1 Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
3 He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgement,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
9 And they made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors
Isaiah 53 is a striking chapter that details two main characters—a suffering man and another by the pronoun ‘we’. The man is commonly known as the suffering servant; many agree that His description began in Isaiah 52:13 at the mention of a prudent servant who will be afflicted (4,5,6,8). He was described as one who suffered greatly by men and by God; He was ‘rejected by men’, bruised, stricken, ‘smitten by God and afflicted’. The characters in ‘we’ hid their faces and ‘esteemed him not’ (Isaiah 53:3).
The Christian interpretation is that the suffering servant was Jesus Christ and the ‘we’ refers to both the Jews who despised Him on Earth and the humans who despise Him to this day. Many commentaries explain how each verse in Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ (1,2,3,4,6,7,9). Furthermore, Isaiah 53 explains that the purpose of His suffering; in doing so ‘He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53:12). Many Christians testify to this in a deeply personal way; they describe feeling released from the burden of sin which is replaced by peace when they follow Him (1,2). Such were the feelings of many witnesses of Christ in the New Testament (Philippians 4:6-7, Ephesians 2:8-9, 2 Corinthians 13:11) as well as of many today.
Nevertheless, the identity of this servant has been under historical contention. There are many non-Christians who, when first reading this chapter, immediately recognise that it speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion (3). There are others who wonder, but with some explanation accept Him as Christ. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch who whilst pondering the identity of the man in Isaiah 53 was approached by Philip. When Philip told him the good news about Jesus he was baptised that very day (Acts 8:26-40). Isaiah 53’s powerful suggestion of Jesus has caused some Jewish rabbis to take this chapter out of synagogue readings (5). Conversely, many Jews argue that he may be Moses, Isaiah, or (as most commonly accepted by the Jews) the nation of the Jews (3,4,5,6).
Sigal (8) uses Isaiah 41:8 ‘But you, Israel, my servant…’ to assert that the servant was Israel. Whilst this may be plausible the rest of the chapter would not make sense; who then is the ‘we’ referred to throughout the chapter? Sigal suggests that it could be the Gentiles who persecuted the Jews. This begs the question of how Israel could bear the sins of the Gentiles and would not be supported by the way God viewed and treated the Jews in the Old Testament. Neither Moses nor Abraham (the most beloved prophets of the Jews) were asked to bear the sins of another man, let alone a nation and let alone to the point of a brutal death—Isaiah 53 details stripes, wounds, bruises, and being despised. On the contrary, God always delivered and saved Israel from bondage and oppression—it never ‘pleased the LORD to bruise’ (Isaiah 53:10) Israel as it did Jesus Christ. It pleased God to do so as He ‘made intercession for the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53:12). Indeed, even Isaiah describes God’s feelings and intentions towards Israel as that of a father to a child whom He longs to look after (chapters 21-43). Furthermore, how was it that Israel was silent and ‘opened not His mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7)? For such reasons, the servant in chapter 53 is not Israel but Jesus Christ.
We return to explain Isaiah 41:8 as ‘God is not the author of confusion but of peace’ (1 Corinthians 14:33). There are multiple verses in Isaiah which refer to God’s servant as Jacob (44:1), Eliakim (22:20), David (37:35), and Isaiah (20:3). Therefore, the servant in Isaiah 53 may be either of these! From all these servants, Jesus Christ is by far the most probable candidate. Not only was He physically harmed but He was the only one who was ‘smitten by God and afflicted’ in order to bear our sins. A salient point to note here is the importance of knowing more of the book or at least reading the whole chapter when a potentially false point is made.
Sigal further argues that there are two (out of twelve) verses in Isaiah 53 which Jesus did not fulfil. He states that an ‘inability to fulfil all that is stated regarding the servant indisputably disqualifies Jesus from any claim to this title’. He asks how it is that ‘He shall see His seed, His days will be prolonged (Isaiah 53:10)’ since He had no children and died at a young age. The Bible clarifies that His time and blessings are eternal and not Earthly as ‘of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end’ (Isaiah 9:7) and that ‘His seed shall endure forever’ (Psalm 89: 29,36).
Sigal also claims that Jesus did not fulfil to ‘divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong’ (Isaiah 53:12). Again, this refers to spiritual and not Earthly spoil. Jesus said ‘all authority has been given to Me in Heaven and on earth. Go therefore and…’ (Matthew 28:18) thus dividing His spiritual spoil with His disciples. Henry (9) states that Jesus won the battle ‘as a great general’ who has driven out the enemy (the devil) and given ‘abundance of grace and comforts to bestow upon all his faithful soldiers’. Those who accept Jesus can enjoy His victory and share in His plunder ‘to sit with Me (Jesus) on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne (Revelations 3:21). ‘He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My Son’ for His ‘kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). Furthermore, many current Christians and people in the New Testament testify to enjoying this victory with Christ over their souls, sins, and the evil spirits. Many bystanders marvelled at the power of the Holy Spirit which was given as a gift to Christians (e.g. Acts: 1:8,2:7,2:12,2:17,2:43-44,3:12,3:13). There is not only far more evidence for Isaiah 53 being about Jesus Christ than is against, but He does indeed fulfil all that is stated in Isaiah 53.
