1. The identity of the servant and the anti-Semitism of the Christian scriptures
Christian missionaries seem to be impressed by the fact that many people immediately associate this scriptural passage with the person of Jesus from Nazareth. Let us step back and examine the facts. The prophet presents certain physical details that mark the servant’s history enabling us to identify the servant. Then there is the theology of the servant. The prophet gives us a theological explanation to help us understand the suffering of the servant. The spiritual explanation for the suffering of the servant is not something that can be seen in the world of objective reality. The description of the servant’s suffering, on the other hand, can be measured in the realm of objective reality. Upon examining the identifying details of the passage, it will become apparent that there is another subject that would more readily correspond with Isaiah’s description. It is the invisible theology of the passage that causes people who read this passage to think of Jesus. No other figure in history is more closely associated with the theology of this passage than is Jesus. It is not the man, Jesus, who people see in this passage, it is Christianity.
Is this so impressive? Christianity has erected her theology on the non-contextual meaning of this passage, and has vociferously spread her doctrines to the ends of the earth. The 2000 years of missionary activity have publicized the Christian claim that Jesus fulfilled the theology of Isaiah 53. Upon reading Isaiah 53, many people do indeed make the association with the theological claims of Christianity. But did anyone see Jesus fulfill the theology of Isaiah 53? Did anyone see Jesus die for the sins of the world? The fact that Isaiah 53 is associated with Jesus testifies to the success of the Christian effort in promulgating their intangible theology. This association is not rooted in an objective observation of the real world, nor is it supported by the text of Isaiah 53.
There is another point to consider in relation to this discussion. There are quite a number of passages in the Christian scriptures which seem to encourage anti-Semitism. Upon reading John 8, where Jesus entitles the Jews with the appellation “children of the Devil”, or Matthew 23, where Jesus disparages the Pharisees – the immediate association that comes to mind is that Jews and Judaism are intrinsically evil. Throughout history these passages were read by the most honored names in Church history, in this malevolent light. Now that anti-Semitism is considered a sin in many Christian circles, Brown appeals to his audience not to take these verses at face value. Rather, he encourages us to understand these spiteful utterances in light of the social context in which they were spoken and in light of the general message of the Christian scriptures.
If Brown expects his audience not to jump to hasty conclusions based on the immediate association that comes to mind when it comes to the Christian scriptures, he should maintain the same standard when it comes to the Jewish scriptures.
2. What did the Rabbis say?
Some missionaries make the argument that the ancient Jewish writings interpret this passage as a reference to the Messiah and not to Israel (or the righteous of Israel). According to the missionary mythology it was Rashi, who lived in the 11th century, who initiated the national interpretation by explaining the passage in reference to the righteous remnant of Israel. The fact is that this discussion is not very relevant. The Messianic and national interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and either way, a proper reading of the passage will reveal that Jesus is not the one described. But it is appropriate to set the record straight. Firstly, the missionaries have overlooked numerous references that predate Rashi , and reflect the understanding that Isaiah 53 speaks of Israel.
Another, more serious point to consider, is that the early rabbinical writings do not set out to give a plain interpretation of the text. The Rabbis were aware of the plain contextual meaning but that they did not see fit to record it in any systematic way. So of what significance is it that the early Jewish writings do not accentuate the national interpretation of Isaiah 53? They were not attempting to present the plain contextual meaning, so what is the surprise if this interpretation does not dominate their writings?
3. The innocence of the servant
In his missionary work, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Dr.Brown presents four objections which stand in the way of applying this passage to the nation of Israel as a whole. The first objection Brown puts forth – and I quote (AJO, Vol. 3, Page 50):
“Throughout Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, the servant is depicted as completely righteous.”
Brown goes on to argue that according Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, if Israel would be righteous they would not suffer but they would be blessed.
Objection number 2 centers on the exaltation of the servant. The servant depicted in this passage is highly exalted, while Israel is not exalted in the same sense that Jesus is exalted.
