the servant of isaiah 53
Indeed, who exactly was the servant of ISAIAH 53? Whom did Isaiah have in mind when he wrote down this vision? Was he seeing in the distant future a Messiah who was to be brutally beaten, more than any other man? Did Isaiah see a man of sorrows, despised and rejected and acquainted with grief? Did he in his vision see a Messiah who was oppressed and afflicted, one who was taken from prison and who made his grave with the wicked?
Surprising to most students, neither Yeshua (Jesus) nor any of His disciples ever made the claim that He was that suffering servant. They may have alluded to it but they never specifically declared that He was that suffering servant of which Isaiah wrote. Even so, nearly all Christian apologists tell us that the vision is and must be about Yeshua. As seekers of truth, we must ask why is this chapter 53 so widely accepted as being explicitly about Yeshua? Who first suggested the concept, who originated and formulated the doctrine if not Yeshua nor His disciples?
Many Jewish authorities have suggested that the servant represented the entire nation of Israel, while others have supposed that Isaiah was speaking of only a pious remnant. Still others see Isaiah himself or Jeremiah, or Uzziah, Hezekiah or some unknown prophet, or the entire priesthood, or the prophets in general, or even the Maccabees as the subject of Isaiah's prophecy.
Nevertheless, let us search for ourselves, un-tethered from Jewish and Christian traditions, and see just who Isaiah had in mind when he wrote. Who fit the context? Who can be identified with all which Isaiah saw concerning this servant? Of whom was Isaiah speaking when he said that this servant had no form nor comeliness? That doesn't seem to be describing a person. What did Isaiah mean when he said that they hid their faces from him? That doesn't seem like Isaiah is describing his own nation. Of whom does the prophet speak when he declared that this servant did not open his mouth when he was afflicted (bruised)? That does not describe Yeshua for He certainly did open His mouth, and on more than one occasion (JOHN 18:19-23; 19:10-11). What did Isaiah mean by asking, "who shall declare his generation?" And what servant was it that was to divide the spoil with the strong?
To solve this enigma it might help us to recognize what exactly is the meaning of the fulfillment of prophecy. Prophecy is sometimes the prediction or fore-telling of a future event, but more often prophecy is simply the forth-telling of GOD's will. Any good Bible dictionary will tell us this.
- "Though much of the OT was purely predictive, see Micah 5:2, e.g., and cf. John 11:51, prophecy is not necessarily, nor even primarily, fore-telling. It is the declaration of that which cannot be known by natural means, Matt. 26:68, it is the forth-telling of the will of God, whether with reference to the past, the present, or the future, see Gen.20:7, Deut. 18:18; Rev. 10:11, 11:3. . . .
- (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary, page 492).
As such, prophecy being fulfilled does not necessarily mean that some earlier prediction had been accomplished. The word fulfilled simply means to fill full, which has several nuances depending upon the context. It often means simply to elucidate or expound upon.
When one of Yeshua's apostles or disciples declared that an ancient scripture or prophecy had been fulfilled, he wasn't necessarily meaning that a prediction from ages past had recently been accomplished. This becomes obvious when we go back and read the context of many of those so-called predictions. Then we often find that they had little or nothing whatever to do with the prophet fore-telling the events which the Christian writer later alluded to. One passage was simply mirroring or building upon the other. For more on this important subject, see the Study, Old Testament Prophecies in the New Testament.
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As perhaps a related example along these lines, in ISAIAH 49:6 we are told that GOD's servant would be a light for the Gentiles. Who is this servant of whom Isaiah spoke? Luke tells us in his gospel account that when Joseph and Mary brought Yeshua to the temple to present Him to the LORD, that a devout man by the name of Simeon spoke by the Holy Spirit that Yeshua was indeed this light which was to lighten the Gentiles (LUKE 2:25-32).
So can we then conclude that Isaiah had predicted the exact event which Luke centuries later alluded to? Was the servant of ISAIAH 49 indeed Yeshua? Not so fast, for the apostle Paul said that he and Barnabus were also these lights for the Gentiles (ACTS 13:47). And Yeshua Himself declared that not only was He the light of the world (JOHN 8:12), but that His disciples also were the lights of the world (MATTHEW 5:14-16).
Thus, it is unlikely that either Luke or Simeon were intimating that Isaiah's passage was a prediction that some day in the distant future, a particular infant would be brought to the temple and be declared to be this light to the Gentiles. Rather, they were noting the similarities between the two events. Isaiah had seen in a vision that when the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon and rebuilt their city and nation, that then that city and nation would become the light to guide the Gentiles to GOD. Centuries later, Christian writers expanded upon this idea, showing the similarities and parallels between Isaiah's visions and the times during and after Yeshua's mighty and enlightening ministry.
In like manner, just because Isaiah's vision in chapter 53 concerned a servant of GOD, that should not compel us to jump to the conclusion that he must be speaking of the Messiah. Elsewhere Isaiah spoke of other servants; of himself (20:3), of Eliakim (22:20), of David (37:35), of the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 48:20; 49:3). He spoke of all those whom the LORD had chosen to perform HIS will. Isaiah didn't limit his discussion of this servant to a single individual.
As such, if a later Christian writer identified some attribute or experience of Yeshua with a particular vision from Isaiah's writings, that does not necessarily mean that Isaiah's passage was a prophecy predicting the event of which the Christian writer was alluding. Most often one passage didn't predict or accomplish the other, they were simply but beautifully reflective of one another.
The pious Jews who returned from their long exile in Babylon so as to rebuild Judah and Jerusalem were to be lights to the Gentiles, but so also were Yeshua and His disciples centuries later. All were GOD's servants, all were HIS instruments so as to accomplish HIS will.
As we read through many portions of ISAIAH we shall come to realize that the single theme, the one constant that continued to flow in and out of Isaiah's visions, his special topic which he repeatedly alluded to, was Judah and Jerusalem. It was all about how Jerusalem had sinned, how Judah was to be afflicted and bruised, but then eventually how they were to be forgiven and rebuilt. Isaiah never said that his visions concerned a Messiah in the distant future, but rather he consistently referred his visions to what was to happen to and affect Jerusalem and Judea.
Having laid out these preliminary comments and remarks, let us now begin our search to discover and know just who was this suffering servant which Isaiah saw in his vision. Let us cut ourselves loose from Church traditions and see exactly what Isaiah meant, what he saw in this vision.
Some Commentators tell us that to understand who this servant of chapter 53 is, that we must go back a few verses into the previous chapter to see the context of Isaiah's prophecy. And though the context does hold the key to exactly who this servant is, it is not only the immediate context inclusive of a few verses in the previous chapter, but it is also the following chapter, indeed, we must consider the context of the entire book of ISAIAH, we must go all the way back to the first verse, the opening passage in the very beginning of Isaiah's manuscript.
- ISAIAH 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.
Isaiah's prophecies throughout the reigns of these four kings concerned his visions about Judah and Jerusalem. It was all about Judah and Jerusalem. ISAIAH opened by telling us that that which was to follow concerned itself with the holy city and nation. And not as some commentators suggest, that Judah and Jerusalem were the subjects of only the first vision recorded in the first chapter, for in the opening of the second chapter it was again reiterated, "The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem". What was it that Isaiah spoke about? What was his special topic throughout? What do most all of his visions especially concern themselves with? It's Judah and Jerusalem!
And as such we should not be surprised to find that it is Judah and specifically Jerusalem and Zion which are the special topics which Isaiah discusses just prior to and after the section which we are concerned with (52:13 to 53:12). In 52:1 Isaiah said, "Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city....". Curiously, Isaiah was referring to Zion and the city of Jerusalem as a person, telling it to "awake" and "put on thy garments".
We should pause and say a few words about this Zion, what and where it was. In the scriptures Zion was not necessarily identical with Jerusalem, even though it was often closely associated with it. In the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, page 764, Zion is defined as,
- ....the fortified mound between the Kidron and the Tyropean valleys that David captured from the Jebusites (II Sam 5:7). Subsequently, it became known as the city of David. With the building of the temple to the north, that hill later became known as Mount Zion. Zion may even refer specifically to the temple vicinity or more generally to Jerusalem itself: sometimes it includes the entire nation, the covenant community itself (Isa 1:27; Ps 97:8). "Zion" appears frequently in Ps and Lam. It seldom refers to the Political capital of Judah, but much more often stands for the city of God in the new age.
Thus, when a Biblical writer referred to Zion he was often referring to some portion of Jerusalem proper. The context usually specifies exactly what he was intending. In the passage we are now considering, Zion referred to the wasted and desolate city and temple which had laid in ruins now for decades, but was seen in Isaiah's vision as awakening.
Isaiah then continued in the second verse of the same chapter 52, saying "Shake yourself from the dust . . . . O captive Jerusalem . . . . for . . . . ye were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money" (RSV). Describing Jerusalem as a captive person, Isaiah was rehearsing the coming redemption and deliverance of that holy city. The prelude to Isaiah's suffering servant of chapter 53, was clearly Jerusalem.
Then in verse nine Isaiah saw how the desolated holy city was to someday rejoice and sing together; "Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem". Why were the waste places of Jerusalem told to "break forth into joy" and "sing together"? Because as Isaiah goes on to tell us, the LORD was going to bring back HIS people from their servitude in Babylon and return them to the Promised Land (10-12). According to Isaiah's vision, the waste places of Jerusalem were to be re-built.
Thus Isaiah described in the opening verses of chapter 52, that even though the city would be destroyed and lay desolate, someday it would be able to rejoice because its citizens would be returned to it so as to re-build and re-populate it.
Following this vision of the desolated city being rebuilt and repopulated, Isaiah immediately introduced this servant of chapter 53, which we are now considering in this Study. We are seeing that the context of chapter 53 is the future destiny of Jerusalem and Zion, not a Messiah in the far distant future.
If we glance ahead for a moment and consider the 54th chapter, what again was Isaiah's topic? He continued with further elucidation upon Jerusalem's history and future.
- ISAIAH 54:1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD.
This barren and desolate woman was no other than Jerusalem, for just a few verses later Isaiah explicitly wrote of this mother being a city with stones and foundations, with windows and gates.
- ISAIAH 54:11-12 O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
The apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Galatians that this prophecy in ISAIAH 54:1 alluded specifically to Jerusalem (4:25-27). For Paul it was the new, heavenly Jerusalem that would follow the one which was to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., but for Isaiah it referred to the Jerusalem which would be re-built after the return of the Babylonian exiles in 536 B.C.
This holy city was Isaiah's continuing theme, his context throughout this whole section. Indeed, throughout the entire book he weaves Judah and Jerusalem and Zion in and out repeatedly. I count 123 times that reference is made to either Judah, Jerusalem or Zion in ISAIAH alone, and they are generally and often referred to as a person.
They are referred to as daughter in 1:8; 3:16-17; 4:4; 10:32; 16:1; 37:22; 67:11; as a harlot in 1:21; as her daughter in 1:27; as having a tongue in 3:8, and blood in 4:4. Jerusalem and Zion are spoken to in 1:26; 40:9; 41:27; 44:26, 28; 51:17; 52:1-2, 7 and Zion itself spoke in 49:14. Jerusalem is to be comforted in 51:3, and the city had drunk in 51:17. In 40:2 Jerusalem's sin and forgiveness is spoken of.
