Isaiah 53: Of Whom Does The Prophet Speak?
We present additional Jewish references that uphold the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53.
According to an ancient Jewish tale, God asked Messiah if he wanted to take upon himself the suffering for Israel’s sins. The Messiah replied,
“With gladness in my soul and with joy in my heart I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish; and not only those who will be alive should be saved in my days, but even the dead who have died from the days of Adam the First man until now.” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, citing Pesikta Rabbati, pp. 161a-b)
Sanhedrin 98b:The rabbis say: “The Leprous of the House of study is his name, as it is said, verily he has borne our diseases and our pains - he carried them and we thought him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.”
According to another legend, Elijah will take the head of the dead Messiah Ben David, placing it on his lap and say: “Endure the suffering and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.”
The story then concludes with a quotation from Isaiah 53:5: “… he was wounded for our transgressions.” (Patai, The Messiah Texts, p.115)
Midrash Rabbah on Ruth 2:14: He is speaking of the King Messiah: “Come hither” draw near to the throne and “dip thy morsel in the vinegar,” this relates to the chastisements as it is said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”
Midrash Tanhuma, Parasha Toldot, (end of section), states: “Who art thou, O great mountain?” (Zech. 4:7) This refers to King Messiah. And why does he call him the “great mountain?” Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.” He will be higher than Abraham who said, “I raise high my hand unto the Lord” (Gen. 14:22), lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, “Lift it up into thy bosom” (Num. 11:12), loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, “Their wheels were lofty and terrible” (Ezek. 1:18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.
Jewish educator Herz Homberg (1749-1841) states: According to Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, “He was wounded for our transgressions?” Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried out the sickness and borne the pain? The fact is that it refers to the King Messiah.
Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman) (13th c.) notes: “The right view respecting this Parasha is to suppose that by the phrase ‘my servant’ the whole of Israel is meant... As a different opinion, however, is adopted by the Midrash which refers to the Messiah, it is necessary for us to explain it in conformity with the view there maintained. The prophet says, The Messiah, the son of David of whom the text speaks, will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies. And, in fact the text teaches this clearly... And by his stripes we are healed - because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us; God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.” (S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, ed., The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters [2 volumes, NY; Klav, 1969], p. 78 f.)
The Karaite Yefeth ben Ali (10th c.) states: As to myself, I am inclined, with Benjamin of Newahend to regard it as alluding to the Messiah, and as opening with a description of his condition in exile, from the time of his birth to his ascension to the throne: For the prophet begins by speaking of his being seated in a position of great honour, and then goes back to relate all that will happen to him during the captivity. He thus gives us to understand two things: In the first instance, that the Messiah will only reach his highest degree of honour after long and severe trials; and secondly, that these trials will be sent upon him as a kind of sign, so that, if he finds himself under the yoke of misfortunes whilst remaining pure in his actions, he may know that he is the desired one... (Ibid., pp.19-20)
Again from Ali: By the words “surely he hath carried our sicknesses,” they mean that the pain and sickness which he fell into were merited by them, but that he bore them instead... And here I think it necessary to pause for a few moments, in order to explain why God caused these sicknesses to attach themselves to the Messiah for the sake of Israel... The nation deserved from God greater punishment than that which actually came upon them, but not being strong enough to bear it...God appoints his servant to carry their sins, and by doing so lighten their punishment in order that Israel might not be completely exterminated. (Ibid., p. 23, f.)
And, “And the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The prophet does not say avon meaning iniquity, but punishment from iniquity, as in the passage, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” (Num. Xxxii. 23) (Ibid., p. 26)
Maimonides himself affirmed the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53. (Ibid., vol.1, p. 322)
Finally, the idea that God would place the sins of Israel upon an innocent man is alluded to in this Midrash: Moses spake before the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘Will not a time come upon when Israel will have neither Tabernacle nor Temple? What will happen to them (as regards atonement)?’ He replied, ‘I will take a righteous man from amongst them and make him a pledge on their account, and I will atone for their iniquities.’ (Midrash on Exodus 35:4)
Hence, there can be not one single doubt remaining as to whom Isaiah speaks of: namely, the Messiah whose name is Jesus. Another attempt to avoid the messianic overtones of these biblical passages is the argument that the passages in question speak of these events as having already been transpired. These prophecies are in the past, and therefore cannot be referring to the future advent of the Messiah. The problem with this argument is that biblical Hebrew does not have a past tense since it is not a “tense” language. Hebrew scholars have come to recognize that biblical Hebrew is an “aspectual” language. This implies that the same form of the verb can be translated as past, present, or future depending on the context and various grammatical constructions.
Hence, it is simply wrong to argue that because these prophecies are spoken of as having already transpired that it does not refer to the Messiah. In fact, there are many examples in the Hebrew Bible where the “past tense” form (called “the perfective” or “perfect”) is used for future time. In support of this, we quote the following Rabbis and Grammarians:
David Kimchi on the prophets’ use of the perfect tense for future events: “The matter is as clear as though it had already transpired.” (Kimchi, Sefer Mikhlol as cited in Bruce K. Waltke and Michael Patrick O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax [Winona Lake, IN; Eisenbrauns, 1990], p.64, n. 45)
Rabbi Isaac Ben Yedaiah (13th c.): [The rabbis] of blessed memory followed, in these words of theirs, in the paths of the prophets who speak of something which will happen in the future in the language of the past. Since they saw in prophetic vision that which was to occur in the future, they spoke about it in the past tense and testified firmly that it had happened, to teach the certainty of his [God’s] words- may he be blessed- and his positive promise that can never change and his beneficent message that will not be altered. (Marc Saperstein, “The Works of Rabbi Isaac b. Yedaiah.” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1977, pp. 481-82 as cited by Robert Chazan in Daggers of Faith [Berkeley; UC Press, 1989], p. 87)
Contemporary Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna on Exodus 12:17: “This is an example of the ‘prophetic perfect.’ The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that time factor is inconsequential.” (Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation [Philadelphia; Jewish Publication Society, 1991], p. 59)
Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (sec. 106n, pp. 312-3113): More particularly the uses of the perfect may be distinguished as follows:-... To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Nu 17:27, behold we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gn 30:13, Is. 6:5 (I am undone), Pr 4:2... This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him, e.g. Is 5:13 therefore my people have gone into captivity; 9:1ff., 10:28, 11:9...; 19:7, Jb 5:20, 2 Ch. 20:37. Not infrequently the imperfect interchanges with such perfects either in the parallel member or further on in the narrative.