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.
A strong argument for the truth of the Bible is biblical prophecy. That is, if the Bible contains accurate, specific information about the future, the claims it makes about God are more likely to be true. Whether or not the prophecy actually means God exists may be debatable (maybe it was just time travelling aliens) and that’s a bit beyond what I want to do here. I want to examine one such interesting prophecy, and determine whether it was specific and whether it was fulfilled.
This is a strange kind of argument for me, I spend most of my time on cosmological or teleological or moral arguments. Even historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. However I do think that this is valuable, so bear with me as I give it a go.
This kind of argument often makes people nervous because of the stereotype about prophecy arguments, especially ones that contain the dreaded numbers and dates like this one will. I understand and agree that normally this stereotype is deserved. However, I will make every attempt to perform responsible exegesis and make a rational argument. I ask that you don’t write the argument off immediately, and instead actually evaluate it on its own merits.
The text we will be examining is this one from Daniel 9, starting at verse 24. It is a message that the angel Gabriel brings to Daniel, who is lamenting the state of Israel. Please do read the context yourself. Here is the NASB:
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
I summarize the prophecy in this way:
- The command to restore Jerusalem is given.
- Seven sevens pass.
- Sixty-two sevens pass. The anointed one comes. The city will be rebuilt. Sometime after the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and have nothing.
- The people of “the prince to come” will destroy the city and the temple, and desolation will continue until the end.
- Durin the seventieth seven: “He” will confirm a covenant with many.
- Halfway through the seventieth seven: “He” will put an end to sacrifice and offering.
- After (or perhaps at) the seventieth seven: On the wing of abominations, one comes who makes desolate, and he will be destroyed. This probably refers to the people of the “prince to come”.
- After seventy sevens: Transgression is finished, sin comes to an end, wickedness is atoned for, everlasting righteousness is brought in, prophecy and vision are sealed up, the “Most Holy” is anointed.
The “sevens” are groups of seven years, not weeks
We note that the passage literally only says “seven sevens” and “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens”, at no point does it indicate that these are weeks. Now the word for “sevens” and “weeks” in Hebrew is the same, for obvious reasons. Some translators have chosen in this passage to render it as “weeks” instead of “sevens”, but there is no indication in the text that it refers to days.
Similar extra-biblical prophecies also use the “week of years” concept, for example with the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q390 fragment 2.
In light of the 70 years in v2, it seems reasonable that this also refers to a period of years. The context indicates that we should be thinking in years, not in weeks.
This prophecy was written far before Jesus came
While I am a Christian and I hold to the traditional position that the entire book was written by Daniel at around 600 BCE, I will deliberately make my argument weaker here. I will assume that it was written far later than that. I will assume that the most critical and the most sceptical scholars are right. Again, I don’t actually think they are, but I will assume this because I don’t want to bother refuting them here, I don’t need to. The latest date they give for the book is 164 BCE. This is still over a century earlier than Jesus would come.
The starting date of the seven and sixty-two sevens is 457 BCE
This is when the order goes out from Artaxerxes 1. This is a decree given to Ezra, this is also recorded in scripture that was written before Christ. The exact date of the decree is given in the book of Ezra, but we will just consider the year (rather than month and date) because I don’t want to mess around with complicated Jewish leap year rules, and because there is probably some measure of approximation going on anyway.
The seven and sixty-two sevens come to an end at 27 CE
We start with -457, and we add (69)x(7) years, and then we add one because there is no year 0. It’s not obvious what is supposed to happen after the first set of sevens, that is, after 49 years. It may be divided for reasons of numerology (7 is of course a very symbolic number in Hebrew thought) or it may indicate when the completion of the restoration of Jerusalem will occur. Or perhaps something else that I haven’t thought of, or that history in general is unaware of.
This indicates that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the passage
One of the things the prophecy predicts is the anointing of the “Most Holy”. The translators add the word “place” as they argue that it is implied since the “most holy” normally refers to the temple. (But this isn’t actually true, it refers to the temple sometimes but not even the majority of the time). But given that Jesus is the most holy, and that Jesus compares His body to the temple in several places, I think we can reasonably say that this is actually fulfilled in Jesus.
Historians think Jesus’ baptism occurred between 27 and 29. We are certainly in that range. Jesus’ baptism is an extremely significant event recorded in all Gospels, marking the start of His public ministry. This is when Jesus appeared in history.
Then halfway through the last week, there is desolation, and the Messiah is cut ofg. This puts Jesus’ death 3.5 years (probably approximate, but we will use this figure) after 27, which is 30.5.
Historians believe Jesus was crucified between 30 and 36 CE. We are again in that range.
And of course, Christians claim that Jesus’ death brings an end to sin and wickedness by atoning for it, and marks the end of the age of prophecy as Jesus gives God’s fullest and final revelation. See Hebrews 1. We also believe that Jesus instituted the New Covenant through His death and resurrection and that in doing so Jesus put a stop to the offerings and sacrifices at the temple. All of these things are specifically mentioned in the prophecy.
The events in Jesus’ life occur at the correct time, and they do the correct things. The most holy is anointed, sin is atoned for, the Messiah is cut off, a covenant is affirmed, sacrifice is brought to an end, and prophecy is brought to an end.
Who is the prince who is to come?
There are several options here. It seems clear that what he does is destroy the temple (see the similar language in chapter 11). This occurred in 70 AD, some time after the full 70 sevens of the prophecy are complete.
So the “prince” may refer to a particular Roman leader, perhaps the emperor at the time Vespatian. More likely is Titus who was the Roman commander at the siege of Jerusalem who would later become emperor. Or it may indeed be Satan. I leave this undetermined. I don’t know if we have enough information to determine who it is. There is evidence elsewhere in Daniel, but I will refrain from discussing it here. It doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.
The critical/skeptical interpretation fails
Many, many possible interpretations of this passage have been given by sceptical scholars. I won’t go through all of them in depth, but I will give some broad criticism. The most likely one is that the Messiah spoken of isn’t the Jewish Messiah spoken of elsewhere, but an anointed leader of the Jewish people. Most commonly, Onias III. He died outside Jerusalem in 171/0 BCE. If we take the latest possible date for Daniel, it was written around 164, around 6 years after his death, and so the skeptic argues that the author knew about this, and backdated a prophecy referring to it.
This doesn’t seem to work, however, as the timing doesn’t match up. There is no “word” that goes out 483 or 490 years before Onias’ death. So the skeptic arbitrarily picks a date earlier than this (often 606 BCE, when Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy comes to an end), and says that the author of Daniel intended to use this as a starting point made a miscalculation in his dates. You can find examples of this in Montgomery (p393) and Porteous (p134). Alternatively, they try to fit it by allowing the sevens to overlap or have gaps between them. They’ve got a theory, and they want to fit the evidence to it, rather than letting the evidence inform their theory.
Apart from this, it is not clear how Onias III is supposed to have accomplished the goals set out at the start of the prophecy. He did not bring an end to wickedness and institute eternal righteousness.
Further, there was no destruction of the temple or of Jerusalem here. Yes, they were besieged and damaged, but not destroyed.
This methodology fails. The skeptic here rules out genuine prophecy a priori, and so has to look for a figure that fits this assumption. But no good candidates exist. And if we don’t rule out prophecy a priori, and we allow it to be possible (without even assuming that it happens), then we find a figure that clearly fits: Christ. We should start where the prophecy starts: at the word going out. We should look for that as the indication of the person that the passage is intending to talk about.
This prophecy is evidence for the supernatural origin of the Bible
I think that we can reasonably confidently say that if Daniel could accurately know precise details of the far future, this indicates that something supernatural was going on. I would be interested to see how the skeptic could agree that Daniel knew this, centuries before it happened, but didn’t do so supernaturally.
- The Seventy Sevens of Daniel 9: A Timetable for the Future? – Hess
- When did the Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9:24 Begin? – Shea
- The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9: An Exegetical Study – Doukhan
- The Goal of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks – Payne
- Daniel’s Seventy Sevens and the Coming of the Messiah – Van Lees
Some people have asked me to post recordings of sermons that I have preached at my local church. Despite being a young man, I have been given the privilege of preaching at a Sunday morning gathering four times. Here they are, in reverse chronological order.
- The Parable of the Good Samaritan
- Luke 1: Zechariah’s Prophecy
- Ephesians 6:14: The Belt of Truth