Cities and countries were often likened to a person, most often as a she, or mother, or daughter. The reason why is well explained by Albert Barnes when commenting on ISAIAH 1:8, in his Notes on the Old Testament, ISAIAH, Volume 1, page 64.
- The name daughter is given to it by a personification in accordance with a common custom in Eastern writers, by which beautiful towns and cities are likened to young females. The name mother is also applied in the same way. Perhaps the custom arose from the fact that when a city was built, towns and villages would spring up round it- and the first would be called the mother-city (hence the word metropolis). The expression was also employed as an image of beauty, from a fancied resemblance between a beautiful town and a beautiful and well-dressed woman.
It is curious how routinely Isaiah referred to Judah and Jerusalem as a person. It is as if they were real, living and breathing individuals. And this is perhaps why so many have gone off the scent and missed the plain truth set forth in chapter 53. Too many and too often readers, students and commentators have read about the suffering servant as if it was a man, a person, a Messiah. They have read in chapter 52 about Jerusalem's woes, and then in chapter 54 about Jerusalem's rebuilding, but when they read about the servant of the 53rd chapter, they seem to forget that which preceded and ignore that which followed, indeed they have overlooked Isaiah's entire context.
Isaiah not only prefixed this subject of the servant of chapter 53 with repeated references to Jerusalem and Zion in chapter 52, but then he also went right back into the same subject of Jerusalem in chapter 54. It does not seem reasonable to cut chapter 53 out from the rest of Isaiah's prophecies concerning Judah and Jerusalem and then change Isaiah's theme and subject, twisting and forcing his words to predict the coming of a Messiah in the far distant future.
Admittedly, Yeshua's followers often alluded to the similarities between this servant of ISAIAH 53 and the Lord, yet never, not once did any of them say explicitly that Yeshua was in fact that servant of which Isaiah spoke. Nor did Yeshua Himself ever declare that He was that individual.
Isaiah prophesied (762 to 680 B.C.) a century before the Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem, carrying away many of the populace back to Babylon and slavery (586 B.C.). After predicting a long and cruel bondage, Isaiah saw their release and return to their holy city (536 B.C.). Why in the midst of all this would he stop talking about the captivity, exile and restoration of those ancient Israelites and spin off in some completely different direction, discussing a Messiah some six or seven centuries into the distant future, which had nothing whatever to do with the Babylonian exile? And more so, why would he then abruptly and unexplicitly return to his subject and discussion of the destruction and restoration of Jerusalem in the very next chapter?
And it's not as if he said, "Ok, now I'm going to write about the Messiah for a chapter or so, then I'll get back to the topic we have been discussing". No, Isaiah never suggested anything of the sort. He never hinted at a change in subject or vision. In fact the only time Isaiah ever specifically mentioned a messiah, an anointed one, was in reference to Cyrus (45:1). This whole idea of this servant of chapter 53 being the Messiah was either the invention of Jewish speculators or of later Christian theologians, many years after Yeshua's earthly ministry.
That which was to happen to Judah and Jerusalem was what inspired Isaiah throughout all of his visions. He spoke of their approaching desolation which he saw through revelation, and he prophesied of their entire demolition which he viewed as the unfortunate consequence for the idolatry of its inhabitants, their cruel treatment of some of their more pious citizens, and the neglect and abuse of their widows and orphans. But then Isaiah also saw through his visions that Jerusalem would be rebuilt, that it was to grow up again as a tender plant, that it would rise once again from the ashes to greatness.
Isaiah's treatment of the future destiny of Judah and Jerusalem was woven throughout the entire book. He spoke first that they were his specific topic. He returned to them time after time as he relayed to the reader the dreadful visions which he had been burdened to share with his sinful nation. But Isaiah also returnd to speak of the nation and the city's future glory, a light to lighten the Gentiles (ISAIAH 42:6; 49:6; 60:3).
The suggestion and theory that Yeshua was this servant of ISAIAH 53 was began and promulgated by Church traditions, which were instituted long after Yeshua had gathered together His followers into heaven around 70 A.D. (see the Study, Whatever Happened to Timothy?). After that departure, there arose certain individuals who sought to reconstitute a Christian Church based on what few traditions they could collect from the writings of the original disciples of the Lord. Without any faithful believers to guide them, they understood little of what they possessed. As such, they created and assembled a religion within which they inserted certain interpretations which rule and dominate in the so-called Christian Church today (see Church Traditions).
These individuals came to be called apostolic fathers, and then later others arose which were called Church fathers. Their writings are often used to twist and turn passages in the Jewish Bible so as to force Yeshua into them. It was the apostolic and Church Fathers who were the ones that suggested and promoted this whole concept of the suffering servant being Yeshua, not His own apostles or disciples ( see 1 Clement #16 and The Epistle of Barnabas #5).
As we shall see, forcing Yeshua into the position of being Isaiah's servant of chapter 53, creates too many problems and difficulties in the text. But on the other hand, when we accept Isaiah's plain and clear theme, when we read wholy, when we note the context within which he wrote, then we see that the suffering servant was none other than the holy city and nation, Judah and Jerusalem.
It should not surprise us that Isaiah would refer to the city as a person, for his visions are overflowing with poetical and figurative language.
- He likened Israel to an ox and an ass in 1:3 and then to a cottage (a temporary shelter) and a lodge (a temporary abode) in 1:8. The people were as the sand of the sea in 10:22 & 48:19. They were called a threshing instrument in 41:15 and as willow trees by the water courses in 44:9. They were as clay and GOD as the potter in 64:8.
- He spoke of Israel's head and heart and foot in 1:5-6, then of its head and tail in 9:14-15.
