A Summary of Isaiah 53 – God’s View
This article is the sequel to my previous article: An Introduction to Isaiah 53. It is the second part of a series of three articles. The previous article covered the contexts of Isaiah 53 and showed how it leads to only one conclusion: the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is Israel. This entailed an analysis of the contexts of the passage in general and a discussion of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:3.
Here I will first review the main points/conclusions of the previous article that need to be kept in mind for this article. Then I will give an explanation of Isaiah 53:10-12 which shows what God’s explanation is of the servant’s suffering and his rewards.
As I discussed in the previous article, all commentators, whether Christian or Jewish agree to the following points:
In the first article I pointed out that we have clear contextual clues that tell us who the speaker is in 53:1-9 and also who is the servant. As to the speaker I made the following points:
Since verse 52:15 says explicitly that the ones who are wondering are the gentile kings and nations, this tells us that the speaker for 53:1-9 is the gentile nations.
As to the servant, by examining Isaiah 40 – 66 for who suffers and is exalted afterwards, the only conclusion, within the context of Isaiah 40-66, is that the servant is Israel.
From these conclusions we can see that there are four sections to Isaiah 53 as follows:
Parts 1 and 2 have been examined already in the first article, so we need to look at sections 3 and 4. To fully understand the words of the gentile kings of section 3 we need to first examine section 4 and see what God’s view is. That will tell us how we are to understand what the gentile nations say in 53:4-9. The purpose of this article is to provide an analysis of those three verses.
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What I would like to do first is to ‘prove’ the contention that what we have is God’s view and that the speaker here is God, or the Prophet relating God’s word. There are a few reasons for this.
Grammatically, if we look at verses 1-8 they are always in the 1st person and the speaker is hidden. Verse 10 is in the third person and explicitly states that the view is God’s. Verses 1-8 are clearly not those of God; and as I have shown in the first part of this series, they are the words of the gentile nations.
Verse 9 has the speaker talking about the servant in the third person as it is for verses 1-8, but the speaker is not clearly stated. However, because it is exclusively about what happened to the servant in the past; as the other verses 4-8 are; as opposed to being about the future rewards of the servant as 10-12 are; it seems clear that it belongs to the verses 1-8 and not to 10-12. I will discuss this verse more in the third part when I go over verses 1-9.
For these reasons it seems clear that verses 10-12 are the prophet relating God’s view, and in fact verse 12 is a direct quote from God delivered by the prophet.
There are other reasons, based on the inconsistencies of the views stated in 10-12 and those in 4-8, that also lead me to believe that there has been a change in speaker. I will point these out as we discuss each of those verses in part three of this series of articles.
Let’s assume for the moment that the speaker for 10-11 is also the same as 1-9, I do not see this causing a change in the explanation of the verses that I wish to make here. What that would mean is that 1 – 11 is the word of the prophet relating the words of the nations with 1-9 (8) being their own view of the situation as they understood it, and 10 (9) – 11 being what they have learned from God as to what His view is. This may actually explain the meaning of verse 1, where the nations say they now know what they didn’t know before. As I said, there are reasons to reject this, and I will note them as we go along.
However we look at the identity of the speaker here, we need to understand that we are being told of what God’s view of the suffering of the servant is. With that knowledge in hand we can look at verses 4-9 and see what the gentile nations have to say, and if the two views agree. That is what I will do in the third article.
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I will now proceed to verses 10-12 and one at a time to translate and explain them. The most important one is verse 10. When we have that right the rest will fall into place.
Here is the translation:
53:10 HaShem had pleasure (Heb. (חפץ to afflict him with disease; if he would offer his soul for his guilt, he would see his offspring, prolong his days, and that the desire of HaShem would succeed by his hand:
The biggest point of contention and possibly the key to this verse is found in the word here translated ‘for his guilt’, the Hebrew being ‘asham’. According to the simple translation offered here, we see that the servant is suffering for his own sins. This would mean that the servant (Israel) has suffered in exile for its own sins. Such a view is certainly supported by a number of Biblical passages. The main ones being the curses that appear in Leviticus 26:14-45 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
There is another possible translation, which is used by Christians, for these words: “if he would offer his soul for a guilt offering” (Heb. אשם). While Christians feel this supports their understanding of the chapter, I do not see it helping at all.
To understand why this does not help we need to examine what the Asham sacrifice is. The Asham is one of three types of sacrifices that are brought for sins. Why ‘Asham’ is the sin sacrifice being used as opposed to the others, gives us an insight as to what this prophecy is trying to teach us with regards to this servant and his suffering.
