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In Isa. 53:11, it is written,

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. KJV, 1769

יא מֵעֲמַל נַפְשׁוֹ יִרְאֶה יִשְׂבָּע בְּדַעְתּוֹ יַצְדִּיק צַדִּיק עַבְדִּי לָרַבִּים וַעֲוֹנֹתָם הוּא יִסְבֹּל

How is the phrase “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” to be understood? In particular, how is it that the knowledge of the righteous servant can justify many?

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The Idea in Brief

The Hebrew word דַּ֫עַת (dah'·ath) should be translated as “sweat” or an idea of deep anguish. That is, the cognate word appears in Ugaritic as “sweat,” and so the proto-Semitic root form of this the word would not be י-ד-ע (yä·dah' = to know) but י-ד-ע (yä·dah' = to flow [with sweat]). This orthographic coincidence is responsible for the confusion in this verse (and many others throughout the Hebrew Bible), and so the corrected rendering of this particular verse would be as follows:

Isaiah 53:11
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His passion the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.

Discussion

Lexicological parallels between Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew

In 1928, archeologists began analyzing cuneiform texts discovered in what was the Canaanite seaport of Ugarit, which is modern day Ras Shamra in northern Syria. The tablets date to as early as the 14th Century BC(E), which was about the same time that Joshua and the Israelites were entering Canaan. In other words, both Hebrew and Ugaritic are Semitic languages that emerged in the same general geographical region of Canaan. For example, like Biblical Hebrew, the poetry and narrative of Ugaritic appears in dichotomy or parallel lexicological form. Since Biblical Hebrew also follows a similar structure (discussed below), the parallels provide insights as to the meanings of words both in and between Ugaritic texts and Biblical Hebrew. Smith and Parker (1997) make the following observations in this regard.

thus

Examples of “sweat” in Ugaritic

An excellent example is where the Ugaritic word for sweat, dʿt, appears in parallel with the Ugaritic word for bread, lḥm. That is, in their analyses of the clay tablets found at Ras Shamra, Smith and Parker (1997) discovered the respective words (in parallel) for “sweat” / “bread” on the 10th and 11th lines on the Epic Story of King Keret and within the Book of Genesis. Please click the image to enlarge.

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In Genesis 3:19 we can see the same parallel in Biblical Hebrew when we view the verse through the lens of Hebrew cantillation, where the Hebrew word for sweat, זֵעָה (zā·ä'), and word for bread, לֶחֶם (lekh'·em), appear in logical parallel.

enter image description here

The word in Isaiah is not “knowledge,” but “sweat”

Smith and Parker (1997) now see that words in Isaiah 53:11 find their same parallel on the same 10th and 11th lines on the Epic Story of King Keret. That is, the word in Hebrew here, דַּעַת (dah'·ath), does not stem from the proto-Semitic root י-ד-ע (to know) but from the root (to flow [with sweat]). They make this interference because of the presumptive parallel between both languages involving the same words. Please click the image to enlarge.

enter image description here

In Isaiah 53:11 we can see the parallel in Biblical Hebrew when we view the verse through the lens of Hebrew cantillation, where the Hebrew for “his sweat,” דַעְתֹּו (dah'·ath-ô), and Hebrew for “anguish of his soul,” עָמָל נַפְשֹׁו (ä·mäl'-neh'·fesh-ô), appear in logical parallel. That is, the anguish comes from seeking to be satisfied, viz., “He will see it and be satisfied.”

enter image description here

In this regard, the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon (HAL) indicates the correct meaning for this verse; that is, the Hebrew word here is to be read as “sweat.”

enter image description here

Analysis of Reverend Mitchell Dahood

The analyses of the previous sections stemmed in large part from the work of the Hebrew scholar, Mitchell Dahood. In his able essay, Ugaritic Studies and the Bible, he presents a very cogent case of parallels between Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew. He writes the following:

. . . [A]ny literary or conceptual rapprochements between Israel and Canaan which can be pointed out stand a very good chance of proving correct because the Israelites moved into Canaan and it is in Canaan that most of biblical history took place. The language of Canaan became the language of the Hebrews; Isaiah 19:18 describes Hebrew as . . . “the language of Canaan,” so that the theology of the OT is set forth in a Canaanite dialect, i.e., Hebrew. . . . Biblical Hebrew is still very imperfectly understood, and numerous verses -- even whole sections -- of such poetic books as Isaiah, Hosea, Psalms, Job and Canticles still successfully resist the efforts of translators.

