Was Jesus the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53?
“I have been discussing the Bible with a Jewish gentleman. I have tried to show him that the prophecies of Isaiah 53 were fulfilled by Jesus. He claims, however, that since the term ‘death’ (vs. 9) is a plural term, this excludes an individual person (Christ) from the focus of the passage. How would one respond to this?”
It is unfortunate that some today, of Hebrew lineage, have a veil of bias upon their hearts that obscures their vision as to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the promised Messiah of Old Testament fame. But such was the case with their ancestors as well (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14). Truly, a “hardening in part has befallen Israel” (Rom. 11:25).
It requires an egregious mishandling of the Old Testament text not to see that the one who is characterized as Jehovah’s “servant” (cf. Isa. 52:13), in this portion of Isaiah’s scroll, is an individual person, and not the nation of Israel —as some Jews have claimed.
A casual survey of the English Bible reveals the use of singular, masculine pronouns with reference to that servant in the following forms —“he” (18 times); “his” (13 times), and “him” (10 times). That adds up to 41 personal pronouns in a dozen verses that pertain to the main subject of the prophecy. The fact is, this “servant” plainly is set in contrast to the Israelite “people” in verse 8.
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?” (emp. added)
What, then, is the significance of the plural “dead” in verse 9? Here is the passage in full:
“And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death [pl. deaths].”
Consider the following.
Whatever may be said regarding the plural form “deaths,” such will in no way militate against the dual use of the pronoun “his” in this very sentence. However, there are several idiomatic possibilities as to why the prophet may have employed a plural term in this instance.
(1) Some see the plural as an expression of “intensity,” signifying “the condition of death,” in contrast with “in life” (Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972, III, p. 353).
(2) Others, with a somewhat similar thrust, see the plural as expressing an intensity of glory, i.e., “his supreme, wondrous death” (J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, p. 337).
(3) This plural also is viewed as suggesting a “violent death” or a “martyr’s” death (Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, C.A. Briggs, Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, London: Oxford University Press, 1907, p. 560). In this connection see Ezekiel 28:8,10 where “death” in the plural is employed of violent activity.
(4) A similar expression is found in the book of Job. The patriarch, responding to a speech of Zophar, says, of the evil man, “he shall be borne to the grave [pl. graves]” (21:32). The plural here may indicate merely the realm of the dead.
It is therefore clear that there are several reasonable explanations for the plural “deaths” in Isaiah 53:9. There is no justification for resorting to textual manipulation in order to avoid the obvious interpretation, namely that a solitary person and his death are in view.
Aside from the foregoing, Peter, in his first epistle, quotes from Isaiah 53:9 and makes the application to Jesus (1 Pet. 2:22). While this would carry no weight with a modern Jew, this compelling point should be made.
The Jews of the first century were expecting a Messiah who would slay their foes and lift them up into a magnificent new political regime. The concept of a crucified Savior was wholly foreign to the general expectation of the first-century Hebrew (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). It would require overwhelming evidence to persuade a Jew, such as Peter (particularly with his resistant temperament), that Jesus of Nazareth was the “servant” of Isaiah 53. And yet, he was convinced of that reality —so convinced, in fact, that he was willing to die for that conviction (Lk. 22:33; cf. Jn. 21:18-19).
The quibble under review, therefore, is without substance. The identification of Jesus of Nazareth, as the leading character of Isaiah 53, remains irrefutable.
Scripture references: Isaiah 53; Romans 11:25; Isaiah 52:13; Ezekiel 28:8, 10; Isaiah 53:9; 1 Peter 2:22; Luke 22:33; John 21:18-19