The three types of sacrifices that are for sins are: Chatas, Asham, and Olah. They have many similarities, but some significant differences. By analyzing these differences, we can see why Asham is used instead of the others.
First to assume that it is meant literally that the servant is an Asham sacrifice, as opposed to being a metaphor would seem obvious, we need only look at what sin sacrifices including Ashams require:
1. A sacrifice is an animal which is physically without blemish; a ram for the Asham (Lev. 5:14); a female goat for the Chatas (Lev. 4:28); male animals or birds for the Olah. (Lev. 1:3, 10, 14)
2. They are all slaughtered in the holy area of the temple and their blood is poured around the outside altar (Lev. 1:4, 4:30; 7:2)
3. Parts of the Asham and Chatas are burnt on top of the altar. All of the Olah is burnt there. (Lev. 1:7-8; 4:31; 7:3-5)
4. The Asham and Chatas must be eaten by the priests as opposed to the Olah. (Lev. 6:19; 7:6-7)
It seems pretty obvious from here that we cannot be referring to a person, or group of people that are literal sacrifices. Therefore the word ‘Asham’ here is not meant to indicate that the servant is a literal Asham sacrifice. This would seem to add support to the translation I have used. What we need to understand is what exactly is there unique to the Asham sacrifice that the prophet is trying to convey.
There are Christians who wish to say that the first point, of being unblemished, should apply to the servant and as such that would indicate that this servant was sinless and/or the most perfect of humans, as they contend ‘unblemished’ implies sinlessness and perfection. There are a few problems with this.
First, it seems contradictory to take ‘unblemished’ in a literal way but at the same time not require that the type of animal in some way correspond to the servant. It is an unblemished RAM, for the Asham. Unblemished describes the ram. They ignore what it would mean to be an unblemished ram; which is an animal without physical defects.
There is no requirement of ‘perfection’ in the animal brought for a sacrifice. We see this in two passages in the Torah. The first example deals with giving the tithe of one’s animals. Were ‘perfection’ or the ‘best’ needed, that would apply for tithes also. However what we see is that such a requirement does not exist; the quality of the animal is not an issue. Here is Leviticus 27:32-33
32. Any tithe of cattle or flock of all that pass under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the Lord.
33. He shall not inspect [a tithed animal] for a good or a bad one, nor shall he offer a substitute for it. And if he does replace it, then [both] that one and its replacement are holy; it cannot be redeemed.
So we see that an animal does not need to be the best to be holy and fit for God. Even more we see that for any animal qualified to be used as a sacrifice there is no ‘perfection’ condition. We see this in Leviticus 27:9-12 where we see the valuations of animals qualified to be used for sacrifices (including sin sacrifices.):
9. Now, if an animal of whose type is [fit] to be brought as an offering to the Lord, whatever part of it the person donates to the Lord, shall become holy.
10. He shall not exchange it or offer a substitute for it, whether it be a good one for a bad one, or a bad one for a good one. But if he does substitute one animal for another animal, [both] that one and its replacement shall be holy.
Here we see that it is acceptable to use an inferior animal, and one cannot exchange it for a better one! It is clear from this passage and the previous one that ‘perfection’ is not a sacrificial requirement.
With regards to sinlessness of the animal used for sacrifice, we see that this also is not required. We see this with regards to an ox, which gores either a man or an animal. If it kills a man it is considered liable and is given a death penalty, just as a man is:
Exodus 21:28. And if an ox gores a man or a woman and [that one] dies, the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, and the owner of the ox is innocent.
What we see is that the ox is judged as a human. In a sense, this animal is sinful. We see later a similar ‘human’ judgment regarding an ox with regards to another ox:
Exodus 21:35. And if a man's ox strikes his friend's ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide the money received for it, and they shall also divide the dead body.
36. Or if it was known that it was a [habitually] goring ox since yesterday and the day before yesterday, and its owner does not watch it, he shall surely pay an ox for an ox, and the dead body shall be his.
Now we see the ox punished just like a human sinner who had caused damages, by being sold. But the one who purchases it is not forbidden from using it for a sacrifice. There is no verse indicating that. Here we see that a ‘sinful’ ox is no unqualified to be used for a sacrifice. Since the animal does not need to be either sinless, or especially perfect, the servant also does not need to be sinless.
