Wasn't the Prophet, in fact, referring to Jesus in this chapter? And didn't all Jews before the Middle Ages recognize this chapter as "messianic"? We hope to assist you in interpreting a chapter which has become a cornerstone of Christian evangelism to Jews.
Our Jewish sages teach that "whoever saves a single Jewish soul is considered as if he had saved an entire world." How precious is the Jewish soul! Though the Bible study which follows is a lengthy one, we have prepared it in the belief that - as a Jewish soul - you are worthy of any method which may be required. We hope that you too will value your soul highly enough to prayerfully ponder that which follows. God's truth is not always easy to discern, but we are possessors of a Divine promise; "you will find Him if you search after Him with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut. 4:29). As faithful Jews have attested for over 3500 years, it's worth the effort. And now - on with the search!
A. PRELIMINARY ISSUES
Before engaging in an examination of Isaiah 53 itself, some preliminary issues must be considered. First is the issue of circular reasoning. Even if we interpret the chapter as the Christians do (forgetting for a minute the mistranslations and distortions of context which will be noted below), the most that could be said is this: Isaiah 53 is about someone who dies for the sins of others. People may have seen Jesus die, but did anyone see him die as an atonement for the sins of others? Of course not; this is simply the meaning which the New Testament gives to his death. Only if you already accept the New Testament teaching that his death had a non-visible, spiritual significance can you than go back to Isaiah and say, "see - the Prophet predicted what I already believe." Isaiah 53, then, is in reality no "proof" at all, but rather a contrived confirmation for someone who has already chosen Christianity.
Second (and consistent with all Jewish teaching at the time), Jesus' own disciples didn't view Isaiah 53 as a messianic prophecy. For example, after Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (Matt. 16:16), he is informed that Jesus will be killed (Matt. 16:21). His response: "God forbid it, lord! This shall never happen to you" (Matt. 16:22). See, also, Mk. 9:31-32; Mk. 16:10-11; Jn. 20:9. Even Jesus didn't see Isaiah 53 as crucial to his messianic claims - why else did he call the Jews children of the devil for not believing in him before the alleged resurrection (Jn. 8:39-47)? And why did he later request that God "remove this cup from me" (Mk. 14:36) - didn't he know that a "removal of the cup" would violate the gentile understanding of Isaiah 53?
And third, even if we accept the gentile Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, where is it indicated (either in Isaiah 53 or anywhere else in our Jewish Scriptures) that you must believe in this "Messiah" to get the benefits?
Since any portion of Scripture is only understood properly when viewed in the context of God's revelation as a whole, some additional study will be helpful before you "tackle" Isaiah 53.
Look at the setting in which Isaiah 53 occurs. Earlier on in Isaiah, God had predicted exile and calamity for the Jewish people. Chapter 53, however, occurs in the midst of Isaiah's "Messages of Consolation", which tell of the restoration of Israel to a position of prominence and a vindication of their status as God's chosen people. In chapter 52, for example, Israel is described as "oppressed without cause" (v.4) and "taken away" (v.5), yet God promises a brighter future ahead, one in which Israel will again prosper and be redeemed in the sight of all the nations (v.1-3, 8-12).
Chapter 54 further elaborates upon the redemption which awaits the nation of Israel. Following immediately after chapter 53's promise of a reward for God's servant in return for all of its suffering (53:10-12), chapter 54 describes an unequivocally joyous fate for the Jewish people. Speaking clearly of the Jewish people and their exalted status (even according to all Christian commentaries), chapter 54 ends as follows: "`This is the heritage of the servants of the L-rd and their vindication is from Me,' declares the L-rd."
C. ISAIAH 53
In the original Hebrew texts, there are no chapter divisions, and Jew and Christian alike agree that chapter 53 is actually a continuation of the prophecy which begins at 52:13. Accordingly, our analysis must begin at that verse.
52:13 "Behold, My servant will prosper." Israel in the singular is called God's servant throughout Isaiah, both explicitly (Isa. 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3) and implicitly (Isa. 42:19-20; 43:10) - the Messiah is not. Other references to Israel as God's servant include Jer. 30:10 (note that in Jer. 30:17, the servant Israel is regarded by the nations as an outcast, forsaken by God, as in Isa. 53:4); Jer. 46:27-28; Ps. 136:22; Lk. 1:54. ALSO: Given the Christian view that Jesus is God, is God His own servant?
52:15 - 53:1 "So shall he (the servant) startle many nations, the kings will stand speechless; For that which had not been told them they shall see and that which they had not heard shall they ponder. Who would believe what we have heard?" Quite clearly, the nations and their kings will be amazed at what happens to the "servant of the L-rd," and they will say "who would believe what we have heard?". 52:15 tells us explicitly that it is the nations of the world, the gentiles, who are doing the talking in Isaiah 53. See, also, Micah 7:12-17, which speaks of the nations' astonishment when the Jewish people again blossom in the Messianic age.