- He called Jerusalem a harlot in 1:21 yet in 62:3 the city was to become the crown and royal diadem (wreath).
- Idolaters were compared to oaks whose leaves were dropping, or as a garden with no water in 1:30.
- The Babylonian exiles were compared to a beautiful and glorious branch in 4:2.
- The inhabitants of Jerusalem and the men of Judea were compared to a vineyard left to be abandoned in 5:1-7. These rebellious Jews were as an obstinate ox which refused to receive the yoke, and then to the shameless brow of a harlot in 48:4.
- Sinners were likened unto stubble and chaff (dried grass), to rotten roots and decayed blossoms in 5:24.
- The invasion of the Assyrians was compared to a lion's roar in 5:29, and then in the next verse to the ocean's roar. They were called the LORD's rod in 10:5. Then the king of Assyria was called a mere ax or saw in the hand of the LORD in 10:15. Their army was referred to as a ravenous bird in 47:11. The Assyrian's counsel was likened unto chaff, and their boastings as a fire which returned back upon themselves in 33:11. Then in the next verse their soldiers were burnt as in a lime kiln and as thorns cut up and then burned up.
- The hearts of the people of Syria and Ephraim were compared in 7:2 to trees of the wood which were moved by the wind.
- The rulers of Syria and Ephraim were likened to two tails of smoking firebrands in 7:4.
- Assyria and Egypt were likened unto flies and bees in 7:18. Egypt was likened to a drunken man staggering in his vomit in 19:14.
- Sennacrib's army was compared to burning thorns and briers in 10:17. His princes and nobles were referred to as burning forests and fields in 10:18.
- The pious remnant were as a rod or stick rising up out of a stump, or as a branch sprouting out of the root of a dead tree in 11:1. They were GOD's flock and HE was their shepherd in 40:11. They were as trees of righteousness in 60:3.
- -The Babylonians were stubble burnt by fire in 47:14.
- -Moab was compared to threshed straw in 25:10.
- -Israel's seed were as the fish of the sea in 48:19.
- -Believing Gentiles were referred to as Israel's bridal ornaments in 49:18.
- -The servants of the LORD were referred to as a barren wife in 54:1 and then to a tent enlarged in 54:2.
- -Israel's watchmen were called dumb dogs in 56:10.
- -The wicked were referred to as a troubled (agitated) sea in 57:20.
- -The inhabitants of Idumea were sacrificed as lambs, goats and rams in 34:6, and to unicorns, bullocks and bulls in 34:7.
- -Believers were referred to as a watered garden in 58:11.
- -In 18:13 Israel's enemies were to rush forward like the rushing of many waters and then be chased back like chaff before the wind and like a tumbleweed amongst a whirlwind. They also shall be like a flood in 58:19.
This is how Isaiah wrote, and unless we recognize and understand his language, that he spoke and wrote figuratively, poetically, then we can hardly understand his message. He was using figures of speech to describe more graphically than if he had spoken literally. We might say that the ground is dry, or we might speak more figuratively and say that the ground was thirsty. One description is literal, the other is poetical and paints a more vivid picture of the scene. This is often the language of the prophets.
Let us therefore consider a new and fresh approach. Let's weigh whether or not Isaiah was picturing this suffering servant, not as a person or a people, but as a city and a nation. Let us consider the context of the entire book of ISAIAH and see how this reflects upon this important chapter 53. Only then can we unravel this maize of confusion and difficulty which Church traditions have created for us.
As we have noted above, even though Isaiah may have began this particular vision in 52:13, we should keep in mind that his context leading up to this vision, was continually concerned with Jerusalem and Zion.
- 52:13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
We are told that this servant was to be exalted and extolled. The word translated extolled here is from the Hebrew word nasa. It is the same word Isaiah used in 2:2 which our translators have rendered exalted.
- 2:2-3 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted [nasa] above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The phrase last days has often tripped up readers not familiar with Biblical language. It means more precisely, after days or in time to come. As Albert Barnes properly notes in his Commentary on this verse, "It does not of itself refer to any particular period, and especially not, as our translation would seem to indicate, to the end of the world. The expression properly denotes only future time in general."
As this vision specifically concerned itself with Judah and Jerusalem (verse 1), then these last days must be the coming days of Isaiah's vision concerning that holy city and nation. And further, that in this time to come, that the LORD's house (the Temple) was to be established and exalted. And even further, Isaiah's vision reveals that the nations were to flow into it and be taught the ways of GOD. And finally, that out of Zion would flow the law, the word of the Lord, indeed, a light to lighten the Gentiles.
For Isaiah, it was the LORD's house, the temple in Jerusalem that was to be exalted. He was not looking into the distant future at a Messiah, but rather Isaiah saw the Babylonian exiles returning to rebuild the holy city and nation. If we tie together his usages of this word nasa in the two instances we are considering, we gather further and accumulating evidence that the servant who was to be exalted was not necessarily a man, but rather more likely it was Jerusalem itself.
But even beyond this, Isaiah saw in his vision (52:13) that this same servant would become very high. This is the exact theme and subject which Isaiah had already set forth in 44:26; "...that saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof". Repeatedly throughout his visions Isaiah recounts this same theme, that the holy city and nation would be re-inhabited and rebuilt, that they would be raised up, indeed, very high.
Then in the next verse of chapter 52, we read of this servant's visage being more marred than any man. We know that Yeshua was badly and ruthlessly beaten, no doubt over the span of forty hours. It sickens us to imagine how horribly He must have been disfigured. But is that what Isaiah saw? Did he see the brutally beaten body of our Redeemer, or did he see the utter destruction of the holy city and nation?
