Isaiah 53: Is it about the Messiah?

One of the most convincing prophecy arguments is that from Isaiah 53, where we have clear, specific prophecies of the Messiah centuries before He could come. And when He did, He clearly fulfilled. This would be one of the stronger arguments for the supernatural origin of the bible, stronger probably than the one that we’ve already examined from Daniel 9.

However, the atheist (and indeed the Jew) seem to have a strong counter-argument. Isaiah 53 is not a Messianic prophecy, but it is intended to be an allegory for Israel, not Jesus. And that the Christians of the first century (including the Apostles) desperately searched through the Jewish scriptures looking for things they could fit Jesus into. And under that view, the prophecy argument is weaker. So here, we will examine whether Isaiah 53 really is a Messianic prophecy.

 

References in the Old Testament

Of course, the best source for how ancient Jewish readers interpreted Isaiah 53 is the Old Testament itself. If elsewhere in the pre-Christ Jewish scriptures, we have references to Isaiah 53 that indicate it is Messianic, that is very strong evidence that it was understood by the original hearers and readers as messianic.

Martin Hengel argues in his paper The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period that there is a connection between Isaiah 53 and passages in Zechariah and Daniel which indicate that the Isaiah text is intended to be a Messianic prophecy. The argument is detailed and I won’t go into it here, but it is worth considering.

Consider just Isaiah though, consider in Isaiah 11:10 where the Messiah (and pretty much everyone agrees this one is Messianic) is the “Root of Jesse”. But now in the very start of the song in 53, right in verse 2, the Suffering Servant is the Root who springs up.

The Davidic references are not finished, however. Remember that David reveals that the Messiah will be a priest of the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110. And now in Isaiah 52:13, we are told that the Messiah will act as a priest, “sprinkling” many nations as the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on the people.

Early Jewish interpretations

Unfortunately, our sources on early Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53 are pretty sparse. But we do have some, and many of those are indeed messianic interpretations. The most famous one is probably from the Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 98b, where the author uses Isaiah 53 as a source about the Messiah in order to try and determine what the Messiah’s name will be:

“The Messiah –what is his name?…The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…'”

There are some other examples of Messianic interpretations of the Suffering Servant. Consider the Targum Jonathan’s translation of Isaiah 52:13, which clearly indicates that the interpretation of the passage is Messianic:

“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high and increase and be exceedingly strong…”

In the Zohar (a non-mainstream Kaballah text, but an early one which indicates some interpretation trends) we have this passage:

“`He was wounded for our transgressions,’ etc….There is in the Garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the Sons of Sickness; this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel; they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgression of the law: and this is that which is written, `Surely our sicknesses he hath carried.‘”

Or Rabbi Moses Maimonides:

“What is the manner of Messiah’s advent….there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty, where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, `Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. 6:12). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he shall appear, without father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc.…in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which kings will harken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” (From the Letter to the South (Yemen), quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 374-5)

These are just a sample of the many examples of Messianic interpretations.

Now, these quotes are not the only early interpretations of the Suffering Servant. It was also interpreted by early Jews to perhaps refer to Moses, and sometimes even to Israel as modern Jews claim. But these interpretations are not universal, and in fact that corporate interpretation of the Servant being Israel only became dominant in the post-Christ era, where Jews began using it as an apologetic against Jesus as the Messiah. But before this, it was a valid and not uncommon interpretation that this text was about the Messiah.

 

Characteristics of the suffering servant that do not fit Israel

  • The Suffering Servant is innocent and has no guilt. (9)
  • It pleased the Lord to bruise the Suffering Servant (10)
  • The Suffering Servant is a sin offering: a slain sacrifice (10)
  • The Suffering Servant suffers both willingly and silently (7)
  • The Suffering Servant is a prophet, who declares how God saves His people (1)
  • The Suffering Servant suffers in the place of Israel (8)
  • The Suffering Servant dies and is buried (9)
  • The Suffering Servant has no descendants (9)

 

I think that given these, it’s clear that the text is intended to be Messianic and the corporate interpretation of the Suffering Servant as Israel fails. And then the Christian can go on to easily argue that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of here.