Of course, like much false teaching, the modern interpretation contains a seed of truth which lends an air of plausibility to the error. The germ of truth: that the term "Servant of the L-rd" is applied to Israel many times over in the second half of the book of Isaiah. We read:
But you, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. (Isaiah 41:8)
You are my witnesses, says the L-RD, and My servant whom I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. (Isaiah 43:10)
Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen . . . (Isaiah 44:1)
Sadly, Israel has not been the most faithful servant over the years, having failed to apprehend that for which Israel was apprehended of G-d:
Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind, but My servant? Or deaf, as My messenger that I sent? Who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the L-RD'S servant? Seeing many things, but you observe not; opening the ears, but he hears not. (Isaiah 42:18-20 )
It is true that the designation of 'Servant' by G-d's chesed (grace) remains impressed upon the nation, but the more the nation as a whole refuses to rise to its high calling, the more plainly the term 'Servant of the L-rd' detaches itself from the nation and acquires such independence that the nation itself becomes the object of the Servant's redeeming work.
In Isaiah 49, it is clear that we see this One Individual Who is set a part from the nation and high above it, while invested with the name and the mission to which the entire nation of Israel was called in the first place:
"Listen, O coastlands, to Me, And take heed, you peoples from afar! The L-RD has called Me from the womb; from the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name. And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, And made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me."
"And He said to me, 'You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' Then I said, 'I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain; yet surely my just reward is with the L-RD, and my work with my G-d.' " "And now the L-RD says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel is gathered to Him (For I shall be glorious in the eyes of the L-RD, And My G-d shall be My strength),
Indeed He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.' " (49:1-6)
The One Who is here introduced as proclaiming His own call for His office, and Whom the L-rd addresses, is the One Who is sent as the Redeemer of Israel, namely, "to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel" to their land and to their G-d. His mission extends not only to Israel, whom He is to raise up and restore, but is to be the light also of the Gentiles, and G-d's salvation unto the very ends of the earth.
As in chapters 42 and 49, so also in Isaiah 53, He is clearly and most definitely distinguished from the nation:
He was taken from prison and from judgment, 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. (Isaiah 53:8)
The speaker is either the L-rd or the prophet, but in either case ami (my people) can only apply to Israel, and if the Servant is stricken on behalf of Israel, the Servant can't be Israel. It is also important to bear in mind four additional points:
1.) The subject of the prophecy is an absolutely innocent sufferer who clearly suffers for the guilt of others who has Himself "done no violence, nor can deceit be found in His mouth," but is "stricken," "smitten," and "afflicted of G-d" for others.
2.) He is a voluntary sufferer - one Who willingly "pours out His own soul unto death"
3.) He is an unresisting sufferer - one "Who is led as lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, He opens not His mouth; and
4.) His sufferings end in death.
None of these four points can be found in or applied to the Jewish nation. Modern rabbis, attempt to put verses 1-9 into the mouth of the Gentile nations, and make them say that "he (i.e. Israel) suffered the sickness and sufferings which we Gentiles deserved." However, we need only consider the picture of Israel as portrayed in the book of Isaiah itself to understand that it cannot be of the nation of Israel that the prophet speaks in Isaiah 53.
Israel is far from innocent and has been spoken of elsewhere in Isaiah as "a sinful nation , a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers," whose iniquities have separated them from their G-d, and whose sins have caused Him to hide His face from them (cf. Isaiah 1:2-9; 59:2-15).
In the 42nd chapter Israel's suffering condition among the nations is described in graphic detail and the prophet is careful to declare that Israel's sufferings are not the result of chance, but are due to the direct judgment of G-d on account of the nation's sins and disobedience:
Who among you will give ear to this? Who will listen and hear for the time to come? Who gave Jacob for plunder, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the L-RD, He against whom we have sinned? For they would not walk in His ways, nor were they obedient to His law. Therefore He has poured on him the fury of His anger and the strength of battle; it has set him on fire all around, yet he did not know; and it burned him, yet he did not take it to heart. (Isaiah 42:23-25)
No one in the nation of Israel, no matter how righteous, can stand and render a vicarious satisfaction for others on the ground of their own righteousness. In fact, it is the godly remnant in Israel who is described in the second part of Isaiah as of "a contrite and humble spirit," who are themselves waiting for the salvation of G-d, which will be effected on account of G-d's chesed (grace).
Is it not they, these righteous ones, who themselves confess:
But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities.
But now, O L-RD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand. Do not be furious, O L-RD, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look -- we all are Your people! (Isaiah 64:6-9 )
Israel is not an innocent sufferer nor did Israel suffer voluntarily. Israel was dragged into captivity by force and throughout history did not voluntarily suffer oppressions and wrongs, but were forced to submit to them by the Gentile nations among whom they had been scattered and whom G-d used as His scourge to punish Israel for her misdeeds and many sins in departing from the Fountain of Living Waters.
Nor was Israel an unresisting sufferer. As long as our people have ever had the means and the power, we have often resisted bitterly and bloodily. Did we bear all of the oppression heaped upon us throughout the centuries like lambs? Did we suffer evil without resisting it? History answers with a resounding "No!" Is not the history of the first seven centuries replete with insurrections, fierce and violent, against the nations?
- The Jews of Cyrene rebelled and slew 220,000 Libyans (115 CE)
- Bar Kochva appears in the guise of the Messiah at the head of an army to shake off the Roman yoke (132 CE)
- The Jews of Alexandria revolt (415 CE)
- The Jews of Persia revolt under the conduct of R' Mid, or Miz, at their head and declare war against the King of Persia (522 CE)
- The Jews in Caesarea rebel (535 CE)
- The Jews in Arabia took up arms against Mohomet (624 CE)
- The Jews join the army of Chosroes, when he made himself master of Jerusalem, and put thousands to death (613 CE)
Neither have the sufferings of the Jewish nation ended in death. Israel still lives. Even today. The chapter cannot be honestly applied to a collective body personified, but must refer to an individual person.
The Scriptures never leave anything to be guessed. In verse 3 the subject is called ish (a man); in verses 10 and 12 a soul is ascribed to Him; grave and death are used so as to imply a subject in the singular. If we were looking at an allegory, distinct hints as to the interpretation would abound. On the other hand, it is quite different in those passages where the prophet designates Israel by the name 'Servant of the L-rd' where all uncertainty is removed by the addition and association of the names 'Jacob' and 'Israel'. Moreover, the prophet uses the plural by the side of the singular to intimate the Servant of the L-rd is a collective (cf. Isaiah 41:8; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20-21; 43:10-14).
Rabbi Abraham Farissol, earl 16th century author of Iggereth Orechoth Olam, who himself proceeds to misintepret the prophecy of Israel, says:
In this chapter, there seem to be considerable resemblances and allusions to the work of the Christian Messiah and to the events which are asserted to have happened to him - so that no other prophecy can be found , the gist and subject of which can be so immediately applied to him.
As a point of fact, this prophecy of the sufferings of the Messiah and the glory which should follow has been used of G-d more than any other Scripture in opening the eyes of Jewish people to recognize in Y'shua Israel's Redeemer and King.
Is it perhaps for this reason that this chapter, which was formerly read twice a year as part of the liturgy in the synagogue (once at Passover and once around Rosh HaShana), is now omitted? In fact, sadly, what we find is that in these selections for the Haftarot (readings from the prophets which accompany the weekly Torah readings) we find a portion for one Sabbath ends with the 12th verse of the 52nd chapter, and the one for the following Sabbath begins with the 54th chapter, whereas the entire prophecy of the 53rd is passed over.
It would seem to be a case of protesting too much and testifies that the nation in its blindness still despises, rejects, and considers the Jewish carpenter from the Galil "smitten of G-d and afflicted." And yet, this attitude also works to demonstrate that Y'shua is the Messiah and that it is most clearly Him to Whom this prophecy refers.
As mentioned in an earlier post, the question is not so much, "What is the picture?", but "Whose image or likeness does the picture bear?"
(To be continued . . .)
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch