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My question is concerning a supposed prophecy that appears to be about Jesus, but a closer look has clued me into something astounding, which was never discussed in church.

According to biblical experts, the text was written roughly 700 years before the birth of Jesus. I can rightly rule out Jesus as having done anything prior to his birth that the prophet could have recorded using the past tense. My conclusion is that Isaiah was using the past tense to describe events that had already happened, in his lifetime or earlier. Does the past tense refer to Jesus having suffered 700 years before his birth, or did the events described occur in the past, relative to Isaiah’s time?

Isaiah 53, King James Version (KJV)

53 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.

11 Answers 11

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Isaiah did not write in the past tense. Biblical Hebrew does not employ tenses in the same way as English or Greek do. Isaiah wrote this chapter in perfect aspect ie he saw the actions of the verbs as whole/ complete without respect to their timing1

Prophecy is often presented in the perfect aspect as it is direct revelation from God the actions are not been viewed in relation to time but certainty of accomplishment2.

1 based on by Heiser, M. S., & Setterholm, V. M. (2013; 2013). In Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press.

2 see here for more information on the prophetic perfect

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Rabbi David Kimchi (דוד קמחי), also known as RaDaK (רד"ק), who lived from 1160–1235 A.D., wrote this in his Sefer Mikhlol concerning the usage of the past tense in prophecies (which naturally concern future events):1

David Kimchi, Sefer Mikhlol, Folio 12b, Venice: Bomberg, 1545

ותדע כי מנהג העוברי׳ בלשון הקדש להשתמש בו עבד במקום עתיד שהן אותיות א״יתן וזה בנבואות ברוב כי הדבר ברור כמו אם עבר כי כבר נגזר׳

And you should know that it is a typical behavior of the past tense verbs in the holy language to use a past tense verb in place of a future tense verb (which are [indicated by] the letters איתן), and this is mostly in prophecies because the matter is clear as if it passed, because it has already been decreed.

In regards to the servant passages of Isaiah, many do indeed refer to the nation of Israel, but at least one of them, Isaiah 49:1–9, cannot. In Isa. 49:3, the servant is certainly named “Israel,” yet this same servant is supposed to “bring back Jacob to” Yahveh,2 “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel.”3 If the servant named Israel is supposed to restore the preserved of Israel, then the scripture must be referring to two entities named Israel. The nation of Israel cannot bring itself back; the nation of Israel cannot raise itself; the nation of Israel cannot restore itself. Those labors and works are specifically assigned to the Messiah.4 It is the Messiah who is named Israel in Isa. 49:3, named after his ancestor Israel, just as he is elsewhere named after his ancestor David.5 The servant named Israel in Isa. 49:3 is thus the Messiah, while the Israel is he is supposed to restore is the nation itself.


Footnotes

1 Folio 12b—יב
2 Isa. 49:5
3 Isa. 49:6
4 Isa. 11:11–12
5 cf. Jer. 30:9; Eze. 34:23, 37:24

References

Kimchi, David (דוד קמחי). Sefer Mikhlol (ספר מכלול). Venice: Bomberg, 1545.

  • Thank you, this was the answer that immediately came to mind, but your source for it is better than i could have expected. – Joshua Mar 23 '15 at 14:19
  • Does the Radak specifically apply this analysis to Isaiah 53? – Bruce James Mar 23 '15 at 17:35
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    @BruceJames: It's a general statement. After all, Sefer Mikhlol is a grammar, as you know, not a commentary on any particular book of the Tanakh. – user862 Mar 23 '15 at 18:08
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You are correct that Isaiah wrote for his times and without knowledge of the Christian future. Daniel I Block says in 'My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah', published in Israel’s Messiah (edited by Hess and Carroll), page 22, that in trying to know whether the Israelites of the Old Testament actually understood the Messiah in our terms, it seems we have sometimes imposed on texts meanings and/or significance that go beyond authorial intent.