53:1 "And to whom has the arm of the L-rd been revealed?" In Isaiah, and throughout our Scriptures, God's "arm" refers to the physical redemption of the Jewish people from the oppression of other nations (see, e.g., Isa. 52:8-12; Isa. 63:12; Deut. 4:34; Deut. 7:19; Ps. 44:3).
53:3 "Despised and rejected of men." While this is clearly applicable to Israel (see Isa. 60:15; Ps. 44:13-14), it cannot be reconciled with the New Testament account of Jesus, a man who was supposedly "praised by all" (Lk. 4:14-15) and followed by multitudes (Matt. 4:25), who would later acclaim him as a prophet upon his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:9-11). Even as he was taken to be crucified, a multitude bemoaned his fate (Lk. 23:27). Jesus had to be taken by stealth, as the rulers feared "a riot of the people" (Mk. 14:1-2).
53:3 "A man of pains and acquainted with disease." Israel's adversities are frequently likened to sickness - see, e.g., Isa. 1:5-6; Jer. 10:19; Jer 30:12.
53:4 "Surely our diseases he carried and our pains he bore." In Matt. 8:17, this is correctly translated, and said to be literally (not spiritually) fulfilled in Jesus' healing of the sick, a reading inconsistent with the Christian mistranslation of 53:4 itself.
53:4 "Yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of G- D and afflicted." See Jer. 30:17 - of God's servant Israel (30:10), it is said by the nations, "It is Zion; no one cares for her."
53:5 "But he was wounded from (NOTE: not for) our transgressions, he was crushed from (AGAIN: not for) our iniquities." Whereas the nations had thought the Servant (Israel) was undergoing Divine retribution for its sins (53:4), they now realize that the Servant's sufferings stemmed from their actions and sinfulness. This theme is further developed throughout our Jewish Scriptures - see, e.g., Jer. 50:7; Jer. 10:25. ALSO: Note that the Messiah "shall not fail nor be crushed till he has set the right in the earth" (Isa. 42:4).
53:7 "He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth." Note that in the prior chapter (Isa. 52), Israel is said to have been oppressed and taken away without cause (52:4-5). A similar theme is developed in Psalm 44, wherein King David speaks of Israel's faithfulness even in the face of gentile oppression (44:17- 18) and describes Israel as "sheep to be slaughtered" in the midst of the unfaithful gentile nations (44:22,11).
Regarding the claim that Jesus "did not open his mouth" when faced with oppression and affliction, see Matt. 27:46, Jn. 18:23, 36-37.
53:8 "From dominion and judgement he was taken away." Note the correct translation of the Hebrew. The Christians are forced to mistranslate, since - by Jesus' own testimony - he never had any rights to rulership or judgement, at least not on the "first coming." See, e.g., Jn. 3:17; Jn. 8:15; Jn. 12:47; Jn. 18:36.
53:8 "He was cut off out of the land of the living."
53:9 "His grave was assigned with wicked men." See Ez. 37:11-14, wherein Israelis described as "cut off" and God promises to open its "graves" and bring Israel back into its own land. Other examples of figurative deaths include Ex. 10:17; 2 Sam. 9:8; 2 Sam. 16:9.
53:8 "From my peoples' sins, there was injury to them." Here the Prophet makes absolutely clear, to anyone familiar with Biblical Hebrew, that the oppressed Servant is a collective Servant, not a single individual. The Hebrew word "lamoh", when used in our Scriptures, always means "to them" never "to him" and may be found, for example, in Psalm 99:7 - "They kept his testimonies, and the statute that He gave to them."
53:9 "And with the rich in his deaths." Perhaps King James should have changed the original Hebrew, which again makes clear that we are dealing with a collective Servant, i.e., Israel, which will "come to life" when the exile ends (Ez. 37:14).
53:9 "He had done no violence." See Matt. 21:12; Mk. 11:15-16; Lk. 19:45; Lk. 19:27; Matt. 10:34 and Lk. 12:51; then judge for yourself whether this passage is truly consistent with the New Testament account of Jesus.
53:10 "He shall see his seed." The Hebrew word for "seed", used in this verse, always refers to physical descendants in our Jewish Scriptures. See, e.g., Gen. 12:7; Gen. 15:13; Gen. 46:6; Ex. 28:43. A different word, generally translated as "sons", is used to refer to spiritual descendants (see Deut. 14:1, e.g.).
53:10 "He will prolong his days." Not only did Jesus die young, but how could the days be prolonged of someone who is alleged to be God?
53:11 "With his knowledge the righteous one, my Servant, will cause many to be just." Note again the correct translation: the Servant will cause many to be just, he will not "justify the many." The Jewish mission is to serve as a "light to the nations" which will ultimately lead the world to a knowledge of the one true God, this both by example (Deut. 4:5-8; Zech. 8:23) and by instructing the nations in God's Law (Isa. 2:3-4; Micah 4:2-3).
53:12 "Therefore, I will divide a portion to him with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty." If Jesus is God, does the idea of reward have any meaning? Is it not rather the Jewish people - who righteously bore the sins of the world and yet remained faithful to God (Ps. 44) - who will be rewarded, and this in the manner described more fully in Isaiah chapters 52 and 54?