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The Public is fascinated by those who claim they can accurately predict the future. Those who dabble in even mundane predictions – the TV weather forecaster and the stockmarket analyst – draw the interest of people who are anxious to know about tomorrow.
Ancient Israel was home to some uncanny predictors. These were people chosen to speak for God concerning the future. They were the prophets. Certainly they spoke out against social injustice and ungodly living but occasionally they reported about events that had not yet taken place. If their prophecies proved wrong, the punishment was death. Anything less than literally 100 percent accuracy was worthy of execution by stoning.
One of these perfectly accurate prophets was Isaiah. The message that he preached was received through divine revelation. One part of this message concerned a particular person not yet born. The detailed description of this individual can be found in the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, teaching in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.1
Here was a man who would grow up before the Lord without any particular personal appeal. He would experience rejection and suffering. People would turn their backs to Him, not esteeming Him in any way. Some claim that the person Isaiah described was the nation of Israel. They support this by pointing to thousands of years of persecution that the Jewish people have experienced. It certainly is true that Israel has been rejected and has suffered, perhaps more than any other people. Yet when Isaiah declares, “we esteemed him not, “the prophet is identifying with a rejecting, not a rejected nation. It stands to reason that Israel is not rejecting herself. No, Isaiah was describing someone else.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.2
Whomever Isaiah sees as he records his prophecy would be called upon to carry “our sorrows.” This, even though our estimation was that he was “stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” The prophet claims that the punishment that would bring about peace for us would fall upon Him.
Although this idea of vicarious or substitutionary atonement is foreign to many today, it was the foundation of the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. In biblical times, indeed until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), the Levitical high priest would place his hands upon the head of a goat, and innocent animal and thus transfer the sins of God's people onto it. This annual event occurred on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment, he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.3
Isaiah goes on to state that this person would be like a lamb. He would be silent in suffering, neither complaining nor objecting on His own behalf. Yet He would be cut off from the land of the living.
…killed. Why? For the transgressions of Isaiah's own people to whom that very punishment was due. It was a clear case of the innocent dying on behalf of the guilty, a violent death wrought upon someone who was, Himself, not violent.
Not only was this certain someone born to die, but Isaiah gives further detail of that death. He would die among wicked men, yet He would be buried with the wealthy; a curious detail, yet one that more closely specifies that person described.
Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.4
Strange and even horrible as it might seem, it pleased the Lord to bruise and grieve this innocent person. It was not for sadistic pleasure, and it was not to vent Godly anger. But in this way the righteous servant, this truly sinless individual, could justify many. He would bear the iniquities of the nation who Isaiah referred to as “my people."
God Himself had given Isaiah this vivid picture. He had painted in detail a portrait of salvation, offering to those who would read in years to come the hope of justification with God, of being declared righteous in the eyes of the Holy one.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transessors.5
This Man would be given a reward for His sacrifice. He would not go uncompensated for having made intercession for sinners.
It is certainly a rare event and worthy of notice when someone is willing to die in another's place. This kind of altruism is not considered usual behavior. Modern-day examples of people who go on hunger fasts to call attention to social injustice are few and far between and usually make newspaper headlines. Yet Isaiah saw One who would come from humble beginnings and, through His death, accomplish the redemption of Israel and, ultimately, all mankind.
Who was this individual? He was the Messiah – Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus). He was born in a barn. He grew up the child of a poor carpenter. His beginnings were as unimpressive as Isaiah had reported. He claimed that He came to die for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, His own people. He suffered willingly, not resisting death. He experienced the execution of a common criminal, hanging on a cross between two thieves. Later He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who was apparently one of his followers. All this fulfills prophecy predicted more than 700 years earlier!
God knows of mankind's fascination with prediction, prognostication, and prophecy. He knew that in order for people to await and then finally to receive the Messiah, He must clearly predict Messiah's coming and purpose. He knew that this prophecy must be accurate in every detail. And in fulfilling our desire to know the future, God has given us each the perfect opportunity to respond.
Messiah came to carry our sorrows, to suffer in our place, to bring atonement to Israel and to redeem the world.
According to many rabbis, Isaiah was describing one of the roles of Messiah.6 And if he was not describing Yeshua, then he certainly seems to be describing someone whose birth, life and death precisely parallel Yeshua's.
In the B'rit Chadashah (the New Covenant) there is a description of a Jewish man named Philip. As he was traveling down a road that led south from Jerusalem toward Gaza, he came upon an Ethiopian convert to Judaism. The Ethiopian was reading the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. He asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”7 Philip answered unequivocally, “Yeshua of Nazareth.”
Philip understood that this prophecy of Isaiah saw its fulfillment in the birth, life and death of Yeshua. Because he did, he was able to share this important truth with a sincere seeker of God. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, today, as it did then, presents a vivid portrait, a clear prediction and a challenging prophecy concerning Yeshua of Nazareth to all who sincerely seek to know God.
1. Isaiah 53:1-3
2. Isaiah 53: 4-6
3. Isaiah 53:7-9
4. Isaiah 53:10, 11
5. Isaiah 53:12
6. References to the depiction of Messiah in Isaiah 53 include Jonathan Ben Uzziel (c. 1st century C.E.), Simon ben Yochai (the Zohar, c. 110 C.E.), Rabbi Nahman (Babylonian Talmud, Midrash Tanhuma); also Targums Yalkut II:338:7, the writings of Moses ben Maimon, Shimon Bar Yohai and so forth. In fact, it wasn't until the writings of Rashi that Other theories concerning the reference of Isaiah 53 began to become Popular among the rabbis.
7. Acts 8:34