He then tackles the passage at hand, Isaiah 53:11 as follows.

Another instance of phonetic clarification concerns the Proto-Semitic root wd which in Arabic signifies to flow and in Ugaritic appears as the noun d’t “sweat” and in Hebrew as zē’â, also “sweat.” If a Canaanite verbal form of this root were to appear in Hebrew, it would be written yd’ and hence could easily be confused with the very frequent root yd’ “to know.” This orthographic coincidence is responsible for the misunderstanding of several verses in Proverbs and perhaps one of the Servant Songs. Proverbs 10:9 . . . is [thus] translated . . . “He that walks uprightly walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will sweat it out” [and not “be found out” (through knowledge)]. . . . Sweating is a sign of physical anxiety, and this is precisely the meaning desiderated by the antithetically parallel phrase “to walk securely.” Proverbs 14:33 . . . is . . . “In the heart of the prudent wisdom rests, but in the inward part of fools there is anxiety” (lit. “there is sweat”). The basic meaning of yd’ is “to flow” is contained in Proverbs 10:32 . . . “the lips of the just flow with good will, but the mouth of the wicked with malice.” This obviates the need for the widely accepted emendation yabbî’ûn “flow.” Perhaps of greater theological interest is the application of the datum to Isaiah 53:11 . . . “By his sweat (Ugaritic d’t) the just one shall justify.” The accepted version “by his knowledge” hardly fits into the context since the words balancing da’tô are ‘āmal napšo and yisbõl “he shall carry.” It is not surprising, then, that exegetes have not been able satisfactorily to account for the presence of “knowledge” in this context; “his sweat” creates no such difficulties, especially since Isaiah 53:5 states that “by his stripes we are healed.” [Emphases added]

Conclusion

The discovery of Ugaritic texts from the Bronze Age (14th Century) provide one lexicological context for understanding Biblical Hebrew. Both languages leverage parallelism to juxtapose and contrast words and ideas. In this respect, the presumptive parallels are between sweat and bread; and between sweat and seeking satisfaction (anguish of soul). Thus the Hebrew word דַּעַת (dah'·ath) in Isaiah 53:11 does not stem from the Hebrew triliteral root יָדַע (yä·dah') “to know” but from the proto-Semitic root yd’, “to flow [with sweat].”

Thus it was not his knowledge, but by his passion [sweating] that the suffering servant of Isaiah was able to justify the many.


Sources:

Dahood, M. (1962). Ugaritic studies and the Bible. Gregorianum, 43(1), passim. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23572306

Fisher, L. R., Knutson, F. B., & Morgan, D. F. (Eds.). (1972). Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible. (Vol. 1). Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 192-193.

Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Vol. 9). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, passim.

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    While it is interesting, I'm not sure that I buy it - largely because the Septuagint translates it as knowledge and we have rabbinic commentary on the verse appearing before Jesus. I could support the idea that it had a dual meaning and, as a song, it was an intentional play on words, but to say that this should exclusively be translated as "sweat" on the basis of a different language seems a stretch. – James Shewey Jan 4 '17 at 14:32
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    I agree some with James Shewey's critique. While I appreciate work done in Hebrew studies relation to Ugaritic, assuming there is the connection of roots is still speculative, and more so when Hebrew has a word for "sweat" already and a word for "know" that does match. Also, it seems a bit counter intuitive to leap from "sweating" to "passion" (suffering). But I do appreciate the research done here. – ScottS Jan 4 '17 at 18:45
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    @ScottS - Even granting a connection to the roots, there is a common root between רָקִ֖יעַ (raqia) and the Akkadian "ruqqu" which means metal bowl. Despite this, we should not be changing "sky" to "metal bowl" everywhere we see it. While this undoubtedly helps to clarify the feeling in Hebrew thought that it really takes some hard work to truly understand or know something or someone, I don't think we can conclude the two are the same or that this is a mis-translation - it clearly wasn't in later Hebrew. You would need to make the case this meaning changed over time. – James Shewey Jan 4 '17 at 23:23
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The servant's knowledge, or the people's knowledge?