- 52:14 As many were astonied [shamem] at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
We are told in this passage that many would be astonished (shamem, awestruck or made desolate) when they saw how marred this servant's visage was. Then we read in the very next chapter (after 53) that Isaiah used this same Hebrew word shamem in reference to the barren woman who was desolate (shamem), which passage we have already noted represented Jerusalem (54:1). This connection is a further hint that Isaiah's continuing theme here was the holy city.
Isaiah saw in his vision that many were astonished when they saw this servant's visage so badly marred. Though this at first might sound like the prophet was describing a battered man, consider the following passages concerning the very same incident from JEREMIAH.
- 18:16 To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.
- 19:8 And I will make this city desolate, and an hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished and hiss because of all the plagues thereof.
- 22:8-9 And many nations shall pass by this city, and they shall say every man to his neighbour, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this great city? Then they shall answer, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshipped other gods, and served them.
Though Isaiah preceded Jeremiah by fifty or so years, it goes without saying that Jeremiah was describing the very same scene as Isaiah had. Repeatedly the prophet told us that in his vision the land and city and nation were so thoroughly desolated that the sight was to cause utter astonishment in those who saw it. And then in LAMENTATIONS we read;
- 2:15-16 All that pass by clap their hands at thee; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth? All thine enemies have opened their mouth against thee: they hiss and gnash the teeth: they say, We have swallowed her up: certainly this is the day that we looked for; we have found, we have seen it.
It would appear that Isaiah had seen in his vision many people being astonished and even rejoicing at the total and complete destruction of that heavily fortified and defended city. Jeremiah spoke in these exact terms and though not in itself conclusive that the servant of ISAIAH 53 was indeed that holy city, it certainly goes a long way towards explaining and expounding upon Isaiah's vision.
- 52:15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
This passage is best understood when we keep in mind Isaiah's context. He had been speaking of the servant (Jerusalem?) being utterly ruined, and how amazed and astonished the onlookers were as they beheld the complete destruction of that city by the Babylonians.
The phrase, "sprinkle many nations" has been troublesome for almost all who read it. It makes little sense as our translators have rendered it, which gives rise to many wild and reckless speculations. Some even see in the sprinkling some sort of cleansing with blood or a baptism with water, neither of which make any sense at all when we try to connect those theories with Isaiah's vision here of many being astonished at the badly battered servant.
The Greek Septuagint renders the same phrase about sprinkling many nations as, "Thus shall many nations wonder". The Jewish Publication Society has "So shall he startle many nations". It has also been proposed that the Hebrew word which has been translated sprinkle, was actually "derived from an Arabic word meaning to leap, to spring, to spring up, to leap for joy, to exult" (Barnes Notes on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, Isaiah, page 257).
This last suggestion makes good sense, if we are to understand that this astonishment was on the part of foreign kings and nations, who while first being awestruck by the power of the Babylonian army in totally destroying this magnificent city, that they then became overjoyed and gladdened by its demise. The passage explains to us that while these kings may have heard of Jerusalem's destruction, they really didn't imagine the full extent of its complete ruin until they had with their own eyes seen it.
Consider another pertinent passage from LAMENTATIONS.
- LAMENTATIONS 4:12 The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy should have entered into the gates of Jerusalem.
Thus, it seems highly probable that Isaiah was challenging the false confidence of his fellow Jews that Jerusalem was impregnable, and further that it could and someday that it would be conquered and laid waste. They had believed that their fortifications could withstand any attack. They were oblivious to the reality of that calamity which would be fast approaching.
Having related to the reader his vision of the total and complete destruction of the holy city, more marred than any other, so utterly devastated that visiting rulers just stood in awe at the sight of it, Isaiah then proceeded to explain how this total destruction would make it difficult for his fellow patriots to believe that there would someday be a re-birth, a re-building of the holy city.
- 53:1 Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
In other words, now that the reader had some kind of an idea about the magnitude of Jerusalem's coming destruction, one can see that not many would believe Isaiah's report, when he and his disciples declared that the city would rise again. That this is Isaiah's intention we can be confident because he spoke of the arm of the Lord being revealed, which fact he had just noted before he began this section which we are reviewing in this Study.
- ISAIAH 52:10 The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Isaiah was speaking of the release and return of the Babylonian exiles to rebuild and re-populate their city and nation. The purpose of GOD bearing HIS arm was for the their salvation, which the context tells us was the return of the exiles. Thus, Isaiah's report was evidently concerning this rebuilding of Jerusalem. Those who didn't believe his report, were those who couldn't fathom the prospect that a city so utterly destroyed would ever be rebuilt. As such, only those to whom the arm of the LORD had been revealed were able to believe his report.
Thus, in this first verse of chapter 53, Isaiah's vision concerns itself with those, who after being released from their bondage in Babylon, would choose to return to Palestine and undertake the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding Jerusalem and Judea. Life would no doubt have been much easier if they remained in Babylon, where for many decades they had re-established their lives, perhaps some very comfortably. Why now risk it all on a long and tedious and dangerous trek back across the desert sands? And to what? A city and nation which lay in total ruin? Only the faithful remnant, the pious believers who had seen the arm of the LORD in it all, would be able to answer that call.
This passage is twice quoted in the Christian scriptures (the New Testament), and with this new insight into its meaning, both of those references now come to life.
- JOHN 12:37-38 But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled [expounded upon], which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?
This saying of Isaiah being fulfilled was not in any way the accomplishment of a prediction. John simply alluded to Isaiah's vision because just as the majority of the Babylonian exiles were going to find it challenging to answer GOD's call and trek back across the open desert to the Promised Land, so many of those in Yeshua's audience were also finding it challenging to answer His call to seek first the kingdom of GOD, in the new heavens and the new earth. Yeshua had preached that the kingdom of GOD was upon them if they were only willing to enter in, with Him, but just like most of the Babylonian exiles, many of them ignored His warnings, choosing rather to remain in their present comforts.
