An Introduction to Isaiah 53


There is no passage in the Tenach which has had more written about it than Isaiah 53[1]. Both Christians and Jews have destroyed many a forest in the effort to clarify what the Prophet was trying to say. The Christian view is quite easy to explain:


1.      Christians believe in a Messiah who comes to suffer and die.

2.      Isaiah 53 deals with a servant who suffers


Therefore, according to them, they are the same person.


There are many problems with the Christian interpretation as has been pointed out in Jewish responses[2], but it does have the advantage of simplicity. The Christian interpretation is pretty simple to understand, and that makes their exegesis simpler to explain. I think this paragraph sums up the problem Jewish Apologists face:


The traditional response of the Jewish community, which identifies the Servant with corporate Israel, is a complex contextual argument and not easily understood by the average Jewish person, who would take the passage at face value and view the Servant as an individual. In this instance, the argument for the gospel presents the simplest and most reasonable option for the identity of the Servant of the Lord.[3]


While simplicity is nice and it insures that the reader will easily understand ones point of view, it does not mean that the view is the truth. Likewise complexity does not imply error.


He does, however, point out a major failing in the presentation of the Jewish point of view in articles written from that perspective: There is little material that helps us understand why Jews understand Isaiah 53 as being about Israel (or the righteous as Rashi says) in a way that an average Jewish person can easily understand. The Jewish ‘exegetical context’[4] is not presented, nor is it understood by the average Jewish person. The articles/books written on this subject from the Jewish perspective concentrate on verses and counter verses and why the Jewish view is better and the Christian objections wrong, without presenting the ‘whole picture’ in a way that makes theological sense. What should be easy to understand is not. In this short paper I would like to remedy that lack. In two short papers to follow this, I will further expand the ideas from here to give a full explanation of Isaiah 53. In the end it will be easily understandable and explainable in less than 10 minutes.


In order to understand any passage in the Tenach we need to examine the various types of contexts in which the passage occurs and which effects our understanding of it. We also need to see if there are any parallel passages that might relate the same information with the subject being identified in a more explicit manner. Many works try to deal with that later point and I will certainly deal with that here in a brief but more general manner.


I am not trying to explain every detail of every verse, nor answer every question that is asked about the Jewish interpretation. These three articles are just an introduction. In later articles I will deal with some of the questions asked about the Jewish interpretation that are not dealt with in these articles.


There are four general types of context that we can talk about.[5] They are (in the order I will address them):


  1. Exegetical Context
  2. Historical Context
  3. General Context
  4. Literary Context


These make up the full ‘context’ of the passages. Without these it is very difficult to see the truth of the Jewish view. In so doing, I will explain some of the verses and answer some of the objections to the Jewish view.


Exegetical Context


The Exegetical context is made up of those assumptions or theological/religious ideas or facts that are presumed before one goes looking at the text. For Judaism they can be based on clear Biblical teachings. With reference to Isaiah 53, the Christian exegetical context is simple and well known. It is why most people in America when first looking at Isaiah 53 would think along Christian lines. It is based on the New Testament teachings that the Messiah needed to come to this world, suffer and die[6]. The application to Isaiah 53 is explicit in the New Testament, and obvious.


The Exegetical context in Judaism is more complex and based on ideas that are not always familiar to readers of the Tenach. However, when each factor contained in it is explained it sheds light on how Jewish interpreters can say what they do and why the Jewish rejections of the Christian view is in order.


The first contextual issue deals with the idea of what the Messiah is expected to do, or in this case NOT supposed to do. In another article I address the issue of a suffering/dying Messiah and show that in Judaism of the first century (and including up to today) there was no such concept.[7] Neither Bar Kochbah nor any of the Messianic candidates in the 1st century taught he was going to suffer, die and come back[8]. It has been the same since then. With this idea alone we can understand why Judaism sees Isaiah in a different light than do Christians. There is no suffering/dying Messiah to look for, so the servant of Isaiah 53 needs to be someone else.


It defies logic that all the Messianic pretenders misunderstood that their suffering and death were required rather than signs of failure. We seem to have here historical backing for the argument for this aspect of the Jewish exegetical context. Not only do we see a consistent historical application, but it predates the Christian one. Likewise, the Christian one can be challenged as being a revisionist version that is attempting to understand and redefine the failure of a Messianic pretender[9]. It can be seen as an ad hoc explanation for an incident that defies preconceived expectations.


