Isaiah 53 -- The Suffering Servant
The only Messianic text that Zakariya engages with is Isaiah 53, which he quotes in full. Zakariya writes concerning this text,
In Isaiah, statements such as "for the transgression of my people he was punished" and "he bore the sin of many" do, at face value, seem to bear a striking resemblance to the theology of the crucifixion. However, when we analyse this chapter in its entirety, we will see that it cannot be a prophecy about Jesus. When it comes to prophecies in Scripture, you can think of each detail that the prophecy provides as a criterion that must be satisfied. So, if we consider Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy about the future, then in order for it to be fulfilled by Jesus, every detail provided in the prophecy has to be satisfied by the life of Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. If not, then Jesus fails as a candidate and the prophecy remains unfulfilled.This statement is in a sense both right and wrong. It is certainly true that every detail of predictive prophecy must be fulfilled and not fail. However, some Messianic texts in the Hebrew Scriptures predict both Jesus' first and second advent. In such cases, parts of certain prophecies may as yet still lie unfulfilled, awaiting their final fulfillment in the second coming of Jesus.
The Offspring of the Suffering Servant
Zakariya homes in on verse 10, in which we read,
...he will see his offspring and prolong his days.Zakariya comments,
The Hebrew word used for "offspring", 'zera', carries the meaning of progeny and semen. So, in the context of this verse, it means he will see his children. This can't be a reference to Jesus as nowhere does the New Testament state that Jesus had children.Is it the case that the Hebrew word zera always refers to literal physical offspring or progeny? Actually, the expression yireh zero ('see seed') is only used one time in the Hebrew Bible, and so one can hardly be dogmatic as to its meaning. At any rate, the word zera is used figuratively at times in the Hebrew Scriptures, even including the book of Isaiah. Isaiah referred to Israel as 'a seed of evildoers' (1:4), 'a seed of an adulterer' (14:20) and 'a seed of falsehood' (57:3-4). Thus, in those texts, the term 'seed' or 'offspring' refers to one who is to the core an evildoer etc. In like-manner, in Isaiah 53:10, it refers to the fact that the suffering servant would see his disciples transformed by virtue of his work on their behalf. This is related in Isaiah 53 to the prolonging of his days, which alludes to His resurrection from the dead.
An additional feasible interpretation here is that the suffering servant would see future generations serving the Lord, since the word zera can sometimes refer to a future generation. For instance, in Psalm 22:30-31, we read,
30 Posterity [zera] shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.There is also a link between Isaiah 53 and the prophecy of the child Messiah in Isaiah 9:6-7 (I will show this later in this article). That being the case, it is interesting that one of the titles bestowed on the child of Isaiah 9:6-7 is "Everlasting Father", which parallels the allusion to "his seed" in Isaiah 53:10.
By the way, the concept of Jesus having 'seed' or 'offspring' takes on a special significance in New Testament theology. The apostle Paul takes Jesus to be the last Adam (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:45), and thus the progenitor of the righteous seed -- a theme which I will have more to say about in a future blog post. The apostle Paul states in Galatians 3:16:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.This is an oft-misunderstood text, which is normally taken to mean that the promises to Abraham's 'seed' are given to one individual, i.e. Christ. Dr. John Ronning (professor of Biblical studies at Faith Theological Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland), however, in his book The Jewish Targums and John's Logos Theology, explains that there are several reasons to question this interpretation:
(1) Jewish interpretations that focus on whether a word in Scripture is singular or plural deal with words that sometimes are found in the singular, sometimes in the plural. The word "seed", however, when used to refer to a descendant or descendant(s) is always singular; (2) rabbinical tradition consistently takes 'to their seed' to mean 'to their sons'; and (3) it is doubtful that one can find any Jewish rabbi or other practitioner of midrash in history who had anything but scorn for Paul's assumed reasoning, which makes it highly unlikely that he is emulating rabbinic interpretation.Thus, Dr. Ronning argues, the better interpretation of Paul's words is not that the seed is Christ, but rather that the seed is Christ's, where "referring to many" is taken not to mean "many people" but rather "many seeds". This interpretation is consistent with what follows only a few verses later (v. 29):
And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.Dr. Ronning observes that the antecedent of hos/ὅς ("which") is not spermati/σπέρματί ("seed") but sou/σου ("you"). He thus argues,
Following the word order of the Greek (which uses the pronoun "you" in the genitive to indicate possession instead of an adjective like English "your"), it reads "'and to the seed of you', who is Christ." That is, when the LORD said to Abraham, "your seed," it referred only to the righteous seed, which is in reality the seed of the true Adam, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Ishmael is Abraham's (other) seed, but he is not Christ's seed, and thus he is not an heir of the promise. Paul's point is that Jewish unbelievers are like Ishmael, of the seed of Abraham, but not of the seed of promise, while Jewish and Gentile believers are like Isaac, of the seed of promise because they are Christ's (seed) (Galatians 3:29). Abraham is a figurehead for the true progenitor of the righteous seed (Christ), as the snake in Gen 3:15 is a figurehead for Satan, the progenitor of the unrighteous seed.