In the case of this phrase, a study of parallel versions is very elucidating. The New International Version, for example, renders the text this way and includes a footnote:

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledgec my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

c Or by knowledge of him

In other words, instead of the knowledge possessed by the the servant saving the rebels, it is knowledge of the the servant possessed by the rebels which saves them. Paul however, suggests that this can be understood both ways, saying in Galatians 4:8-9

Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods at all. But now that you have come to know God (or rather to be known by God), how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless basic forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?

Thus we can see, that even from the non-Christian, there is at least some basis for understanding this passage more than one (or both) ways: The people are saved through their knowledge of the messiah and/or by the messiah's knowledge of the rebels. The NET bible translates the text thus and includes the following notes:

Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins.

Translators Note: Heb “he will acquit, a righteous one, my servant, many.” צַדִּיק (tsadiq) may refer to the servant, but more likely it is dittographic (note the preceding verb יַצְדִּיק, yatsdiq). The precise meaning of the verb (the Hiphil of צָדַק, tsadaq) is debated. Elsewhere the Hiphil is used at least six times in the sense of “make righteous” in a legal sense, i.e., “pronounce innocent, acquit” (see Exod 23:7; Deut 25:1; 1 Kgs 8:32 = 2 Chr 6:23; Prov 17:15; Isa 5:23). It can also mean “render justice” (as a royal function, see 2 Sam 15:4; Ps 82:3), “concede” (Job 27:5), “vindicate” (Isa 50:8), and “lead to righteousness” (by teaching and example, Dan 12:3). The preceding context and the next line suggest a legal sense here. Because of his willingness to carry the people’s sins, the servant is able to “acquit” them.
Study Note: Some (e.g., H. M. Orlinsky, “The So-called ‘Suffering Servant’ in Isaiah 53,22,” VTSup 14 [1967]: 3-133) object to this legal interpretation of the language, arguing that it would be unjust for the righteous to suffer for the wicked and for the wicked to be declared innocent. However, such a surprising development is consistent with the ironic nature of this song. It does seem unfair for the innocent to die for the guilty. But what is God to do when all have sinned and wandered off like stray sheep (cf. v. 6)? Covenant law demands punishment, but punishment in this case would mean annihilation of what God has created. God’s justice, as demanded by the law, must be satisfied. To satisfy his justice, he does something seemingly unjust. He punishes his sinless servant, the only one who has not strayed off! In the progress of biblical revelation, we discover that the sinless servant is really God in the flesh, who offers himself because he is committed to the world he has created. If his justice can only be satisfied if he himself endures the punishment, then so be it. What appears to be an act of injustice is really love satisfying the demands of justice!

Furthermore, verse 12 of Isaiah seems to provide some additional context for verse 11 which is not so obvious in the KJV but becomes apparent in other versions:

Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.”

So, instead of two separate statements:

1) by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many" and 2) he willingly submitted to death ... when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.

These statements become related in the NET. The servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins and when he willingly submitted to death, he intervened on behalf of the rebels; lifting up the sins of many.

This tends to have a better flow of thought.


Who is the servant?


According to Dr. John D.W. Watts,2

The travail of his soul refers to the suffering and death of Zerubbabel. He will see; he will be satisfied. This speaks of Darius. He has a way out of his dilemma if he treats Zerubbabel’s death as atonement for the charge of rebellion. By knowing about him (Zerubbabel), he (Darius) can justify. The death of Zerubbabel provides Darius with a legal way to resolve the issue. My servant refers to Darius, who by this act proves his legitimacy as Yahweh’s servant. He vindicates Jerusalem and its people against the charges brought by the governor and neighboring peoples. He forgives their wrongs. This is presented as Yahweh’s realistic and practical solution to the problem posed in 52:14–15.

Watts goes on to say,

The arrangement adopted by this commentary places this passage in a specific historical setting. But from that specific setting emerges a universal truth about God and his ways that is vital for the faith of Jew and Christian: the principle of substitutionary atonement, not only through animal sacrifice as in the day of atonement, but supremely through a willing person. This is effective atonement when the recipients of the benefits gained through the sacrifice confess their guilt and recognize that one has died for them (53:4–6) and when the sovereign agrees to recognize the atoning effect (53:10–12).

Both Jewish and Christian tradition regard this passage as also prophetic however, under the principle of double-fulfillment. While Rabbinic tradition (Rashi and later Rabbis for example) regards the servant as the nation of Israel this interpretation seems unlikely. In Isaiah 53:12, we see that the sins of the Rebels are forgiven by the servant. It is impossible for the nation of Israel to be both the persecuted servant and also those in rebellion, be they rebelling against Yahweh, or against the occupying empire (the Romans, Assyrians or Babylonians). The people of Israel cannot be Darius, Zerubbabel and the people of Jerusalem - only the People of Jerusalem. Clearly then, the servant must be the prophesied Messiah. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the servant of Isaiah 53 as referring to the prophesied Messiah. For this reason, earlier Rabbinic interpretation should be preferred.


What kind of "knowledge"?


The translation of Isaiah 53:11 in the Septuagint is also interesting:

ἀπὸ τοῦ πόνου τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ δεῖξαι αὐτῷ φῶς καὶ πλάσαι τῇ συνέσει δικαιῶσαι δίκαιον εὖ δουλεύοντα πολλοῖς καὶ τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν αὐτὸς ἀνοίσει

σύνεσις is used 7 times in the new testament, but appears 70 times in the Old Testament; mostly concentrated in Psalms and Proverbs. While know or knowledge appears on the order of hundreds of times, it is not always translated from σύνεσις. This tends to indicate that σύνεσις means something more than simply knowing or knowledge. On the other hand, Paul seems to be directly referencing Isaiah 53:11, yet uses γινώσκω instead of σύνεσις in Galatians 4:8-9 (quoted above), so clearly the meanings are somewhat interchangeable and synonymous.

According to the BDAG1, σύνεσις means:

The faculty of comprehension, intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness

OR

the content of understanding or comprehension, insight, understanding

in the religio-ethical realm: understanding such as God grants to God’s own

Knowledge or understanding of the divine mystery

Often "understanding" is a more apt translation of σύνεσις (as the NET does). Paul uses it this way occasionally and partially regards the understanding of the divine mystery (Christ's Sacrifice) as being salvific:

Colossians 2:2

My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged, and that they may have all the riches that assurance brings in their understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ,

Ephesians 3:4

When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ.

(also see Matthew 13:11)

Spiritual knowledge and wisdom

But Paul also believes that there is a spiritual knowledge and wisdom to be imparted to or grasped by believers, which is consistent with the widespread Septuagintal usage of σύνεσις in Psalms and Proverbs:

Colossians 1:9

For this reason we also, from the day we heard about you, have not ceased praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding

Knowledge as obedience

The author of 1 John states in 2:3-4 that knowing god can be in our keeping of commandments:

Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments. The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person.

This is true for both Jewish and Christian readers; whether the Messiah is God and we are keeping his commandments, or the Messiah will be a prophet and we keep the commandments that the prophet is giving to his People on behalf of the Almighty.

Intimate, relational knowledge

John's usage in 1 John 2:3-4, as well as Paul's in Galatians 4:8-9 and 2 Timothy 2:19 seem to harken back to John 10:14-16:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.

Again, supporting the interpretation that the salvation or ransom in Isaiah 53:11 is dual: Through both the Messiah's knowing of his sheep and the sheep's knowledge of the shepherd. It hints at a personal and reciprocal relational knowledge.