The next important contextual issue is that of National Sin and Exile. This is a topic of considerable importance in Isaiah, especially from Chapter 40 on but at the same time it is rarely discussed in polemical liturature. I am surprised how many times I find, in discussion with Christians, how difficult it is for Christians to comprehend this simple idea. The idea of the distinction between the individual and the nation is fundamental to an understanding of the Tenach in general and specifically Isaiah 40 -66.


The topic of Sin and Atonement is not one that can be summarized in a few short paragraphs, which is the space I have here for the subject. G-d willing, I will write a series of articles on the subject in depth, but for this article it will have to be sufficient that I outline the main issues.


To understand this idea we need to first address the idea of Individual Sin. This is much easier to understand than National Sin. Obviously an issue like this cannot be fully developed in a few paragraphs. My purpose here is to just introduce all the major concepts of Individual sin in order to compare/contrast it to National Sin.


The Biblical approach to individual sin is one of the clearest ways we can see the mercy and love of God for mankind. From the beginning with Adam and even more with Cain we see God’s compassion and liberality in judgment[10].


There are various categories of sins and some factors which effect their seriousness and also as to how they are punishable. A good way to categorize sins is to divide them based on the Biblical descriptions of the type of punishment that they require. The categories are: Criminal; Civil; Ritual and Religious. As to which category the sin is in will often depend on two factors: Intention and Witnesses. Intention means whether it was willful or unintentional. Witnesses means if there were two people who observed the act, or if there were not[11].


Criminal sins are those that require a death penalty or lashes. These require witnesses and intent, except for the case of unintentional murder, where the punishment is banishment to a city of refuge for a period of time. Intentional sins of this type can, in some cases, bring on the most severe ‘Religious’ punishment excision[12]. Unintentional sins of this type can also at times require a sacrifice[13], which I will shortly discuss.


Civil Sins are those that require monetary payment or an oath to require or absolve of the monetary obligation. These require witnesses to obligate the payment and if one is too poor to pay, one can be sold into servitude for up to 7 years to pay off the obligation. There is no difference between intentional and unintentional civil sins except in rare cases like when someone was watching another’s property[14]. They also do not require sacrifices except in a rare case when one has lied about a theft of some sort[15].


Ritual sins are those that require a sacrifice. There is a lot of confusion in this area. There are different categories of sacrifices. In general there are communal and individual sacrifices. The later, are the ones that an individual brings for various reasons.


These are in four basic groups: Olah which is a voluntary sacrifice; Shalamim which is also a voluntary offering, including the minchah which is a flour offering and the holiday sacrifices, including the Pesach sacrifice. These two are not for sins which is why they are voluntary.


The two for sins are Chatas and Asham and they are not voluntary. These two are quite limited in scope. There are four conditions for one to be required to bring a Chatas: 1. Violation of something God has explicitly said not to do. 2. It has an action involved. 3. It was unintentional[16]. 4. The willful violation makes one liable to excision[17]. The number of sins fulfilling these requirements is counted in the Mishnah[18] and number in the 30s. Most of the Chatas sins are sexual sins like accidentally having relations with someone forbidden. For example, if someone comes home and has relations with his dog (or mother-in-law) thinking it was his wife; then he needs to bring a Chatas.[19] Intentionally doing that act would bring a death penalty and/or excision but no sacrifice. The Asham sacrifice is also brought for a small number of sins[20]. In all there are around 40 sins[21] for which an individual is required to bring a sacrifice. From this we see that very few sins require a sin sacrifice.


Sometimes the issue of the Yom Kippur sacrifice for sins comes up. Doesn’t that clear all sins? Actually it does not. Let’s say one killed a person the day before Yom Kippur and there were witnesses. That would not eliminate the need for this person to be brought to justice. We see two clear cases where Yom Kippur does not help. If someone kills another accidentally he needs to go to the city of refuge and stays there until the High Priest dies[22]. If Yom Kippur comes before then it brings no ‘atonement’, he still stays there. The same is if someone is sold to servitude[23] he stays until seven years are up and does not go free after Yom Kippur. The same is with theft, damages and many other sins that could be mentioned.


The final category is ‘Religious’ sins. These are sins where the punishment is all up to God and there is nothing that human intervention can do about it. These are the punishments that require excision and those where one would have been required to have another punishment but there were no witnesses. For example, if Reuven kills Levi and no one saw it, there is nothing judicially that can be done to him. This is in the hand of God, and forgiveness comes through a direct appeal to God.


