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There are certain Muslim polemicists and anti-Christian rabbis such as Tovia Singer who deny that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a prophecy of the vicarious suffering and substitutionary death of the Messiah, particularly Jesus. Some argue that this refers to the national Israel suffering for the sins of the nations in order to bring healing and restoration to the world.

Noted Messianic Jewish scholar and apologist Dr. Michael L. Brown explains why this interpretation is actually desperate and contrived:


Christian interpreters have identified four Servant songs in Isa 40-55, based on what appears to be the identity of the Servant in 42:1-4 (some include 5-7); 49:1-6 (some include 7-11); 50:4-10; and 52:13-53:12. While this is attractive, given the apparent thematic harmony of these four passages, it is best to examine every reference to the word servant (Hebrew ‘ebed) in chaps. 40-55 before isolating any of the texts from their larger context. This will bring 52:13-53:12 into clearer focus.

The noun ‘ebed (in the singular) appears a total of 17 times in Isa 40-51, sometimes with reference to the nation of Israel as a whole (41:8-9; 42:19 [2x]; 43:10; 44:21 [2x]; 45:4; 48:20), and sometimes with reference to a righteous individual within the nation (49:1-2, 4-7; 50:10). In several verses, it is not clear whether an individual or the nation (or, perhaps the righteous remnant within the nation) is referred to, although a good case can be made for the individual interpretation (42:1; 44:1-2). The noun occurs again in 52:13 and 53:11, with an individual interpretation appearing to be the most likely, which would mean that the references to the servant as a people actually end with Isa 48:20, while the references to the servant as an individual come to the clearest focus beginning with Isa 49 and continuing through the end of chap. 53. Accordingly, in chaps. 40-48, “Israel” occurs 34x and “Jacob” 19x, whereas in chaps. 49-53, “Israel” occurs 6x (5 in chap. 49) and “Jacob” 3x (all in chap. 49). Thus, by the time Isa 52:13 is reached, the spotlight is on a person, not a people, although the person is certainly connected to his people. (“Servant” in the singular does not occur again in Isaiah after 53:11; in the plural, see 54:17; 56:6; 63:17; 65:9, 13 [3x], 14-15; 66:14.)

Rabbinic exegesis also recognizes an individual in several passages; cf. e.g., Targum to 42:1; 52:13 (the Messiah; this is expressed even more clearly in Midrash Tanchuma to 52:13; see below); Rashi and Ibn Ezra to 49:1 (the prophet); Radak to 42:1 (the Messiah), 49:1 and 50:10 (the prophet); Abravanel to 42:1 (the Messiah), 49:1 and 50:10 (the prophet); note also that Rashi interprets 50:10 with reference to the prophets. It is therefore inaccurate to state that traditional Jewish exegesis always recognizes Israel as the servant of the Lord in Isa 40-55, since an individual servant (either the Messiah or the prophet) is identified by the rabbis in several passages outside of Isa 53. Significantly, in 49:1-6, the Servant, who is clearly an individual, is called “Israel” in v. 3 but has the mission of restoring Jacob and regathering Israel in vv. 5-6.

As stated in Metzudat David, “Behold, before Me, you [meaning the prophet] are like the multitude of Israel [hamon yisra’el], and I will be glorified in you as in all of them” (cf. Ibn Ezra, who explained that God views the servant, who is the prophet, as if he were all Israel). Thus, the servant of the Lord, as an individual within Israel, fulfills the mission of Israel, which includes being a light to the nations (49:6-7; see also 42:3-7; remember that Israel was first a personal name before being a corporate name, just as was the case with Jacob, so a personal use of the name in 49:3 is hardly inappropriate).

Note also that while the Servant of the Lord in Isa 53 is a righteous, guiltless sufferer (see further below), Israel as the servant is often anything but righteous.  Thus, in 42:24-25, it is stated that the servant Israel was exiled because of sin, incurring God’s wrath; in 43:8, servant Israel is blind and deaf (see also 42:18-19); in 43:22-28, Israel fails to call on the Lord; in 47:6, God is angry with Israel; in 48:1-6, Israel is guilty again, with the exile and return foretold (see also 48:8b-11, 17-19); and in 50:1, God’s indictment is forthright: “for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isa 50:1 ESV; being “sold” and “sent away” is synonymous with being exiled). As noted by Hugenberger, “Deutero-Isaiah repeatedly stresses that contemporary Israel is a sinful people, who suffer on account of their own transgressions (40:2; 42:18-25; 43:22-28; 47:7; 48:18f.; 50:1; 54:7; 57:17; 59:2ff.) This point is made specifically with reference to the remnant in 43:22; 46:3, 12; 48:1, 8; 53:6, 8; 55:7; 58:1ff.; 63:17; 64:5-7.”

This is in harmony with the prophetic voices like Amos (e.g., 4:4-12) and Hosea (e.g., 5:7-15), along with the explicit testimony of 2Kg 17 (see esp. vv. 7-23), stating emphatically that the Assyrian exile of the 10 northern tribes of Israel was because of Israel’s persistent, unrepentant rebellion and sin. Consequently, prophets like Jeremiah (e.g., 32:28-36) and Ezekiel (e.g., 5:5-17), along with the explicit testimony of 2Chr 36 (see esp. vv. 15-16), state emphatically that the Babylonian exile of the southern tribes of Judah was because of Judah’s persistent, unrepentant rebellion and sin. This is confirmed by the retrospective testimony of Lamentations (1:5, 8, 14, 18, 20, 22; 2:14; 3:40-42; 4:12-13; 5:7, 16), along with Ezra (9:6-7), Nehemiah (9:26-36), Daniel (9:4-13), and Zechariah (1:1-6).

