Often called the “Forbidden Chapter,” Isaiah 53 is a significant source of controversy. Not just between Judaism and Christianity, but even within Judaism itself. Up until Christ came, the Jewish sages and rabbis roundly agreed that Isaiah 53 was a prophecy about the Messiah. But once Jesus’ gospel started to spread, it began to cause problems within Judaism because of its rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. According to Eitan Bar, a native Jewish-Israeli scholar:
The 17th-century Jewish historian, Raphael Levi, admitted that long ago the rabbis used to read Isaiah 53 in synagogues, but after the chapter caused “arguments and great confusion” the rabbis decided that the simplest thing would be to just take that prophecy out of the Haftarah1 readings in synagogues. That’s why today when we read Isaiah 52, we stop in the middle of the chapter, and the week after, we jump straight to Isaiah 54.2—Eitan Bar
It’s no wonder that when dialoguing with my Jewish friends, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a common topic. In a recent chat with an American friend who converted from Christianity to Judaism, he shared a meme with me that he felt summed up the Jewish position on that chapter:
He then listed 12 reasons that Isaiah 53 could not be referring to Jesus.3 I read through the list and felt I had to weigh in. I’m not sure where the claims originated, but I wanted to correct the record about these 12 claims not only to defend the Christian position on Isaiah 53 but also as a favor to my Jewish friends who want to strengthen their position and not rely on weak arguments.
When reading Isaiah 53, it’s important to keep in mind the genre and language of prophetic literature. Much of the language of the prophets is the language of poetry. As such, it should be interpreted symbolically or figuratively and not literally. This is where the list of 12 claims below sometimes goes astray, by pressing for a literal correspondence between the prophecy and its fulfillment.
Responding to the 12 Reasons
Following are the list of 12 reasons I was given that Isaiah 53 could not be referring to Jesus. Each reason is listed as it was given to me, followed by a brief response:
When was Jesus sick? 53:3 reads “ish makavot” which refers to a man who is habitually or chronically ill. Nothing in the New Testament says Jesus was ever ill even once.
Response: The Hebrew phrase “ish makavot” can refer to habitual pain or suffering as well as sickness. It depends on context, and even the Orthodox Jewish Bible translates the phrase in Isaiah 53:3 as “acquainted with suffering,” not “habitually sick.” There is a wealth of scriptural support for Jesus’ fulfillment of a man acquainted with suffering (Matt 27:27-44, Mark 15:16-32, Luke 23:26-39, 2 Cor 1:5, etc.)
When did Jesus suffer from leprosy? Vs. 4 reads “nagua,” which is a word in the Hebrew Bible that refers to one who is stricken with leprosy, as we see in 2 Kings 15:5 and Levi 13:3, 9, and 20. Jesus never was.
Response: נָג֛וּעַ (na·gu·a’) means “to touch, reach, strike.” The word for leprosy is צָרַ֖עַת (tza·ra·’at), and to be struck with leprosy, or to be leprous is מְצֹרָע֙ (me·tzo·ra).
When was Jesus “without form or comeliness,” undesired so that everyone despised and rejected him? (vs. 3) On the contrary, the gospels insist Jesus was greatly admired everywhere he went by every segment of society (Luke 4:14-15) and even to regions he never visited (Matt 4:24, 25).
Response: If Jesus was “greatly admired everywhere he went by every segment of society,” He never would have been crucified. Isaiah 53:3 reads, “He was despised and rejected by mankind,” and the examples of this are manifold. Not only was Jesus betrayed, arrested, beaten, flogged, spit upon, mocked, and crucified, He was despised and rejected in other ways as well:
- “And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.” (Luke 4:28-29)
- “But they cried out all together, saying, “Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!” (Luke 23:18)
- “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11)
- “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me.” (John 5:43)
Why wasn’t Jesus humble, as the servant (in vs. 7) was? The gospels record several haughty words coming from his lips. See Luke 19:27, John 6:47, 14:9. All these verses and many more, especially in John’s gospel, show that, far from being humble, Jesus thought very highly of himself.
Response: Jesus epitomized true humility in that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). Some of the things He said could undoubtedly be considered “haughty” if they were uttered by a mere mortal. But Jesus was divine. He did not think highly of Himself; he thought soberly of Himself.
Perhaps His most humble act of all was leaving Heaven to come to earth as a human. Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8)
Why didn’t Jesus remain silent as the servant (vs. 7) did? ALL of the gospels, without exception, say Jesus had quite a lot to say during his arrest, trial and crucifixion. John 18:19-23, 33-37 relates quite a long defense of himself, intimating he was being railroaded and that he was being kidnapped in the dark rather than in the day when his followers might have defended him.
Response: The prophecy in Isaiah doesn’t say that Jesus never spoke at all. It says, “. . . 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.” Is there evidence Jesus fulfilled this passage? Lots:
- “But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’” (Matthew 26:63)
- “When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.” (Matthew 27:12)
- “But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.” (Matthew 27:14)
- “But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61)
- “But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” (Mark 15:5)
- “He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (Luke 23:9)
- “and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (John 19:9)
Why did Jesus do violence and speak violence, whereas the servant (vs. 9) “had done no violence”? See Luke 19:27, where Jesus takes the time to fashion a whip with which he beat the money changers and sacrificial animal vendors. (Did you know that striking an animal fit for sacrifice would cause a great loss in value of the animal, so every animal Jesus struck was a separate instance of THEFT!? There goes the claim Jesus never committed any sins!) In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Think not that I come to bring peace but a sword.”
Response: There are a few things we need to address here. First, Luke 19:27 is part of the parable of the ten minas and has nothing to do with Jesus fashioning a whip. Whoever wrote the claim above must have meant Luke 19:45 which says, “When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling.”
Second, none of the passages that tell of Jesus clearing the Temple courts (Luke 19, John 2, and Mark 1) say He struck or beat the money changers or the animals. They all say he “drove them from the Temple courts.” The Greek word used is ἐκβάλλειν (ekballein), which means “to expel, to drive, cast or send out.” Thus, third, Jesus did no violence, as Isaiah 53:9 prophesied. He never beat, attacked, injured, or physically harmed anyone during His ministry on Earth.
And if we take a broader look at this verse, we find even more compelling evidence that Isaiah 53 is about Jesus. The phrase in 53:9, “though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” is figurative language that describes an innocent person. Isaiah prophesied that the suffering servant’s execution would be wholly undeserved, which was exactly the case with Jesus. In fact, the apostle Peter quotes directly from Isaiah 53:9, showing us that Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy (1 Peter 2:22).
The aspect of innocence in Isaiah’s prophecy is also compelling evidence that Israel could not be the “suffering servant” about whom Isaiah was writing. Israel is not an innocent, unblemished lamb that was killed for the unrighteous. Jesus was.
Why did Jesus deceive people, while the servant does not? (vs. 9) Jesus was not only a false prophet, but also deceived his disciples by saying he would return in their lifetime. But they all died before Jesus got around to fulfilling his “prophecy.” One would think that if he really was the son of God, he could have convinced his dad to let his prophecy come true.
Response: The author of the claim is referring to Matthew 16:28, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” The author seems to be under the impression that in this passage, when Jesus promised they would “see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” He was referring to His final return. But the Scriptural data suggests Jesus was instead referring to His Transfiguration.
This promise from Jesus is described in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Mark), and in each case, it is immediately followed by Jesus’ Transfiguration. This is where, as Matthew describes it, Jesus led them up a high mountain, and “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:2-3).
As theologian John MacArthur notes, “The word for ‘kingdom’ can be translated ‘royal splendor.’ Therefore, it seems most natural to interpret this promise as a reference to the Transfiguration, which ‘some’ of the disciples—Peter, James, and John—would witness only six days later.” 4
Reasons 8 and 9
Why was Jesus not buried with the wicked as according to vs. 9? The gospels tell us Jesus died with some wicked people.
Why were there no rich people who died with Jesus? (vs. 9) The gospels tell us he was buried in the tomb of a rich man, a tomb that had never been used before.
Response: These two claims can be answered together. They both refer to the first part of Isaiah 53:9, which says, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death…” Keeping in mind the genre of prophecy with its use of symbolism and figurative language, this prophecy can be seen as fulfilled by the fact that Jesus was to be executed and buried with criminals until a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, stepped in and offered his tomb (Matt 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:51, John 19:38). MacArthur notes:
Because of His disgraceful execution alongside criminals, the Jewish leaders intended Jesus to have a disgraceful burial (cf. John 19:31), but instead He was buried with “the rich” in an honorable burial through the donated tomb of rich Joseph of Arimathea.5John MacArthur
Reasons 10, 11 and 12
Why didn’t Jesus have children? (vs. 10)
When were his days lengthened? (vs. 10) On the contrary, Jesus died in the midst of his days. The Bible says that a righteous man can live to 70, but Jesus died only half that age (33 or so years).
And we’re told Jesus was the son of God, but how can God’s days be lengthened?
Response: These final three claims can be answered together as well. They all refer to the second half of Isaiah 53:10 which says, “he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.”
First, the author of this claim is interpreting the passage above as referring to literal offspring. However, given the genre of prophecy with its use of symbolism and figurative language, that’s not necessarily the right interpretation, especially in light of the totality of the prophecies about the Messiah found throughout the book of Isaiah. Christians see the fulfillment of this prophecy in the idea that offspring refers to the Servant’s spiritual progeny, the generations who would become children of God through faith in Jesus. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
Second, the phrase prolong his days finds fulfillment in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It speaks to His time on earth which ended with His resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. God’s days weren’t literally lengthened, of course, because He is eternal. This, again, is the figurative language of prophecy.
In A Nutshell
The “suffering servant” poem of Isaiah 53 technically runs from Isa 52:13 through 53:12. In it, we read about God’s servant (as established in earlier chapters) and how God is going to allow him to be rejected and beaten and ultimately exalted. Theologian Timothy Mackie does a fantastic job of breaking down this poem and providing an overview of what it teaches:
The center of the poem is put in the mouths of a group called “we,” who tell the story of the servant. They say he at first appeared to them as an insignificant low-life, god-forsaken and rejected by people. There was nothing about the servant that looked impressive or important (Isa 53:1-3). However, they now acknowledge that they couldn’t have been more wrong (Isa 53:4-6). In reality, the servant was suffering and dying on behalf of Israel’s sin and unfaithfulness. It was Israel who rejected God’s servant, and they led him to his death and killed him (Isa 53:7-9). But just like Joseph and his brothers who planned evil to destroy him, God orchestrated their evil to result in good (remember Gen 50:20!). It was actually God’s mysterious purpose that the servant would die at the hands of Israel, because of their sin and on behalf of their sin (Isa 53:10). His death would play the role of a sacrificial guilt offering (remember Lev 5-6?), providing atonement for their evil.
Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the servant’s story. After his rejection and death, we all of a sudden read that the servant will “look upon descendants and live long days” and “see the light and be satisfied” (Isa 53:10-11). We hear that his death was actually the opposite of failure. It was his way of “bearing the sins” of his people so that the guilty “can be pronounced righteous” before God (53:11b). Guilty Israel, who not only ended up in exile for their sins, but also killed God’s servant sent to them, is pronounced “righteous,” not for anything they have done, but because of what the servant did on their behalf . . .
There’s a reason why the poem of Isaiah 53 is introduced with the phrase “good news,” and there’s also a good reason why all four stories of Jesus in the New Testament were eventually called “The Good News” or “The Gospel.” It’s the strangest good news you will ever hear, but also the best news. It’s the story of God’s defeat of evil so that you and I can be rescued from the human condition, the death we see all around us, and that which we find inside ourselves. In this story of the servant’s death and resurrection, we discover the love of God that leads to true life.6—Timothy Mackie
I don’t claim to be an expert on the interpretation of biblical prophecy, but the application of sound hermeneutical principles goes a long way in revealing the true meaning of Isaiah 53. The fact that this chapter of the Tanakh is not included in the Haftarah readings in the synagogue (it is the “forbidden chapter”) tells us there is something significant about it that modern rabbis seem to find threatening. If you are truly interested in what Isaiah 53 teaches, I hope you will consider some of the responses above. But please don’t believe me! Instead, look them up yourself and test them and see if they hold true.
Cover image courtesy of Israel Museum [Public domain]
1 The Haftarah reading follows the Torah reading on each Sabbath and on Jewish festivals and fast days. Typically, the haftarah is thematically linked to the parasha (Torah Portion) that precedes it. The haftarah is sung in a chant (known as “trope” in Yiddish or “Cantillation” in English). From Wikipedia.com
2 Isaiah 53 – The Forbidden Chapter, by One for Israel
3 He did not mention the original source, but these arguments seem to have come from Hugh Fogelman’s book Christianity Uncovered: Viewed Through Open Eyes
4 Matthew 16:28, MacArthur Study Bible (NKJV)
5 Isaiah 53:9, MacArthur Study Bible (NKJV)
6 Isaiah and the Suffering Servant King, by Timothy Mackie