With regards to the actions of individual, King Solomon sums it up at the end of Ecclesiastes:


12:13: The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole (purpose of) man. 14: For God shall bring every action to judgment; concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.


In the end one is judged based on ones actions. God provides ways to repent for all sins, even when there is not a temple available[24]. God’s standard with men is not one of perfection as we see from Ecclesiastes 7:20: “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does only good, and does not sin”. Sinning does not stop one from being righteous, as all men sin. We see many people referred to as righteous in the Tenach without being absolutely sinless. Likewise, we see many references to righteous people in general in Psalms.[25]


The idea of National Sin is one that is a little more difficult to understand. After all, nations don’t sin, individuals do. So what type of standard is being used that lets us say that the Nation of Israel is sinful or righteous? That the nation can be considered sinful does not need proof as the words of the prophets in many places confirms this. Also, the righteousness of the nation can be seen in many places, like Isaiah 26:1: “Open the gates that the righteous nation that keeps faithfulness may enter in.”


It is interesting that in the Tenach we see two standards being used. The first might be called the Prophetic Standard. Joshua 7 is a good example. There we see that God says the whole nation is sinful, and yet only one person had sinned. Isaiah 1:4 is one of many other similar examples of where a few who have sinned in specific ways causes the prophet to state that the whole nation is sinful. The prophets have always exaggerated the sinfulness of Israel in order to inspire the whole people to repentance.


On the other hand we have an Objective Standard, which is more balanced and in accord with God’s compassionate nature. We see this in Numbers 23:21, 23 where Balaam states that Israel is sinless, but this is AFTER the sin of the spies when there were still alive many of those who had believed the spies and were being punished because of it. So even though there were many who had sinned, the nation was considered as without sin, in the objective sense.


If the nation sins, we see clearly what is to occur. In Joshua 7 they lose in battle, but this was, in fact, what we have seen predicted in the passage of the curses, in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. In those curses we see a progression of punishments that the nation is to suffer (as we actually see happening in the books of Kings and Chronicles), until a turning point is reached and they were finally exiled (again as the passages of the curses state.) In 2 Kings 24:3-4 we see that the exile was decreed because of the sins of King Menasha which appears to have been so bad that even the general wave of repentance in his son Josiah’s time, was not enough to change this. That was the ‘point of no return’ which made exile inevitable[26].


The purpose of exile and what causes it to end is also stated after the curses themselves. In Leviticus 26:41-42 and Deuteronomy 30:1-2, where the experience of the exile is to humble the people and through that they should repent and return to following God’s commandments. Through this general humbling and repentance God returns to his people and ends the exile. This end is not just the exaltation of Israel, and of benefit to them, but it effects and benefits the whole world. Isaiah 11 is one of the many passages that tells us of what the effect on the whole world will be: World Peace (6-9) and Universal knowledge of God (9).


With this we can now answer one objection that is made to the servant being Israel. It is probably the one most stated. If the servant is Israel, how can Israel suffer for Israel?? This assumes that the speaker in Isaiah 53 is Israel, and as we shall see, that is not the case, but even if it were, the answer should be clear. As I just pointed out, Israel suffers exile to bring atonement for it’s sins. That is what the exile is for! It is in truth a non-issue.


Historical Context[27]


The historical context refers to when a particular passage was said, the timeframe it refers to and in what historical period it is set. Let’s look at some examples. The book of Isaiah starts off saying:


1:1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.


This places Isaiah and the delivery of his prophecies in a specific historical context. We can see the events of that period in 2 Kings Chapters 15 – 20, and in 2 Chronicles chapters 26 – 32. By examining those chapters one has the historical background for much of what will be said in Isaiah. Many passages require us to have this historical knowledge to fully understand what is going on. Let’s use Isaiah 7 and the following chapters as an example. Verse 7:1 says:


7:1 And it was in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Aram, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it; but could not prevail against it.


The context here appears in 2 Kings Chapter 16 and 2 Chronicles chapter 28. Without reading these sources, it is impossible to see what is happening and what the meaning of the prophet’s words are. They were said at a certain time and relate to events occurring at that time. We can do the same with most prophecies, and more or less gain some information that aids in the understanding of the text.