The point, then, is that Abraham is not the true new Adam (although he is spoken to as if he is in Genesis 17:2-6). Abraham had more than one seed -- both righteous and wicked offspring (Isaac and Ishmael respectively), only one of whom is the heir of the promise. But Christ, by contrast, truly is the new Adam, and thus the progenitor of the righteous seed.
Dr. Ronning's interpretation is also consistent with Romans 9:7, in which we read, "and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring." In that text, Paul takes 'seed' (singular) to refer to many people. As Dr. Ronning notes,
The only difference between this passage and Gal 3:16 is that in the latter, Paul more specifically identifies the divine progenitor as the Messiah, who is both a man, like the figurehead Abraham, and God.There is much more to say on this topic, but I will reserve that for another day.
Returning to Abu Zakariya, he goes on to make a very bizarre statement:
Trinitarians might want to think twice before trying to argue that silence on this matter leaves the possibility that it could be true, as from their perspective, any children of Jesus would also be God-men and we'd have the troubling prospect of grandchildren of the Father.No Christian would claim that Jesus had physical offspring, but Zakariya's understanding of the hypostatic union appears to be rather muddled. We do not believe that Jesus is some sort of divine-human hybrid, with divine attributes somehow encoded in his genetic material -- or that in a hypothetical situation where Jesus had had children that they would somehow also be God-men. No, rather, the doctrine of the hypostatic union states that Jesus is 100% man -- totally and completely human. Any physical offspring, then, would also have been 100% human. However, what makes Jesus unique is that He is 100% God -- totally and completely divine. In the physical body of Jesus came to dwell the full presence of God Himself in the midst of His people.
The Divine Messiah
Zakariya goes on:
The verse above also mentions that his days will be prolonged. This statement makes no sense in the light of the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is God. A mortal man's days can be prolonged, by God is eternal. A being that is eternal cannot have their life prolonged.But Jesus the man was mortal, and as the text shows, he died and was raised back to life. To an Abrahamic monotheist (Christians and Muslims alike), being mortal does not entail cessation of existence, but rather the separation of the body and spirit. Thus, this is a very confused argument. Indeed, the text of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 itself refutes Zakariya's understanding that God cannot take on mortal flesh, since this very text communicates the deity of Christ. One of the most intriguing things about this passage is the exaltation language that is applied to the suffering servant in 52:13:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.This is the very same exaltation language that is used exclusively of Yahweh elsewhere in the book of Isaiah. Consider, for example, Isaiah 6:1:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.Or consider Isaiah 33:5,10:
The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high…“Now I will arise,” says the Lord, “now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted."Or Isaiah 57:15:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”In case any readers were wondering whether this exaltation language of being "high and lifted up" can be applied to anyone who is not Yahweh, Isaiah 2:11-17 sets the record straight:
11 The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. 12 For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; 13 against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; 14 against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills; 15 against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; 16 against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. 17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.Thus, we see, that the language that Isaiah 52:13 applies to the suffering servant can only be used of a divine person. However, we see further evidence in the suffering servant song of a divine Messiah. Consider again Isaiah 53:11-12:
11 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. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.Thus, we read that the servant will justify many and make intercession for sinners. But here is the thing. We read in Isaiah 45:24-25 that Israel will be justified in Yahweh alone:
24 “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. 25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”We further read in Isaiah 59:16 that,
He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.Thus, there was nobody found worthy enough to intercede or bring about salvation -- so Yahweh did it Himself using His very own arm. In fact, Isaiah 53 teaches a plurality of divine persons, for the divine servant spoken of in Isaiah 53 is also distinguished in some sense from the Lord in verse 2:
For he [the servant] grew up before him [the LORD] like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground...But there is yet further evidence for the deity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Consider Isaiah 11:1-5,10:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist…10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.This text is undisputably speaking of the Messiah -- the descendant of David (and therefore of his father Jesse). This means that this text connects with Isaiah 9:6-7, which speak of a divine Messiah (who is afforded the title of "Mighty God", a title used elsewhere, e.g. in Isaiah 10:21 of Yahweh) reigning from David's throne. While the title Elohim is sometimes used of figures who are not God (e.g. Exodus 7:1), the title El (used in Isaiah 9:6) is never used in any sense other than that of absolute deity.
The conclusion that Isaiah 11 is speaking of the same individual as Isaiah 9 is further supported by the statement that "with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth", which resembles what is said of the child born in Isaiah 9 (verse 7):
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.Thus, the Messiah spoken of in Isaiah 11 is the same individual as that spoken of in Isaiah 9:6-7. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 11:10 for "root" (verse 1 uses the same word in the plural) is sheresh, the very same word used of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:2: "For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground."
