Here’s a spiritual conversation starter for you. Print off Isaiah 53 on a piece of paper. Take out the headings and verse numbers. Then grab a non-Christian friend and have them read it with you. 99 times out of a hundred, they’ll identify the Suffering Servant described in the passage as Jesus. That would be a great time to let them know that the chapter comes is out of the Jewish Bible and was written 700 years before the time of Christ!
The Bible says that one of the things that separate Yahweh from the nation’s idols is his ability to tell us the end from the beginning. (Isaiah 46:10) But not everyone is a fan of the argument from Messianic prophecy. In a debate with apologist David Marshall, atheist John Loftus argued that the passage is unequivocally not about Jesus. Says Loftus:
“Isaiah 49:1-3 helps provide the context for Isaiah 42-53. The servant is Israel. Surely if anyone in today’s pulpit interpreted the Bible out of context you would not like it. Why here?”
Loftus is taking his cue from the popular rabbinic interpretation. For an example of that, here’s Jewish author and Rabbi Tovia Singer: “The broad consensus among Jewish, and even some Christian commentators, that the “servant” in Isaiah 52-53 refers to the nation of Israel is understandable. Isaiah 53, which is the fourth of four renowned Servant Songs, is umbilically connected to its preceding chapters. The “servant” in each of the three previous Servant Songs is plainly and repeatedly identified as the nation of Israel.”
So are Singer and Loftus right? Have Christians mistakenly or underhandedly applied these passages to Jesus for the last 2000 years?
I don’t think that can possibly be the case. The rabbinic interpretation is plagued with problems.
‘The Servant is Israel’ Interpretation
Let’s look at a few of the passages in question and see if they can apply to Israel:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The picture here is an innocent person suffering in the place of the guilty in order to atone for sin. Israel wasn’t in Babylonian captivity because they were innocent. They were suffering because they broke the law and were under the curse described in Deuteronomy 28. Jeremiah, Daniel, and others said that Israel wasn’t an innocent sufferer but were in misery for their own sins. (See especially 2 Chronicles 36:15-19)
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
From a logical standpoint, how can Israel be innocently stricken for the transgression of Israel? Again, Israel was not in captivity because they didn’t practice violence and lying. On the contrary, that’s a big part of what got them in trouble in the first place! They wouldn’t stop adopting the evil practices of the nations that surrounded them, which included child sacrifice. The prophets were explicit about this. Plus the strong contrasts drawn between the Servant and the persons speaking in the first-person plural make the Servant is Israel objection highly implausible.
“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
The phrase “poured out his soul” indicates voluntary suffering. Israel didn’t volunteer to be taken into Babylonian captivity. Babylon came and laid siege to the city, destroyed Solomon’s temple, and tragically killed many who stood in their way. The survivors were taken as captives. The nation being taken into captivity should not have come as a surprise, they were warned about it by the prophets and the curse written in the Law. (Deuteronomy 28:49, 64; 29:28; Leviticus 25:5-6, Isaiah 39:5-8) Contrast that with the shock that Jehovah has done in afflicting his Servant. (Isaiah 52:14–53:1,10)
The Servant as an Individual?
It is true that several verses refer to the Servant as Israel. But there are some clear indicators that there is a Servant who represents Israel as an individual. Loftus should have read further than verse 3. Check out Isaiah 49:5-7:
“And now the Lord says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength— he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
This is what the Lord says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The text says that “Israel” gathers Jacob to himself and delivers them. How could Israel gather Israel? This refers to a lone Messianic figure.
For these reasons, I think the interpretation of Loftus and Singer is strained to say the least.
‘The Servant is Jesus’ Interpretation
1. Despised and rejected.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of the dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men”
Jesus was handed over to the Romans. He was mocked, spit on, flogged and condemned to death. The crowd yelled, “crucify!” (Luke 23:21) Jesus was sent to his own, and his own received him not. (Jn. 1:11)
2. But he was pierced
Crucifixion was not a widespread method of execution until the Persians popularized it around 500-600 BC. Piercing is certainly involved in crucifixion. The book of Isaiah was written between 739 and 681 BC, although there’s some debate about the dates regarding the first and second half of Isaiah. But that Jesus was pierced certainly fits the prophecy regardless of quibbles over dating. Pierced was part of the original text.
3. He opened not his mouth.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
This doesn’t mean Jesus said nothing at his trial. But he made no attempt to get out of the punishment that was about to go down. Matthew 27:12-14 reads “But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge so that the governor was greatly amazed.”