We can apply this to Isaiah 53. These verses were said sometime in that period, but more importantly we can see that there are two different periods in which the verses are set. 52:13-15, is set in the time when Isaiah is speaking, and refers to events that are to come in the future. While 53 from verse 1 on is placed in the future age, and reflects the past. This then changes from verse 10 back to the period of Isaiah and describes future events again (with a change of speaker). This historical perspective makes the interpretation of passages in the Tenach much easier.


General Context[28]


The idea of the general context is what is usually meant when we say ‘context’. For example, a verse in Psalms cannot be understood without understanding the full Psalm; what it is about, what the themes are etc. Sometimes the context for a verse (or passage) is part of a chapter, sometimes a few chapters and sometimes longer. In any case, a verse/passage cannot be understood clearly unless we examine its general context and see how it fits in to it.


In our case the general context is not so hard to pinpoint. It is generally agreed by scholars, religious or not, that Isaiah 40 – 66 is one unit. It is an extended prophecy said at one time with themes that follow from the beginning until the end. We see the major themes expressed in the first few verses:


40:1 Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. 2 Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her, that her time (of exile) has been filled, that her sins have been forgiven; because she has received from HaShem’s hand double for all her sins.


Here we see a few points: G-d is comforting the Jewish people in her long exile. They need comfort because they have given up hope. The exile has been so long and difficult it leads one to think there will be no end. The verse hints at two things that make the Jewish people (and others) feel that there will be no end. First Israel’s sins are/were very great so that there is a question: could they be forgiven by the suffering of the exile? The gentiles claim they could never be forgiven. So Israel wonders: has G-d forgotten/forsaken them? The verse states that their sins have been forgiven and she is to be exalted. The second is that they wonder at the extent of the suffering in the exile, why it should be so severe? We see an indication that it was in some sense undeserved.


These ideas appear again and again in the chapters 40 through 66. For example in the very last chapter the prophet says this:


66:10: Be happy with Jerusalem, and rejoice with her, all those who love her, rejoice for her joy, all who mourned for her. 11: In order that you should nurse, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations, that you may suck out, and have enjoyment with the glow of her glory. 12: For HaShem says, Behold, I will spread peace over her like a river, and the honor of the Nations like a flowing stream, then you will nurse, you shall be carried on her sides, and play on her knees. 13: As man whose mother comforts him, so will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you will be comforted.


In the chapters from 40 – 66 again and again this idea comes out: HaShem has not forgotten his people, they will be taken from exile and be exalted and rejoice again. I could bring many verses on this point from these chapters but let me bring two short passages that are not to far from Isaiah 53, and are among my favorite verses on the consolation of Israel. One in chapter 49 and the other Chapter 54:


49:14: And Zion said, “HaShem has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me”. 15: Can a woman forget her child, or can she not have compassion on the son of her womb? She may forget, yet I will not forget you. 16: Behold, on the palms of my hands I have engraved you; your walls are continually before me.17: Your children shall make haste [to return]; Your ruiners and your destroyers will leave you.



54:6: As a woman forsaken and depressed in spirit has HaShem called [for] you, and as a wife of ones youth who was despised says your G-d. 7: For a small moment I have forsaken you; but with great compassion I will gather you. 8: Because of a little anger, I have hidden my face from you for a moment; and with everlasting mercy will I show compassion on you, says your redeemer, HaShem. 9: As the waters of Noah will this be to me, just as I have sworn to hold back the waters of Noah from the world; so I have sworn not to be angry with you, nor to rebuke you. 10: For the mountains shall melt away and the hills be removed; but my mercy shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace be removed, says the One who has compassion on you, HaShem.


Here we see clearly words of comfort and promise of eventual end of exile, return and exaltation. Just before Isaiah 53 in chapter 52 we have an introduction to Isaiah 53. There we see the second issue about the exile explicitly addressed together with G-d’s words of comfort:


52:1 Awake, awake, clothe yourself in your strength, Zion; clothe yourself in splendorous garments, Jerusalem the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the impure. 2: Shake yourself; rise from the earth and sit Jerusalem; break off the chains on your neck, captive daughter of Zion. 3: Because HaShem says, “You have been sold for nothing; without money you will be redeemed”. 4: Because so says the Lord HaShem, “At first My people went down to Egypt to dwell there; and the Assyrians oppressed them for nothing.” 5: “And now what do I have here”, says HaShem?  “My people are taken for nothing, those who rule over them praise themselves”, says HaShem; “and continually, all day, My Name is blasphemed”. 6: “Therefore My people shall know My Name; therefore in that day [they shall know] that I am the one who speaks: here I am.

7: How pleasant on the mountains are the footsteps of the one who brings words of peace, telling of good tidings, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, your God rules. 8: The voice of your watchmen; they shall lift up the voice, together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when HaShem shall return again to Zion. 9: Break forth, sing together ruins of Jerusalem: because HaShem has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. 10: HaShem has bared His Holy Arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.



Here we see clearly both issues expressed: Israel has not been forgotten, the exile will be ended and she will return in joy and be exalted. Secondly, the exile while decreed for the nation’s sins, involved suffering that was undeserved.  From this we can answer two questions raised all the time by Christians.


First: if Israel is the servant; how can we say that Israel is ‘sinless’? The problem is that Isaiah 53 does not say the servant is ‘sinless’, just that the suffering was not deserved. This is what appears in Isaiah 52 explicitly about Israel’s suffering in exile. There Egypt and Assyria are both mentioned as causing suffering for ‘nothing’.


Second, how do we understand Verse 5[29]? What kind of benefit or healing did the nations think they were getting by causing Israel to suffer? Here is my translation of it, based on the Hebrew.


But he was wounded from our transgressions, he was crushed from our iniquities, sufferings came to him for our peace, and with his wounds we were healed.


The verse explains that the nations made Israel suffer because they felt that peace and national healing would come from that. It is interesting to note that virtually all the banishments and persecutions were for those reasons. A few examples will suffice:


  1. The holocaust occurred as the Nazis themselves said, to purify their land and get rid of that people that brought defeat on them in the First War.
  2. The expulsion from Spain was to purify the land and end any conflict from having non-Christians in the land.
  3. Today Iran proclaims their desire to slaughter the Jewish people and wipe out Israel in order to bring peace to the Middle East and the whole world.


I could bring many more examples, but I believe this shows the point. The suffering that occurred was undeserved, and caused by sinful nations who felt that they benefited by the persecution of Israel.


Literary Context


The literary context is the one that gets the most attention in polemical discussions in general and specifically with Isaiah 53, as this involves the examination of the specific wording of the passage, and comparison to other passages. Many times the contexts I outlined above are ignored and it is this context alone that the arguments are about; which leads to invalid conclusions. We also find, unfortunately, many of these arguments require assuming a conclusion and arguing backwards to it[30].


Let me bring two well known examples, one from the Jewish side and one from the Christian side and show how this faulty use of the literary context occurs. In them the conclusion is assumed and the argument is to build a literary context to support it. Then I will show how we can use the literary context, in conjunction with the other types of contexts, to build an understanding of Isaiah 53.


Before looking at them we should note that there are some pretty simple and universally accepted literary elements here. We can talk about a speaker, and the subject, the person being spoken about. In this case the subject, the person spoken about, is the servant mentioned in 52:13 and is so throughout the whole of Isaiah 53. We find no argument about this among those who attempt to explain this in a literal manner. Likewise there is general agreement that the speaker of Isaiah 52:13-15 is G-d talking about His servant. We can look upon these verses as G-d’s introduction to Isaiah 53. The speaker of Isaiah 53:1-9 is unclear and needs to be examined. It is the main point of contention here. After that the speaker is either G-d or Isaiah relating God’s view, and there is not much difference content wise, nor is there disagreement on this.


Now there are two erroneous attempts at showing a literary context, which fail as proofs, and I want to look at them first, before discussing the real literary context here.


The first is one is from the Jewish side where the word ‘servant’ in Isaiah 52:13 is used to prove that it is about Israel. It is true that in the book of Isaiah[31] this term does usually apply to Israel. But it is not used exclusively for Israel.  The references to ‘servant’ in 43:10 44, 48:20, 54:17 65 and 66 are clearly Israel. However, some Jewish commentators see the servant in Isaiah 42:1 as the Messiah[32]. And 49:3 appears to be the prophet himself. While most of the uses of ‘servant’ in Isaiah do refer to Israel, does that mean 52:13 has to refer to Israel? Does it even have to apply to someone that Isaiah has already referred to as a ‘servant’? Why are we so restrictive in this by saying it can only apply to someone Isaiah has already used that title with? Saadiah Gaon actually sees it as applying various prophets and even Moshe! None of these were previously mentioned in Isaiah as being a ‘servant’, but they do qualify for that title. The servant here could be (and does mean) Israel, but it does not HAVE to be Israel because the word ‘servant’ is used here and elsewhere in Isaiah. We need more information to make that case.


On the other side, I have heard Dr. Michael Brown try to argue that there is a ‘progression’ from a group usage of the word ‘servant’ to it applying to an individual, so that when we get to Isaiah 53, it has to mean an individual and not a group like Israel. This is factually in error because we have the singular in 42:1 and 49:3, but between these two are a number of instances of it referring to Israel. After 49 we also see Israel referred to as the servant. The meaning of a word is based on context and not some theoretical stylistic law, pulled out of a hat, to make an argument, as is done in this case. Likewise this argument has the same faulty logic as the above argument about ‘servant’, excluding any ‘servant’ not previously mentioned in Isaiah.


In both of these cases we really have a conclusion looking for an argument to support it. The only thing we can say about the word ‘servant’ being used here is that it excludes anyone who could not be considered G-d’s servant. When we find out who is being talked about, one thing that needs to be true about that person is that he/they are worthy of the title of servant.


The next false start is the claim that since the servant is referred to in the singular that it must mean that it is not Israel. The flip side of this is the argument that because of two instances where the plural is used that means it has to be a group, i.e. Israel. Both of these are invalid arguments but for different reasons.


That the nation of Israel is referred to in the singular throughout the Tenach is without doubt. It is done in Isaiah[33] and in many well known passages such as the 10 Commandments. The nation is constantly considered as a single whole[34], and so there is no problem saying that the subject here is Israel because the subject is referred to in the singular.


We have two cases where the subject is not referred to in the singular: verse 8 and verse 9[35]. But this does not prove the case for the plural side for the servant. As Rashi has elsewhere pointed out[36]  it is unusual, but we do see that authority figures are addressed at times in the plural, although a single person[37]. Two examples he brings are from Genesis 39:20, where Joseph’s (singular) master is referred to in the plural, and in Exodus 22:14, where a single owner is referred to in the plural. These are rare occurrences, and were we to follow the normal expectations in the verse there should be a plural subject. Usually a plural verb or noun will indicate multiple persons but as we see there are some exceptions. And these exceptions could support the singular here. Therefore the singular/plural argument fails to have the strength to provide the proof that we desire. It is a strong argument but not certain.


There are other linguistic arguments which are basically language games just like the two above; they provide comfort for the already convinced, but are not as strong as they would seem.


This leaves us a problem, how DO we decide who the servant really is? What can be gained from the literary context? The answer to that is: a lot. We need to look carefully at the context and see what it does tell us. After that we can look for other contextual clues to answer any open questions.


We do have some clues from the literary context that can be helpful. We already know that the servant from 52:13-15, is the same as 53:1-12. We also see that 52:13-15 is God speaking in a way of introduction to what will appear in Isaiah 53. If we examine 52:13-15, having in mind that it is God’s introduction to Isaiah 53, and comparing it to Isaiah 53, we gain some clues.


If we look at the last three verses of chapter 52 and compare them to the first three verses of 53, we see something interesting. We see a repetition of the same points, with 52 having God as the speaker, and 53, another speaker, who we need to identify. Here are the verses[38]:


52:13: Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 14: According as many were appalled at thee—so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men— 15: So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.


53:1: ‘Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2: For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him. 3: He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.


Notice the similarities?


  1. 52:13 says the servant will prosper, and in similar wording, so does the first part of 53:2.
  2. 52:14 relates about the servant the same ideas of suffering as in 53:3 and the second part of 53:2.
  3. And finally, in 53:1 we see the speaker proclaiming his wonder at something he had not anticipated, exactly as we see in 52:15.


Here we have a clear contextual clue for the speaker in Isaiah 53. In 52:15 God has identified who is wondering; it is the nations of the world! That forces us to say the speaker in Isaiah 53:1-9 is also the nations of the world. This is certainly a surprising result, but we have no choice on this unless we want to make appeals to things other than the context, or deny what the verses say.


This leads to a question I have had for a long time: in Christian exegesis we do not see that the speaker of Isaiah 53 is the nations. The Christian view is that Jesus dies not for Israel alone but for the sins of the whole world. If the speaker is Israel, their interpretation should be that the servant is suffering for Israel alone. There is no logical/Biblical implication from Israel to the whole world. Why do they not accept the speaker as the nations since it appears the obvious conclusion and also fits better with Christian theology?


I think that they cannot accept that the speaker of Isaiah 53:1-9 are the nations as the implication of 52:15 is that the nations are surprised at what happens to the servant, but Israel is not. So if the servant is the Messiah, as they contend, then factually it would probably be MORE of a surprise for Israel then for the nations. It would at least not be less of a surprise. This then causes a problem if they want to say the servant is the Messiah.




We have the speaker but we are still in search of the servant. The verses here give no clear identification, although there are some characteristics:


1.      He is called a servant of God.

2.      He has suffered.

3.      He will be exalted.

4.      This was unexpected by the nations of the world.


If we look at the discussion of the general context above, we see that point 2 and 3 are part of the main themes of Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah only discusses Israel in a context of suffering and exaltation in these chapters. Likewise, 1 easily applies to Israel as within 40-66 Israel is many times called a servant. This is a pretty strong indication that it is only Israel who is meant as the servant here.


The last point needs no support as it is an empirical fact that when Israel will in the end be exalted and returned to Israel, there will be a lot of people very surprised. There is no other person/group identified within Isaiah 40-66 who could fulfill all four of these points, except Israel.


When we expand our examination and look throughout the Tenach we see many examples where the suffering and eventual exaltation of Israel is mentioned explicitly. One example is in Psalm 44:9-26.


However, I think the best description in the Tenach that parallels Isaiah 53 is Daniel 7:7-27. Daniel reviews the main theme of Isaiah 53 and of chapters 40 - 66.


There we see:


  1. The suffering of the holy ones[39] (Israel)
  2. The eventual reestablishing of their kingdom.
  3. We see in verse 13 a Messianic figure that comes AFTER the ‘beast’ is taken away, which is after the suffering of Israel has ended.
  4. This Messiah DOES NOT SUFFER.
  5. There is also no indication that the holy ones (Israel) are guilty or sinful.


All of these ideas mirror Isaiah 53, and other explicit Messianic passages, all following the Jewish interpretation.



Daniel 7:7:  After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. 8: I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things. 9: I beheld till thrones were placed, and one that was ancient of days did sit: his raiment was as white snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and the wheels thereof burning fire. 10: A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him; thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the judgment was set, and the books were opened.


11: I beheld at that time because of the voice of the great words which the horn spoke, I beheld even till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed, and it was given to be burned with fire. 12: And as for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away; yet their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.


13: I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and he was brought near before Him. 14: And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.


15: As for me Daniel, my spirit was pained in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head affrighted me. 16: I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things: 17: ‘These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, that shall arise out of the earth. 18: But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.’


19: Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was diverse from all of them, exceeding terrible, whose teeth were of iron, and its nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; 20: and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn which came up, and before which three fell; even that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spoke great things, whose appearance was greater than that of its fellows. 21: I beheld, and the same horn made war with the holy ones, and prevailed against them; 22: until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High; and the time came, and the holy ones possessed the kingdom.


23: Thus he said: ‘The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all the kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. 24: And as for the ten horns, out of this kingdom shall ten kings arise; and another shall arise after them; and he shall be diverse from the former, and he shall put down three kings. 25: And he shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High; and he shall think to change the seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and half a time. 26: But the judgment shall sit, and his dominions shall be taken away, to be consumed and to be destroy unto the end. 27: And the kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’


It is clear that the literary context points us to the fact of the speaker in Isaiah 53 being the nations. Taking into consideration the other contexts we must conclude that the servant is Israel, the suffering servant of God, who will be exalted.




In this article I have shown that Isaiah 53 is about Israel’s suffering in the exile at the hands of the Gentile nations and their eventual exaltation. This fits in with the themes of Isaiah 40 – 66 and the language used in Isaiah 52 and 53. It also is mirrored in other passages like Daniel 7. We have also examined the verses 52:13-53:3 and have seen how 52:13-15, spoken by God, and 53:1-3 spoken by the gentile nations are parallel verses, expressing the same ideas.


In my next article I will discuss Isaiah 53:10-12 where we see God’s view and evaluation of the suffering of the servant, Israel. After that I will have another article on 53:4-9 and the Gentile nations’ view and evaluation of the suffering of the servant, Israel.


While I have answered a number of important questions asked about the Jewish view, I have not answered all of them. I will, God willing, answer them either in the next two articles or in other articles I will compose directly dealing with them. We will see that the answers to the objections actually show support to the conclusions I have stated here rather than contradicting them[40]. However, my main objectives in this article were to show:


  1. Why Judaism sees the suffering servant as Israel.
  2. That it is the only logical conclusion when we look at the text for what it says itself, without forcing it to fit a preconceived interpretation.
  3. Explain the verses Isaiah 52:13-53:3.



© Moshe Shulman 2013

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at


[1]  When we talk about Isaiah 53 we really mean the passage starting from verse 52:13 through 53:12.

[2]  Some of them will appear in this series of three articles on Isaiah 53.

[3]  Mitch Glaser in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, Mitch Glaser and Darrell Bock, Kregel, 2012 page 27-28.

[4]  By ‘exegetical context’ I mean underlying beliefs, or facts that lead one to expect a passage to have an interpretation, or a limited number of possible interpretations or to place various interpretations outside of what is acceptable, because of being contradictory to this context..

[5]  These four are my explanation although the last three appear in most if not all of the discussions of context in one way or another.

[6]  The New Testament claims that Jesus himself taught that the purpose of the Messiah was to suffer and die, but there is reason to doubt that. On the Cross the Synoptics have Jesus saying in Hebrew/Aramaic ‘My God My God why have you forsaken me.’ It is hard to understand why he would feel forsaken by God when he was fulfilling his God appointed Messianic destiny to suffer and die.

[7]  I have had discussions on this subject with many people; there really is not much controversy in it. One of those who I discussed with was a Professor in an Evangelical College, and while he does not agree with my understanding of Isaiah 53, he does agree that the conclusion of that article: Judaism had no idea of a suffering/dying Messiah, is correct.

[8]  One could also add some other Christian beliefs, like a virgin birth, co-divinity and incarnation.

[9]  There are a number of scholarly works on the idea of cognitive dissonance which can explain why early Christians ‘invented’ this new context. They include the classic work, ‘When Prophecy Fails’ by Festinger et al, 1956. ‘Kingdom and Community the social world of Early Christianity’ by John Gager, 1975.  ‘Expecting Armageddon’ edited by Jon Stone 2000.

[10]  I have many times pointed out that on the basis of how God deals with Cain alone, he would never been chosen as a member of the Supreme Court.

[11]  As I stated this is a complex issue and what I say here is the general rule, while we may find some exceptions this does not change the point being made here.

[12]  This means the soul is separated from those of the rest of Israel and can involve early death.

[13]  This is the Korban Chatas, the main individual sin sacrifice.

[14]  See Exodus 22:6, 9-12

[15]  See Leviticus 5:1,4; 20-24

[16]  These three are learned from Leviticus 4:1

[17]  Numbers 15:27-31

[18]  Tractate Kerisus chapter 1.

[19]  There are also a number of communal sacrifices.

[20]  See Leviticus 5 for a description of all of them.

[21]  This is out of the traditional category of 613 commands.

[22]  Numbers 35:25

[23]  Exodus 21:1-2.

[24]  After the temple’s destruction we see 1 Kings 8, and Ezekiel 18 dealing with this issue.

[25]  It should be noted that even in the New Testament we do not see that righteousness = sinlessness. In Luke 1:6 the parents of John are called righteous.

[26]  We have no idea what God’s calculations are in this. We know neither when the point requiring exile is or when redemption is merited. This is one of the ‘hidden things’ referred to in Deuteronomy 29:28 where it says that the ‘hidden things are for HaShem”.

[27]  Translations in this section are from the 1917 JPS version, unless noted otherwise.

[28]  Translations in the section are mine.

[29]  I will return to this verse again in the third part of this series and deal with it in more depth.

[30]  The Christian exegetical context from the New Testament many times produces arguments, especially with regards to Isaiah 53, that are argued backwards.

[31]  This is especially true in chapters 40 – 66.

[32]  Other options are Israel, the righteous of Israel, the prophet, or Cyrus.

[33]  Isaiah 43.10; 52.1-2; 54.1

[34]  Just consider the implication of National sin. How could we have such a thing if they were not considered as a single entity?

[35]  Christian apologists have a number of interesting excuses for the plural forms, which I find unconvincing and appear forced not explaining why they should appear here in Isaiah just when this could be a disproof for them.

[36]  Genesis 35:7

[37]  My argument here is not that we should discount these plural forms. I actually believe they do indicate the plurality of the subject. It is just that they are too weak an argument to base ones interpretation on them.

[38]  JPS translation.

[39]  Daniel 12:7 refers to nation of Israel as the holy ones as do a number of other verses.

[40]  As we saw with regards to Israel suffering for Israel, and how atonement for National Sin requires that.