Knowledge in Christian usage


In addition to the above interpretations, Christian tradition regards the saving knowledge of Isaiah 53:11 as knowledge of Jesus Christ Specifically - Understanding of his death and resurrection; personal, relational knowledge of Christ, obedience to Christ's teachings and spiritual knowledge and wisdom about Christ. Luke 1:77 states this explicitly, saying John the Baptist would:

give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.

Jesus arguably references Isaiah 53:11 in Luke 8:16-17, saying:

No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand so that those who come in can see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing concealed that will not be made known and brought to light.

This may be a reference to the light in Isaiah 53:11 ("he will see the light of life and be satisfied") and knowledge of this light reveals the hidden things and mysteries, allowing believers to be brought to the Light.

Teaching the knowledge and understanding of the Light can be seen in the activities of Jesus ministry:

Matthew 6:9

But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then he said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.

And in the Evangelism by the Apostles

Acts 10:36

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)

1 Corinthians 1:21

For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching.

Peter's confession in John 6:67-69 makes it clear that in the words of Christ is salvation and eternal life:

So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God!”

Which Jesus confirms in John 8:19

Then they began asking him, “Who is your father?” Jesus answered, “You do not know either me or my Father. If you knew me you would know my Father too.”


Conclusion


The servant in Isaiah is Darius and the Messiah. The "knowledge/understanding" is mutual, possessed by both the servant and those in rebellion which lead to rebellion. This view is supported by Dr. Thomas L. Constable who writes in his Notes on Isaiah (also available with the NET)

After His sacrificial work had ended, the Servant would look back on it with satisfaction, as would Yahweh (cf. 1 John 2:2). The many would obtain justification through the knowledge of Him and His work. The “many” is a distinct group, numerous but not all-inclusive, namely, believers. No other work is required but believing what one comes to know, namely, to rely on Him and His work. It is possible that Isaiah meant that the Servant alone would possess knowledge regarding what God required in relation to sin and what He should do about that, but this seems unlikely. One scholar argued that it was the Servant’s knowledge of God and of God’s unfolding purpose for the peoples of the world that satisfied Him and ultimately made many righteous.[599],” in Israelite Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, pp. 129, 135.

This knowledge is multifaceted and requires spiritual understanding by the mind, wisdom and obedience and a relationship with the servant. Regardless of whether the servant is the messiah or Israel, what is clear is that understanding, knowledge, obedience, wisdom and relationship with God are required of God's people.


1 Arndt, William ; Danker, Frederick W. ; Bauer, Walter: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000, S. 970

2 Watts, John D. W.: Word Biblical Commentary : Isaiah 34-66. Dallas : Word, Incorporated, 2002 (Word Biblical Commentary 25), S. 232

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The answer is found in how "his knowledge" (בְּדַעְתּ֗וֹ) will make many righteous because דַּעַת, which means knowledge, perception, skill, discernment, understanding, wisdom [da'ath], makes little sense in this context:

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (ESV)

Knowledge does make righteous; knowledge does not bear iniquity. The righteous one will accomplish these things. The Tanakh translation conveys how this will come about:

Out of his anguish he shall see it; He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion. “My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment he bears." (JPS 1985)

The footnote for the translation of “devotion” states:

for this sense of da’ath see 11:2,9

The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD. (11:2)

In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with the devotion to the LORD as water covers the sea. (11:9)

These Messianic passages reflect the a meaning of "devotion" a noun which nevertheless requires action. From the Christian perspective, Isaiah 53:11 is fulfilled in Jesus Christ who did not make anyone righteous by His knowledge of God's plan of salvation:

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23 ESV)

Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53:11 by carrying out the plan and going to the cross.