We’re told by John that Pilate wants to release him and Jesus still didn’t try and defend himself. “Pilate…entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
4. He had done no violence.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence”
At the time of his arrest, he tells Peter to put away his sword. (Mt. 26:52) He tells Pilate that his kingdom isn’t worldly but spiritual in nature. (Jn. 18:36) Pilate said he found no fault in him. (Lk 23:4) He advises paying taxes due to Caesar. (Mk. 12:17) Jesus taught enemy love. (Mt. 5:38-48) He heals a servant of a Centurion. (Mt. 8:5-13) Jesus was certainly no physical threat to Rome.
5. They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.
The gospels report that a “rich man” named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body and laid Jesus in his own tomb. (Mt. 27:57-59, Jn. 19:38-42) Jesus was crucified for blasphemy. For a Sanhedrin member to show open sympathy for Jesus after the scandal of being nailed to a tree is astonishing. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
Such an action would have been risky for Joseph’s social status. Josephus says “He that blasphemes God, let him be stoned, and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner.” (Ant. 4.202) That Jesus could have fit this prediction by chance is virtually nil.
6. The Servant is resurrected
“…he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
One minute the servant is a lamb being led to the slaughter, cut off from the land of the living and put in a grave. Now his days are prolonged and he sees his work and is satisfied. How does that work? If Jesus really is the prophesied Servant, the prophecy of death followed by justification, extended days, and “seeing seed” leads us to expect his resurrection as him circling third base. Jesus repeatedly called his own shot by predicting his resurrection. That makes this part of the prophecy all the more fascinating. (Mk 10:32-34, Mt 12:38-40)
Bonus: The Servant is a Divine Person
One thing that really stands out is the language of exaltation that’s applied to the Servant in 52:13: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Now if you read the rest of Isaiah, this type of exaltation language is applied only to YHWH.
Check out Isaiah 6:1, for example: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” This isn’t only an isolated verse. See also Isaiah 33:5,10: “The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high…“Now I will arise,” says the Lord, “now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted.” And there’s also Isaiah 57:15: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.“
We see in Isaiah 2:11,17 that this language of being exalted can’t apply to someone else other than the God of Israel: “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. … And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” And of course, we know that it was self-exaltation that caused Lucifer to be brought low in Isaiah 14:11-17.
With all this in mind, we see that the language in Isaiah 52:13 applies to the Servant can only apply to a divine person – and Israel, of course, isn’t divine. This is pretty mind-blowing stuff. (See Jonathan McLatchie’s post on this topic here for more details.)
A skeptical complaint
At this point, a skeptic might want to say that Christians simply made up a story to fit the prophecy. But we know from history that the crucifixion is a settled fact. (Josephus, Antiquities 18:3, Tacitus, Annals 15:44) And why would Jesus undergo such a painful suicide to fulfill scripture with no hope for himself in sight? I don’t think he’s crazy or suicidal.
The burial story has several lines of historical evidence supporting it. And there’s as much historical support for the belief in the resurrection appearances as there is for the execution of Jesus. And notably, Paul and James, both devout Jews, were not convinced by the early church’s argument from prophecy until Jesus himself appeared to them. (Note that Philip’s use of Isaiah 53 in evangelism is before Paul’s conversion. See Acts 8:26-35, 9:1-6)
And in the Gospels, Jesus himself applies these passages to himself. Mark 14:22-24 reads, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup and…gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’ Jesus saw his death typified in the Passover meal components. If you remember, the blood of the Passover lamb was wiped on the doorpost of the Jew’s homes in Israel. It saved them from God’s judgment against Egypt. (Exodus 12:13-14)
And when Jesus uses the words ‘pour out’, this is a clear allusion to Isaiah 53:12, which reads: “because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus saw himself as the Suffering Servant and sin-bearer in Isaiah 53, which is why he earlier said that he “didn’t come to serve, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Jesus also directly applies Isaiah 53 to himself in Luke 22:37.
The specific correspondence of the prophecies and the life of Jesus are hard to deny. Many aspects of this passage are confusing without prior knowledge. They’re hard to see until after the fact how they can be reconciled. (That was certainly the Ethiopian eunuch’s reaction in Acts 8) These perplexing details include the Servant being sent like a sheep to the slaughter, then buried in the grave only to see his days prolonged.
These verses were translated into Greek in the 3rd century and are unaltered from the Hebrew text. We have these fine details of the life of Jesus centuries before he was born. These details were in the hands of those who could not be suspected of changing the text to make it look more like Jesus. Plus, the passage clearly cannot logically apply to the nation of Israel, and there is no other historical figure this prophecy matches half as closely as Jesus.
Read through Acts and you will see that the early church preached two things: 1. Jesus has risen and we are eyewitnesses to the fact. 2. Jesus died and was raised to fulfill prophecy. Believers would do well to learn to not only ably defend the resurrection, but also the argument from prophecy.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.