We are still left with the problem of why Asham is used and not Chatas or Olah. There are two more areas of difference among these sacrifices. First is the distinction between voluntary and obligatory sacrifices. While the Olah can be voluntary or obligatory, the Chatas and Asham are not; they are only obligatory. In verse 10 the actions of the servant are voluntary, so it is not this distinction that the verse is trying to bring out; since “Olah” should have been used if the voluntary nature of the sacrifice is the point here.
There is only one distinction where the Asham is on one side and the Chatas and Olah on the other. That is, an Asham is ONLY brought for an individual, for his own sins, that is not the case with either the Chatas or the Olah. Therefore, we need to say that the purpose of saying the servant was bringing an Asham sacrifice was for himself; to atone for his own sins. This is essentially what the original translation I used says. Because of this we are forced to say that this verse is teaching us that the servant has been put through this suffering to atone for his own sins.
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We can now look at the whole verse and explain it and see how this can only apply to national Israel. There are essentially 4 parts to this verse:
1. HaShem had pleasure to afflict him with disease
2. if he would offer his soul for his guilt,
3. he would see his offspring, prolong his days
4. and that the desire of HaShem would succeed by his hand
What is interesting is that we see here not just what the servant is to do (or did), but how God feels about it. God is said to be pleased to cause this suffering. This is a great problem. While we can certainly understand God decreeing suffering; that God finds enjoyment from it is not what we expect to hear. It seems to indicate a lack of compassion on God’s part, for some reason. This first point is which I have not seen addressed in apologetic or polemical works. Where do we see that God has enjoyment in causing suffering of someone?
We can see this explicitly, ONLY if we accept that the servant is Israel suffering in exile for its sins. In the Torah there are two famous passages where god warns the Jewish people of what will happen if they disobey. One is in Leviticus 26 and the other in Deuteronomy 28. Here in Deuteronomy 28:63 we see exactly what Isaiah says here:
Deuteronomy 28:63. And it will be, just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do good for you and to increase you, so will the Lord rejoice over you to annihilate you and to destroy you…
Here we have seen that God does rejoice when he is causing Israel to experience the suffering of the exile. The reason is that there is a purpose to the suffering, and only with this suffering can that purpose come about.
We also see in these two passages that the suffering is referred to as sickness:
Leviticus 26:16. I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression.
Deuteronomy 28:22. The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, illnesses with burning fevers, a disease which causes unquenchable thirst, with the sword, with blast, and with yellowing, and they will pursue you until you perish.
Deuteronomy 28:60. And He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt which you dreaded, and they will cling to you. 28:61. Also, the Lord will bring upon you every disease and plague which is not written in this Torah scroll, to destroy you.
Now we know what is mean by the words: HaShem had pleasure to afflict him with disease. These are the punishments for not following God’s law, of which the final one is exile.
The second part is also found with regard to the curses that the purpose of the suffering is for them to accept their sin and repent of it:
Leviticus 26:40. They will then confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers their betrayal that they dealt Me, and that they also treated Me as happenstance. 26:41. Then I too, will treat them as happenstance and bring them [back while] in the land of their enemies. If then, their clogged heart becomes humbled, then, [their sufferings] will gain appeasement for their iniquity,
Deuteronomy 30:1. And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, 30:2. and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, 30:3. then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you.
The purpose of the suffering, and why God has enjoyment from it, is that the people should recognize that it is coming upon them for their national sins, and to cause them to repent. It is interesting to note that only with regards to the Asham Sacrifice do we see an explicit command for the individual to confess his sin:
Leviticus 5:5. And it shall be, when someone incurs guilt in any one of these cases, that he shall confess the sin which he had committed,
This is what it meant when it says: “if he would offer his soul for his guilt”; if Israel would accept the exile as punishment for her sins, confess their sins and accept that the suffering as coming from God and repent. For this God has joy. Through the exile Israel can come to atonement for her sins. The result of that will be that she will see the rewards:
Deuteronomy 30:5. And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed, and you [too] will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers. 30:9. And the Lord, your God, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers,
This is what it means when it says: he would see his offspring, prolong his days. They will live in prosperity and have many descendants. The length of days can apply to the nation as a whole indicating they will not disappear, or to the fact that their life spans will be extended as it says in Isaiah 65:
17. For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the first ones shall not be remembered, neither shall they come into mind.
18. But rejoice and exult forever [in] what I create, for behold I create Jerusalem a rejoicing and its people an exultation.
19. And I will rejoice with Jerusalem, and I will exult with My people, and a sound of weeping or a sound of crying shall no longer be heard therein.
20. There shall no longer be from there a youth or an old man who will not fill his days, for the youth who is one hundred years old shall die, and the sinner who is one hundred years old shall be cursed.
21. And they shall build houses and inhabit them, and they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
If one dies at 100 one is still called a youth! That is long life. And God will have enjoyment from them, as this verse ends: and that the desire of HaShem would succeed by his hand. As we see in Zechariah 14:16.
And it will come to pass that everyone left of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles.
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Now we can turn to the next verse, which continues the rewards that the servant receives from God.
53:11 From his own toil he shall see and be satisfied; By his knowledge, my righteous servant will bring righteousness to many; and their iniquities he did bear.
There are three parts in this verse:
1. From his own toil he shall see and be satisfied;
2. By his knowledge, my righteous servant will bring righteousness to many;
3. and their iniquities he did bear.
The first part is quite simple and needs little explanation after what we saw in the previous verse and the many verses about the exaltation of Israel that appear in Isaiah 40 – 66. The servant is basking in the rewards that God has bestowed as we saw in Deuteronomy 30 above. Most importantly this is the theme that continues in the very next chapter 54, which is about the great bounties that Israel will have after the exile has ended.
The second part refers to the knowledge of God that will be spread out over the world as Isaiah himself says in chapter 2:
2:2. And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it.
3. And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, "Come, let us go up to the Lord's mount, to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths," for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The nations will come to Israel so that the Jewish people shall teach them the true knowledge of God. We see this idea a number of times in Isaiah. Here is from chapter 60:
60:1. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has shone upon you.
2. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and a gross darkness the kingdoms, and the Lord shall shine upon you, and His glory shall appear over you.
3. And nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine.
4. Lift up your eyes all around and see, they all have gathered, they have come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be raised on [their] side.
5. Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart shall be startled and become enlarged, for the abundance of the west shall be turned over to you, the wealth of the nations that will come to you.
Verse 5 actually mentions something that we will see again in the next verse of Isaiah. This is why Israel is called a light to the nations in many places. When the end of the exile comes, God’s word, His Torah will spread out and people will be attracted to the Jewish people so that they should teach them righteousness.
The third part again is one that brings controversy, but it really shouldn’t. The Hebrew word translated as bear (סבל) has connotations that the word ‘bear’ in English does not. It really means ‘bear’ in the sense of ‘put up with’.
The meaning is simple. We can compare it to how Pharaoh acted to the children of Israel in Egypt. Although God decreed at the time of Avraham that his descendants were to be in slavery, He did not decree that they should go through the type of suffering that Pharaoh put them through. He was, in fact, a sinner and was so punished. Likewise here, Israel was required to be in exile for her national sin, but that did not justify the sins of the nations in their oppression of Israel.
Christians understand ‘bear’ with a nuance that is unique to the English word, but that does not help. They see bear as X sinned and the servant bears those sins, he raises them up, i.e. he atones for them by his suffering. The problem is with what we have learned in the previous verse. Since the servant is not sinless, and is suffering to atone for his own sins, how can the servant also atone for others? This is in fact an objection usually raised with regards to saying the servant is Israel. But the truth is that being responsible for one’s own sins, to suffer in order to atone for them is understandable, and as I pointed out is Biblical. It is the purpose of the exile. But how can a sinful person who is suffering for his own sins also atone for someone else? Therefore the understanding of this part of the verse: ‘and their iniquities he did bear’ must follow the implications of the Hebrew word to ‘put up with’ as opposed to the English nuance of ‘atone for’.
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The next verse we see God Himself reviewing the previous 2 verses and confirming what he has said:
53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion from the many, and the mighty he shall divide as spoils(שלל); because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of the many, and for the transgressors he prayed.
This verse has six parts to it, and it is useful to look at each one of them:
1. Therefore will I divide him a portion from the many,
2. and the mighty he shall divide as spoils(שלל);
3. because he poured out his soul unto death,
4. and was numbered with the transgressors;
5. yet he bore the sin of the many,
6. and for the transgressors he prayed.
The first two points in this verse are usually ignored, but give significant supporting evidence to the contention that the servant is Israel.
That Israel will have an increase in physical possessions appears in many verses, especially in Isaiah 40 – 66. However there is some specific language here that indicates that these possessions will come as spoils or plunder, not as a natural increase of wealth. That seems quite we strange.
However, we do find some passages where these possessions will be acquired as wealth taken/returned from the nations:
Here is an example from a passage from Isaiah 33:
33:21. But there, the Lord is mighty for us; a place of broad rivers and streams, where a galley with oars shall not go, and a great ship shall not pass.
