There can be no doubt that Isaiah 53 is a pivotal chapter as far as the New Testament is concerned. It was used as a springboard for proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 8:30-35) and as a prophecy of restorative suffering fulfilled through the ministry (Matthew 8:14-17) and death of Jesus (1 Peter 2:21-25).
The common Protestant view of this crucial Old Testament passage maintains that the Servant had to suffer and die through the hands of God so that God could make atonement for sin through an act of penal substitution. That is, God was bound by his holiness to satisfy his wrath against sin by transferring sin and its punishment onto an innocent substitute Jesus, as a form of retributive justice.
In this paper we will test this claim against the specific data presented within the chapter itself.
According to the Protestant view:
Jesus dies to appease God’s wrath because
-2- Jesus’ death in the place of sinners satisfies retribution and punishment for sin.
Does Isaiah 53 talk about the death of the Servant in either of these two ways?
Conflicting perceptions and injustice. This section of Isaiah starts in 52:13 and continues until the end of chapter 53. As we read this passage as a whole we see that the writer is describing in poetic form, the suffering and death of an innocent Servant. But what is often missed is the fact that this death comes through an act of human injustice! Yes human injustice! Note the New English Translation:
“He was despised and rejected by people … even though we thought he was being punished and attacked by God. But he was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” Isaiah 53:3-5 NET.
First, we need to see that two conflicting sets of perceptions are being recorded. “We thought he was being punished and attacked by God” – human perspective. But then the truth surfaces: “But he was wounded because of our rebellious deeds. This means that we need to be careful and tease out false human perceptions from the truth! The text says that “we thought” God was punishing and attacking the Servant but we got it wrong! It was not God that wounded the innocent Servant but he was crushed “because of our rebellious deeds”. In other words it was not God that killed and punished the Servant but us!
When and how did this happen?
Justice or injustice?
“He was led away after an unjust
trial — but who even cared?
Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living;
because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded.” v.8 NET
“By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” NRSV
So let’s get things clear right from the get go!
God did not order a perversion of justice through the execution of the innocent Servant! That’s absurd. The poem clearly says that it was at an unjust human trial that the Servant was sent away to be killed – and that by humans not God!
The passage says repeatedly that a miscarriage of justice has taken place. Are we going to accuse God of sin by charging him with injustice? The passage says that the mob punished him unjustly! There is nothing here about God punishing the Servant and killing him to satisfy wrath and so demonstrate his justice. Injustice is the focus! This goes right in the face of the Protestant view. The Penal Substitution view insists that the death of Jesus under the hand of God was a manifestation of divine justice; but the text speaks not of justice but injustice! The Protestant view is untenable.
And yet God’s hand was working through this. There is an interface between conflicting human and divine wills. What we read here is divine paradox.
So what about “he was wounded for our transgressions”. Surely this is proof positive
that the Servant died as a
substitute for us and for our sins? Surely this means that he paid a penalty to
God for us?
Well this all depends on which translation you want to read and the assumptions you bring to the text when you read it. Take the NET [New English Translation] of the same statement:
“He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins”. Isaiah 53:5
So which is it? Does the Hebrew say he was wounded “for” our sins by God or “because of” our sins by our sinful actions? This is a deal breaker!
Let’s consider the immediate context:
Isaiah 53:4-5 NET
4 But he lifted up our illnesses,
he carried our pain;
even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God,
and afflicted for something he had done.
5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds,
crushed because of our sins;
He endured punishment that made us well;
because of his wounds we have been healed.
Note that the punishment that the Servant endures is at the hands of violent humans – not God! So this means that the punishment of verse 5 is defined by the punishment of verse 4. Context is determinative. Many read verse 5 and assume that God punished the Servant for our sins so that we could be made well. But this will not do. The previous verse has made it clear that the punishment the Servant endured was at the hands of rebellious men not God. As we become aware of this we can then understand the true intent of the passage. Isaiah is telling us that God healed us in the face of our violence! God brings good out of bad.
not punish the Servant in order to heal us!
Humans punished the Servant and God healed us in spite of and through
it! I will return to this point later.
Because, not for our sins. Second, did you see how the NET does not say that he was punished “for” our sins but “because of our sins”? So what’s the difference? The Hebrew preposition translated “for” is “min”. It does not mean “for” but “from” or “out of” or “because of”. This is why the NET has more accurately translated the preposition as “because of” our sins to mean that it was “out of, from, as a means of, because of” our sinful actions that the servant was killed! This is more in harmony with the general thrust of the whole chapter as we have already seen.
This same point is substantiated in the Greek Version [called the Septuagint] of the Hebrew text. Remember that when New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament it actually quoted the Greek version of it! The Greek of this text has the preposition “dia” followed by the accusative case of the noun to follow - which again means exactly the same as what the Hebrew says! If you look up any basic Greek Grammar you will read that “dia” followed by nouns in the accusative case, means “because of” not for! See “The elements of New Testament Greek”, by J.W. Wenham, p.66.
The upshot is this: both the Greek and Hebrew use of their prepositions indicate not that the Servant dies as a substitute for our sins but that he dies because of our direct sinful murderous actions! In other words: we through injustice killed the Servant through sinful, violent actions. This agrees perfectly with the overall message of the chapter as we have seen.