The Septuagint translators also saw something other than "knowledge" in both 53:11 and 11:2:

53:11 - ἀπὸ τοῦ πόνου τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ δεῖξαι αὐτῷ φῶς καὶ πλάσαι τῇ συνέσει δικαιῶσαι δίκαιον εὖ δουλεύοντα πολλοῖς καὶ τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν αὐτὸς ἀνοίσει

11:2 - καὶ ἀναπαύσεται ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ πνεῦμα σοφίας καὶ συνέσεως πνεῦμα βουλῆς καὶ ἰσχύος πνεῦμα γνώσεως καὶ εὐσεβείας

συνέσει is "knowledge" different from gnosis (knowledge by itself) or sophia (wisdom with power of reasoning). Thayer’s says: 1. A running together, a flowing together: of two rivers, Hom. Od. 10, 515 [G4907-σύνεσις]. The word is a noun which conveys bringing together two things. Devotion is a purposeful action grounded in knowledge. For example, devotion to the Torah is possible only after gaining knowledge. Conversely, simply knowing the Torah does not produce devotion.

Therefore with the benefit of seeing how Jesus fulfilled this passage: the Messiah will save many by His devotion. Jesus had knowledge of the cross and what would result from His sacrifice. Yet He made many righteous and took their iniquities only when He applied His knowledge. It was by or through His devotion that He made many to be accounted righteous and bore their iniquities.

Additional Consideration

The New Testament gives insight into the limitations and deficiency of knowledge:

and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19 ESV)

Greek philosophy. Gnosticism, and many religious systems promote man's ability to experience God by knowledge. Christianity is the belief love surpasses knowledge and is the way to experience the fullness of God. The words used for knowledge are different but the understanding parallels the the Hebrew בְּדַעְתּ֗וֹ in the context of Isaiah 53:11. Devotion is an expression of love:

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by love (his devotion) shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

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Christian Perspective

From the Christian perspective, this statement is prophetic of Jesus Christ, the Servant that would "justify many," whose "soul" was "an offering for sin" (Isa 53:10). Being prophetic, the specifics to answer to the question likely resides in later revelation.

Understood this way, Jesus helps answer the question of the meaning of

by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many.

However, there may still be two possible ideas as to what "by his knowledge" means in relation to the justification.

Option #1: Knowledge of the Faithful

Matthew 7:21-23

In this verse Jesus declares (all quotes NKJV; bold added):

21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

We see here a connection between Jesus's "knowledge" as relates to two categories of people, those he implicitly says He knows (i.e., those being allowed to enter the kingdom) who contrast to those He explicitly states He "never knew" and must depart, the reason being they "practice lawlessness," which relates to justification in that the lawless are not justified in their actions. But it is not just their actions being weighed, but the true motivation behind the actions. So the servant has a knowledge of right actions from right motivation.

John 6:61-66

In this verse we learn:

61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” 66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.

Here we see that Jesus knows who will ultimately be faithful to Him. This is related to

John 10:26-28

26 But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.

Those the Servant knows that hear Him and believe find eternal life, and Scripture shows that righteousness/justification is linked to eternal life:

(Mat 25:46) And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

(Rom 5:21) so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord

(Titus 3:7) that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

So option #1 is that the statement is about the Servant's intimate knowledge of the faithful, that his knowledge is what brings justification to those many faithful.

Option #2: Knowledge of God's Plan to Justify People

I heavily lean toward this view for it seems to fit the context of Isaiah 53 best. In that context we see the Servant enacting God's plan to offer Him as a sacrifice for sin. The Servant was:

  • To be "wounded for our transgressions" (v.5a)
  • To be "bruised for out iniquities" (v.5b)
  • To be chastised "for our peace" (v.5c)
  • To be striped for our healing (v.5d)
  • To be bearer of "the iniquity of us all" (v.6c)
  • To be stricken "for the transgressions of My [God's] people"

All this and the other points He is to endure from the early verses in Isaiah 53 were because it was God's plan per v.10:

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You 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.

This task, the Servant takes upon himself willingly (v.11a):

He [God] shall see the labor of His [the Servant's] soul, and be satisfied

The Servant's willingness and work to offer himself satisfies God. But why did the Servant do this? Because of His knowledge of God's plan, which plan would allow for the justification of many through this bearing of iniquities (v.11).

