Isaiah 53 contains the words of the repentant kings of the nations rather than the words of the Jewish people.
This is not possible. The servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 was smitten for the sins of his people, while he himself was guiltless. In complete contrast to this, the Torah promised that the people of Israel would be smitten for their own sins, not for the sins of the nations. Even more importantly, the sufferings of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 bring healing to those for whom he suffered, whereas when Israel was smitten by its enemies because of its sins, God subsequently judged those nations for overdoing the punishment. Israel’s suffering brought judgment rather than healing to Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome—to name just a few of the nations used by God to judge his people Israel. (For more on these points, see above, 4.5–4.6.) At any rate, the text plainly says that the servant was suffering for the sins of “my people,” which in context must refer to Israel, with either God speaking (“My people”) or the prophet speaking (“my people”).
Although this objection may seem odd at first glance, it appears to have some textual support, since Isaiah 52:15 says, “Kings will shut their mouths because of him [i.e., the servant of the Lord]. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard [from the root sh-m-ʿ], they will understand.” The very next verse, 53:1, opens with the question, “Who has believed our message [also from the root sh-m-ʿ] and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Doesn’t this indicate that these kings are the ones raising this question, asking who has believed their report? Certainly not; the rest of the chapter simply does not support this thesis.135
Now, I could simply point out that it is somewhat ludicrous to put one of the loftiest theological statements in the Bible into the mouths of pagan, idol-worshiping kings. This is not only illogical; it is without precedent. Even the case of God speaking through the pagan prophet Balaam (Numbers 22–24) does not offer a true parallel to this, since (1) Isaiah 53 is presented as thoughtful reflection whereas Balaam’s prophecies are divinely inspired utterances delivered contrary to his own desires, and (2) the Balaam oracles do not present deep redemptive truths, such as the theology of vicarious suffering outlined in Isaiah 53, but rather messages concerning God’s choosing of Israel out of the nations.
But there are more substantial arguments that invalidate this objection. First, there is a fundamental theological flaw in the interpretation that the Gentile kings are the speakers in Isaiah 53. According to Jeremiah 30:11, God would completely destroy the nations among whom he scattered his people. While he promised to discipline his people—hence their scattering among these nations—he would eventually judge those nations for their sins against Israel. So, God’s people would suffer for their own sins, often at the hands of their enemies, but then the Lord would destroy those enemies. This is the opposite of what Isaiah 53 states: The servant was guiltless, suffering for the sins of his guilty people, who are then healed by his suffering. How then can the Gentile kings—kings who are promised judgment, not blessing, for inflicting pain on the Jewish people—be pictured as the speakers in this chapter? If they were the speakers, they should have said, “We inflicted great suffering on the people of Israel, who were guilty of great sin against God, but we went too far in our punishments, and now Israel’s God will utterly destroy us.” There’s quite a difference!
Look at Isaiah 10:5–34. God used Assyria to judge his sinning people (Israel and Judah), but Assyria was full of pride and was especially vicious. As a result, God said he would bring devastating destruction on that proud nation, which is exactly what he did. Similarly, in Habakkuk 1 the Lord said he would use the Babylonians (literally, Chaldeans) to judge Judah, but then in the next chapter the prophet is told that the Lord would judge godless Babylon for its treatment of the Jewish people. This is also a prominent theme in Jeremiah, where Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s greatest leader, is actually called the Lord’s servant (e.g., Jer. 27:6). Yet Babylon itself would be judged and utterly destroyed (see Jeremiah 50–51). It is abundantly clear, then, that the kings of these nations would hardly be declaring that they were healed through Israel’s innocent suffering at their hands. Not at all! Israel’s suffering was because of national sin, and the nations that inflicted that suffering were then destroyed by the Lord.136 Therefore, from a theological, scriptural perspective, it is not possible that the Gentile kings are speaking in this passage.
Second, there is a serious contextual and grammatical flaw in this viewpoint. Look carefully at the consistent language of the entire passage. First person singular is only used by God: my servant (52:13), my righteous servant (53:11), therefore I will … (53:12). The same holds true for my people in 53:8.137 God himself is speaking about his servant suffering for his people Israel, rather than the kings speaking of their people individually. This becomes even more clear when we realize that the onlookers in this passage (according to this objection, the Gentile kings) always express themselves in the first person plural: our message (53:1); to attract us … that we should desire him (53:2); we esteemed him not (53:3); our infirmities … our sorrows … we considered him (53:4); our transgressions … our iniquities … brought us peace … we are healed (53:5); we all … each of us … the iniquity of us all (53:6)—and then this language stops in verse 6. No more “we, us, our”—not once—indicating that whatever group is speaking, be it the people of Israel as a whole or the alleged kings of the nations, they are no longer speaking after verse 6. The narrator must be either the prophet or (much more likely) God, speaking in the first person singular and describing the sufferings of the servant in the third person singular. And this means that the only possible meaning of my people in Isaiah 53:8 is that the servant of the Lord suffered for the people of Israel, not that the servant was actually the people of Israel themselves.138
So then, even if someone tried to make the (highly unlikely) case that foreign kings were actually speaking in the first six verses of Isaiah 53, it is clear that their words stop right there, God (or possibly the prophet) stating clearly that the servant was suffering for the sins of his people Israel (and by extension, for the sins of the nations). So, even if the opening verses described the words of the astonished kings (again, an interpretation with little support), the verses describe their words of astonishment when they recognize Yeshua, the despised and rejected one, as the highly exalted servant of the Lord.139
In concluding the answer to this objection, I’d like you to consider something of great importance: If the subject of this chapter—the righteous, suffering servant of the Lord who was mocked, rejected, despised, and killed—is actually Jesus of Nazareth, who then are the speakers in this chapter who say, “We didn’t understand that he was suffering for our sins. We thought God had rejected him and he was suffering for his own disobedience. We didn’t realize he was dying for us!” Read these words carefully:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Is the picture coming into focus for you now? These are not the words of the Gentile kings, the great majority of whom had no idea what was happening in Judea two thousand years ago. These are the words of our own people! These are the words of the Messiah’s blood brothers: “We thought he was dying a criminal’s death. We had no idea he was dying for us!” And this continues to be the attitude of most of our people to this day: “We don’t know why Jesus was crucified. Apparently he was some kind of threat to the Roman government. Or maybe he was just a false prophet. Obviously, he did something wrong and paid for it.” Not so! Rather, we did something wrong—every one of us born into this world—and he paid for that. That is good news!
But the story doesn’t end there. A careful reading of the passage from Isaiah 53 quoted above tells us something else: Although our people did not initially realize why Yeshua the Messiah was dying, and although to this very day most of our people continue to misunderstand the nature and purpose of his sacrifice for our sins, eventually our people will see it clearly. Remember, according to the text, they are the ones who declare, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Suddenly, the light went on, the revelation came, and the incredibly rich spiritual confession was made by our people. So be it!
Who was it who failed to understand why Yeshua was suffering, believing that Yeshua was suffering for his own sins and not for the sins of the world? Historically, it is clear that my people Israel—including some who are even now reading this book—have done exactly what Isaiah prophesied. And this leads to only one conclusion: Jewish friend, your healing comes from him!
135 Allan A. MacRae, a staunch evangelical Old Testament scholar, believed that the Gentile kings spoke the opening verses of Isaiah 53. However, in his view, this actually enhanced, not detracted from, the Messianic application of this chapter to Jesus. See his study on Isaiah 40–55, The Gospel of Isaiah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977).
136 According to Ibn Ezra, the Jewish people brought healing to the nations in which they were scattered by praying for the peace and prosperity of those nations (as per Jer. 29:7). While this is certainly a noble thought, and while it is no doubt true that Jews have, at times, prayed for the welfare of the nations among whom they were scattered, this is not what Isaiah 53 states. Rather, it is the servant of the Lord’s actual suffering that brings healing (see esp. vv. 4–6; only v. 12 partially supports Ibn Ezra’s view). Does anyone imagine that during the horrors of the Holocaust, our people were praying for God’s blessings on Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and the other nations that were slaughtering them? This is not meant to criticize the actions or reactions of our people toward their persecutors and oppressors; it is simply to say that the picture painted in Isaiah 53 did not accurately apply to them.
137 It is interesting to note that in the first edition of the NJPSV Isaiah (1972; the translation was attributed to H. L. Ginsberg), Isaiah 53:8 was rendered with “My people,” the uppercase M indicating that deity was speaking. In the second edition (1986 or later), this phrase is changed to “my people,” lowercase, indicating that the prophet was speaking. In either case, whether the Lord or the prophet is speaking, it is clear that this is not the voice of the Gentile kings.
138 I would encourage you to read through the Book of Lamentations and ask these two questions: For whose sins were the people of Israel suffering? Does the author of Lamentations fully acknowledge his people’s guilt? The answers are self-evident.
139 Cf. the position of MacRae, cited above, n. 135.