Of Whom does the Prophet Speak?

A schoolteacher was looking round an exhibition of Judaica and came across the text of Isaiah chapter 53. Apart from the identification of the source there was no indication where in the Scriptures Isaiah fits – of when he wrote, or about whom he was writing. “Did Isaiah live before or after Jesus?” she asked a steward and was astonished to learn that the prophet lived over 700 years before Y’shua (Jesus) of Nazareth was born. Pensively, as she turned to leave, she commented, “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

First impressions are important. To this lady the passage portrayed a suffering Messiah or, more particularly, Jesus. Modern Jewish scholars would disagree with her. Some Jewish writers and rabbis argue that it is a prediction of the Jewish Holocaust experience or speaking of Israel within a historical timeframe.

But how did the most eminent and respected rabbis of the past understand the chapter? Did they view it in the same light as some of today’s commentators or did they have a different and better explanation? A little known fact is that earlier Jewish tradition taught that Isaiah 53 was a prediction of the sufferings of Messiah.

“Our rabbis of blessed memory with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we ourselves shall also adhere to the same view”
Rabbi Moshe El-Sheikh of Safed: a disciple of Joseph Caro the author of the Shulchan Arukh (late 6th Century CE) Commentaries on the Earlier Prophets. (page 258)*

“Jonathan ben Uzziel interprets it in the Targum of the future Messiah; and this is also the opinion of our own learned men in the majority of their Midrashim”.
Rabbi don Yitzehak Abarbanel (circa 1500 CE) (page 153)*

“…In the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, ‘at him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard, they have perceived’.”
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (12th century CE) (page 375)*
“I am surprised that Rashi and David Kimchi have not, with the Targum, applied them to the Messiah likewise.”
Rashi Nanhtali ben Asher Altshuler (circa 1650 CE) (page 318)*

“Forthwith the Holy One began to make a covenant with the Messiah: “0 Messiah, my righteousness,” said He, “the iniquities of those who are hidden beside thee will cause thee to enter into a hard yoke!” … said the Messiah, “Lord of the world I accept it joyfully, and will endure these chastisements” … Messiah accepted the chastisement of love, as it is written; He was oppressed, and he was afflicted.”
Rabbi Moshe Ha-Darshan (10th, 11th century CE) Midrash on Bereshit (pages 34,35)

“The Messiah what is his name?’ The rabbis said: His name is the Leper Scholar as it is written ‘surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted’.”
The Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98b

“The expression ‘My Servant’ they [certain contemporary commentators] compare rashly with Isaiah 41:8 ‘thou Israel art my servant’, where the prophet is speaking of the people of Israel (which would be singular) : here, however, he does not mention Israel, but simply says ‘My Servant’: we cannot therefore understand the word in the same sense. I am pleased to interpret it in accordance with the teaching of our rabbis of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense: thus, possibly, I shall be free from the forced far-fetched interpretations of which others have been guilty.”
Rabbi Moshe Kohen ibn Crispin (circa 1350 CE) (pages 99,100)*

“He was despised and shunned by men; a man of pains, and acquainted with disease; and as one who hid his face from us was he despised, and we esteemed him not. But only our diseases did he bear himself, and our pains he carried: while we indeed esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. Yet he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement for our peace was upon him: and through bruises was healing granted to us. We all like sheep went astray. every one to his own way did we turn; and the Lord let befall on him the guilt of us all. He was oppressed and he was also taunted, yet he opened not his mouth: like the lamb which is, led to the slaughter; and like a ewe before her shearers is dumb: and he opened not his mouth. Through oppression and through judicial punishment was he taken away: but his generation – who could tell, that he was cut away out of the land of life, (that) for the transgressions of my people the plague was, laid on hin. And he let his grave be made with the wicked, and with the (godless) rich at his death although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. But the L-rd was pleased to crush him through disease: when (now) his soul hath brought the trespass-offering, then shall he see (his) seed, live many days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Freed) from the trouble of his soul shall he see (the good) and be satisfied: through his knowledge shall my righteous servant bring the many to righteousness, while he will bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him (a portion) with the many and with the strong shall he divide the spoil: because he poured out his soul unto death, and with transgressors was he numbered while he bore the sin of many, and for the transgressors he let (evil) befall him.”
Isaiah 53:3-12
(Isaac Leeser’s translation) **

*Numerals in parenthesis after quotes indicate page numbers from The Suffering Servant of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters. Volume 2 by S.R. Driver and A. Neubauer. Hermon Press. NY 1877, reprinted 1969.

**Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was the founder of the first Jewish Publication Society of America and an ardent opponent of Reform. His contribution to every area of Jewish culture and religion made him a major builder of American Judaism. His greatest literary achievement was the first American translation of the Bible, published in 1845, the product of 17 years work. It remained the standard American Jewish translation until 1917.

If Israel’s greatest rabbis were correct, and Isaiah chapter 53 is a prediction of the sufferings of Messiah;
Who is this Jewish Messiah who was wounded and put to death for sinners? (Isaiah 53:7-9).
Who is it who was raised from the dead to enjoy the reward of making many others righteous? (Isaiah 53:10-12)
Who is it that Isaiah predicted would be rejected by most of His own people? (Isaiah 53:3)
One person alone fits this description. Jesus of Nazareth was rejected by His own people and was unjustly put to death by Jew and Gentile. But through it all G-d was bringing salvation – crushing Him instead of us and making Him a trespass offering.
To vindicate His righteous Servant and complete the work of redemption, G-d raised Him from the dead, so that He should live many days and, through knowing Him, our sins should be forgiven. The peace that so many long for comes through Messiah being chastised on our behalf. We do not have to wait any longer for Messiah to bring redemption. He has already come and His name is Yeshua.

Date : 30/11/-0001    

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