Isaiah, author of the longest book of prophecy in the Old Testament, clearly foretells Christ's suffering and death at the hands of His own people.
13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
14 As many were astonied [astonished] at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
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.
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.
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.
Two features of this grim account, describing the humiliation to be endured by Jehovah's righteous servant, leave no doubt that the subject is Christ.
- The righteous servant would be persecuted and punished unjustly, yet His final destiny would be to receive a "portion with the great" (Isa. 53:11-12). He would "be exalted and extolled" and "be very high" (Isa. 52:13). The wording aptly describes Christ's future position as ruler and sovereign of the world.
- The righteous servant would grow up as a "tender plant" (Isa. 53:2). The expression corresponds to a single word in Hebrew, a rare word that apparently means "tender branch," or "sucker" (1). Any doubt about the proper translation evaporates in light of the next phrase, which repeats the same thought. It compares the righteous servant to a burst of new growth pushing above ground from a dormant root. Thus, He would be like a branch springing up at ground level.
"Branch" is a common Old Testament name for Christ. In Isaiah 11:1, He is an offshoot of the "roots" and "stem" (actually, "stump") of Jesse (2). In Isaiah 53:2, He is a root emerging from "dry ground." Together, the two prophecies suggest that He comes surprisingly from a foundation stock which seems lifeless. The line of Davidic kings has been cut off, and Jesse has been reduced to a dead stump in a parched land. Yet from a royal line that has fallen from power, that no longer has a descendant on the throne of Israel, comes the great King who will rule all the earth.
Besides generally foretelling the humiliation of Christ, the passage contains twelve specific prophecies that came to pass in the course of Jesus' life and death.
1. Humility. "When we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (Isa. 53:2). The Hebrew word underlying "beauty" is normally translated "appearance" (3). The gist of the prophecy is that no one looking at Christ would imagine that He was a great man. There would be nothing in His face or dress to signify His future supremacy over all the earth.
The words were surely fulfilled in Jesus. He bore none of the marks of privilege. He owned none of the beauty attainable by people who live in easy circumstances. Rather, He was by trade a carpenter and by divine call an itinerant preacher. He had the rough hands and weathered face of a man accustomed to manual labor out-of-doors. He had the coarse clothing and grooming of a man who had no settled residence, but who slept often in the wilderness. He said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). This Jesus was no stylish fellow with cultured speech and manners. Hence, in fulfillment of prophecy, He failed to excite general admiration. Because men prize worldly rank and sophistication, they did not desire the lowly Jesus for their Lord and Master.
2. Rejection. "He is despised and rejected of men" (Isa. 53:3). "We hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (Isa. 53:3). Since the prophet is writing mainly to Israel, the pronoun "we" has restricted reference to Israel as well as broader reference to all mankind.
Indeed, the vast multitude of Jews did not accept Jesus as the Christ. The leaders of the nation conspired to kill Him (John 11:47-53), then scorned His claims when He entered Jerusalem triumphantly on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:15-16). At His trial, a mob of His countrymen thronged the place of judgment and called vehemently for His crucifixion (Luke 23:13-25).
3. Imprisonment and trial. "He was taken from prison and from judgment" (Isa. 53:8). That is, Christ would be taken to His death after He had been imprisoned and tried.
It is likely that Jesus was jailed for short intervals during the legal proceedings on the morning of His death. Luke's account of these proceedings suggests a short hiatus before daybreak.
63 And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him.
64 And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?
65 And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.
66 And as soon as it was day, the elders of the people and the chief priests and the scribes came together, and led him into their council, . . . .
During this hiatus, after Caiaphas had interviewed Jesus and before the Sanhedrin had convened to try Him, the authorities no doubt kept Him in a guarded place, perhaps in an actual prison.
Jesus underwent a series of trials: the first before a court comprised of Jewish leaders (Luke 22:66-71), the second before Pilate, Roman governor of Judaea (Luke 23:1-6), the third before Herod, ruler of Galilee (Luke 23:7-12), and the last before Pilate again (Luke 23:13-25).
4. Silence. "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" (Isa. 53:7). This prophecy tells expressly that after Christ had been arrested and taken into custody, He would keep silent before His accusers.
The Gospel accounts agree that in His several trials Jesus did not, for the most part, respond to the accusations brought against Him (Matt. 26:62; 27:13-14; Mark 14:61; 15:5; Luke 23:9; John 19:9). Pilate marveled that a man facing capital punishment refused to defend Himself (Mark 15:5).
If the Gospels were fictional works seeking to prove that Jesus was the Christ, they would represent Him as perfectly fulfilling Messianic prophecy. They would show Him scrupulously silent at His trials. In fact, however, they preserve some conversations between Jesus and the authorities. In each case, Jesus responded to a direct question that His judge had the authority to ask, demanding an answer. Yet, what Jesus said merely emphasized His silence otherwise. Although the authorities interrogated Him for hours, His recorded answers can be read in less than a minute.
5. Condemnation. "He hath poured out his soul unto death: he was numbered with the transgressors" (Isa. 53:12). Evidently, Christ would be convicted of a capital crime.
Indeed, at the insistence of the Jewish leaders, who alleged that Jesus' claims challenged Roman authority, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death for the crime of sedition (John 19:15-16, 19).
6. Scourging. "With his stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5). The word rendered "stripes" has singular form but collective meaning, referring to the welts raised by a lashing or scourging (4). An alternative translation is "strikes" (5).
The Roman practice before delivering a condemned malefactor to death by crucifixion was to scourge him first, perhaps so as to reduce the time that guards would need to stand duty before he died (6). According to custom, Pilate ordered a scourging for Jesus (Matt. 27:26; John 19:1). The scourging was done with a flagrum, a vicious implement consisting of several long leather strands studded with bone or metal (7).
7. Beating. "He was bruised for our iniquities" (Isa. 53:5). The term "bruised" means "crushed," or "beaten in pieces" (8). It vividly suggests a body mutilated by many blows.
During His trial, Jesus' enemies not only scourged Him; they also assaulted Him by blows with their hands. After He declared to the Sanhedrin that He was indeed the Christ, the Son of God,
65 Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy.
66 What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.
67 Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands,
68 Saying, Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?
The Jewish leaders then took Jesus to Pilate and insisted, over Pilate's objections, that Jesus be put to death. Fearful of pronouncing Jesus guilty of a capital offense, yet desirous of appeasing the Jewish leaders, Pilate decided to punish Him severely without taking His life.
1 Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
2 And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,
3 And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.
29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
30 And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.
In other words, besides hitting Jesus with their hands, the soldiers took a stick and drove the crown of thorns deeper into His skull. Later, of course, Pilate discovered that all this shameful abuse of Jesus did not slake the bloodthirsty appetite of the Jewish leaders. They still wanted Him dead. To prevent any complaint reaching His superiors, Pilate at last relented and gave Jesus over for crucifixion.
8. Piercing. "But he was wounded for our transgressions" (Isa. 53:5). Authorities agree that the word "wounded" is the passive form of a verb that means "to bore" or "to pierce" (9).
Jesus suffered many piercing wounds during His ordeal. Stout thorns dug into His skull (Matt. 27:29). Ugly spikes penetrated His hands and feet (John 20:20, 25). After He died, a Roman soldier made sure of His death by thrusting a spear into His side (John 19:34).
9. Disfigurement. "His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" (Isa. 52:14). A literal rendering clarifies the meaning. "So (much was) the disfigurement (of) His appearance away from man, and His form from sons of man" (10). In other words, the punishment heaped upon Christ would so disfigure His face and body that He would hardly look human. Another prophecy of Isaiah speaks more plainly of the assaults upon His face.
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
The great injury to His visage would therefore be due, at least in part, to the plucking of His beard.
This prophecy could easily have failed of fulfillment, since there are many forms of execution—beheading and hanging, for instance—that do not greatly disfigure the victim's face and body. Yet Jesus' body was mutilated by wound upon wound. He suffered, in succession, the wounds of a beating, of a scourging, of the crown of thorns on his head, of another beating (no doubt accompanied by the plucking of His beard), of bearing the load of a cross for some distance (Mark 15:20-21), of nails through His extremities, of prolonged struggle during crucifixion, and of a spear through His side.
