This week we are taking a break from the Gospel storyline to look at a particular Old Testament prophesy in great detail. It is a prophesy which is as close to being all about Jesus as you will find within the Old Testament, but how close is it? This study is in connection with the "Christian Prophesy Challenge" issued on my other blog.
Isaiah 53 - Anatomy of a Prophesy
A challenger submitted Isaiah 53 as being a prophesy about Jesus. So in our review of Isaiah 53, let us also take a moment to inspect preceding chapters and the chapter immediately following it. To save you some time, I have included copies of my chapter-by-chapter summary of Isaiah here, and have included some key notes from each chapter:
(Note: Israelite = Jew)
|Isaiah 49) - God has made His sharp-speaking Servant, protected him, and chosen him to show God's glory. The Servant claims that he has labored in vain, but God will provide his reward. God made the Servant to gather the Israelites back to God, and God has been the Servant's strength. God will make His Servant not only gather the Israelites but also be a light to the Gentiles to bring Salvation to all of the earth. Although this Servant was despised and was a servant to rulers, God will make the Servant honored by kings and princes. When God chooses, He will make His Servant be a covenant and restore the exiled Israelites to Israel. They will not hunger, thirst, or be oppressed by the sun's heat. God will lead them to water and make their return easy from wherever they are. The Israelites cry that God has forsaken them, but God will never forget them. God will bring the Israelites back to Israel, and will bless them with so many offspring that they will need a larger country. The Gentiles will help bring Israelites back to Israel, and their royalty will humble themselves to the Israelites, and the Israelites will realize that God did this. God will rescue the Israelites, and make their oppressors eat their own flesh and drink their own blood. At that time, all of mankind will know God is Israel's Savior and Redeemer.||49:1) - Through metaphors, this is directed to the diaspora; the exiled and scattered Jews. |
49:3) - "[God] said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor." NIV
"Israel" being a patriarch, it is almost certainly a representation of the Jews. If it is meant to be a single person, the use of the name "Israel" makes it unlikely to be Jesus given that the name means "he who struggles with God" (Reference Genesis 32:24-30).
49:4) - The Servant thinks that he may have labored in vain, which is again unlikely to mean Jesus.
49:5-6) - The Servant will bring Jews back to God and reveal God to the Gentiles.
|Isaiah 50) - God asks the Israelites if they thought God had left them or sold them, or if they thought He couldn't save them. God has the strength the rescue them because He is omnipotent. God has given His Servant the right words to say. God's Servant listens to God and doesn't rebel, and let his back be beat, his beard pulled out, and his face be spit on. The Servant knows that God will vindicate him soon. Those in darkness should follow God, because those which instead follow their man-made idols will be tormented.||The emphasis of the Servant listening to God and not being rebellious further suggests the Servant is not generically all of the Jews, but specifically those who had remained steadfast in their faithfulness to God. They endured harsh criticism and even physical abuse for their impregnable faith which was held despite the exile.|
|Isaiah 51) - God tells the Israelites to listen to Him, because He will rebuild Israel and turn its deserts into gardens like Eden. God's law and justice will impress the Gentile nations. God's righteousness will soon come, and He will bring justice to the nations. The heavens will vanish, the earth will wear out, and people will die, but God's Salvation will last forever. God tells those with His Law in their hearts to listen (meaning the Israelites). The enemies of the Israelites will be destroyed but God's Salvation and righteousness will last through all generations. God's ransomed people will return to Israel with everlasting joy. Why do the Israelites fear their oppressors when God will soon free them, including prisoners and those in dungeons? God is finished applying His wrath to the Israelites, and will now apply it to their oppressors.||51:4) - God's Law and justice will be enlightening to the other nations of the world. |
51:5) - God's Salvation was coming very soon. (Isaiah is suspected to have alive in the 8th century BCE, but some parts of the book of Isaiah are discerned to be as late as 5th century BCE. By either date, Jesus was a long way away.)
51:6) - This Salvation would last forever.
51:7) - Speaking of the subset of the steadfastly faithful...
51:16) - This parallel of 49:2 confirms the identity of the Servant as the faithful Jews.
|Isaiah 52) - The Israelites are to go free and to rebuild Jerusalem in splendor because the uncircumcised and defiled will not enter there again. God sold the Israelites for free and now they will be redeemed without money. The Assyrians are acting like the pre-Exodus Egyptians, so God will punish them and prove that He is God. The Israelites should purify themselves and keep watch, because God will prepare the way for them to return to Israel. Even though the appearance of God's Servant was pitiful, God's Servant will be exalted in a way such that kings and nations will see and understand God.||52:1) - After the Jews returned from exile, impure people would never again enter Jerusalem. Amazingly, the Romans (and others) must of had God's stamp of approval. |
52:4) - Pinpointing the extent of the prophesy in time, the Assyrians are mentioned.
You may have noticed that Isaiah 52 ends with some words about this Servant, so let us include those verses in our verse-by-verse look at Isaiah 53:
|52:13) - See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.||"Faithful Jews" will obey God and be greatly praised and rewarded.||Jesus will act wisely and be greatly praised and rewarded.||As context has shown, this "servant" is a metaphor for the faithful Jews.|
|52:14) - 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—||People were shocked and disgusted that the "Faithful Jews" maintained their piety, well beyond the extents of normal human reason, given how their God had treated them.||Jesus was beaten so badly after His trial that He did not even look human.||Aside from Mel Gibson's movie, there is no reference to Jesus being beaten to an unrecognizable extent.|
|52:15) - 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.||When the scattered "Faithful Jews" are returned from their exile, even pagan kings will recognize the power of their God, despite not having heard about Him, because of how miraculous the return is.||Jesus' purifying blood would be metaphorically sprinkled on many peoples, and kings will be astonished by His offer of Salvation.||This references Gentile kings witnessing something themselves. This is in contrast to the kings being witnessed to by others (Matthew 10:18, Mark 13:9, Luke 21:12).|
|1) - Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?||Who could have believed that such a prophesy would come true?||Through God's grace, Jesus' Salvation is only accepted by the Elect.|
|2) - He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.||The "Faithful Jews" born in harsh conditions of the Jewish exile appeared to be worshiping in vain, so the rest of the scattered Jews paid them little respect and were not attracted to their piety.||Jesus grew up in a humble existence, being the son of a small-town carpenter, and he was not attractive in any way.||You find large groups of people following Jesus around (of the 171 times the Bible mentions crowds, 127 times are in the Gospels). Indeed, John 12:19 states in hyperbolic language that the whole world has gone after Him.|
|3) - He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.||These "Faithful Jews" were subjected to continual scorn, mockery, and physical abuse because of their unreasonable faith, by the Gentiles and even by the other Jews, who did not like being around them.||Jesus was rejected and suffered on the cross.||As noted above, he was accepted far more than rejected. Also, this verse portrays someone who lived a life of suffering, not just some climactic suffering at the end. Jesus was esteemed (such as Luke 7:6, Luke 7:45-46) much more than men despising and hiding their faces from Him.|
|4) - Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted.||"Faithful Jews" suffered along with the other Jews, but more so, despite and because of their piety, such that even the other Jews considered them cursed by God.||According to Matthew 8:17: This verse is a reference to Jesus healing people. |
A better interpretation: Jesus suffered for our sins, yet people thought that God had punished Him for what He had done.
