Dr. William Varner has an excellent article in the latest issue of Zion’s Fire. This magazine is published by Zion’s Hope Inc., a Bible-believing faith ministry to the Jewish people and the world God so loves. As Zion’s Hope was founded by Marvin Rosenthal who also published the PreWrath Rapture of the Church, the topic of prophecy is a regular feature of the magazine.
The title of Dr. Varner’s article is "Of Whom Does the Prophet Speak?" This phrase is taken from Acts 8:34, but the subject of the article is Isaiah 53. My ONE FRIENDS JIM shared with me some of the same details of this article just shortly after I read it, driving home the significance of the subject to me. Jim is taking courses as Cornerstone University, some of them on theology, the Bible, etc. The instructor for one of his classes shared with Jim that the contemporary Jewish readings from the Hebrew scriptures skip over Isaiah 53 in their version of the lectionary. This is such a great article, I’d like for the contents to speak for themself.
Dr. Varner opens up by giving the same insight that Jim shared with me. He writes:
In August of each year, synagogue Scripture reading from the prophets is taken from the Book of Isaiah. On one Sabbath morning in August, the reading ends at Isaiah 52:12, just three verses before the end of that chapter. On the next Sabbath the reading picks up at Isaiah 54:1. Thus, Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is omitted from the readings of the prophets in the synagogue. That important passage is never read in the synagogue as part of the assigned Scripture readings. What could be the reason? … Why would they be afraid of it?
This chapter speaks in the clearest and most detailed way of the Messiah of Israel, called the "servant," who is rejected by Israel but approved in God’s plan as the means of salvation, atonement, and forgiveness for Israel and the whole world. According to Isaiah 52:14-15, God’s Servant not only suffers for the people of Israel but, as a result of His suffering and death, His blood will "sprinkle many nations." Thus, this Servant will be the Savior of the Gentiles as well. This is such an important passage that we must look at it closer in light of its role in Jewish tradition. How have the Jewish rabbis viewed this Passage? How is it quoted in the New Testament? And what is its relevance to our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior?
The twelve verses of this chapter are divided into four distinct sections of three verses each. In Isaiah 53:1-3, we first see the Servant’s submission; then in verses 4-6, the Servant’s substitution; then in verses 7-9, the Servant’s sinlessness; and in verses 10-12 – the triumphant ending this chapter – the Servant’s satisfaction.
I want to highlight the portions of Dr. Varner’s article that focus on the Jewish tradition of the passage and his critique of it. So I will skip ahead to the section on the Servant’s substitution.
He did not suffer because of anything He did or because He was a martyr. He suffered for others. Over and over the words "our" and "us" are used here, indicating that He suffered not for His own sins but for the sins of others; He died in the place of other people, bearing their transgressions.
In this regard, it is important to examine the matter of what the rabbis say about Isaiah 53. Prior to about A.D. 1100, even the rabbis acknowledged that Isaiah 53 must apply to the Messiah. For example, the Targum Jonathan, written in the second century A.D., says of Isaiah 52:13: "Behold my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper." The rabbis of the Talmudic period always referred to the Servant as the Messiah, even though they did not apply it to Jesus. But, around A.D. 1100, a great teacher named Rashi (Rabbbi Shlomo Itzaki) inaugurated a new interpretation of Isaiah 53 that today has become the general Jewish interpretation of this passage. Rashi said that Isaiah 53 does not refer to Jesus, nor does it even refer to the Jewish Messiah. Rather, it refers to Israel as a nation, as a people despised by the Gentiles, rejected by the Gentiles, and who have suffered at the hands of the Gentiles. Rashi pointed to other passages in Isaiah where the term "servant" does appear to refer to Israel as a people (Rashi cites Isaiah 44:1).
How do we respond to that explanation in light of Isaiah 53:4-6? First, while there are some passages in the Book of Isaiah where the term "servant" could apply to Israel, there are other passages where it cannot refer to Israel. For example, consider Isaiah 49:6: "It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." In other words, the Servant is not identified as Israel in this verse, but as an individual who will bring Israel back to God.
Israel as a nation was called to be a light: they were called to be righteous. But Isaiah clearly stated that they proved to be unrighteous. There would be one who would come, however, called the Servant, who would be the ideal Israel and would be successful where the people failed. God appointed this ideal person, this ideal Israel, to be His Servant to bring Israel back to the Lord. That is why in Isaiah the word "servant" can sometimes be the people and sometimes an individual within the people who is their Messiah. Scholars refer to this characteristic as "corporate solidarity."