The third objection goes back to the servant’s innocence. Again I quote (AJO, Vol. 3, Page 52):
“Isaiah presents a picture of a totally righteous, guileless servant of the Lord.”
Brown argues that Israel is not and never was sinless.
The fourth objection Brown raises deals with the theology of the chapter. The servant of this passage brings healing to the world with his suffering. Brown asks – how has Israel’s suffering brought healing to the world?
Since two of Brown’s objections focus on the innocence of the servant, we will use this as the starting point for our discussion.
Brown’s assertion that – “throughout Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, the servant is depicted as completely righteous” – is unjustified according to any interpretation. There is only one half of one verse which, if read incorrectly, would lead to this conclusion. So the statement “throughout Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12″ is without foundation.
Let us turn our focus to the verse in question (53:9):
“And he set his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his deaths for no violence that he had done, nor for any deception that was in his mouth.”
The prophet does not claim that the servant never committed an act of violence in his life neither does Isaiah tell us that the servant was never guilty of deception. In the book of Psalms David prays to God to save him from enemies that persecute him unjustly (Psalm 35:7, 38:21, 69:5). David is not claiming that he is sinless. In fact, in some of these very passages he admits his guilt before God (Psalm 38:5, 69:6). What David is saying is that he is not guilty of the crimes of which his persecutors accuse him. The servant of Isaiah is in the same situation. The governments of various countries deal with him as if he was a violent criminal, and they deal with the servant as if he had acquired wealth with deception. But the servant is innocent of these charges. Throughout history the two accusations hurled at the Jewish people was the accusation of violence , and the accusation that they had stolen the riches of the nations . The world has dealt with the Jew as if he were guilty of these two crimes. The prophet is informing us that the servant is being persecuted unjustly. Isaiah is not telling us that the servant was totally sinless. He is telling us that the servant is innocent of the crimes of which he is accused. Two of Brown’s objections have just disappeared.
4. The suffering of the servant
As we have seen, the prophet did not have much to say about the innocence of the servant. The prophet does describe the servant’s suffering and his rejection. The prophet describes the servant;
“his visage is disfigured in a manner that marked him as less than human, and his form is marred from that of men” (52:14).
The prophet continues to tell us that the servant;
“has no form or comeliness that we should look at him and no countenance that we should desire him” (53:2)
Did anyone ever associate unsightliness with Jesus? Was Jesus ever put into a class of creatures that is less than human? There are countless pieces of art that demonstrate that the European mind saw the Jew as a repulsive creature whose appearance set them apart from the rest of humanity.
”Despised, isolated from men”
How was Jesus “isolated from men”? Was he confined to Ghettoes as were the Jews for centuries upon centuries? Was he barred from interacting freely with the citizenry in dozens of countries as were the Jews? How many places of habitation were “off-limits” to Jesus?
“a man of pains and acquainted with sickness”
The Christian scriptures report that Jesus was crucified, but does that make him stand out as – “a man of pains and acquainted with sickness”? Many people were crucified and many individuals suffered so much more than Jesus. But the suffering of the Jewish people sets them apart from any other national entity.
“we hid our faces from him and we esteemed him not” (53:3)
When did mankind hide their faces from Jesus? Mankind certainly did hide their faces from the Jews while the most horrid crimes were being committed against them.
“we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted” (53:4)
Did the suffering of Jesus ever play a role in the theology of those who rejected his mission? But both Christianity and Islam focus on the suffering of the Jewish people in their theological assessment of the Jew. According to both of these belief systems, the suffering of the Jewish people is the evidence of their lowly status in God’s eyes.
“His grave is with the wicked, and his deaths are with the rich.” (53:9)
The servant of God is buried with the wicked, but the Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus was buried with the rich and not with the wicked. God’s servant is to die with the rich, yet the Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus did not die with the rich, but with the wicked. It is obvious that Isaiah did not have Jesus in mind when he uttered these words.
The prophetic description clearly applies to the persecution of the Jewish people. Throughout the generations, the enemies of the Jew characterized the Jew as both rich and wicked. They justified the murder of the Jews because they believed that the Jew swindled the world of its wealth. The imagined wealth of the Jew triggered many pogroms and massacres. The preconception of the Jew as a criminal served as the basis for the disrespect that the killers showed for the Jewish dead.
When we focus on those verses which describe the servant’s physical attributes, it becomes clear that the prophet foresaw the suffering of the Jewish people. The suffering servant is the persecuted Jew.
5. The exaltation of the servant
Brown’s second objection to the national interpretation of Isaiah 53 focuses on the exaltation of the servant. The beginning of the passage describes the great exaltation of the servant –
“My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted, and extolled and be very high” (52:13)
The prophet goes on to say that the kings of the nations will stand in awe of the servant’s greatness. How can this apply to Israel asks Brown? But Jesus, says Brown, is exalted and worshiped by the leaders of many nations.
The fact is that the prophet’s description of the exaltation of the servant actually eliminates Jesus as a candidate for the role of the servant of this passage. When was Jesus exalted, or when will he be exalted? There are three options for the believing Christian, and none of them fit the description of the prophet. Christians believe that after Jesus died, his disciples saw him exalted and sitting at the right side of God. But this cannot be the exaltation that the prophet had in mind. The prophet speaks of exaltation to the eyes of kings – hardly a fitting description of Jesus’ disciples. Furthermore, the servant is exalted in the eyes of those who had considered him sub-human and despised. This alleged exaltation of Jesus was only witnessed by those who were already totally devoted to him, and was not seen by anyone who hadn’t already placed their faith in him.
A second option for the exaltation of Jesus is the exaltation that takes place in Christendom today. Much of the world believes Jesus to be a deity, and this includes kings of various nations, and people who had formerly rejected his claims for the Messiah-ship of Israel. Could this be the exaltation that the prophet was referring to? No, it cannot. The prophet describes the exaltation as being communicated not through the spoken word, but through physical vision:
“That which was not told to them they saw, and that which they have not heard they now perceive. Who has believed our report and upon who is the arm of the Lord revealed” (52:15, 53:1)
When the nations will see the “arm of the Lord” bared for the benefit of the servant, they will come to recognize his true nature. This will be something that the nations will see clearly, not something that has to be explained to them. The “glory” of Jesus is not visible in any sense of the word. It can only be “perceived” after one has heard a dissertation on Christian theology. This is not the exaltation that Isaiah is describing.
Furthermore, and on a more foundational level, the entire thrust of the passage is that the servant is despised until his exaltation. It is his obvious exaltation that changes the people’s attitude towards him. According to Christian theology, the worshiper must first accept Jesus before Jesus can forgive his sins. In the case of Jesus, the attitude of the onlooker must be positive before the exaltation can be perceived – the precise opposite of the exaltation that Isaiah describes. In modern parlance we would say, that in the case of Jesus one has to “believe” in order to “see”. In the case of the servant it is the seeing that leads to the believing. The subjective glorification of Jesus is not the exaltation that Isaiah was telling us about.
Perhaps Isaiah was referring to the future exaltation of Jesus? Christians believe that when Jesus will return, all the earth will see his glory. Once again, this cannot be the interpretation of the passage. If there is any one person in the history of mankind who the prophet cannot be referring to, it must be Jesus of Nazareth. At this point in time there is no person who is more beloved than Jesus. Aside from the two billion or so Christians who consider him a god, you have almost one billion Muslims who regard him as a true prophet. The Hindus, almost a billion strong, also have a positive place for him in their heavenly scheme. The prophet is telling us that when the arm of the Lord is revealed, it will come as a shock to the onlookers. They will be surprised that the one they despise turns out to be God’s beloved servant. If there is any one person in the history of mankind who will not arouse surprise if the arm of the Lord is revealed upon him, it is Christendom’s Jesus. Jesus cannot be the servant Isaiah was talking about.
In order to understand the exaltation of the servant, all we need to do is read the scriptures not more than three verses before the opening of this passage:
“Burst forth with joy, sing together O ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted His people He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has made bare His holy arm to the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:9,10)
A few verses later we read:
“Who would have believed our report and upon whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” (53:1)
The arm of the Lord spoken of in verse 53:1 is the same arm of verse 52:10. In both cases the arm is revealed upon (or for the sake of) God’s servant , and in both cases this revelation of the arm of the Lord allows the nations to see the salvation of the servant of God. This has not yet taken place. God promised that it will happen, and He repeated this promise many times. The revelation of God’s glory upon the people of Israel and their ultimate exaltation is a consistent theme throughout the prophecies of the Messianic era (Isaiah 4:5, 18:3, 24:23, 40:5, 52:10, 60:2,19, 61:3, 62:1, Jeremiah 3:17, 33:9, Ezekiel 37:28, Micha 7:16, Zephaniah 3:20, Psalm 98:3, 102:17).
When God’s glory will be revealed over the nation of Israel, to the shock and consternation of all who despised her, the world will suddenly understand Israel’s mission. Just as God’s glory appeared openly in Solomon’s Temple in a manner which gave the nation to understand that He had chosen this building as His sanctuary, so will God’s glory appear over Israel, allowing all of mankind to understand that Israel is God’s sanctuary (2 Chronicles 7:3, Ezekiel 37:27,28).
If all that God had wanted to accomplish through Israel was to create a resting place for Himself amongst His chosen nation – Israel would not have had to undergo the torturous exile through which they suffered. God
appointed Israel to serve as a sanctuary for His holiness toward all the nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:6 ). Israel’s mission is no less than the salvation of the world. In order to accomplish this mission Israel must suffer the refining pains of the exile, so that they can be purified to the degree that they serve as the vessel for God’s light. They must suffer not only for their own sins, but they must suffer a double measure (Isaiah 40:2), so that they can be purged for the sake of the nations as well. The task of creating a sanctuary for God here on earth belongs to the whole world, yet Israel must accomplish it by herself. Israel must be refined, not only for her own sins but for the sins of the nations as well. Israel suffers for the sins of the nations.
Israel’s mission is not only redemptive in a future sense. Throughout the exile, Israel bears the torch of morality and Godliness amongst nations that revile her for it. The refining process that Israel undergoes, fortifies her in her loyalty to God’s cause. Israel was God’s servant who taught the world that each human being belongs to God, and is not intrinsically subservient to any other entity. This teaching is the root of the philosophy of democracy. Israel bore God’s message to the world that the human being is capable of finding God’s truth in the realm of the physical and in the realm of the spiritual – influencing both the renaissance of science, and the ongoing reformation of the Church. And Israel suffered in order to remain loyal to the scriptural truth that the works of men can indeed find favor in God’s eyes – the concept that lies at the root of all civilization. It is through Israel’s suffering that the nations were healed even before Israel’s ultimate mission will be brought to fruition.
There is yet another scriptural teaching that sheds light on Israel’s suffering. The chastisement of Israel brought her to levels of righteousness that would otherwise have been inaccessible (Deuteronomy 8:3, Psalm 25:18, 94:12, Proverbs 3:11,12,). The moral giants that Israel produced were refined by the national experience. The faith of the simple-folk of our nation, who maintained an island of sanity in a depraved world that sought to destroy them, was forged in the crucible of anti-Semitism. At the same time that the Jewish people were being refined, the gentile nations around them were steeped in evil. Throughout history, the “moral beacons” of the gentile world – the Church, and the Mosque – spewed forth teachings of hatred and cruelty. Countless times throughout history, the gentile society did much to provoke God’s wrath. Like Sodom before them, God would have utterly destroyed them. But God found ten righteous people in the city that stayed His hand (Genesis 18:32). Where did God find these righteous people? There is no question that there were some righteous people amongst the gentiles. But in order to find ten, God probably had to look in the Jewish ghetto. The suffering that refined the Jewish people, brought healing to their gentile neighbors (Isaiah 53:5)