I urge my brothers and sisters to be easygoing with Christians, especially with regard to Isaiah 53, the most debated chapter in the Bible. Let’s reflect to our gentile friends and neighbors the patience that God shows us each and every day of our lives.
In fact, Christians are asking important questions here. Moreover, unlike other passages, Isaiah 53 is enshrined in the New Testament, so Christians might be reluctant to rethink their interpretation of this chapter. There is a lot at stake here for them.
As it turns out, if you are not thoroughly familiar the chapters that precede it, this text can appear quite puzzling. Let it be said once and for all: These passages were never meant to be confusing or mysterious. The prophet presupposed, however, that the reader of Isaiah 53 is thoroughly acquainted with the chapters that introduce it.
Never lose sight of this point: If a verse can be understood in more than one way, what is the correct rendering? One that is in agreement with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. If a person ignores vital portions of the immediate context of a passage, and builds his belief around a favorite rendering of a particular text, then what he believes really reflects, not the Word of God, but rather his own ideas, and perhaps those of another imperfect human.
Students of the Bible who explore the last 27 chapters of the Book of Isaiah grasp the identity of the “Suffering Servant.” These stirring chapters triumphantly reveal God’s sovereign plan for His “servant Israel” (Isaiah 41:8-9; 43:10-11; 44:1; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). Israel’s neighbors will be dumbfounded by the startling events that unfold during the messianic age. These events will not go unnoticed. Together, they will comprehend that their age-old assessment of the Jew was wrong.
Isaiah 53 is the last of four powerful and inspiring Servant Songs. The identity of the servant is clearly established as the nation of Israel throughout the first three Servant Songs, which begin in chapter 41.
As it turns out, we are introduced to different speakers in these famed passages: God and the gentile kings of nations (the astonished gentiles). Each is expressing, from a very different perspective, why the servant of God, the humiliated and battered Jews, suffered so much during their long bitter exile. Understandably, gentiles and God do not have the identical outlook of this striking phenomenon. To be clear, God/Isaiah is speaking in Isaiah 52:13-15. The astonished kings of nations are alone speaking in Isaiah 53:1-8. God resumes speaking in Isaiah 53:9-12. If you grasp the breakdown of these passages, this timeless, crystalline chapter comes into view in full color.
Let’s break down these oracles.
Kings of nations are speaking in 53:1-8. They are together in numbed astonishment, for what they will witness in the messianic age will contradict everything they had ever heard or considered in the past. “Who would have believed our report?” the astounded and contrite world leaders wonder aloud in their dazed bewilderment (53:1). The humbled kings of nations (52:15) will finally grasp and confess that Jewish suffering occurred as a direct result of “our own iniquity,” (53:5) i.e., depraved, reckless Jew-hatred, rather than, as they previously thought, the stubborn blindness of the Jews. They are utterly stunned that the Jewish people, whom all their nations have uniformly despised and molested, are finally vindicated to enjoy the promised salvation of God.
This palpable shock that Israel’s neighbors will express in the End of Days is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. It goes without saying that there is not a single instance in Tanach in which prophets foretell that the Jewish People will be surprised or astonished that the gentiles were right in their understanding of God’s salvation plan for mankind during the messianic age. Accordingly, we find nowhere in Tanach that the Jews will seek out the gentiles for spiritual guidance. On the contrary, the Bible reveals that in the End of Days, ten gentiles of different languages will grasp the shirt of a Jew and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you!” (Zechariah 8:23). The Hebrew word “emachem” in this passage means “you,” in the plural. If, as the Church claims, the Jews were wrong in their assessment of Jesus, why will the gentiles seek out the knowledge of the Jews in the Messianic Age?
Throughout Israel’s long and bitter exile, the nations mistakenly attributed the miserable predicament of the Jew to his stubborn rejection of the world’s religions. In the End of Days, however, all that will change: the gentiles will finally discover what was until then unimaginable: the unwavering Jew was, in fact, all this time faithful to the true God. On the other hand, “We despised and held him of no account” (53:3). In contrast, Christians who ignore the context of the fourth Servant Song, erroneously conclude that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus.
In essence, we are told in Isaiah 53 that the gentile nations will apprehend two major points in the messianic age:
1) The gentile kings of nations will finally comprehend and confess that Jewish suffering occurred as a direct result of “our own iniquity”: mindless Jew-hatred, rather than, as they previously thought, the errors of the Jews. They are downright amazed that the Jewish people, whom they despised and plundered, are finally raised up to experience the secured salvation of God.
2) Throughout the latter chapters of the Book of Isaiah, the Jewish people are repeatedly identified as afflicted, despised, and forsaken. The prophet assured Israel, however, that at the End of Days they will be redeemed and vindicated in the sight of all the nations.
But how will the gentile make sense out of the past Jewish suffering of long duration? They, not God, will conclude the Jews endured the suffering that they (the gentiles) rightfully deserved. Second, the striking and unparalleled suffering of the Jew gripped and warmed the gentile’s heart. Events such as the Holocaust did not go unnoticed by many gentiles worldwide. Even heart-wrenching, epoch films such as Schindler’s List and Fiddler on the Roof, and the gruesome, ghastly images of young Jewish terror victims brought the gentiles to repent.
There are, no doubt, many gentiles who are repenting now as they grasp the full weight and measure of these words. Our arms are open to you, righteous gentiles. Welcome home. We are holding you close. We will not let you go. Each day, many gentiles are made whole because their mind and soul became permeated with the unimaginable suffering of the Jew. Jewish suffering sparked their repentance: “By his wounds we were healed” (53:5).
This chapter has not yet concluded, for God now steps forward to make clear how the Servant will kindle the exoneration and vindication of the gentiles. After all, the Jewish people are called to be a “Light to the Gentiles.” The King of kings is now speaking: The world is set to be vindicated by the “servant’s knowledge” (53:10).
Does the Church teach that Jesus vindicated the world with his “knowledge”? According to Christian theology, it was not Jesus’ knowledge that vindicated the world. It was his blood. This epic verse is completely inconsistent with a fundamental doctrine of the Church.
Isaiah, however, is not speaking of a crucified messiah in his 53rd chapter. The prophet is referring to the faithful remnant of Israel, who, by their knowledge bear witness to the world that there is no Savior other than the God of Israel (Isaiah 43:10-11). This mandate to vindicate the world as a light to the nations (49:6) is not a task for a common people. The devout remnant of Israel will be righteous (Isaiah 60:21; Zephaniah 3:12-20 ).
In the End of Days, non-Jews will cherish and crave Israel’s knowledge. They will turn to the children of Israel in order to learn of Hashem and His Torah. Filled with remorse, they will confess to the Jewish people
“Surely our fathers have inherited lies, worthlessness and unprofitable things. Can a man make gods for himself, which are not gods?”(Jeremiah 16:19-20).
Over the years, I have been struck by the warm and sincere heart of many Christians. I did not grow up in the Church; they did. Parishioners need our patience and love; the kind of compassion and forbearance that God shows us each day.
With love of Zion,