Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Jesus because it says the servant of the Lord would see seed, an expression always meaning physical descendants when used in the Hebrew Bible.
Actually, the passage you refer to is the only occurrence of the Hebrew expression “see seed” in the Tanakh, so it is not wise to be so dogmatic about the meaning of the expression, especially since “seed” is sometimes used metaphorically in the Scriptures and since it can sometimes refer simply to a future generation. This much is certain: Through his continued life after his resurrection, we can honestly and fairly say that Jesus the Messiah fulfills the description of “seeing seed.”
It was while debating Rabbi Professor J. Immanuel Schochet on March 30, 1995, that I first heard the argument that the Hebrew expression “see seed” (yireh zeraʿ) always referred to literal offspring in the Hebrew Bible. With all due respect to Rabbi Schochet’s scholarship, I must confess I was surprised to hear this, since this idiom is found only one time in the Tanakh, namely, in Isaiah 53. How then can it be argued that this expression always refers to literal offspring in the Tanakh when it occurs only once? Of course, one could simply argue that the Hebrew word zeraʿ always refers to literal seed (= physical offspring), never to metaphorical seed (such as disciples or spiritual offspring), and therefore the verse would mean that the servant of the Lord had children. If this were true, it would rule out Jesus as a candidate. This argument, however, is not compelling for a number of reasons.
First, zeraʿ, “seed,” is sometimes used metaphorically in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Book of Isaiah. Thus, Isaiah called Israel “a seed of evildoers,” “a seed of an adulterer,” and “a seed of falsehood” (Isa. 1:4; 14:20; 57:3–4). While some of these phrases could be intended in a literal sense (that is, the Israelites were literally children of evil, adulterous, lying people), more likely they are intended metaphorically (that is, they were wicked, adulterous, dishonest people to the very core of their beings). According to the standard Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs, in cases such as these, seed means “as marked by moral quality = persons (or community) of such a quality,”158 thus, “a seed of evildoers” would really mean “a community of evildoers” or “evildoers to the core.” In the context of Isaiah 53:10, this would mean that the servant of the Lord would see godly, spiritual posterity, true disciples transformed by means of his labors on their behalf. As Isaiah 53:10 explains, this is tied in with his “prolong[ing] his days,” referring to his resurrection (see above, 4.13).
Second, zeraʿ is sometimes used with reference to “a future generation” without referring to the specific descendants of one individual in particular. Thus, Psalm 22 declares that as a result of the mighty deliverance experienced by the righteous sufferer (see below, 4.24), “posterity [zeraʿ] will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it” (Ps. 22:30-31[31-32]).159 As rendered in the NJPSV: “Offspring shall serve Him; the Lord’s fame shall be proclaimed to the generation to come; they shall tell of His beneficence to people yet to be born, for He has acted.” In the context of Isaiah 53:10, this would mean that the servant of the Lord would see future generations of his people serving the Lord. Cannot this be rightly applied to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have followed Yeshua, the servant of the Lord, through the centuries? Certainly, this would be true to the context, especially since the text does not say that he would literally father a seed (= offspring), but rather that he would see offspring.
Third, the weakness of this argument is seen when we realize that no less a traditional Jewish authority than Saʿadiah Gaon applied Isaiah 53 to Jeremiah the prophet, yet God commanded Jeremiah never to marry or have children (Jer. 16:1; see above, 4.6). More recently, Isaiah 53 was applied to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, yet he and his wife were unable to have children. How then could this be applied to either of these two candidates? Obviously, the text does not explicitly state that the servant of the Lord had to bear children of his own, hence the passage could be applied to these other Jewish leaders, albeit incorrectly. (In other words, many of the other specifics of the text cannot possibly apply to either Jeremiah or the Rebbe, while they apply perfectly to Yeshua.) We can see, then, that this argument has very little, if any, force.
Having concluded our discussion of Isaiah 53, let me once again encourage you to read the entire passage for yourself (beginning in Isaiah 52:13) while asking yourself honestly before the Lord, Of whom does the prophet speak? I trust you will see an amazing prophetic portrait of our Messiah, the righteous Lamb of God, who died that we could live. In fact, the description is so clear that you will understand why the charge has been raised that this section of the Bible was removed from the weekly Scripture portions read in the synagogue. It sounds too much like Yeshua! But is this charge really true?
Oxford professor Geza Vermes has argued that the Ten Commandments were once read every week in the synagogues and then were removed because of Hellenizing Jews who claimed that God gave Israel only the Ten Commandments.160 If true, this would mean there might have been polemical factors that dictated which portions of the Bible would be read aloud in the synagogue—at least in some extreme cases. Similarly, it has been argued that Isaiah 52:13–53:12 was also removed from its place because Christians often pointed to the text as a clear prophecy of Jesus, and it sounded too much like him to be read in the synagogues. More specifically, we see that Isaiah 51:12–52:12 (the section immediately preceding Isaiah 52:13–53:12) was read in conjunction with Deuteronomy 15:18–21:9 (called Parashat Shoftim) from the Torah, while Isaiah 54:1–10 (the section immediately following Isaiah 52:13–53:12) was read in conjunction with the next Torah passage, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19 (called Parashat Ki Tetzei). What happened to Isaiah 53?
It is possible the text was simply skipped because it did not fit properly with the Torah portion in question, since the reading from the Prophets coincided in some way with the reading from the Torah. In keeping with this, the Jewish scholar Raphael Loewe has pointed to ancient synagogal traditions from Palestine that seem to indicate that Isaiah 53 was never read as part of the weekly portion. On the other hand, Loewe pointed to equally ancient synagogal traditions from Egypt that seem to indicate the opposite, namely, that Isaiah 53 was originally read one week out of every year, but it was subsequently removed, apparently for polemical reasons.161 How interesting! Of course, we may never know which tradition is accurate (or if both traditions are accurate, reflecting different customs in different parts of the world). Yet we do know this: Isaiah 53 has not been read aloud in the synagogues for many centuries, but there is nothing stopping you from carefully and prayerfully reading the text for yourself. I urge you to follow the truth wherever it may lead.
Having examined all the major objections that have been raised against the Messianic Jewish/Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, it is clear that none of them have any substance. It is equally clear that the passage describes Jesus the Messiah with striking accuracy. What do you say?
158 Francis Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (repr., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), 283.
159 The KJV renders Psalm 22:30a[31a] as, “A seed shall serve him,” bringing out clearly the Hebrew usage and indicating that it does not refer to specific offspring, but posterity in general.
160 Geza Vermes, “The Decalogue and the Minim,” in his Post-Biblical Jewish Studies, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, vol. 8 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), 169–77.
161 Loewe, prolegomenon to Driver and Neubauer, Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah, 20–22.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (83). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.