There are four passages in the Book of Isaiah that are known as 'Servant Songs' (Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6,50:4-11, 52:13-53:12). In these passages, God promises to choose a servant who will teach his true way to the nations. Bruce Feiler says in Where God Was Born, page 314, that in some verses, the servant appears to be a person, in others a group, in some a real figure and in others imaginary. The only time the ‘servant’ is named, the reference is to Israel.

Feiler says they are a focus of dispute between Jews and Christians. Jews have always insisted that the Servant Songs do not refer to Jesus, and this view is strongly supported in those instances where the 'servant' is clearly not a real person. On the other hand, Christians have seen the Servant Songs as prophecies of Jesus.

Of all the Servant Songs, the fourth (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is the one most suited to prophecy of Jesus. Wikipedia says there is no clear identification for the 'servant' within this song, but that the song could refer to either an individual or a group and, if a group, then likely the nation of Israel. The great medieval Jewish scholar, Rashi, says in comment on Isaiah 53:3, "The custom of this prophet: he mentions all Israel as one man." Because of its references to the vicarious sufferings of the servant, many Christians believe this song to be among the Messianic prophecies of Jesus. Some Jews also interpret this passage as a Messianic prophecy, but of a messiah yet to come.

We can be sure that the author did not have Jesus in mind when he wrote Isaiah chapter 53.

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    I think the last and first sentences are a matter of opinion. The rest is pretty good. – 2055 Mar 22 '15 at 21:48
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    Agreed, when it comes to prophecy, what the author had in mind isn't the be all end all. It may partially matter especially in its immediate fulfillment, but the prophecy can have more meaning than the prophet knew. – Joshua Mar 23 '15 at 14:17
  • Sir, then it would also be good to know to whom did the author refer to in regards to Ishiah 61:1-3, which Jesus himself used? have any idea, or will it be a good question if I ask? – servantofWiser May 11 '15 at 21:20
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    @servantofWiser Please be aware that Isaiah ch 56-66 were not actually written by Isaiah, son of Amoz, but by an anon. author after return from Babylonian Exile and then subsequently added to Isaiah's book. Look at the wording of 61:1-3 from viewpoint of a recently freed people to whom this author was writing. – Dick Harfield May 12 '15 at 0:04
  • How do you know that the prophet didn't have knowledge of the Christian future? That seems like a very arrogant statement. – diego b Jan 7 '18 at 1:38
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Jason:

If you assume that the prophecy in Isaiah 53 actually begins at Isaiah 52:13 -- a line that uses the future tense -- then the text will read much differently than taught in church.

We need to start at chapter 52 because the person described in chapter 53 is just described as "he." Who is "he"? Verse 52:13 begins the narration saying, "Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and extolled and be very high" (emphasis added). In Hebrew, the text is as follows: הִנֵּה יַשְׂכִּיל עַבְדִּי יָרוּם וְנִשָּׂא וְגָבַהּ מְאֹד.

So now we know that the person described as a suffering individual in chapter 53 is God's "servant." But who is that?

Let's trace our steps a little further. In Isaiah 41:8 the identity of the "servant" is answered: "But Israel is my servant." The next line, Isaiah 41:9, adds some more: "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you away." Just so we shouldn't miss the point, Isaiah quotes G-d saying: "Fear not, My servant Jacob, and Jeshurun whom I have chosen." (Is 44:2); "Remember these, O Jacob; and Israel, for you are My servant; I formed you that you be a servant to Me, Israel, do not forget Me. (Is 44:21); "For the sake of My servant Jacob, Israel My chosen one." (Is. 45:4); and "You are My servant, Israel about whom I will boast." (Is 49:3). Get it? Israel -- not a person -- is the servant whose suffering is predicted in Isaiah 53. Certainly we Jews have suffered through our years on this earth. G-d also promises that we will do well: See Isaiah 52:12-15 ("12.For not with haste shall you go forth and not in a flurry of flight shall you go, for the Lord goes before you, and your rear guard is the God of Israel. 13. Behold My servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and he shall be very high.")

Let's return to Isaiah 52:13. Note it says that God's servant "shall prosper, he shall be exalted ...." This is a future tense construction! Yet, all of the descriptions of the servant in Chapter 53 are in the past tense, as you noted. Can it be that the servant is someone who already has suffered in Isaiah's time, and who may continue to suffer for a time, but ultimately, at some future time, he will prosper and be exalted and extolled very highly? Well, since Isaiah already gave it away in previous verses, it applies to the Jewish people who, in Isaiah's time suffered at the hands of enemy nations, and continued to suffer well after that into our present time. Rashi, the famous Jewish commentator from France (1049-1105), writes in his commentary to Isaiah 52:13 that the servant here and moving forward is indeed the righteous among the people of Israel.

Rashi's commentary is not the first to suggest this. The Third Century Christian scholar, Oreigen, noted in his Contra Celsum that according to the Jews of his day, the prophesies of Isaiah 53 "referred to the whole people as though a single individual." He said:

I remember that once in a discussion with some whom the Jews regard as learned I used these prophecies [Isaiah 52:13-53:8]. At this the Jew said that these prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten, that as a result of the scattering of the Jews among the other nations many might become proselytes. In this way he explained the text: “Thy form shall be inglorious among men”; and “those to whom he was not proclaimed shall see him”; “being a man in calamity.” (Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Book 1.55, 1965, p. 50.)

Another perspective regarding these chapters is that the Messiah will indeed suffer as do all righteous men and women in their generations. Why do they suffer? One view brought down in the Talmud (Brachot 5a) is that some people in the world live lives of relative sin for which their punishments in this world would be great. But God understands that many people would not react to Divine punishment with greater faith in God; they might even lose faith. Accordingly, the rabbis believed that God lightened such people's punishments but put them instead upon righteous Jews. These are called "afflictions of love" and are given to the righteous because it is assumed that they will understand that receiving punishment from God is an act of love, just as a punishment given by a father to a child is given with love so that the child will learn and grow. Righteous Jews in every generation have suffered greatly, either from external causes such as the Holocaust, or from grave and painful illnesses, lack of children, and more. The view along this line says that the Messiah would naturally suffer like any other righteous Jew. So even if we take this position that the Messiah will be a "suffering servant" by and of itself, that fact is not very helpful for purposes of identification of the Messiah as many righteous people suffer.

Regarding H3br3wHamm3r81's answer citing Rabbi David Kimchi (aka the "Redak"), I would note that the answer is correct generally speaking -- where Scripture uses the Hebrew past tense in prophecy, and avoids using the future tense, then the Redak's analysis is on point. But where, as here at Isaiah 52:13, part of the prophecy clearly uses the future tense, then we can assume that where it slips into the past tense, it is describing something that has already occurred.

  • Could the change in tense not be understood as a shifting point. Yes it is one larger section, but within it the change in tense could, at the least, be for added emphasis specific to the chapter 53 passage? Even if the overall section speaks of Israel, this smaller emphasized section stands out as something more? I admit i cannot think of an exact instance, but often it seems psalms and prophecies will break off into tangents that seem related at first but a few details jump out and you realize he's not taking about what you think anymore. – Joshua Mar 23 '15 at 16:57
  • @JoshuaBigbee Remember that the paragraph numbering came long after Isaiah wrote the book, placed there by Stephen Langston, the Archbishop of Cantebury, in the early 13th century -- about 2000 years after Isaiah. His decisions where to break up the book do not necessarily have any meaning, and often are contrary to the way the text was written (he often made a chapter break in the middle of a block of text -- as it appeared in the scroll -- rather than at the end of the block. – Bruce James Mar 23 '15 at 17:34
  • I'm aware of that and it's exactly my question. That the change in tense could be the natural point of change. Regardless of numbering. My references to any chapter were just too echo your own usage for understandings sake. – Joshua Mar 23 '15 at 17:37
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In Isaiah 25:9,27:6,Jeremiah 43:10 God calls Nebuchadrezzar "My Servant". He calls His prophets His servants (Jeremiah 29:19,35:15, 44:4), and to say that He is specifically speaking in this chapter of Israel is something that has been inferred by many into the text.

Zechariah 3:8 is a Messianic prophecy of His servant the BRANCH. *8 Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, thou, and thy fellows that sit before thee: for they are men wondered at: for, behold, I will bring forth MY SERVANT the BRANCH.

*9 For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua; upon one stone shall be seven eyes: behold, I will engrave the graving thereof, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.

Isaiah 53:5 shows how he will remove the iniquity of that land in one day: *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.

All of Isaiah 11 is a prophecy referring to the BRANCH: *1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

Verse 10 says that the Gentiles will seek after Him, verse 11 declares that this Root of Jesse will return a SECOND time to gather the remnant.

Isaiah 53:10 tells us of this one that was put to death (vs9} will see his seed, which is in future tense form (naphsho yireh zerah)

It appears that many times His Messianic prophecies are written in past tense, speaking to those in the future, as in today, who will look at it as something that has already happened. In His eyes it HAS already happened, as He is not stuck in time and dwells in eternity

Micah 5:2 is a Messianic prophecy which says that He is from old, from days everlasting. Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6 are both Messianic prophecies which are written in past tense. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be" (Ecclesiastes 1:9) In the Brit Chadishah Y'shua is referred to as "The Lamb of God slain BEFORE the foundation of the world".

Isaiah 52:15, which goes with Isaiah 53 speaks that the Servant will sprinkle many nations. Ninety percent of the times that it speaks in the Torah about sprinkling it is referring to sprinkling blood. The other times it is sprinkling the water of separation, and twice with ashes. Moses sprinkled the Book and the people ratifying the Covenant of Moses. Isaiah 52:15 is speaking of the sprinkling of the nations to ratify the Jeremiah 31 New Covenant.

*Zechariah 9:11 As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water

If Isaiah 53 is speaking of Israel, and not "The Branch", then what would stop the people of today from wanting to kill Israel, as it would make their soul an offering for sin, or to wound them whenever someone transgresses.

This is the SERVANT who was formed from the womb (as in Isaiah 9:6) to raise the tribes of Jacob to Him and to restore Israel,and to be a Light to the Gentiles.

*Isaiah 49:5 And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his SERVANT, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength

For one to say that this is speaking of Israel, and not His Servant the BRANCH, does not agree with the text in any logical way, nor with the rest of the prophecies in the Tanach.

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The "branch" and "root of Jesse" (Isaiah 11:1 and 10) are NOT messianic titles, and there is no evidence that they are messianic in any of the texts where they ever appear. Context shows that they are a metaphor for the offspring of Israel. See Isaiah 6:13 and Isaiah 60:21: "Then will all your people be righteous and possess the land for ever. They are the SHOOT I have planted.." Nowhere is "shoot", "branch" or "root" given as a messianic title or metaphor. God is seen as planting the Jews/the shoot there.

Isaiah 53 is NOT about a messiah (the "servant" is not associated or linked with "messiah" except in the case of messiah Cyrus of Persia in Isaiah chapter 45 - nowhere else). The "servant" is potentially all the Jews, but in chapter 53, Isaiah focuses on the obedient ones or remnant of Israel, so the obedient Jews suffer as the servant without complaint for God's purpose (which is leading the Gentiles to acknowledge their iniquity against the Jews, as they witness God vindicating them by bringing them back to the land of Israel). But the "servant" is still the Jews, and not an individual. It is not abut a messiah. Isaiah 53:5 is better translated from the Hebrew as: "He was pierced BECAUSE OF our transgressions (rather than "for"), he was crushed BECAUSE OF our iniquities" The Hebrew conveys no sense of substitutionary sacrifice or suffering on behalf of others. No atoning sacrifice is implied. In any case, SUFFERING NEVER atones for some one else's sin anywhere in the Tenach, and Ezekiel 18:20 refutes the Christian notion. The blood sacrifice was always to be be given a swift death (slitting the throat), and the sacrifice cannot be offered by pagan Romans! A Jewish priest must administer it. The Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 breaches ALL biblical protocol for sacrifice, rendering it pagan. Jesus is not in view anywhere in the book of Isaiah.

