Traditional (especially "counter-missionary") Jews will tell you Isaiah 53 is all about Israel. But let's examine that assertion, shall we?
The servant of Isaiah 53 is an innocent and guiltless sufferer. Israel is never described as sinless. Isaiah 1:4 says of the nation: "Alas sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity. A brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters!" He then goes on in the same chapter to characterize Judah as Sodom, Jerusalem as a harlot, and the people as those whose hands are stained with blood (verses 10, 15, and 21). What a far cry from the innocent and guiltless sufferer of Isaiah 53 who had "done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth!"
The prophet said: "It pleased the LORD to bruise him." Has the awful treatment of the Jewish people (so contrary, by the way, to the teaching of Yeshua to love everyone) really been God's pleasure, as is said of the suffering of the servant in Isaiah 53:10?
If, as some rabbis contend, Isaiah 53 refers to the holocaust, can we really say of Israel's suffering during that horrible period, "It pleased the LORD to bruise him?" Yet it makes perfect sense to say that God was pleased to have Messiah suffer and die as our sin offering to provide us forgiveness and atonement. The person mentioned in this passage suffers silently and willingly.
Yet all people, even Israelites, complain when they suffer! Brave Jewish men and women fought in resistance movements against Hitler. Remember the Vilna Ghetto Uprising? Remember the Jewish men who fought on the side of the allies? Can we really say Jewish suffering during the holocaust and during the preceding centuries was done silently and willingly?
The figure described in Isaiah 53 suffers, dies, and rises again to atone for his people's sins. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 53:10 for "sin-offering" is "asham," which is a technical term meaning "sin-offering." See how it is used in Leviticus chapters 5 and 6. Isaiah 53 describes a sinless and perfect sacrificial lamb who takes upon himself the sins of others so that they might be forgiven. Can anyone really claim that the terrible suffering of the Jewish people, however undeserved and unjust, atones for the sins of the world?
Whoever Isaiah 53 speaks of, the figure described suffers and dies in order to provide a legal payment for sin so that others can be forgiven. This cannot be true of the Jewish people as a whole, or of any other mere human! It is the prophet who is speaking in this passage. He says: "who has believed our message." The term "message" usually refers to the prophetic message, as it does in Jeremiah 49:14.
Also, when we understand the Hebrew parallelism of verse 1, we see "Who has believed our message" as parallel to "to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed." The "arm of the Lord" refers to God's powerful act of salvation. So the message of the speaker is the message of a prophet declaring what God has done to save his people.
The prophet speaking is Isaiah himself, who says the sufferer was punished for "the transgression of my people," according to verse 8. Who are the people of Isaiah? Israel. So the sufferer of Isaiah 53 suffered for Israel. So how could he be Israel?
The figure of Isaiah 53 dies and is buried according to verses 8 and 9. The people of Israel have never died as a whole. They have been out of the land on two occasions and have returned, but they have never ceased to be among the living. Yet Yeshua died, was buried, and rose again.
If Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Israel, how about Isaiah himself? But Isaiah said he was a sinful man of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5-7). And Isaiah did not die as an atonement for our sins. Could it have been Jeremiah? Jeremiah 11:19 does echo the words of Isaiah 53.
Judah rejected and despised the prophet for telling them the truth. Leaders of Judah sought to kill Jeremiah, and so the prophet describes himself in these terms. But they were not able to kill the prophet. Certainly Jeremiah did not die to atone for the sins of his people.
What of Moses? Could the prophet have been speaking of him? But Moses wasn't sinless either. Moses sinned and was forbidden from entering the promised land (Numbers 20:12). Moses indeed attempted to offer himself as a sacrifice in place of the nation, but God did not allow him to do so (Exodus 32:30-35).
Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were all prophets who gave us a glimpse of what Messiah, the ultimate prophet, would be like, but none of them quite fit Isaiah 53.
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