10. Death by capital punishment. "He made his grave with the wicked" (Isa. 53:9). "He hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors" (Isa. 53:12). Thus, in two separate utterances, the prophet foresees that Christ would receive capital punishment for His imagined offenses.
Indeed, Jesus died under a judicial sentence of death.
11. Death alongside criminals. The same two utterances imply that Christ would die in the company of other condemned criminals.
These utterances were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified along with two others (Luke 23:32-33; John 19:18). On either side of His cross stood a cross bearing a condemned thief.
12. Burial with the rich. "And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death" (Isa. 53:9). The verse reads, literally, "And He put His grave with the wicked; and with a rich (man) in His death" (11). A shift in midcourse is indicated here. Although Christ would die with the wicked, something would happen so that, in a manner unbefitting His death, He would be buried with the rich.
All four Gospels state the facts of Jesus' burial in some detail (Matt. 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-41). They agree that the burial was managed by Joseph of Arimathaea, a wealthy man and a leader of the Jews. After obtaining Jesus' body from the Roman authorities, Joseph buried it in a new tomb that he had intended for his own use.
The Illogic of Other Interpretations
Critics deny that Isaiah's prophecy looks toward a future Messiah. In their interpretation of this prophecy, they divide into three camps.
First false interpretation. Some suppose that the righteous servant portrayed in Isaiah 52-53 is merely a figure for Israel. The prophet, they say, is lamenting that although God's chosen people have been a faithful witness to the world of His righteous law, the gentile nations have made them targets of scorn and persecution. When the prophecy is seen through the filter of this interpretation, the "iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6) that the servant undeservedly bears is merely the shameful conduct of all the gentile nations toward Israel. His "portion with the great" (Isa. 53:12) is Israel's future preeminence among the nations. "By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many" (Isa. 53:11) means that when Israel is exalted, she will instruct the nations and bring her former enemies to a knowledge of the truth.
Reply. How do we know that the righteous servant is not the nation of Israel?
- Throughout the Book of Isaiah, the prophet brands Israel as unrighteous. Here also, he says, "For the transgression of my people [that is, Israel] was he stricken" (Isa. 53:8).
- This same comment makes it plain that the servant is not Israel, but One who will suffer for the sake of Israel. Several other comments in the passage also treat Israel as distinct from the righteous servant. Isaiah names the rejecters of the servant as "all we" (Isa. 53:6). "All we" certainly includes Israel.
- Isaiah pictures the servant undergoing an ordinary process of growth to manhood (Isa. 53:2) and speaks of Him having a visage that others can see (Isa. 52:14). Evidently, He is a single man. The language is far-fetched if it is merely symbolic of a group of men.
Second false interpretation. Other critics argue that Isaiah is grandiosely referring to himself, or to all devout believers including himself, as the righteous servant.
Reply. This interpretation is also reckless with the wording.
- Isaiah says, "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isa. 53:6). Thus, he includes himself among those who need redemption. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the servant bears the iniquity of "us all" (Isa. 53:6). The only person excluded from "us all" is the stricken One Himself. The term specifically includes Isaiah and any group to which he belongs. Obviously, then, Isaiah sees himself not as righteous, but as unrighteous.
- Isaiah carefully distinguishes between himself and the righteous servant. He places himself among those who have looked upon the sin bearer with contempt (Isa. 53:3), and he admits that he is a straying sheep whose error has increased the load upon the sin bearer (Isa. 53:6). The prophet's message is surely not that he has rejected himself, or that he has redeemed himself by bearing his own sins.
Third false interpretation. Certain other critics imagine that the righteous servant is the Persian king Cyrus.
Reply. The only evidence for this interpretation is that the prophet once refers to Cyrus as God's "anointed" (Isa. 45:1). Unwilling to admit that a prophet in the eighth century B.C. knew the name of a king two centuries later, the critics maintain that Isaiah 40-66 was written after the sixth century B.C. But it is incredible that any writer looking back on Cyrus's career would have described it in the language of Isaiah 52-53. Cyrus, a pampered despot, was no maltreated "man of sorrows" (Isa. 53:3) taken "as a lamb to the slaughter" (Isa. 53:7). Nor was he so moral and honest that he might be called God's "righteous servant" (Isa. 53:11).