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No.

Isaiah 53 is in regards to Israel.

There are 4 parts to the Suffering Servant throughout the book of Isaiah and all refer to the nation and peoplenof Israel in all cases. Context proves this.

Also, up until relatively recent times, the books of the Tanakh (what you would refer to as the Old Testament) did not have chapter divisions. Those were added only a few hundred years ago. To gain actual context of the 53rd chapter you have to actually go back a "chapter" to understand context.

Jesus is not mentioned or hinted at anywhere in the Tanakh.

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Several of the Jewish apologists in this blog have stated that the suffering servant is not an individual but is rather referring to the nation of Israel or even to a righteouds remnant of that Nation of Israel, collectively. Indeed some passages do appear to name the Messiah as Israel. This is not unexpected or unprecedented. The Tanakh and even the New Testament sometimes personifies a large group as an individual and vice a versa. All of Israel is sometimes referred to as an individual named Jakob. The new testament refers to Adam executively as humanity. But the argument, all be it well made, is that Isaiah 53 has been hijacked out of context, must be expanded rather than rejected. All the sacred scripture is taken as one message. One must look at all Messianic prophecies alike. Zechariah Chapter 12, for example, refers to a time when Israel, that is the nation and ethnic group, would be struck ( in verse 10) by a spirit of Grace and pleas for Mercy, as they look upon me (the Lord), him whom they have pierced, and mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a first born. It would appear then that the notion of Isaiah referring to the Messiah as a group would have to be modified buy this verse. How else could the group look upon themselves as an individual, if, in fact, they are mourning for the messiah whom they have pierced?

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The Church Fathers would say, ‘Yes’. For example,

St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, Book I, Ch. IX

Who, then, is He by the wound of Whose stripes we are healed but Christ the Lord? of Whom the same Isaiah prophesied His stripes were our healing...1


St. Athanasius, Discourse I Against the Arians, Ch. XIII

And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’ instead of learning from Philip, conjecture them spoken of Isaiah or some other of the former Prophets.2

Regarding the past tense more specifically, might we not look at the passage as being both prophecy about the future, that would come true physically and would stand by that time as a testimony of what occurred after it was written but before now, but also prophecy about the past, i.e. many of God’s people had turned from Him, spiritually wounding the Person of Christ before His Incarnation, having lost faith in Him and serving false gods instead?

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How can the passage be referring to Israel?

  • Was Israel bruised for my iniquity?

  • Was Israel wounded for my transgression?

  • Is Israel cut off from the land of the living and buried in the rich man's tomb?

  • Did Israel bare the sin of many?

  • Is it by the knowledge of Israel's atonement that the Gentiles are justified?

  • Was the chastisement of my peace upon Israel?

Think Logically! May God help and bless Israel to know their God and the redeemer of Israel - Jesus Christ.

Your fathers did rejected Christ the same way 2000 years ago. God came to seek and to save the lost. But you denied the Just One, and Holy God. Jesus died for our sins. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.

Yes, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus.

  • I have edited your answer to fix some problems. I was careful not to change the intent of anything you have said. Please re-edit if you think it necessary. – enegue May 30 '17 at 23:00
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Past tense would make sense if the servant is meant to refer to suffering Israel. Deutero-Isaiah is thought to have been written just after the captivity at Babylon.

We know that early Christians searched Hebrew scripture for any possible tie-ins to Jesus. Since Jesus certainly did suffer, only natural that they would pounce upon Isaiah 53. Also possible is that Jesus really did see himself in that role, and went to Jerusalem to suffer. But that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a prophet said, “In the last days, cows will turn blue”, and I run around a pasture with blue paint, that wouldn’t make for a miracle.

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