Just a note: I have a view which involves the use of the term "concomitance". The idea of concomitance is that two distinct entities are so intertwined that they really cannot be separated. One application would be the body and blood in the LORD’s supper. There cannot be any separation of the body and blood, otherwise the memorial is undone. They are distinct yet they cannot be separated. It is the same with Israel and the Messiah. God intends to consummate His relationship with the nation of Israel. From God’s point of view, Israel is already His. So the Messiah can be seen as the ideal Israel (as Varner puts it) because He is the true Israel. He is the identity that Israel will assume upon the fulfillment of the marriage covenant between God and Israel. Israel and the Messiah are concomitant in the sense that God sees the marriage as a done deal from His point of view being outside of time. There is no question in God’s mind as to whether or not He will fulfill His promises to Israel through the Messiah. What we must muddle through, He sees as already taken care of. This is the theme that the writer to the Hebrews is touching on in Hebrews 2:6-18, see especially verse 11 which sums up this truth. In verse 13 the writer highlights that Messiah must trust in God just as Israel must trust in God. Their identity is ultimately one identity. So this view of "corporate solidarity" I would like to study more, but I have a feeling that it would be eclipsed by my view. But back to Varner’s excellent points on the Jewish view of Isaiah 53.
There is a clear indication that God’s Servant is a person, as indicated by the pronouns used: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (v. 4). The singular personal pronouns cannot refer to Israel because that people are referred to by the plural words we and our. The singular pronouns must refer to an individual. Israel cannot die for Israel but this individual will die for Israel as their representative.
Furthermore, the Servant is righteous: "By his knowledge shall my righteous Servant justify many" (v. 11). The Servant was to be sinless. This certainly has never been true of Israel.
Finally, the Servant dies: "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin" (v. 10). Israel has never died, but has continued to live despite her suffering. So the chapter’s Servant cannot speak of Israel. The language must speak of an individual who will die in the place of Israel. As verse 6 states, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." The Servant died the death of a substitute to atone for the sins of Israel.
Now skipping to the section on The Servant’s Satisfaction which includes some more interaction with the Jewish tradition:
There is a modern Jewish objection to this passage being used to apply to Jesus. "Isaiah 53 cannot be talking about Jesus," some Jews say, "because it says He will have many children and will live to be an old man. We know that Jesus died unmarried as a young man." But this verse does not teach that. When it says, "He shall see his seed," it is not describing His physical seed. Rather, it is talking about His spiritual seed. Psalm 22:30 says, "A seed [offspring] shall serve him." The word used in these passages as seed is literally zera. This word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for "followers" (Zechariah 8:13; Malachi 2:3). Also, "he shall prolong his days" does not mean that He will live a long life. It actually means that He will lengthen His days after He dies, since earlier in the verse He is described as dying. This can only mean, therefore, that He will come back to life after He dies as a sin offering. So not only did Isaiah prophesy in this chapter about the Messiah’s death, he also prophesied about His resurrection.
Varner closes his article with a pertinent story about a Rabbi’s experience with Isaiah 53.
Surviving the Holocaust, Rabbi Sam Stern met some young believers in America shared the good news of the Messiah with him. He was unconvinced until a friend asked him to read the words of Isaiah 53 which he had typed on a piece of paper with no chapter or verse numbers. When asked what he was reading, Sam replied that it was some writing by a Christian about Jesus’ death. When told that it was written by a Jewish prophet named Isaiah, he was provoked to look in his Hebrew Bible and found that it was th same as the English he had read.
I hope you see why I subscribe to Zion’s Fire. Since the ministry is focused on reaching out to Israelites, the articles many times interact with the way the rabbis view the Hebrew scriptures. This is insightful to me, a Gentile, who has come to faith in the Israelite Messiah. I would add another argument in favor of the Servant in Isaiah 53 being the Messiah. Passages like Isaiah 42:1-7, must be the Messiah as the Gentiles are brought judgement by Him, yet He is portrayed as meek and mild as He is personally given as a covenant for the people. Isaiah 49 shows the ultimate weapon of the LORD spending all of His efforts seemingly in vain since Israel will not be gathered when He gives His all. Yet at this point the Gentiles are saved. Here again we have the Messiah with this theme of rejection. How can we come to Isaiah 53 and suddenly shift gears so dramatically so as to not even think of the Messiah? And for a contiguous reading of the passage, how can Isaiah 54 be speaking of anything but the Messiah? The Gentiles are trusting in the LORD to be an inheritance of Israel. This is a result of the death of whoever it is in Isaiah 53. In short, you cannot separate Isaiah 53 and make it strictly about the nation of Israel with no hint of reference to Messiah. It can’t be done.
This article has been speaking to me in particular since my conversation with the Israelite in the mall. The entire article is quite good. If it were available online, I would certainly post a link to it. Thank you very much Dr. Varner, for your insights into the scriptures.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman