messiah. To this Rabbi Singer gave me a challenge: If he could prove me wrong, would I become a traditional Jew? “Yes,” I responded (since I was sure I was right in my position), asking him in return, “Would you become a Messianic Jew if I could prove you wrong?” To this he in turn responded, “Yes.” Right then and there, we shook hands on it. And he was wrong indeed! In fact, we got on the air again a few weeks later (together with the host and moderator, Messianic Jewish leader Sid Roth), and Rabbi Singer explained that what he meant to say was that no traditional Jewish commentary applied Isaiah 53 to the death of the Messiah son of David—a subject that had never come up once in our previous discussion.
Of course, Sid and I released Rabbi Singer from his promise (I never expected him to become a believer in Jesus just because he made a mistake in the middle of a live debate), but an unforgettable lesson was learned: Even traditional Jewish commentators referred Isaiah 53 to the Messiah, meaning Messiah son of David.127
What commentators did I have in mind? Most prominently, I pointed to Nachmanides (the Ramban), one of the greatest of all medieval Jewish thinkers, a commentator, a mystic, a philosopher, and a legal scholar. He claimed that Isaiah spoke of “the Messiah, the son of David… [who] will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies.”128 Other commentators have interpreted this key passage with reference to the sufferings of Messiah son of David. Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin (or Ibn Krispin), first described the highly exalted nature of the Messiah (following a famous midrash to Isaiah 52:13; see vol. 2, 3.22) and then spoke of his sufferings in great detail, explaining that he would share Israel’s “subjugation and distress and be exceedingly afflicted.”129 Rabbi Mosheh El-Sheikh (or Alshekh), claimed that “our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah” and also referred to a midrash that stated, “of all the sufferings which entered into the world, one third was for David and the fathers, one for the generation in exile, and one for the King Messiah.”130 There is no debating this!
127 Audio copies of the debate (including a recap with Sid Roth) are available through ICN Ministries, 4000 West Fairfield Drive, Pensacola, FL 32506; www.icnministries.org.
128 See S. R. Driver and Adolph Neubauer, eds. and trans., The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters, 2 vols. (New York: Ktav, 1969), 2:78.
129 For a more extended quote from Ibn Krispin on this subject, see vol. 2, pp. 215–16.
130 Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 2:259.