As many of you know, the common Jewish response to the claim that Isaiah 53 is referring to the sufferings of the Messiah, is to interject that this passage is speaking about the corporate sufferings of Israel.
I recently spoke to a Jewish woman who literally read the entire chapter of Isaiah 53 to me, and then explained why this passage should be read “allegorically,” in light of centuries of antisemitism, instead of literally! Here are my top 3 reasons why Isaiah 53 cannot be speaking of Israel:
1. The Shift in the Servant Songs
Jewish people are right to point out that in the Servant Songs of Isaiah (chs. 42-53), the nation of Israel actually is identified as God’s “servant” in certain places. In Isaiah 43:10 God calls Israel His “servant whom I have chosen.” However, as the Servant Songs continue there is an unmistakable pivot to focus on one particular individual who embodies the vocation of corporate Israel. In Isaiah 49:5 this Servant says that “God formed me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him.” If the Servant in Isaiah 49:5 were corporate Israel, then we would have to conclude that this verse is saying God formed Israel to bring Israel back to God. This would be a contradiction on many levels. If Israel were the Servant, then Israel would have no need to be brought back to God in the first place. In this verse the corporate nation and God’s Servant are clearly two separate entities. The Servant is in right relationship with God, whereas Israel is pictured as needing to return to the Lord.
2. The Sacrificial Terminology
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 uses multiple metaphors which describe the actions of the Servant in terms of a sacrifice for sin. Isaiah 52:13-14 identifies the Servant as “a man,” who will “sprinkle many nations.” This word “sprinkle” is the precise word used in Leviticus 16 numerous times to speak of purifying the Tabernacle with blood. In the Hebrew Bible this word is used almost exclusively in the context of the Temple. Additionally, in Isaiah 53:10 the Servant is specifically described as a “guilt-offering.” This word is used throughout the Hebrew Bible in a Temple context as well. It is abundantly clear that Isaiah wishes to describe the death of the Servant as a sacrifice for sin, modeled after the sacrifices in the Jewish temple. No Hebrew speaker reading Isaiah 53 would have missed the clearly sacrificial metaphors used to set the actions of the Servant against the backdrop of Israel’s rituals of atonement.
3. The Inherent Contradictions of the Traditional Jewish View
Israel cannot die for Israel. Isaiah 53:8 says that the Servant was “cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of My people, to whom the stroke was due.” Here the Servant dies in place of Israel. Throughout Isaiah 53 God’s “people” are not pictured as a corporate entity which is able to atone for the sins of the world by enduring their own long history of suffering. Rather, the nation of Israel is pictured as in need of the very atonement which the proponents of the common Jewish view say Israel is supposedly providing for the nations. Again this is another contradiction. Isaiah 53 simply does not picture the nation of Israel as a savior of humanity through its suffering. It presents Israel as in need of God’s atonement.
The treasures of Isaiah 53 could be mined for an entire lifetime. I hope this post has at least given you a basic framework for understanding why this passage must be speaking of a suffering Messiah.