We can further confirm the connection between Isaiah 53 and 9 & 11 by looking at Isaiah 42:2-7, which speaks of the same servant as that described in Isaiah 53:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.Thus, like the Messiah of Isaiah 9 and 11, the servant is going to "bring justice to the nations" (verse 1) and "establish justice on the earth" (verse 4). Moreover, the servant is going to "open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." But that is exactly what we read of the divine child in Isaiah 9:1: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. Since Isaiah 42 refers to the same servant of Isaiah 53 and since Isaiah 42 connects with Isaiah 9 & 11, this in turn again connects Isaiah 53 with 9 & 11. Thus, Isaiah 53 connects with Isaiah 11 and in turn with Isaiah 9, providing us with yet another reason to take the suffering servant as no less than a divine person.
Given the considerations above, there can be no question that the servant of Isaiah 53 is a divine-human person, who lays down His life for the sins of His people.
Is the Suffering Servant the Nation of Israel?
Abu Zakariya then turns his attention to providing an alternative interpretation of Isaiah 53, and asks who the suffering servant song may actually be referring to:
So, if Isaiah 53 is not talking about Jesus, then whom or what is it referring to? The Jewish people have historically associated this chapter with the suffering of the Israelites.This is a popular interpretation. But is it credible, or is it clutching at straws? This interpretation fails for a number of reasons. For one thing, consider verses 8-9:
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.In context, the "my people" of verses 8 is clearly the Hebrews. How, then, can national Israel be "cut off out of the land of the living" and "stricken for the transgression of my people [i.e. Israel]" if Israel herself has done no violence and there be no deceit in her mouth? Moreover, Isaiah is quite explicit elsewhere, such as in Isaiah 6:5, where he exclaims concerning his own guilt before God:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”It seems unlikely that Isaiah 53 speaks of a righteous remnant if this is how even Isaiah felt about his own standing before God. Moreover, he says in Isaiah 64:6,
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.A further reason to think that this text is not personifying the nation of Israel is that God uses the nations to smite Israel for Israel's sins -- and Israel's smiting does not bring healing to the other nations. Rather, God then turns His hand in judgment against them for overdoing the punishment and for their haughtiness and arrogance (see Jeremiah 30 & 31, Zechariah 1, and Isaiah 10 & 29).
Is the Suffering Servant Jeremiah?
Next, Zakariya attempts to apply the text of Isaiah 53 to the prophet Jeremiah. He writes,
Prophet Jeremiah faithfully communicated God's words to the people of Israel, warning them about the impending Babylonian captivity that was sure to come unless they repented. But no-one listened to him; he was rejected even by his own family: "Your relatives, members of your own family -- even they have betrayed you" [Jeremiah 12:6]. Jeremiah suffered greatly as he was beaten and imprisoned: "They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison." [Jeremiah 37:15]Now we see an inconsistency in Zakariya's argument. He told us previously that Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Jesus since Jesus never had physical offspring. But now he wants to apply the text to Jeremiah, whom God commanded never to marry or have children -- so Zakariya cannot have his cake and eat it too. Take a look at Jeremiah 16:1-2:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.Zakariya quotes from Jeremiah 11:18-19, which parallels Isaiah 53:7-8:
18 The Lord made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. 19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”Jeremiah fails to fulfill important aspects of Isaiah 53 -- how did Jeremiah's suffering bring about the healing of God's people and atone for their sins? When was Jeremiah killed and raised back to life again? When did kings and rulers shut their mouths in astonishment because of Jeremiah? Moreover, as I have already shown, the servant of Isaiah 53 can only be a divine person -- so that excludes Jeremiah.
There is no question, however, that Jeremiah represents a type or a foreshadow of Christ, and that there are events in the life of Jeremiah which parallel that of Jesus. This may be why the text of Jeremiah 11:18-19 parallels that of Isaiah 53:7-8. See this article for a list of parallels between the lives of Jeremiah and Jesus.
Does Psalm 91 Rule Out a Crucified Messiah?
As a final argument, Zakariah quotes the New Testament application of Psalm 91 to Jesus, from Matthew 4:5-7:
5 Then the devil took him [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”He comments,
Clearly, this prophecy [Psalm 91] eliminates any possibility of a crucified Messiah. If we are going to be objective in our interpretation of Scripture, then surely the explicit words of Jesus that confirm Psalm 91 as a prophecy about himself override the comparatively speculative interpretation of Isaiah 53.With due respect to Abu Zakariyah, this is perhaps the most abysmal argument of this section. The text of Psalm 91 is not even primarily about the Messiah at all, but rather it speaks of the security of the faithful under God's protection (and Satan twists and misuses it during his temptation of Jesus). But Christ's special purpose was to go to the cross and pay the penalty for our sins. This is the consistent testimony of Messianic prophecy and is the consistent theme throughout all four of the gospels.
Again, our analysis of Abu Zakariya's book has left us disappointed, for he has failed to make a compelling argument against the identification of the suffering servant being Jesus -- an interpretation which the evidence we have examined overwhelmingly supports. In a subsequent article, I will turn my attention to Zakariya's next wave of attack, which is against the eyewitness nature of the gospels.