Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant
Cutting through the distortions and mistranslations of this enigmatic text.
Isaiah 53 is a prophecy foretelling how the world will react when they witness Israel’s salvation in the Messianic era. The verses are presented from the perspective of world leaders, who contrast their former scornful attitude toward the Jews with their new realization of Israel’s grandeur. After realizing how unfairly they treated the Jewish people, they will be shocked and speechless.
While the original Hebrew text clearly refers to the Jewish people as the “Suffering Servant,” over the centuries Isaiah 53 has become a cornerstone of the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Unfortunately, this claim is based on widespread mistranslations and distortion of context.
In order to properly understand these verses, one must read the original Hebrew text. When the Bible is translated into other languages, it loses much of its essence. The familiar King James translation uses language which is archaic and difficult for the modern reader. Furthermore, it is not rooted in Jewish sources and often goes against traditional Jewish teachings. Modern translations, while more readable, are often even more divorced from the true meaning of the text.
For an accurate Jewish translation of the Bible, read the “ArtScroll English Tanach.”
The Context of Isaiah 53
The key to deciphering any biblical text is to view it in context. Isaiah 53 is the fourth of the four “Servant Songs.” (The others are found in Isaiah chapters 42, 49 and 50.) Though the “servant” in Isaiah 53 is not openly identified – these verses merely refer to “My servant” (52:13, 53:11) – the “servant” in each of the previous Servant Songs is plainly and repeatedly identified as the Jewish nation. Beginning with chapter 41, the equating of God’s Servant with the nation of Israel is made nine times by the prophet Isaiah, and no one other than Israel is identified as the “servant”:
- “You are My servant, O Israel” (41:8)
- “You are My servant, Israel” (49:3)
- see also Isaiah 44:1, 44:2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20
The Bible is filled with other references to the Jewish people as God’s “servant”; see Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28; Psalms 136:22. There is no reason that the “servant” in Isaiah 53 would suddenly switch and refer to someone other than the Jewish people.
One obvious question that needs to be addressed: How can the “Suffering Servant,” which the verses refer to grammatically in the singular, be equated with the entire Jewish nation?
The Jewish people are consistently referred to with the singular pronoun.
This question evaporates when we discover that throughout the Bible, the Jewish people are consistently referred to as a singular entity, using the singular pronoun. For example, when God speaks to the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, all of the Ten Commandments are written as if speaking to an individual (Exodus 20:1-14). This is because the Jewish people are one unit, bound together with a shared national destiny (see Exodus 4:22, Deuteronomy chapter 32). This singular reference is even more common in biblical verses referring to the Messianic era, when the Jewish people will be fully united under the banner of God (see Hosea 14:6-7, Jeremiah 50:19).
As we will see, for numerous reasons this chapter cannot be referring to Jesus. Even in the Christian scriptures, the disciples did not consider the Suffering Servant as referring to Jesus (see Matthew 16:21-22, Mark 9:31-32, Luke 9:44-45).
So how did the Suffering Servant come to be associated with Jesus? After his death, the promoters of Christianity retroactively looked into the Bible and “applied” – through mistranslation and distortion of context – these biblical verses as referring to Jesus.
Missionary apologist Walter Riggans candidly admitted:
“There is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and more specifically the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense…” (Yehoshua Ben David, Olive Press 1995, p.155)
The intention is not to denigrate another religion, but rather to understand the true meaning of the Divine word.
Isaiah 53 – Line by Line
Early in the Book of Isaiah, God predicts the long and difficult exile of the Jewish people. Chapter 53 occurs in the midst of Isaiah’s “Messages of Consolation,” which tell of the restoration of Israel to prominence as God’s chosen people.
The key to understanding this chapter lies in correctly identifying who is speaking. Though the book was written by Isaiah, verses 53:1-10 are told from the perspective of world leaders. Following in the footsteps of the previous chapter (Isaiah 52:15 – “the kings will shut their mouths in amazement”), these verses describe how world leaders will be shocked with disbelief when God’s Servant Israel – despite all contrary expectations – is vindicated and blossoms in the Messianic age.
(1) Who would believe what we have heard! For whom has the arm of God been revealed!
מִי הֶאֱמִין לִשְׁמֻעָתֵנוּ וּזְרוֹעַ יְהוָה עַל מִי נִגְלָתָה
In this opening verse, world leaders are shocked at the incredible news of Israel’s salvation: “Who would believe what we have heard!”
This verse refers to “the arm of God.” Throughout the Jewish Bible, God’s “arm” (זרוע) always denotes a redemption of the Jewish people from physical persecution. For example, God took the Jews out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 26:8). (See also Exodus 3:20, 6:6, 14:31, 15:6; Deut. 4:34, 7:19; Isaiah 51:9, 52:10, 62:8, 63:12; Jeremiah 21:5, 27:5; Ezekiel 20:33; Psalms 44:3, 89:11, 98:1, 136:12).
(2) He formerly grew like a sapling or a root from dry ground; he had neither form nor beauty. We saw him, but without a desirable appearance.
וַיַּעַל כַּיּוֹנֵק לְפָנָיו וְכַשּׁרֶשׁ מֵאֶרֶץ צִיָּה לא תאַר לוֹ וְלא הָדָר וְנִרְאֵהוּ וְלא מַרְאֶה וְנֶחְמְדֵהוּ
This imagery of a tree struggling to grow in dry earth is a metaphor for the Jewish struggle in exile. A young sapling in dry ground appears that it will die. The Jews were always a small nation, at times as small as 2 million people, threatened with extinction. In this verse Isaiah describes Israel’s miraculous return from exile, like a sapling that sprouts from this dry ground. This idea appears throughout the Jewish Bible (see Isaiah 60:21, Ezekiel 19:13, Hosea 14:6-7, Amos 9:15).
(3) He was despised and rejected of men, a man of pains and accustomed to sickness. As one from whom we would hide our faces, he was despised, and we had no regard for him.
נִבְזֶה וַחֲדַל אִישִׁים אִישׁ מַכְאבוֹת וִידוּעַ חלִי וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ נִבְזֶה וְלא חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ
This verse describes the Servant as universally despised and rejected. This has been a historical theme for the Jewish people, as a long list of oppressors have treated the Jews as sub-human (the Nazis) or as a pariah state (the United Nations). See similar imagery in Isaiah 49:7, 60:15; Psalms 44:14; Nechemia 3:36.
While this description clearly applies to Israel, it cannot be reconciled with the New Testament account which describes Jesus as immensely popular (Matthew 4:25). “Large crowds” of people came from far and wide to hear him speak, and Jesus had to sail into the water to avoid being overrun by the crowds (Mark 3:7-9). Luke 2:52 describes him as physically strong and well respected, a man whose popularity spread and was “praised by all” (Luke 4:14-15). A far cry from Isaiah’s description of “despised and rejected.”
Although Jesus died a criminal’s death, Isaiah is describing someone for whom rejection has spanned the ages – obviously referring to a nation, not an individual who suffered rejection for only a few hours.
(4) Indeed, he bore our illnesses and carried our pains – but we regarded him as diseased, stricken by God and afflicted.
אָכֵן חֳלָיֵנוּ הוּא נָשָׂא וּמַכְאבֵינוּ סְבָלָם וַאֲנַחְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלהִים וּמְעֻנֶּה
Throughout the centuries of Israel’s exile, many nations persecuted the Jews on the pretense that it was God’s way of “punishing” the “accursed” Jews for having stubbornly rejected the new religions. In these verses, until the end of the chapter, the nations confess how they used the Jewish people as scapegoats, not for the “noble” reasons they had long claimed.
Indeed, the nations selfishly persecuted the Jews as a distraction from their own corrupt regimes: “Surely our suffering he did bear, and our pains he carried…” (53:4)
(5) He was wounded as a result of our transgressions, and crushed as a result of our iniquities. The chastisement upon him was for our benefit; and through his wounds we were healed.
וְהוּא מְחלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲוֽנתֵינוּ מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא לָנוּ
This verse describes how the humbled world leaders confess that Jewish suffering occurred as a direct result of “our iniquities” – i.e., depraved Jew-hatred, rather than, as previously claimed, the stubborn blindness of the Jews.
Isaiah 53:5 is a classic example of mistranslation: The verse does not say, “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities,” which could convey the vicarious suffering ascribed to Jesus. Rather, the proper translation is: “He was wounded because of our transgressions, and crushedbecause of our iniquities.” This conveys that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others – not the opposite as Christians contend – that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others.
Indeed, the Christian idea directly contradicts the basic Jewish teaching that God promises forgiveness to all who sincerely return to Him; thus there is no need for the Messiah to atone for others (Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 36:3, Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33, Hoseah 14:1-3, Jonah 3:6-10, Proverbs 16:6, Daniel 4:27, 2-Chronicles 7:14).
(6) We have all strayed like sheep, each of us turning his own way, and God inflicted upon him [Israel] the iniquity of us all.
כֻּלָּנוּ כַּצּאן תָּעִינוּ אִישׁ לְדַרְכּוֹ פָּנִינוּ וַיהוָה הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ אֵת עֲון כֻּלָּנוּ.
The nations realize that their lack of proper leadership (“shepherd”) caused them to treat the Jews with disdain. They further acknowledge how punishments that should have befallen the nations were averted through Israel’s suffering.
(7) He was persecuted and afflicted, but he did not open his mouth. Like a sheep being led to the slaughter or a lamb that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth.
נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלא יִפְתַּח פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֽזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלא יִפְתַּח פִּיו
In various contexts, the Bible uses the imagery of “sheep led to the slaughter” specifically in reference to the Jewish people. For example: “You give us as sheep to be eaten and have scattered us among the nations… we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalms 44:12, 23).
This verse prophesizes the many hardships – both physical torment and economic exploitation – that the Jews endured in exile. Ironically, this prophecy refers in part to the 11th century Crusaders who “persecuted and afflicted” the Jews in the name of Jesus. In our time, while Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were “led to the slaughter,” they still remained like a “lamb that is silent before her shearers” – without complaints against God.
(8) He was released from captivity and judgment; who could have imagined such a generation? For he was removed from the land of the living; because of my people’s sin they were afflicted.
מֵעצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמוֹ
The phrase, “land of the living” (Eretz HaChaim) refers specifically to the Land of Israel. Thus this verse, “He was removed from the land of the living,” does not mean that the servant was killed, but rather was exiled from the Land of Israel.
This verse again describes the world’s surprise at witnessing the Jewish return to the Promised Land. “Who could have imagined” that the nation we tortured now prospers? World leaders offer a stunning confession: “Because of my people’s sin, they [the Jews] were afflicted.”
Here the text makes absolutely clear that the oppressed Servant is a collective nation, not a single individual. This is where knowledge of biblical Hebrew is absolutely crucial. At the end of the verse, the Hebrew word for “they were”(lamoh – לָמוֹ) always refers to a group, never to an individual. (see for example, Psalms 99:7)
(9) He submitted his grave to evil people; and the wealthy submitted to his executions, for committing no crime, and with no deceit in his mouth.
וַיִּתֵּן אֶת רְשָׁעִים קִבְרוֹ וְאֶת עָשִׁיר בְּמתָיו על לא חָמָס עָשָׂה וְלא מִרְמָה בְּפִיו
Missionaries cite this verse as a claim that Jesus lived a sinless life, and was thus the Messiah. This is contradicted, however, by the Gospels themselves, who record that Jesus sinned by violating the Sabbath (John 9:16) and – by claiming to be God Himself – violating the grave prohibition against making any physical image of God (John 10:33, 14:9-10).
Throughout history, Jews were given the choice to “convert or die.” Yet as this verse describes, there was “no deceit in his mouth” – the loyal Jews refused to accept a pagan deity as their God. Rather than profane God’s Holy Name, they “submitted to the grave” – i.e. chose to die rather than renounce their faith. As such these Jews were often denied proper burial, discarded “to the grave as evil people.”
Further, wealthy Jews “submitted to his executions, for committing no crime” – killed so that wicked conquerors could confiscate their riches.
(10) God desired to oppress him and He afflicted him. If his soul would acknowledge guilt, he would see offspring and live long days, and God’s purpose would succeed in his hand.
ויהוָה חָפֵץ דַּכְּאוֹ הֶחֱלִי אִם תָּשִׂים אָשָׁם נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה זֶרַע יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים וְחֵפֶץ יְהוָה בְּיָדוֹ יִצְלָח
“God desired to oppress” the Jewish people, in order to inspire them to return to Torah observance. If the Jews would only “acknowledge guilt,” they would see their “offspring and live long days.” This refers to the Messianic era when all Jews will return to Torah observance.
This verse emphasizes that the Servant is to be rewarded with long life and many children. This verse could not possibly refer to Jesus who, according to the New Testament, died young and childless. (Furthermore, if Jesus was alleged to be the immortal Son of God, it is absurd to apply the concept of “living long days.”)
Although missionaries may claim that the “offspring” refers to spiritual descendants, this is based on a distortion and mistranslation. In this verse, the Hebrew word for “offspring” (zera – זֶרַע) always refers to physical descendants (see Genesis 12:7, 15:2-4, 15:13, 46:6; Exodus 28:43). A different word, banim(בנים), generally translated as “sons,” is used to refer to spiritual descendants (see Deut. 14:1).
(11) He would see the purpose and be satisfied with his soul’s distress. With his knowledge My servant will cause the masses to be righteous; and he will bear their sins.
מֵעֲמַל נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה יִשְׂבָּע בְּדַעְתּוֹ יַצְדִּיק צַדִּיק עַבְדִּי לָרַבִּים וַעֲוֹנתָם הוּא יִסְבּל
Missionaries cite this verse to claim that Jesus died for our sins. The Christian idea of one’s sins being forgiven through the suffering of another person goes against the basic biblical teaching that each individual has to atone for his own sins by repenting. (Exodus 32:32-33, Deut. 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-4)
This verse describes how God’s Servant “will cause the masses to be righteous” – not as some mistranslate, “he will justify the many.” The Jewish mission is to serve as a “light to the nations,” leading the world to righteousness through knowledge of the one true God. The Jews will accomplish this both by example (Deut. 4:5-8; Zechariah 8:23) and by instructing the nations in God’s Law (Isaiah 2:3-4; Micah 4:2-3). As it says: “The world will become full of the knowledge of God, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
(12) Therefore, I will assign him a portion in public and he will divide the mighty as spoils – in return for having poured out his soul for death and being counted among the wicked, for he bore the sin of the many, and prayed for the wicked.
לָכֵן אֲחַלֶּק לוֹ בָרַבִּים וְאֶת עֲצוּמִים יְחַלֵּק שָׁלָל תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱרָה לַמָּוֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְאֶת פּֽשְׁעִים נִמְנָה וְהוּא חֵטְא רַבִּים נָשָׂא וְלַפּֽשְׁעִים יַפְגִּיעַ
This verse speaks of how the Jews always pray for the welfare of the nations they are exiled into (see Jeremiah 29:7). The verse continues to explain that the Jewish people, who righteously bore the sins of the world and yet remained faithful to God, will be rewarded.
Regarding the above passage, some have claimed that the “suffering servant” cannot be Israel, since Israel has sins. Yet this is a fallacy, since we know that no human being – not even Moses – is completely free of sin. Yet Moses was considered “righteous,” which takes into account not only one’s good deeds, but also one’s repentance after sin. If Jesus is God, these ideas have no meaning.
Immediately following this promise of reward for the Jews’ suffering (53:10-12), chapter 54 clearly speaks of the redemption which awaits the Jewish people. This point is acknowledged by all Christian commentaries.
In the days of Jesus, nobody ever understood Isaiah 53 to be predicting the death of the Messiah. When Jesus said, “I am going to Jerusalem where I will suffer and die,” the Apostle Peter did not relate this in any way to the suffering described in Isaiah 53. Rather, Peter rebuked Jesus, saying, “Be it far from you Lord, this shall not be unto you.” In other words, “God forbid – that cannot happen to you!” Peter never expected the Messiah to be tortured and killed (see Matthew 16:21-22).
Interestingly, the 20th century Christian New English Bible – Oxford Study Edition (annotation on Isaiah 52:13-53:12) clearly identifies the Suffering Servant as the nation of Israel which “has suffered as a humiliated individual.”
If the context of Isaiah 53 so clearly refers to the Jewish people, how could so many Christian leaders have mistranslated the Bible? History shows that – for whatever motivation – many did so knowingly:
- Lucius Coelius Firmianes Lactantius, 3rd century Church leader: “Among those who seek power and gain from their religion, there will never be wanting an inclination to forge and lie for it.”
- St. Gregory, 4th century Bishop of Nanianzus: “A little jargon is all that is necessary to impose on the people. The less they comprehend, the more they admire. Our forefathers and doctors have often said not what they thought, but what circumstances and necessity dictated.”
- Dr. Herbert Marsh, 19th century English Bishop: “It is a certain fact that several readings in our common printed text are nothing more than alterations made by Origen…”
- Walter Brueggemann Ph.D., an ordained minister and author of 60 books on the Bible, writes: “[A]lthough it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.”
Why It Matters
When all the verses have been parsed, and all the proofs have been presented, one still might wonder: What difference does it make who is right?
The theological gap between Judaism and Christianity is not limited to the question: “Who is the Messiah,” or a debate over the translation of a few biblical verses. Judaism and Christianity are two different belief systems, differing over core issues such as the existential nature of man, the role of our relationship with God, and the path to genuine spiritual fulfillment.
Jews have held steadfast to their beliefs for thousands of years, amidst all forms of persecution and hardship. They have done so in the belief that the Jewish people – as bearers of God’s message of morality and justice – have a unique and crucial role to play in human history. As the prophet Isaiah predicts, this will become eminently clear when the Messiah, the King of Israel, arrives. May it be speedily in our day.