Sigal eventually admits to many convincing reasons for the suffering servant being Jesus but claims the disciples aligned Jesus’ life to the prophecies. It is impossible that they fore-plotted the hundreds of prophecies that only Jesus fulfilled (10). To name a few within Isaiah alone: His ancestral tree (Isaiah 11:1-5), for John the baptist to dedicate his life to Him (Isaiah 40:3), a terminal rejection despite wonderful miracles (Isaiah 53:3). Additionally, many Old Testament books prophesied about matters of Jesus’s life that were impossible to predetermine such as: His birthplace (Micah 5:2), that the price of His betrayal would be thirty pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12), that His hands would be pierced (Psalm 22:16), etc (10).
Interpreting Prophecies and Scripture
Some say that knowing Bible prophecy is important so that we prepare for Jesus Christ’s second coming. However, just as the disciples could not fully comprehend the prophecies until after they had been fulfilled and revealed through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, sometimes we too can understand prophecies only after they have occurred. Bishop Youssef says that
‘It is impossible to fully comprehend the Old Testament without the revelations discovered in the New Testament… There is also no need to be overly concerned about these prophecies because the most important goal of the prophecies is to direct us to our Lord Jesus Christ’ (11).
Directing our aim in knowing God toward God Himself is indeed important. Sigal is a good example of the danger of not doing so. Though he made some interesting points his insights are ironically and sadly misplaced. He was so close yet so far from the truth; His mind was for God but his heart was not. This teaches us that knowing the scriptures must be combined with an eager heart for God. Characters in the Bible who both knew scripture and humbly awaited its revelation saw Jesus for who He really was—the Messiah. For instance, the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where God should be worshipped and eagerly awaited the coming Messiah. As a result, she was rewarded with divine revelation of the true Christ (John 4:25). Similarly, the Ethiopian eunuch who, despite being an active worshipper, was aware of his deficits and was accordingly divinely blessed (Acts 8:26-40). In preferring specific signs or rigidly encasing God in our limited minds expectations, as Sigal did, lies real risk of missing the real God. Jesus begged the ‘stiff-necked’ people to believe Him as the very scripture, which they knew so well, prophesied of Him (John 5:39-47). Jesus said that God is seeking people to ‘worship Him in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24). Hurst (12) eloquently proposes that paradoxes such as a disfigured and humbled Messiah depicting a perfect God are so confusing that:
‘It is the nature of ultimate Truth that only God can write it in your heart. There is no place in the brain to hold such a thing, because Truth is a Person, not simple objective knowledge. What really matters in the entire Universe in which we exist is something no man can reach out and claim on his own. It can only come as a gift of God’s grace’
Knowledge is not enough to understand God’s incomprehensible love. We need God’s grace combined with knowledge and an effort on our part to obey God in order to enjoy worshipping God and share the heavenly spoils.
1) Fr Malaty T. The book of Isaiah: A patristic commentary. Orange (California): Coptic Christian Center; 2002
2) Henry, M. Matthew Henry’s commentary of the whole Bible – old testament: Isaiah 6 (chapter VI study). Available from: https://st-takla.org/bible/commentary/en/ot/matthew-henry/isaiah/ch6.html [Accessed on 6th May 2020].
(3) Tree of life ministries Israel. The forbidden chapter: Isaiah 53 in the Hebrew Bible. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGz9BVJ_k6s [Accessed on 01.05.2020].
(4) Goldstein, E. Who’s the subject of Isaiah 53? You decide! Available from: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v13-n06/whos-the-subject-of-isaiah-53-you-decide/ [Accessed on 8th May 2020].
5) Sigal, G. Isaiah 53: Who is the servant? xlibris coporation, Bloomington (Indiana); 2007.
(6) Zondervan. Who is the suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S93YFoqhFR0 [Accessed 16th May 2020].
(7) Best, W.E. The saviour’s definite redemption. Texas: W.E. Best book ministry trust; 1982.
(8) Sigal, G. Isaiah 53: Who is the servant? xlibris coporation, Bloomington (Indiana); 2007.
(9) Henry, M. Matthew Henry’s commentary of the whole Bible – Isaiah 53 (Chapter LIII Study). Available from: https://st-takla.org/bible/commentary/en/ot/matthew-henry/isaiah/ch6.html [Accessed on 6th May 2020].
(10) Anon. 351 Old Testament Prophecies Fulfilled In Jesus Christ. Available from: https://www.newtestamentchristians.com/bible-study-resources/351-old-testament-prophecies-fulfilled-in-jesus-christ/ [Accessed 3rd May 2020].
(11) Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States. Search Q&A. Available from: “https://www.suscopts.org/q%26a/index.php?qid=1957” [Accessed on 15th August 2020].
(12) Hurst, E. Ancient truth: Isaiah. Los Gatos (California): Smashwords; 2013.