Isaiah had warned in his visions that Babylon itself would eventually be destroyed (13:19), so those exiles would be wise to return to the Promised Land, to Jerusalem and help to rebuild it. Centuries later, Yeshua instructed John to warn His followers that the destruction of Jerusalem itself was nearing and that they would be wise to leave it so as to join Him in the new Jerusalem, in the holy city in heaven (REVELATION 3:12; 21:2).
The apostle Paul also referenced Isaiah's vision in precisely the same way. He recognized that just as those in Isaiah's vision would refuse to believe the good news, that they could finally go home and rebuild their lives around GOD's temple in Jerusalem, so many Jewish believers in Rome were also finding it difficult to leave their comfortable lives and believe the gospel of the kingdom of GOD in heaven.
- ROMANS 10:15-16 How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
Neither apostle was saying that his situation was the accomplishment of some ancient prediction, but rather they were recognizing the parallels, the similarities, how one event mirrored the other. It was deja vu all over again, as the songwriter put it. History seemed to be eerily repeating itself. Both Isaiah and Yeshua saw the coming destruction of the holy city, but then they also saw how for those who chose to believe, there would be a way forward. For Isaiah, it was for the Babylonian exiles to return to Palestine, but for Yeshua it was for the first century believers to enter into the kingdom of GOD in heaven.
- 53:2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of the dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
Isaiah then continued along the same theme speaking of the servant growing up out of the dry ground. This could have referred to the Messiah growing up in the midst of a god forsaken country and city, the dry ground referring to godless ground. But then the next phrase makes little sense. How can the Messiah grow up, even though He has no form? Yet a destroyed and decimated city could be said to rise up, after having been ripped apart and laid waste. That Isaiah referred to Jerusalem seems to make much more sense. If that is indeed his vision, then the next phrase also flows right along with it.
- there is no beauty that we should desire him
A city destroyed and forsaken has no beauty (LAMENTATIONS 1:6; 2:1). We can be sure that when the exiled Babylonian Jews heard of the state of things back in Palestine, that there was indeed nothing there that called them home. Everything now lay in ruins and was no doubt overgrown with thorns and thistles. There was nothing there for them to desire. Only the pious remnant who believed Isaiah's report would be able to brave the dangers and return to re-construct their city and nation.
Jeremiah well described the nation's situation in his own vision.
- JEREMIAH 30:17 RSV For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD, because they have called you an outcast: 'It is Zion, for whom no one cares!'
GOD's promise was to restore and heal the fallen city, even as many considered it as nothing more than an outcast; a city thrust aside, a city of which no one any longer cared. Consider also the opening passage of LAMENTATIONS which gives another graphic description of Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians.
- 1:1 How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!
All of this gives us a vivid idea of what the prophets must have seen in their visions. This paints for us a colorful picture of the state of things there, when GOD was to be calling the pious remnant back home to re-build and re-store that which had been laid waste. Isaiah's vision tells us how sorry would be the state of things there in what was to be left of Jerusalem, and how difficult it would be for any to want to return. Clearly, only those who could see the mighty arm of the LORD in it all, would dare to leave Babylon. Their new home on the Euphrates was then considered the glory of kingdoms and the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans (ISAIAH 13:19 RSV). To choose to trek back across the desert sands to Palestine where sat the outcast, the solitary city, the dry ground, was not going to be an easy decision to make.
The pious remnant were those few who were willing to answer the call and venture out into the vast wilderness to make their way back to Jerusalem so as to rebuild the temple and city. It is quite amazing that centuries later, according to another prophet's vision, Yeshua had been calling a different pious remnant to leave another Babylon (REVELATION 18:1-4), which in a very short time was itself to be destroyed, this time by the Romans. This time they were being called to seek a new city and country whose builder and maker was GOD (HEBREWS 11:10; 12:22).
Of course there are many who mistake the Babylon of John's vision in REVELATION to be referring to Rome and not to Jerusalem. This is perfectly and completely refuted by J. Stuart Russell in his substantial work entitled, The Parousia, on pages 482-525.
In Isaiah's vision those who left the original Babylon, which was destined for destruction, were to return to Palestine and rebuild that temple and city. In Yeshua's time, His listeners were being challenged to follow Him, forsaking this new Babylon, which had now become representative of Jerusalem, the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and the cage of every unclean and hateful bird (REVELATION 18:2). Similar to the Babylonian exiles, Yeshua's disciples were being called to be gathered together, but this time not to trek across the desert sands to Palestine, but rather they were to be gathered together for their journey with Him into the kingdom of GOD, into the new and heavenly Jerusalem.
The parallels and the similarities are astounding. The only way to fully appreciate all that was happening in Yeshua's time and ministry, is to look back at Isaiah's time and ministry. They both reflect one another, they mirror each other beautifully. There is an important reason that aside from psalms, ISAIAH is the most often quoted book by Yeshua and His disciples.
- 53:3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This passage paints a rather gloomy picture of this servant. Of course we know that Yeshua was despised and rejected by many, but there were others who gladly received Him into their homes and hearts. But on the other hand, the city which was destroyed by the Babylonians, was nothing but despised (LAMENTATION 1:8) and rejected.
A man of sorrows? Though there were surely times when Yeshua sorrowed, can we rightly describe Him as being a man of sorrows? Only on a single occasion, the night of Him being taken in the Garden of Gethsemane, does scripture ever describe Him as being sorrowful. Howbeit, His followers and disciples were routinely sorrowful, but not Yeshua.
Did He have no joy? Did He never smile, or laugh, or sing praises to GOD? It is without scriptural foundation to paint Him with a broad brush as a man of sorrows, for HEBREWS tells us that for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross (12:2). If anything, He was a man of joy, not sorrows.