|Matthew 8:17 quotes this verse as if it was intended to mean that Jesus removed the infirmities and diseases of the people, but it instead means that he suffered those same pains, which is implicitly part of why he was called a man of sorrows/suffering in the previous verse.|
|5) - But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.||Though undeserving, the "Faithful Jews" suffered the punishment God had directed at all Jews, but it was because of their suffering that the other Jews now know of this Salvation.||Jesus suffered for our sins, and the punishment enabled Salvation.||In context, the punishment is what God had wrought through the exile because of the way they had acted in Judah/Israel as opposed to just being punishment for general sins. Furthermore, the Jesus story is that He died for our sins. He was pierced after He had already died, and then only because the soldiers were surprised that He was already dead (John 19:31-37). Being dead, the piercing was not a punishment.|
|6) - We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.||The other Jews had turned away from God, but meanwhile the "Faithful Jews" continued to take the divine punishment.||We were the sinful ones, but Jesus paid the price for it.|
|7) - He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.||Yet, similar to but better than Job, the "Faithful Jews" took this punishment without any protest.||Jesus received this punishment silently.||The mention of oppression and affliction suggests of some significant quantity of time of serious mistreatment. While the "lamb to the slaughter" hints of a sacrifice, the "sheep before its shearers" speaks of enduring, almost ritualized, mistreatment over a long time. Furthermore, Jesus did speak to His accusers (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:67-70, John 18:19-37, John 19:11).|
|8) - By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.||While the other Jews had adapted to their exile, turning away from God and building a life for their families, the scarce "Faithful Jews" dwindled away in penitent obscurity.||Jesus was arrested without justification, yet no one protested His unfair treatment, and so He was killed for our sins.||Until they ran away in fear, the Disciples did violently protest Jesus' arrest (Matthew 26:50-52, Mark 14:46-47, Luke 22:49-51, John 18:10). Even Pilate protested that Jesus seemed to be charged without justification (Matthew 27:23-24, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:20, John 18:38, John 19:4-6).|
|9) - He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.||The few "Faithful Jews" who died were thought to be lowly like the wicked, but in reality they were praiseworthy in their righteousness.||Despite having done no wrong, Jesus was condemned to die with thieves, but was buried in a rich man's tomb.||The "though" is probably better translated as "because" here. |
This verse is backwards for Christianity. Jesus died with the wicked (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:32, John 19:18), but went to the grave of a rich man (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42). Plus, Jesus did violently (with a whip) clear out the Temple courtyard (John 2:13-17).
|10) - Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.||Yet these "Faithful Jews" fully received the punishment God had intended to serve to the Jews for their sins before the exile, and so God will reward the piety of the "Faithful Jews" with prosperity, offspring, and long life.||It was God's plan for Jesus' death on the cross to be the supreme sin offering. Jesus will live eternally as a prosperous and divine king with a family of the faithful.||It is the Servant's life that is the offering, not the Servant's death. There is no emphasis on the "offering for sin." It is simply "an" offering, which seems a little underplayed for its Christian significance. Furthermore, because the Servant is alive, it speaks of offspring, as in children, and his days will be "prolonged," not eternal.|
|11) - After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.||The "Faithful Jews" will be rewarded for enduring this punishment, and from this the other Jews will realize God's power and purpose, and turn back to Him. The suffering of the "Faithful Jews" will cover the other Jews.||Jesus was resurrected according to plan, and knowledge of Jesus' sin offering has led many to Salvation. Jesus' sacrifice will cover people's sins.||Note that the Masoretic Text, which is considered the authoritative Hebrew text of the Old Testament, has "...he will see the result of the suffering of his soul and be satisfied..." instead of the line about seeing the light of life.|
|12) - Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.||These "Faithful Jews" will be exalted like other heroes of the faith, and will be richly rewarded for steadfastly holding to God regardless of the dire circumstances, for accepting God's planned punishment despite being righteous, and for pleading for mercy for the other Jews.||Jesus will be king for willingly sacrificing Himself, dying with criminals, and making intercession for sinners.||God will give this Servant “a portion among the great.” Yet according the Bible, God is giving Jesus the entire Kingdom, not just a portion (Matthew 28:18). Furthermore, "a portion" implies a sharing, but God will not share His glory with anyone or anything (Isaiah 42:8, Isaiah 48:11).|
As usual, we should also consider what comes afterward for context as well:
|Isaiah 54) - God, the Israelites' husband and Redeemer, God of all the earth, will restore the Israelites to Israel and they will be blessed with so many offspring that they will have to expand their boundaries into other countries, dispossessing other nations. They will not be shamed or humiliated, and will forget their earlier shame. In God's surge of anger, He briefly abandoned the Israelites. Now God is coming back to them with everlasting kindness and compassion. God swears that He will never rebuke them again, and His love and covenant of peace with them will last forever. God will rebuild Jerusalem with precious stones. God will teach their sons. They will no longer have tyranny and terror. Anyone who attacks them will not succeed, and the attack will not be caused by God. God made the blacksmith and the destroyer. No weapon or accusations will harm the servants of God.||54:3) - This speaks of capturing and resettling cities. |
54:6) - A call back, which is a reference to the return from exile. They had to be there before in order to be called back.
54:7) - God will bring the exiled Jews back.
54:9) - This exile was like the flood of Noah, and God swears that He will never be angry with the Jews again.
54:15) - If anyone attacks them, God will not be the reason behind the attack.
54:17) - No attack will prevail against the Jews.
Isaiah 53 is not a prophesy about Jesus. In varying degrees, details in verses 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12 directly conflict with the Gospel stories of Jesus. That is seven of the twelve verses of this entire prophetic chapter, or over half of the prophetic message.
In my opinion, the most notable conflicts are verse 3 (Jesus was not rejected by the masses in the manner portrayed here, and was often held in high esteem), verse 10 (offspring for Jesus, and prolonged life, not eternal life), and verse 12 (Jesus is getting much more than just a portion).
In my opinion, the contextual meaning, while often similar to the story Christianity presents, is distinctly different from being a Messianic prophesy. Instead, this Servant is merely a representation of the relatively small subset of Jews which remained devout in their worship of God throughout the exile, despite the fact that their form of religion made them the subject of prejudice, scorn, and suffering. However, note that even some Jewish scholars that hold that this is a Messianic prophesy.
Yet what is clear is that Isaiah 53 is part of a larger prophetic picture, and that the picture is different than what Christianity promises. Furthermore, the differences are not just trivial, but they actually contradict what Christianity promises. These are the highlights of contradiction in the interwoven prophetic verses:
- This prophesy was for the Jewish diaspora (Isaiah 49:1, Isaiah 51:5) who had been exiled from the land of Israel for their sins (Isaiah 50:1, Isaiah 51:17-21, Isaiah 52:5).
- Confirming the time frame, audience, and scope of the prophesy, God drew a parallel between the Jewish oppression in Egypt and the oppression they now, or rather then, had within the Assyrian empire (Isaiah 52:4).
- God's Salvation would happen soon... back then (Isaiah 50:8, Isaiah 51:5).
- A key feature in this prophesy is the Jewish return from exile (Isaiah 49:9-12, Isaiah 49:17-19, Isaiah 52:11-12, Isaiah 54:6-7), which has already occurred, but not exactly as described.
- The Jewish system of land inheritance will be re-established (Isaiah 49:8).
- There will still be children born, generations living, and people dying (Isaiah 51:6-7, Isaiah 53:10, Isaiah 54:3, Isaiah 54:13).
- The nation of Israel will need to be expanded. In order to do so, the Jews' descendants will invade surrounding nations, and then settle in their emptied cities (Isaiah 54:2-3).
- God will protect the Jews, and even though they still may be attacked, it will not be because of God causing the attack, and the attackers will not prevail (Isaiah 54:13-17).
- This return from exile is an eternal Salvation (Isaiah 51:6-7, Isaiah 51:11), where God promises to show everlasting kindness to the Jews (Isaiah 54:8), and they will never be rebuked by God again (Isaiah 51:22, Isaiah 54:9)!
- God promises all of this as an inheritance to His servants (Isaiah 54:17). (This is not so much a contradiction with Christianity, but the reference to "servants" is significant in context to these prophesies.)
The Rest of the Story
Aside from the return from exile, most of the prophesy did not come true, but all of that prophetic ink could not just be ignored. It was too difficult to admit that God had failed, and in turn raise questions about their long-held faith in their prophetic texts and their God. So the rest of these Jewish prophetic points, and others, were recast to some future date in which the new Godly era would be led in by a Messiah.
The Jews were anxious for the Messiah by the time Jesus had arrived on the scene, especially due to the Roman infiltration. Yet contrary to the original prophetic vision and God's own promises here, Jesus rebuked the Jews and called for their destruction at the hands of enemies (Luke 19:41-44)! To make this prophesy conform to Jesus is to ignore that point, ignore the larger intrinsic associations with the original Jewish exile, ignore the fact that this version of eternal Salvation involved people living and dying just like they do today, ignore the implicit coexistence of Israel with other nations, and ignore the fact that these other nations have the ability to attack (if only impotently). That just seems like a really ignorant thing to do.