The Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 maintains that the suffering servant of Israel suffered because of the persecutions by the Gentile nations. I understand that the nations overdid it when persecuting Israel but didn’t Israel suffer primarily because of its own sins? Please explain.
Answer: It is true that the Jewish Scriptures show that there are times when the nation of Israel undergoes suffering as divine retribution for sin. But, it also shows that suffering is not always an indication of sin. Attributing sin to the sufferer is often a glib generalization by those who do not understand the biblical message. The centuries of Jewish martyrdom and suffering alluded to in Isaiah 53 cannot be explained simply as divine judgment for sin. Certainly there is suffering because of sins (Deuteronomy 31:17-18), but not all suffering can be strictly attributed to divine punishment for sin. In a world where there is much evil, suffering is very often the fate of the innocent person. There is suffering that ensues, not from divine judgment, but from the evil committed by man. “My people went down at first into Egypt to sojourn there; and the Assyrian oppressed them without cause” (Isaiah 52:4). We see that the sufferings of the Jewish people are not a reflection of its failures, but of the failures of humankind. One may be faithful to God and still suffer persecution. Of this the psalmist writes:
All this came upon us yet we have not forgotten You, and we have not been false to Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor has our footstep strayed from Your path. Even when You crushed us in the place of serpents, and covered us with the shadow of death. Have we forgotten the Name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god? Is it not so that God can examine this, for He knows the secrets of the heart. Because for Your sake we are killed all the time, we are considered as sheep for the slaughter. Awake, why do You sleep, O my Lord? Arouse Yourself, forsake not forever. Why do You conceal Your face, do You forget our affliction and our oppression? (Psalms 44:17-24)
Isaiah 53 provides a model: Israel suffers not only for its own sins but also as a result of the sins of those nations among whom they dwell. The fact is that Jews, because they are elect, suffer. Election carries responsibilities, some of which are not pleasant, but, in the end, faithful Israel will be rewarded.