Traditional Jewish exegesis primarily sees Israel (or, the righteous remnant of Israel) as the servant of Isa 53, understanding 52:14-53:8 to reflect the astonishment of kings of the nations, who, upon Israel’s future exaltation (52:13) are shocked to realize that the people of Israel, who were exiled in their midst, were not suffering for their own sins but rather for the sins of these foreign countries. And, these kings realize, it was Israel’s suffering that brought them forgiveness and healing.

Thus, Rashi and a number of other Jewish interpreters understood Isa 53 to be speaking of vicarious sufferings–indeed, even vicarious atonement–despite the difficulty of explaining how this applied to the effects of Israel’s sufferings in exile. Rashi commented (to 53:4) that the servant “was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. … he was chastised so that there be peace for the entire world.” Similarly, the 11th century rabbi Yoseph Kara wrote that, “the Holy One created for Himself one just nation in the world, which carried on itself all iniquities in order that the whole world might be preserved; and by his stripes there was healing for us.” In keeping with this, the 13th century, anti-Christian apologist rabbi Yoseph ben Nathan explained, “But he carried our sickness: now we [meaning, the Gentile kings] see that that was not the cause: the sickness which ought to have come upon us, came upon him, and through them atonement was made for us: his chastenings were for our transgressions, and they resulted in our peace; the Holy One, did not, as he would otherwise have done, destroy the world for our iniquities.”

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi Kuzari also understood Isa 53 to speak of vicarious suffering, with reference again to Israel’s sufferings in exile: “Now we are burdened by them [viz., the infirmities and diseases of Isa 53:4], whilst the whole enjoys rest and prosperity. The trials which meet us are meant to prove our faith, to cleanse us completely, and to remove all taint from us. If we are good the Divine Influence is with us in this world” [2:44. Hirschfield tr.]. And then, the heart of the matter from the Kuzari is as reproduced almost verbatim by Isaac Troki, the Karaite polemicist and author in his work Hizzuk Emunah, “Faith Strengthened”: “The reason for this is that Israel is the choicest of human kind, just as the heart is the choicest organ in the body; when, therefore, they are in exile in the midst of the nations, like the heart in the midst of the other organs, they bear all the calamities which fall upon the Gentiles in whose midst they are exactly as the heart bears the bitterness and anguish of all the body in the centre of which it resides.”

All this, however, is completely untenable in the larger biblical context (see above, with reference to the unanimous testimony of the prophets, priests, and leaders that Israel and Judah were justly exiled because of their many sins). Ezekiel tells us what the verdict of the nations will be regarding the cause of Israel’s exile: “And the nations shall know that the House of Israel were exiled only for their iniquity, because they trespassed against Me, so that I hid My face from them and delivered them into the hands of their adversaries, and they all fell by the sword. When I hid My face from them, I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their transgressions” (Ezk 39:23-24 NJPS).

So, far from the nations discovering that the people Israel were not suffering for their own sins but rather for those of the nations, these nations learn that “the House of Israel were exiled only for their iniquity.” Moreover, Israel’s sufferings in exile did not bring healing to the nations but rather judgment. As stated in Jer 50:17-18 (ESV): “Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria.” (for the general principle of God destroying the nations to which He exiled His people, see Jer 30:11; Zch 2:6-9).

In sum, the national servant, Israel, is loved by God but guilty, blind and deaf, suffering for its own sins. The individual Servant is righteous, suffering vicariously for the sins of others. This agrees with the Sinai theology of blessings for national obedience and curses for national disobedience (Lv 26; Dt 28). In light of this, righteous, national Israel would be established in the land, triumphing over her enemies; unrighteous Israel would be exiled for the nations, vanquished by her enemies. In the words of Daniel, uttered while in Babylonian captivity: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him” (Dn 9:11 ESV).

Could Isa 53 instead apply to the righteous remnant, as posited by some rabbinic commentators? The voice of that remnant appears to be heard in passages like Ps 44, where the author protests that terrible calamities have come upon his people “though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.” (Ps 44:17 ESV).

Certainly, there were righteous individuals like Daniel and Ezekiel who suffered in exile because of the guilt of the nations as a whole. Yet once again, this interpretation breaks down since: (1) The suffering of the righteous remnant did not bring healing to the nations, which, instead, were severely judged by the Lord for their excessive treatment of Israel (see above, with reference to Jer 50:17-18; see also Mic 5:5-6, where God’s deliverance of His people means judgments for the oppressor nations); (2) In contrast to Ibn Ezra’s view, that the “healing” of the nations came through exiled Israel’s prayers for their wellbeing (in keeping with Jer 29:7), not only were those nations not healed, but it appears that the righteous remnant interceded for judgment (rather than healing) to come upon their enemies. See, e.g., Lam 1:22 and 3:61-66, and note that this righteous remnant identified with the sin and guilt of the rest of the nation of Israel, thereby recognizing that their suffering was just; (3) Since the servant is clearly an individual elsewhere in Isa 40-55 (see again above), and since Isa 53 reads more naturally as personal rather than collective, there is no good reason to apply it to the righteous remnant, unless that remnant is reduced to one, namely, the Messiah, the truly righteous One whose vicarious suffering brings healing to repentant Israel and the nations. (Brown, The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy: Studies and Expositions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, Michael Rydelnik and Edwin Blum (general editors) [Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL 2019], Isaiah 52:13-53:12: The Substitution of the Servant of the Lord, pp. 962-966)

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