The exact same dynamic is seen in verse 8 where we are told that the Servant is put to death “out of” [Hebrew “min” again”!] an unjust trial, “from” [min] the peoples’ transgression. We have here the exact same Hebrew and Greek construction as we do in verse 5!
What I find interesting is the inconsistency I see in many English translations. For example the NASB translates the exact same preposition as “for” in verse 5 but “by” in verse 8! To say that the Servant was killed “for” our sins or “by” our sins means two totally different things! The first may denote substitution but the latter cannot.
verse 8 in the NASB:
Isaiah 53:8 NASB
8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away
The word "by" is the exact same Hebrew word which is translated "for" earlier in the passage.
So let's use "by" instead of "for" and see what we come up with:
"He was wounded BY our transgressions"! Now this means something totally different doesn’t it?! This does not read like substitution at all. And this is exactly what the original language is saying. It was our sinful actions, our transgressions, which killed Jesus - not God! This whole chapter describes a miscarriage of justice: this innocent Servant is wounded BY our sinful behaviours!
Look at the way the New English Translation puts it:
"He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds ... because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals" . Verses 5,8-9
Can you see it? This whole passage speaks with one voice! It describes what humans intended and what they did. It was the actions of humans that killed Jesus - not God.
What about “The Lord’s will was to crush him with pain”?!! Isaiah 53:10
Surely this can only mean that God beat Jesus up?! Right? Wrong!
The truth is that the original Hebrew language is untranslatable! Look at what translators of the New Revised Standard Version say on their footnotes to this verse:
a. Isaiah 53:10 meaning of Hebrew uncertain
b. Isaiah 53:10 Meaning of Hebrew uncertain
OK then; we had better steer clear of building a belief about God killing Jesus for our sins based on a verse that Hebrew scholars tell us is not able to be translated!
do we do with this verse? We need to allow the context of the passage to furnish
us with semantic parameters; we need to allow context to dictate what this
“uncertain” Hebrew can or can’t mean!
We have seen so far that the whole passage says again and again that it was men who killed the Servant and crushed him. So whatever verse 10 means, we know for sure that it can’t mean that God killed and crushed him! That’s certain.
The Greek version of this verse, written 200 years before Jesus, by Jewish Hebrew scholars who were fluent in their native tongue and Greek have rendered the Hebrew text as follows: when the Greek text is translated into English it says:
“and the Lord desires to purify him [the Servant] of the plague”!
What?! Yes! They never saw the Hebrew [which was their native tongue] saying that God willed to crush the servant with pain but understood it to say that God willed to purify him from the plague he endured! Totally opposite!
New Testament quotes the Old Testament it does so by referring to the Greek
Version of the Hebrew. This means that we need to take this Greek version
seriously especially since we don’t know what the Hebrew says! So let’s not build such an important teaching
on a verse that is non translatable from the Hebrew.
Context has made it clear that it was men and not God who crushed the Servant!
Let’s bring all this together.
I see in this chapter the tragic story of an innocent Servant who is killed by his own people through their sinful acts. The people thought that his death was at the initiative of God but had it wrong! They later see that they killed the Servant - not God! But as they see the truth, the murderous mob sees the hand of God in all of this. They see that God worked in spite of their actions. Both God and the Servant absorb the sin of the murderous mob; they endure the violence of the crowd in order to subvert it!
The Servant overcomes sin and violence by enduring it and not retaliating. The result?
“11 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 [in context their murderous actions].
12 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.”
Because the Servant willingly submitted to the violent death of the violent crowd, because he is numbered WITH the rebels, identified with them, he lifted up their sin, intervened for the murderous rebels; and the murderous rebels are acquitted from their sin as a result of what the Servant went through!
But more than that. We are also told that God heals the crowds in spite of their murderous act: “because of his stripes [that we imposed on him in context] we are healed”. V. 5.
The Servant endures violence and murder to heal the murderers! This whole process is about restoration! God intended to restore the mobs right in the face of their murder! God subverts sinful violence by absorbing it and bringing good from the evil. Now this sounds like God!
So God’s hand was in this the whole way. They killed Jesus, Jesus endures their violence and in it and through it God forgave them in spite of it [acquits] and in so doing broke the cycle of sin and violence and then heals them!
And this is exactly how the New Testament applies this passage to the Cross.
Read 1 Peter 2:21-24 where Peter quotes this passage. He we see that Peter understands Isaiah in terms of restoration amidst violence. Peter nowhere understands Isaiah 53 the way it is preached nowadays in the western church. When he quotes Isaiah 53 he says nothing about God putting sins onto Jesus in order to punish him on our behalf in order to satisfy his wrath!
He says that Jesus endured violence, didn’t retaliate, but instead healed the crowds in spite of it by absorbing their violence!
When we read Isaiah 53 through the lenses it provides we end up with a totally different reading to what we have been accustomed. We see nothing about God’s wrath being appeased; nothing about God killing the Servant; nothing about substitution; but everything about identification, forgiveness, subversion of violence and restoration to peace. Now this sounds like the Father of Jesus to me! What about you?