22. For HaShem is our judge; HaShem is our ruler; HaShem is our king; He shall save us.
23. Your ropes are loosed, not to strengthen their mast properly; they did not spread out a sail; then spoils (שלל) were divided from the many; the lame takes the booty.
24. And the neighbor shall not say, "I am sick." The people dwelling there are forgiven of sin.
Here we see the same idea; when the redemption from exile comes, Israel’s sins are forgiven and she will have the spoils from the nations. Likewise we find in Zechariah 14 after the horrible wars that come before the final end of the exile:
14:1. Behold! A day of the Lord is coming, and your spoils (שללך) shall you share amongst yourselves.
14:14. Judah will fight against Jerusalem! And the wealth of all the nations round about-gold and silver and apparel-will be gathered in very great abundance.
15. And so will be the plague of the horses, the mules, the camels, the donkeys, and all the animals that are in those camps, similar to this plague.
16. And it will come to pass that everyone left of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles.
17. And it shall be that whoever of all the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts-upon them there shall be no rain.
And again we see described the same period in Ezekiel 39 after the war of Gog and MaGog:
39:9. Then the inhabitants of the cities of Israel will go forth and make fires and heat up with the weapons, the bucklers, and the encompassing shields, the bows and the arrows and the hand staves and the spears, and burn them as fires for seven years.
10. So that they shall carry no wood from the fields nor cut down any from the forests, for they shall make fires from the weapons. Thus will they spoil those who spoiled them, plunder those who plundered them and says the Lord God.
11. And it shall come to pass on that day that I will give Gog a place there as a grave in Israel, the valley of them who pass along the east side of the sea, and it will then stop those who pass along. And there shall they bury Gog and all his hordes, and they shall call it the Valley of Hamon Gog [the masses of Gog].
From these three passages, and others I could bring we see what was meant by:
Therefore will I divide him a portion from the many, and the mighty he shall divide as spoils
The ideas of 3 and 5 have already appeared in the previous verses so they should not be new. Israel is suffering in the exile and is persecuted by the nations who sinned by doing that:
because he poured out his soul unto death … yet he bore the sin of the many,
Point 4 “and was numbered with the transgressors” appears as part of the ‘confession’ of the nations in verse 4, where a similar idea appears. I will discuss that verse more in the third part, when I discuss what the nations have to say about Israel’s suffering and compare it to what God has said about it.
The final point is also an unusual one that many do not seem to understand. But it is explicit in God’s instructions for the Jewish people in exile as it appears in the prophet Jeremiah 27:
27:5. Build houses and dwell [therein], and plant gardens and eat their produce.
6. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men, and they shall bear sons and daughters, and multiply there and be not diminished.
7. And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace.
This is what it says at the end of this verse; “and for the transgressors he prayed”, for the wicked nations who have sinned by oppressing Israel, Israel is required to pray for them.
Here we have seen that every point of this verse is reflected in other passages and promises from God to Israel and only to Israel.
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In this second article I have shown how God’s view of the suffering of the servant agrees fully with the original analysis from verses 52:13 – 53:3. The servant is Israel, who had suffered at the hands of the gentile nations, and will in the end be rewarded with physical prosperity. For all of these ideas we have support from various passages in the Tenach. It goes without saying that there is ample historical support to verify the suffering the people of Israel have gone through. There is no other servant in the whole Tenach who has suffered to atone for his own sins, and is given such rewards from God in the end.
In the third and final article I will go through the verses 53:4 – 53:9, where we hear what the nations have to say.
© Moshe Shulman 2014 http://www.judaismsanswer.com
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 Obviously Christians and Jews have a disagreement as to who this servant is.
 This was reinforced by comparison to Daniel 7, which discusses explicitly the suffering of Israel at the hands of the nations and their eventual exaltation.
 The Jewish commentators see this as the prophet speaking and I follow that view. However as we shall see, who is relating God’s is not a critical as the recognition that it is God’s view of the servant, his suffering, and his rewards.
 12 cannot be the same speaker as it is in 1st person and it is God’s view.
 It should be noted that the Jewish commentators accept the first view. Rashi is ambiguous, but the other commentators understand him as following the first view, although there is nothing explicit in his words that contradicts the second view.
 This appears in the Radak, and is the one most Christians seem to support.
 This would make more sense according to the Christian interpretation.
 Although the Rabbis understand that this applies to all sin sacrifices.