The chapter describes a servant ("eved") whose condition is not happy -- a "suffering servant.". The central question is, who is this servant. To answer this question we need to know who is the speaker of the different verses. Christians assume that the speaker in Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel or, even more generally, is all of us. However, by starting with the previous chapter, where this particular episode about the "servant" actually begins, we see in verse 15 that the speakers are the kings of other nations.
Isaiah 52 (KJV) 9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God. 11 Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. 12 But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
A narrator, probably either God or the prophet Isaiah
13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
This speaker must be God.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him -- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness-- 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Probably God still speaking here.
Isaiah 53 (KJV)1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? 2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with 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 hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
These are the words of the kings mentioned in Isaiah 52:15
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt 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.
Either God or the kings are speaking here.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
God speaking here.
The first problem with relating all this to Jesus is that the KJV of Chapter 53 has several translation problems. Verses 3 and 4 speak of the servant's "grief" but the Hebrew word here is "choli" -- "sick" Verse 3 says "we hid as it were our faces," as if the speakers were embarrassed by the servant' appearance, but the Hebrew "mistar" is singular -- the suffering servant arouses contempt just like someone who hides his face. Verse 5 speaks of "stripes," a specific wound resulting from a whipping, but the Hebrew "heverto" is more general -- bruise or injury -- without reference to whip marks. Verse 6 in the KJV reads "the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" but the grammatical structure suggests "wounded him with our sin," the implication being -- not that the servant took on the responsibility for someone else's sin, but rather that what someone else did hurt the servant.
Additional points about translation: in verse five, rather than "he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities," the prefix "mem" means "from," not "for", i.e. the speakers of the verse hurt the servant, not that he was punished by G-d as a substitute for them. In verse 11, the Hebrew "yatsdeek" means "will make just" (by bringing the Torah), not "will justify (someone's sins by taking their punishment)."
If you incorporate these different translations into the text, you get a markedly different impression. "He hurt a lot and knew what sickness was" just does not sound like"A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief." "We despised him as someone who hid his face" does not mean the same as "we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised." In short, the almost reflex identification of the chapter with Jesus depends on the translation of the text -- not on the text itself. And to see that in fact the text does not refer to Jesus, we need only to examine the ...
The second problem is that Jesus doesn't fit several of the details in the chapter. a) As mentioned above, Jesus was never sick. Some say that he was sick during the crucifixion, but physical trauma (e.g. execution) is not considered sickness in the normal sense of the word. b) Jesus had no children. Some say this refers to disciples or spiritual children, but the word "zera" is common in the Tanach and, when applied to people, always means linear descendants, not someone's disciples or followers. c) Jesus was not buried with the wicked. One cannot even say he died with the wicked since the Hebrew "rashaeem" is plural and, according to the crucifixion story, one of the thieves next to him ended up in heaven and so was not wicked. d) Jesus did not have long life. Missionaries say he had long life in heaven, but that, again, is stretching the meaning of the word. e) verse 9 "Nor was there deceit in his mouth." doesn't apply because, according to the gosple accounts, Jesus lied to his family about going to Jerusalem. (John 7:8-10), and lied in saying that he never taught in secret (see John 18:20, vs. Matt. 16:20, Mark 8:30 and others).
Another point is that a) contrary to verse 2, Jesus is never described as physically unattractive; b) far from being rejected and despised as verse 3 says, the Gospel writers describe him as being popular; c) contrary to verse 7, Jesus did a lot of talking; and d) instead of being non-violent (verse 9), Jesus overturned tables, chased people from their jobs, and promised to bring swords.
So then, while the first impression on reading a Christian translation of Isaiah 53 may be to think of Jesus, looking deeper shows that the Hebrew text does not sound like Jesus, and the context shows shows many differences from what the Christian Bible says about Jesus.
Who then is the servant? Though some Jewish scholars have said he will be the Messiah, more likely the chapter does not refer to an individual person at all. Isaiah himself identifies Israel as the servant of HaShem:
- Chapter 41:8 But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me, 9 Whom I grasped from the ends of the earth, and from its nobles I called you, and I said to you, "You are My servant"
- Chapter 44:1 And now, hearken, Jacob My servant, and Israel whom I have chosen. 2 So said the Lord your Maker, and He Who formed you from the womb shall aid you. Fear not, My servant Jacob, and Jeshurun whom I have chosen. ... 21 Remember these, O Jacob; and Israel, for you are My servant; I formed you that you be a servant to Me, Israel, do not forget Me.
- Chapter 45:4 For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen one, and I called to you (i.e. Cyrus) by your name;
- Chapter 48:20 Leave Babylon, flee from the Chaldeans; with a voice of singing declare, tell this, publicize it to the end of the earth; say, "The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob."
- Chapter 49:3 And He said to me, "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast."
Devin if you are going to cut and paste from countermissionary sites please list the links: