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I already asked a variant of this question at Christianity.SE.

Consider Isaiah 53:4-6 (NIV), which is commonly interpreted as a prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world:

4Surely he took up our pain
   and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
   stricken by him, and afflicted.
5But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
   and by his wounds we are healed.
6We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
   each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.

To whom was Isaiah referring when he wrote these words? Did he understand his words as referring to the Messiah?

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Isaiah 52:13-53:12 constitutes what is considered the fourth Servant song. The others are Isaiah 42:1-9, Isaiah 49:1-13, and Isaiah 50:4-9. Also, some consider Isaiah 61:1-3 a fifth Servant song, though the word "servant" is not used there.

All of these songs speak of a Servant called by God to lead the nations. There is no clear referent within Isaiah itself as to the identity of this Servant. The identity of the Servant is even said to be hidden at points (Isaiah 49:2). For this reason, several interpretations have emerged.

One traditional Jewish interpretation is that the Servant is a metaphor for the nation of Israel. This interpretation is especially shaped by Isaiah 49:3 - "And he said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'" One problem with this interpretation, though, is raised by verses 49:5-6. There we see that the Servant is formed to bring Israel back to the LORD. This servant Israel therefore seems separate from the nation Israel.

Others within even the Jewish tradition have therefore interpreted the Servant as an individual, possibly a future messianic figure. One can make sense of 49:3 in this interpretation by seeing that the name Israel was originally given to an individual (Genesis 35:10). Various individuals have been put forth as this figure: e.g. Moses, Hezekiah, Zerubbabel, or Cyrus.

Most of these interpretations center around a figure who lead Israel back into the land. However, one of the characteristics of this Servant is that he not only leads Israel back, but that he is a light and salvation to the nations and that he leads them back not necessarily to the land, but to God himself (cf. 49:6, 52:15).

Christians therefore believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of these Servant songs. One thinks of Athanasius's observation that "though there is no longer any king or prophet nor Jerusalem nor sacrifice nor vision among [the Jews]; yet the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and the Gentiles, forsaking atheism, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham through the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ."

What Isaiah imagined writing the words in these songs cannot be certain. But I don't think it is a stretch to say that he imagined some messianic figure.


Further Reading:

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In Acts 8, an Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 8 and couldn't figure out whether the passage was talking about Isaiah himself or someone else.

Acts 8

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

With hindsight, we believe that it was referring Jesus the Messiah. But it wasn't obvious to the eunuch or to Isaiah who wrote the passage. What was familiar and relevant to Isaiah?

Leviticus 16

18 “Then he [the high priest] shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
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. 21 He 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. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

In many ways, the law of sacrificial atonement and scapegoat in Leviticus 16 parallels the suffering servant described in Isaiah 53. Isaiah knew of it and its prophetic significance.

It is interesting to note that one goat was sacrificed and the other goat was spared as Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected after.

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In prophetic recapitulation, the story of Christ is told repeatedly in many ways. Noah in the ark, Moses and the ark of bulrushes [1], the tablets of the law in the ark of the covenant are all prophecies of Christ. Using this principle A, B and C prophesy D. If an author is aware of A but not B, C or D he can write of A and appear to be prophesying of B and C, while it is God's intent to speak of Christ, (D).

A, B, and C will have enough elements to be referring to each other, but the apostles never use such references. They always use A, B and C to speak of Christ. An example of this is found in Matthew 2, where references to Moses's birth, Israel's exodus, Abraham's sojourn in Egypt, and Joseph ben Israel taking God's son, Israel, into Egypt all are intermingled.

Isaiah may have been writing of Zedekiah, Jeremiah, or even Uzziah, while God was writing of Christ.

[1]Ex 2:3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid [it] in the flags by the river’s brink.

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It is generally considered that Isaiah 40-55 are poetic works from an exilic and post exilic period. There are explicit references to Babylonian deities (See Isaiah 46:1 and other places, “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops,”). These are names for Babylonian deities like Marduk. The poetry mocks the idols of their oppressors.

In the middle of all this are laments about the shared trauma that Israel faced in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Babylonian slavery lasted until 539 when Cyrus the Great Of Persia came through and Destroyed Babylon. The poetry of Isaiah 45 (one servant song) labels Cyrus as God’s agent... in fact, Cyrus the great is labeled as God’s messiah!

Isaiah 45:1, Thus says the Lord to his messiah, to Cyrus...

And here is the thing. The suffering servant poetry of Isaiah 53 gets mapped onto Christ, but this poetry is all written in the past tense. What I learned at seminary was that when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, they would have skinned and pierced the men on pikes outside the city as a warning. Women and children would have been the Ones who survived and carried memories of their loved ones.

Isaiah 40-55 consist of a tumultuous time of rediscovery of God and the development of monotheism. It is thought that this is when God was put into the sky and Genesis 1 was written. Before that, God’s feet were Thought to rest on the ark in Jerusalem in the holy of holies. That was now burnt down.

I believe that this is poetry of women in exile remembering their dead husbands and sons. It was a way of processing a collective trauma. It represents a critical period in Israelite history. Isaiah 40-55 is a raw nerve.

The ones who were “pierced for our sins” are the beloved family of the survivors trying to rationalize why this great violence happened to them.

Trying to map this poetry onto Jesus as the Messiah is anachronistic and ignores the direct attribution of the role of Messiah to Cyrus the Great. And people still use this rationality today to support President Trump. They say “he is the 45th president and a pagan like Cyrus (a zoroastrian) used by God”... they also point to Cyrus being introduced in Isaiah 45... Apparently seeing the medieval verse divisions as part of the long plan... I think they are nuts.

Either way, this poetry of the servant is raw and complicated, but just like how they are being anachronistically re-appropriated today, so where they 2000 years ago.

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To whom was Isaiah referring in Isaiah 53?

To whom was Isaiah referring when he wrote these words? Did he understand his words as referring to the Messiah?

The scriptures provide proof that Isaiah was referring to the Messiah , the Gospel writer Matthew quote Isaiah 53:4 and tells us how Jesus bore the suffering of others

Matthew 8:16-17 (NASB)

16 "When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.”

In 53:5 Isaiah wrote :"And by his wounds we are healed."

It appears to me that also Peter had Isaiah in mind when he said : "And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the [b]cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed". (1 Peter 2:24 NASB)

Paul may also had Isaiah 53:4-6 "pierced for our transgressions" when he wrote:

Romans 4:25 (NASB)

"He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Did he understand his words as referring to the Messiah?

Yes ,Isaiah made many prophesies that were fulfilled on the Messiah, some I have noted below, however I do not believe that he fully understood all the circumstances and details of his birth , ministry and Crucifixion.

Prophesies of Isaiah fulfilled :Jesus ministry- Isaiah 9:1-2, Descendant of King David-Isaiah 9:6-7, Anointed with holy spirit- Isaiah 42:1, Good news to the afflicted- Isaiah 61:1, Born of a virgin-Isaiah 7:17, Burial place -Isaiah 53:8-9, Silent before his accusers- Isaiah 53-7.

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