Isaiah 53 arouses lots of enthusiasm in missionary Christians.  They smirk and wink, and say things like, "Well, who does THAT sounds like, eh?"  Some think that because (in their minds) it so clearly points to Jesus that we Jews deliberately avoid reading it.  One writer even says (and I quote) "Although Hebrew-to-English translators have labored mightily to obscure (Isaiah 53) meaning, it has been almost impossible to do so. Instead, Jews simply ignore it. It's never read by Jews -- never."  (

In spite of this missionary certainty, there are both translation and contextual problems with their interpretation.

The chapter describes a servant ("eved") whose condition is not happy -- a "suffering servant.".  The central question is, who is this servant.  To answer this question we need to know who is the  speaker of the different verses.  Christians assume that the speaker in Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel or, even more generally, is all of us.  However, by starting with the previous chapter, where this particular episode about the "servant" actually begins, we see in verse 15 that the speakers are the kings of other nations.


Biblical text


Isaiah 52 (KJV) 9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God. 11 Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. 12 But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard. A narrator, probably either G-d or the prophet Isaiah
13  See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. This speaker must be G-d.
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-- 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. Probably G-d still speaking here.
Isaiah 53 (KJV)1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? 2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. These are the words of the kings mentioned in Isaiah 52:15.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Either G-d or the kings are speaking here.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. G-d speaking here.

The first problem with relating all this to Jesus is that the KJV of Chapter 53 has several translation problems.  Verses 3 and 4 speak of the servant's "grief" but the Hebrew word here is "choli" -- "sick"  Verse 3 says "we hid as it were our faces," as if the speakers were embarrassed by the servant' appearance, but the Hebrew "mistar" is singular -- the suffering servant arouses contempt just like someone who hides his face. Verse 5 speaks of "stripes," a specific wound resulting from a whipping, but the Hebrew "heverto" is more general -- bruise or injury -- without reference to whip marks.  Verse 6 in the KJV reads "the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" but the grammatical structure suggests "wounded him with our sin," the  implication being -- not that the servant took on the responsibility for someone else's sin, but rather that what someone else did hurt the servant.

The Jews for Judaism analysis of Isaiah 53 makes these additional points about translation: in verse five, rather than "But he was wounded from (NOTE: not for) our transgressions, he was crushed from (AGAIN: not for) our iniquities." the prefix "mem" means "from," not "for", i.e. the speakers of the verse hurt the servant, not that he was punished by G-d as a substitute for them.  In verse 11, the Hebrew "yatsdeek" means "will make just" (by bringing the Torah), not "will justify (someone's sins by taking their punishment)."

If you incorporate these different translations into the text, you get a markedly different impression.  "He hurt a lot and knew what sickness was" just does not sound like"A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief."  "We despised him as someone who hid his face" does not mean the same as "we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised."  In short, the almost reflex identification of the chapter with Jesus depends on the translation of the text -- not on the text itself. And to see that in fact the text does not refer to Jesus, we need only to examine the ...

The second problem is that Jesus doesn't fit several of the details in the chapter.  a) As mentioned above, Jesus was never sick.  Some say that he was sick during the crucifixion, but physical trauma (e.g. execution) is not considered sickness in the normal sense of the word.  b) Jesus was not buried with the wicked.  One cannot even say he died with the wicked since the Hebrew "rashaeem" is plural and, according to the crucifixion story, one of the thieves next to him ended up in heaven and so was not wicked.  c) Jesus did not have long life.  Missionaries say he had long life in heaven, but that, again, is stretching the meaning of the word.  d) verse 9 "Nor was there deceit in his mouth." doesn't apply because, according to the gospel accounts, Jesus lied to his family about going to Jerusalem. (John 7:8-10), and lied in saying that he never taught in secret (see John 18:20, vs. Matt. 16:20, Mark 8:30 and others).  Contrary to verse 2, Jesus is never described as physically unattractive; b) far from being rejected and despised as verse 3 says, the Gospel writers describe him as being popular; c) contrary to verse 7, Jesus did a lot of talking; and d) instead of being non-violent (verse 9), Jesus overturned tables, chased people from their jobs, and promised to bring swords.

So then, while the first impression on reading a Christian translation of Isaiah 53 may be to think of Jesus, looking deeper shows that the Hebrew text does not sound like Jesus, and the context shows shows many differences from what the Christian Bible says about Jesus.

Who then is the servant?  Though some Jewish scholars have said he will be the Messiah, more likely the chapter does not refer to an individual person at all.  Isaiah himself identifies Israel as the servant of HaShem:

Christians have many objections to the idea that Israel itself is the subject of Chapter 53:


Christian Objection Jewish Response
The servant is repeatedly referred to an an individual. Tanach often describes tribes and countries as if they were one person, usually the founder.
Israel is not silent, "as a lamb to the slaughter" During the Holocaust Jews were described in just those terms, going to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter.
The servant "had done no violence". The lack of violence need not be absolute, but can refers to the reason for them being slaughtered.  The Jews had done none of the violence the Nazi's had accused them of.
V 4 -- Israel cannot itself bear its own griefs The speaker in the first nine or ten verses is the neighboring kings.  Israel carries their griefs, not its own.

Isaiah 53, then, continues the theme of prior chapters: Israel is the servant of God.  It will suffer at the hands of other nations, but through that suffering will be able to bring the Torah -- and its salvation (though not in the Christian sense of the word) -- to everyone.  Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, it is completely consistent with the text.  However, the idea that Jesus is this suffering servant is not consistent with the text.


To summarize -- Isaiah 53 says:  The neighboring kings confess: They (Israel) bore the suffering which we deserved, while we thought them afflicted by God; that the sufferer described (i.e., Israel) grew up in the presence of God, as a root out of the dry ground; that he was despised and rejected; that his countenance was so marred as scarce to retain the human form; that he (i.e., some Israelites) actually suffered as martyrs; that he (i.e., therefore, these who died or who were exiled) actually suffered death, and was buried with the rich; that kings (when the messiah came) would acknowledge him (Israel); and that he should intercede for the transgressors.


My own translation follows.  I've adapted it mainly from the Davka translation with specifics [added in brackets] and some uncertain meanings indicated with (?).  I'm no scholar, especially in Biblical Hebrew, but this is what I think the prophet is saying.  If you disagree, let me know the specifics of why.

Chapter 53

  1. [The kings say], "Who would have believed our report, and to whom was the arm [intention(?)] of  Hashem  revealed?
  2. And he came up like a sapling before him [i.e. G-d(?)], and like a root from dry ground.  He had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw nothing describable or handsome.
  3. Men despised and rejected him, a man of pains and familiar with sickness.  And we despised him like one who hides his face [lit. face is secret] from us, and didn't think much of him.
  4. Indeed, he bore our sicknesses, and suffered our pains, and we thought him stricken by God and oppressed.
  5. And he was [left(?)] violated from our crimes, and crushed from our iniquities; rebuke [for] our welfare was on him, and with his bruise we were healed.
  6. We all went astray like sheep, we have each turned to our own path, and Hashem wounded him with the sinful doings (?)] of all of us.
  7. He was persecuted and tortured, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb lead to the butcher or like a ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he did not open his mouth.
  8. From imprisonment and from judgment he was taken, and who will discuss with his generation how he was cut off from the land of the living, because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them.
  9. And he gave his grave to the wicked and to the wealthy.  With his death he committed no wrong, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 1
  10. And Hashem wanted to crush him and make him ill; if his soul places [itself] a guilt [offering(?) - i.e. for the sins of the kings], he shall see children, prolong his days, and Hashem's purpose shall succeed by his hand."
  11. [Hashem says] "From the toil of his soul he would see, would be satisfied.  With his knowledge [i.e. of Torah(?] My righteous servant would make many righteous, and he would tolerate their wrongdoings.
  12. Therefore, I will distinguish him from many, and with the enormous he shall share plunder, because he poured out his soul to death, and was counted with sinners, and he carried many sins, and was (will be?) vulnerable to sinners."


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