Howbeit, this passage in ISAIAH 53 could be accurately describing the fallen city and nation. Indeed, this is pretty much the description of Jerusalem after it was destroyed, which we are given in LAMENTATIONS.
- LAMENTATION 1:8-9 RSV Jerusalem sinned grievously, therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; yea, she herself groans, and turns her face away. Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her doom; therefore her fall is terrible, she has no comforter. "O LORD, behold my affliction: for the enemy has triumphed!"
As the captive citizens were led away to Babylon, perhaps looking back over their shoulder, they could see the horrible destruction which they had never thought possible. Now the beautiful, eternal city lay in ruins. Now the towering walls had been breached. Now all lay desolate and abandoned. She had been defiled by the invader. She had been raped and plundered and spoiled. And what then was the reaction of the newly enslaved people? What did the Jerusalemites do, now that their ancient city lay in ruins? They turned away, they hid their face from what they couldn't bear to look upon.
- 53:4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God [ISAIAH 60:10], and afflicted [ISAIAH 60:14].
It was because of the peoples' sins that the holy city was destroyed. It was stricken because they refused to change and amend their ways. Jerusalem was smitten of GOD because they obstinately turned a deaf ear to the prophets who had repeatedly warned them of this coming calamity. As noted above, Isaiah specifically spelled out to them in chapter 60 that the city would be smitten and afflicted by GOD.
- 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
The city was wounded for the transgression of the people. It was bruised because of their iniquities. The citizens' fallen and idolatrous state required this drastic measure by GOD to awake at least some of them out of the slumber within which they had sunken. It required this terrible blow to their self confidence and self righteousness to bring them back to the place where GOD could re-work them into vessels for HIS purposes.
GOD's desire had always been for this chosen nation to become priests to the world (EXODUS 19:6). They were singled out from the other nations so they could shine that light of life over the dark and gloomy planet and become the instruments of GOD's saving grace. But they had consistently rejected that calling and instead reaped to themselves carnal pleasures and treasures.
Looking back over the centuries, we know today that even after this exile in Babylon, and the pious remnant's return to Palestine, that even after rebuilding the temple and city and nation, that the chosen people failed again to rise up to the calling of GOD. As such, it was left to Yeshua at long last, to finally and completely answer and accomplish that calling. He alone believed fully and acted precisely as GOD directed. But the temple and city which He was to build, was not again to be here on this planet. No, it was to be there, in the kingdom of GOD, in heaven itself (REVELATION 21).
- 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
It was the people who went astray, but it was the city which suffered for it. The buildings and the houses and the temple had done no wrong. It was the inhabitants. They had turned away from the right way, but the Lord laid on the city and temple their iniquity.
- 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his sweaters is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
We are told that this must have been written about Yeshua because in Peter's first epistle he wrote that Yeshua "opened not His mouth" when He was oppressed and afflicted. Yet that is not at all what Peter wrote (1 PETER 2:23). He said that when Yeshua was reviled, that He did not return the abuse. That when Yeshua suffered, that He did not in turn threaten His tormentors. Yeshua did not retaliate, which was precisely what Peter had been discouraging his own readers from doing, when they themselves suffered wrongfully.
Isaiah's vision here cannot be describing Yeshua, because He indeed did open His mouth when He was before His captors. And on more than one occasion. He was first brought before Annas, where while being interrogated He was struck by one of the officers standing nearby, whereupon Yeshua answered back, "....why smitest thou me?" (JOHN 18:20-23). Next He was taken before the Jewish council where He was asked whether or not He was the Christ (LUKE 22:66-67). Here He responded after which the Jews declared, "What need we of further witness? for we ourselves have heard of his own mouth". Lastly He was brought before Pilate where this time He was asked whether or not He was the king of the Jews (JOHN 18:33-37). Yeshua then had quite a conversation with the Roman procurator, this time explaining to Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world.
How can anyone then suppose and affirm that Isaiah's vision predicted Yeshua's life and times? How can anyone read the clear evidence of the gospel accounts and then come to the conclusion that ISAIAH 53 is solely of and about Yeshua? Only because Church tradition says so. Only because too many students don't read what is written but instead read into it what they have been taught.
Yet, if Isaiah's vision was instead concerning Jerusalem, which he repeatedly declared that it was, then we have a completely different set of circumstances to consider. We should note that the city was not able to cry out. It had to endure the attacks and abuses silently. It had to bear it all quietly. Isaiah again used poetic language to describe the terrible scene before him. The city lay in waste, but sat quiet. It moved not, but instead sat deathly still as the Babylonians set fire to its last remaining structures.
- 53:8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
This is a most interesting passage. Our version reads that "He was taken from prison and from judgment". What could that mean? Yeshua certainly wasn't taken from prison, nor could that be said of the Jews who were overwhelmed when the city was sacked by the Babylonians. To properly understand the phrase, as always we must consider its context. What is the context within which it sat?
Isaiah had been setting before the reader a scene where the holy city, because of its idolatrous citizens, had been grievously attacked and overwhelmed by a ruthless enemy. The Hebrew word which has been translated as prison (otser), does not really mean prison as we would think of it today. It more properly means restraint, as a prisoner might be bound. Another meaning of the word can be closed up as perhaps a barren womb (PROVERBS 30:16). We can well perceive that this is what Isaiah saw, a city besieged and shut up. The siege lasted a staggering two years. As such, when we consider the rest of the passage, this interpretation of the city being besieged and its walls breached fits very logically.
"Who shall declare his generation?" If this pertained to Yeshua what is its explanation? But if it pertained to a dead and destroyed and forsaken city, then all makes perfect sense. There was no more a people, a citizenry residing in the city. For the next fifty years no one would live there. And so the passage continued, "for he was cut off out of the land of the living". What an apt description of a wrecked and ruined city. No longer occupied in any fashion. For an entire generation it was just empty and burnt rubble, overgrown with thorns and brambles and thistles, probably inhabited only by birds and wild animals.
The passage then closed with the judicial exclamation, the cause and reason for its long siege, and much longer desolation, "for the transgression of my people he was stricken".
- 53:9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
If this passage refers to Yeshua, then we have a real head scratcher. He was buried alone, not with the wicked nor the rich. Of course commentators try to force Yeshua into Isaiah's vision by imagining that the passage refers to Yeshua only being appointed a grave with the wicked, but then being recused from that fate and instead being buried in a rich man's tomb. If Isaiah had in fact predicted the crucifixion and death of the Messiah, then I suppose we could resign ourselves to accept that speculative analysis, but we needn't have to reach that far for an answer. There is another, a more reasonable interpretation of the passage.
If Isaiah was speaking of Jerusalem making its grave with the wicked, then we can understand the wicked to be those who died with and within the city, when it died. That when the Babylonians overwhelmed and destroyed the city, that the rich inhabitants were also overran and destroyed. Yet, it was because of the sins of the wicked and the rich that the holy city was destroyed, not because of any sins which Jerusalem itself had committed. Jerusalem had done no violence; there was no deceit in Zion's mouth. Nevertheless. . .
- 53:10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Even so, it pleased the Lord to bruise the city along with the wicked and rich inhabitants. Because of their sins, the Lord caused the city to be destroyed. Jerusalem became an offering for the sins of its citizens. The holy city and temple were placed upon the altar of GOD as a trespass offering for the evil which the nation had committed against the Lord.
Surely there are perfect parallels between Isaiah's vision and Yeshua's life, but that in no way requires us to force out of Isaiah's words a prediction six or seven centuries into the future, of a Messiah's suffering and death. Rather, we should let Isaiah's words speak for themselves and then take from them the lessons we can learn as they reflect upon Yeshua's life and ministry.
And so now what? Isaiah saw that afterwards, after GOD's wrath had been poured out, that then the city would be rebuilt. After many years of laying dormant, the city would again see its seed return. Isaiah saw in his vision the pious remnant arriving at its fallen gates to begin the long process of its rebuilding. Jerusalem's days would then be prolonged, enduring for centuries. The pleasure of the Lord would still prosper in its hand. The city would then, at least to a certain degree, proclaim and extoll the will of the Lord.
- 53:11 He [GOD] shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
To fully understand this passage, let's read it in conjunction with another one of Isaiah's visions in chapter 60, where in verse 14 he explicitly states that his subject was indeed "The city of the LORD, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel".
- 60:1-4 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
- And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.
As such, GOD would finally see the reward of HIS labors. HE would at long last see HIS holy city and temple fulfill its purpose. GOD's soul had travailed much during the previous ages, as HE agonized over what HE knew would be required to return it to the right path. But at long last all would be worthwhile. At long last all would be set upright again.
By the knowledge of GOD's word, many would now be able to be justified, to be righteous. This is how GOD's righteous servant, Jerusalem, was to justify many. It was to shine forth a light unto the lost and dark world.
All was made possible and accomplished because Jerusalem took upon itself the sins of its people. The holy city and temple became the trespass offering for the iniquities of its inhabitants. Thus, being satisfied that the price of their redemption had been paid, GOD called them back, and a pious remnant answered.
- 53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great [rab], and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The word translated here as great (rab), Isaiah also used in the previous verse as well as in the following verse, translated as many justified in 53:11 and more children in 54:1. Again the context should speak loudly to us. All three occurrences clearly reference the same individuals, those coming to the LORD. See also ZECHARIAH 2:11; 8:20-22.
We are also told here that he, this servant, was numbered with the transgressors (the pasha), which Isaiah also referenced in his opening remarks (1:2) saying, "Hear, O Heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished up children, and they have rebelled (pasha) against me." These rebellious children, these transgressors, were the whole cause of Jerusalem's destruction. They were the reason that GOD sacrificed the holy city and temple. In this way Jerusalem was numbered with them.
We are also told in this final passage that this servant bare (nasa) the sins of many, the exact same idea that Isaiah had put forth in the fourth verse of this very chapter, writing "he hath borne (nasa) our griefs".
Then we are told that this servant made intercession (paga) for these transgressors. Curiously, in this same chapter Isaiah made reference to this very thing, writing in verse six that the LORD laid (paga) on him, laid on that servant, laid on Jerusalem, the iniquity of them all.
Of course most agree that the similarities between Isaiah's suffering servant and Yeshua are nothing less than astounding. The many parallels have no doubt been ordered by an omnipotent GOD, who even as HE gave Isaiah his visions, also saw in the distant future HIS only begotten Son being bruised and battered, another offering made for the sins of the people.
It is not unnatural for us to think of Yeshua's life and ministry when we read of Isaiah's vision, but we go too far when we try to insert the Messiah into the narrative. Isaiah never intimated the he saw any messiah except Cyrus the Persian. Yet we know that GOD did see another Messiah, another Savior and Redeemer.
We never glorify GOD or HIS word by injecting into it that which GOD has left out. But we can see the beauty and the majesty of scripture, how one portion reflects and illuminates another. Even though Isaiah didn't see a Messiah in his vision, GOD did. GOD over-ruled all to show us and set before us the magnificence of HIS foresight and power. Thus we can rejoice in HIS word, while all the while rejecting the Church's traditions.
- ISAIAH 60:14 The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; and they shall call thee, The city of the LORD, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.