And though this was a selfless act, it was also a selfish act, for the Servant was to gain Himself from this act (v.12):

Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.

The man Jesus Christ, by his knowledge of the Scriptures that revealed God's plan for the justification of many, did the hard work required of Him willingly. As Romans 3:24 notes justification (Isa 53:11) comes through the purchased redemption (Isa 53:10):

being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

This justification is only applied to the faithful, hence the relation to Option #1, and the relation to justification by faith. Justification requires both the work of Christ (as grounds for the justification) and the faith of an individual (as the accounting medium to apply the justification). It is the former part, the work of Christ, that is the emphasis of Isa 53:11.

But Hebrews 12:2 states more succinctly the point of His knowledge of both the work and the reward as his motivation:

looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Addendum: A note on the parallelism

Since parallelism drives one answer here toward a different translation of the word "know" (to be "sweat"), I thought it good to point out the parallelism present when viewed as knowledge.

The parallel is seen in the construction (with a very literal English order to the Hebrew, hence the parenthetical subject since English would not put the subject after the verb like Hebrew may):

    a
    1 מֵעֲמַ֤ל   From the trouble 
      נַפְשׁוֹ֙   of his soul [that] 
    2 יִרְאֶ֣ה   He shall see; 
    3 יִשְׂבָּ֔ע   He shall be satisfied.
    b
    1 בְּדַעְתּ֗וֹ  By his knowledge, 
    2 יַצְדִּ֥יק  He shall cause justification
      צַדִּ֛יק   ([the] righteous
      עַבְדִּ֖י   Servant of Me)
      לָֽרַבִּ֑ים  to the many
    3 וַעֲוֹנֹתָ֖ם and the sins of them
      ה֥וּא    He
      יִסְבֹּֽל   shall bear.

So per the point made above, the parallelism supports that the knowledge being emphasized (b.1) is the knowledge of the necessary trouble of his soul (a.1), which itself is a summary of the trials to be faced per v.5-10. This knowledge is needed in order that the satisfaction (a.3) is brought about by the Servant through the sin bearing (b.3), for when the trouble of the Servant's soul is seen by God (a.2), then the justification to many may come (b.2).

So Hebrew parallelism supports the idea of option #2, the Servant needed knowledge of God's plan for his trouble in order to bring satisfaction by enacting that plan to bring about the justification.

Conclusion

Again, an argument can follow along the lines of Option #1 where the emphasis is on the knowledge of the faithful who will then receive the justification, but the context of Isaiah implies to me that Option #2 is the better choice, where Christ, the Servant, is motivated to endure the cross so that others may be justified and He may be glorified.

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While Isaiah describes the Messiah as enduring suffering he does not portray him as a victim:

"He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied:"

The author of "To the Hebrews" echoes this:

Hebrews 12: 1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Isaiah assures us that the suffering servant was on a mission from God so there is a redemptive purpose to his being taken from prison to judgment and such. But how?

Justification by faith is not new. It is older even than Abraham. It is the means by which Abel was justified:

NIV Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

So if people were getting justified by faith since the beginning, why did Jesus have to suffer? There are other important reasons but what is relevant to the current issue is that he had to become the object of faith for all people. That is, prior to Jesus one could only be justified if God approached one with a special opportunity to believe, such as when God promised Abraham that he would become a great nation, etc. But since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about his resurrection is an opportunity to all people to believe God's report:

NIV Isaiah 53: 1Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

As John says:

NIV John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,f 15that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

But how can one believe with saving faith in the resurrection unless one knows about his death and resurrection (and really, his whole life is part of the gospel)? They must hear:

Berean Study Bible Romans 10: 14How then can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

It is for this reason that it is by knowledge of Jesus that he justifies many:

by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many;

I don't have the Hebrew language skills to speak of the final clause with any confidence but I believe that it refers to his acting as the scapegoat that carried off the sins of the People:

for he shall bear [carry away] their iniquities.

NIV Leviticus 16: 20“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

This is part of his satisfaction for the travail of his soul: that he gets to ever live to make intercession and administer the new covenant as the living goat.

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