By Sam Shamoun
Muslim polemicist Paul Williams posted an article by noted anti-Christian rabbi Tovia Singer titled, “Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isaiah 53”, seemingly because Williams assumed that the rabbi would refute the claim of Christians that Isaiah 53 announces that the Messiah would offer up his soul as a guilt offering in order to make atonement for the sins of the world. Note what this amazing prophecy actually says:
“Who would have believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed? And he came up like a sapling before it, and like a root from dry ground, he had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him? Despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, and as one who hides his face from us, despised and we held him of no account. Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed. But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wound we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, we have turned, each one on his way, and the Lord accepted his prayers for the iniquity of all of us. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he would not open his mouth; like a lamb to the slaughter he would be brought, and like a ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he would not open his mouth. From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken, and his generation who shall tell? For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them. And he gave his grave to the wicked, and to the wealthy with his kinds of death, because he committed no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill; if his soul makes itself restitution, he shall see children, he shall prolong his days, and God's purpose shall prosper in his hand. From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My servant would vindicate the just for many, and their iniquities he would bear. Therefore, I will allot him a portion in public, and with the strong he shall share plunder, because he poured out his soul to death, and with transgressors he was counted; and he bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” Isaiah 53:1-12 (The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary)
This prophecy so clearly depicts the vicarious sufferings and death of the Lord Jesus that all who read the passage with an honest and open mind will see that this has Jesus written all over it. It is only when someone has been indoctrinated by the traditions of men, or comes to the text with an anti-Christian bias, that the plain and explicit meaning of Isaiah’s remarkable prediction becomes hidden from his/her eyes.
What makes William’s appeal to Singer’s article rather baffling is that the rabbi candidly admits that Isaiah 53 does in fact foretell the vicarious sufferings of the Messiah, sufferings which he undergoes for the express purpose of bringing about the redemption of all the nations and their repentance!
We are going to cite that specific portion of Singer’s “response” so that the readers can read for themselves that even this rather hostile critic of Christianity could not escape the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53. All bold and capital emphasis is ours.
RABBINIC COMMENTARIES THAT STATE ISAIAH 53 REFERS TO THE MESSIAH
In rabbinic thought, all of God’s faithful, gentiles included (Zechariah 13:8-9), endure suffering on behalf of God (Isaiah 40:2; Zechariah 1:15). Thus, Jewish leaders of the past, such as Moses12 and Jeremiah,13) Rabbi Akiva,14 as well as future eschatological figures, SUCH AS THE MESSIAH BEN JOSEPH AND THE MESSIAH BEN DAVID, are held up in rabbinic literature as individuals who exemplify the “servant” who willingly suffers on behalf of Heaven.
Therefore, when the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) describes the predicament of the messiah as he is waiting to be summoned by God, the rabbis cast him as:
“sitting among other paupers, all of them afflicted with disease. Yet, while all the rest of them tie and untie their bandages all at once, the messiah changes his bandages one at a time, lest he is summoned for the redemption at a moment’s notice.”
While this story may be understood allegorically, its jarring message is clear: THE MESSIAH, like other afflicted members of Israel, ENDURES THE AGONY AND TRIALS ASSIGNED TO THE FAITHFUL. However, unlike the other suffering saints who completely remove all their bandages before patiently replacing them with a fresh dressing, the messiah must methodically replace each bandage, one at a time. In other words, the messiah does not suffer more or less than other servants of God. Rather, according to the Talmud, the messiah is different from other men of God because he must be ready at a moment’s notice to usher in the deliverance of his beleaguered people. Because he is prepared to be summoned for the redemption at all times, he is never in a predicament where his bandages are fully removed.
When Isaiah speaks of the suffering remnant of Israel, THE MESSIANIC KING IS, THEREFORE, INCLUDED. THE FINAL HEIR OF DAVID’S THRONE IS AN INTEGRAL MEMBER OF THE PIOUS OF ISRAEL. This is, according to rabbinic interpretation, the pshat, or the plain meaning of the text in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12. Therefore, when both ancient and modern rabbinic commentators expound on the clear meaning of the text, they ascribe the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 to the nation of Israel.
In order to shed much needed light on the famed Servant Songs, numerous rabbinic commentators hold up Jewish heroes as a paradigm of Isaiah 53’s “servant.” Accordingly, while on one hand the Talmud, Zohar, and other ancient rabbinic texts state explicitly that the “servant” of Isaiah 53 refers to the faithful of corporate Jewry,16 the same sources frequently point to renowned saints of Israel as an archetype of the Suffering Servant. These virtuous individuals include saints such as Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, THE MESSIAH SON OF JOSEPH AND DAVID – each of them embodies perfect examples of God’s servant, the righteous remnant of Israel.
Bear in mind that the rabbinic commentary on Isaiah 53 is not dualistic or multilateral. Meaning, the sages of old did not suggest that Isaiah 53 refers to either the righteous remnant of Israel, Moses, Jeremiah, or an anointed leader. Rather, the servant in all four Servant Songs are the faithful descendants of Abraham. Isaiah 53 attests to an unprecedented worldwide repentance of all of mankind – a redemptive achievement accomplished by no other saint in history. THEREFORE, RABBINIC COMMENTATORS TEND TO LIFT UP THE MESSIAH’S NAME MORE FREQUENTLY THAN THE NAMES OF OTHER FAITHFUL SERVANTS OF GOD…
The Midrash, however, illuminates a most profound, yet often overlooked central theme of Isaiah 53; never before in history has any servant of God brought about the mass repentance of the gentiles. Whereas the patriarch Abraham redeemed only 70 souls in Haran, THE FUTURE SCION OF THE HOUSE OF DAVID WILL USHER IN AN UNPRECEDENTED EPOCH, where gentile kings of nations will repent, as vividly described in the fourth Servant Song. In other words, THE MESSIAH WILL BRING ABOUT AN AGE WHEN THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE OF ISAIAH 53 WILL MATERIALIZE – the worldwide repentance of the gentiles. Whereas Moses drew only a single nation from Egypt into the service of God, the messianic king will redeem the other nations as well…
Consequently, although various rabbinic literature highlights numerous Biblical saints whose lives exemplify the Suffering Servant of Israel in Isaiah 53, THE FUTURE MESSIAH IS HELD UP MORE FREQUENTLY AND PROMINENTLY THAN ANY OTHER PIOUS JEW IN THIS STARTLING CONTEXT; for the future anointed Davidic king will usher in this dramatic epoch in which the gentiles will repent, as outlined in Isaiah 53. In other words, the stunning narrative of the fourth Servant Song WILL BE MADE POSSIBLE BY THE REIGN OF THE MESSIAH, THE FOREMOST MEMBER OF GOD’S SUFFERING SERVANT, Israel. ONLY THE MESSIAH WILL ACCOMPLISH THIS GLOBAL ACHIEVEMENT IN THE FINAL REDEMPTION, WHICH NEITHER ABRAHAM, MOSES, OR JEREMIAH WERE ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH. Only the messianic age will spawn worldwide repentance of the nations. Therefore, the rabbis teach,
“My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly – he will be higher than Abraham, more exalted than Moses, loftier than the angels.”17
In short, THE MESSIAH WILL IGNITE THE CONTRITION OF ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS AS OUTLINED IN ISAIAH’S FOURTH SERVANT SONG.
With the foregoing in perspective we can now sum up the claims of the rabbi and the implications they have on the supposed prophethood of Muhammad:
1. The Messiah is included within (and in fact is the ultimate fulfillment of) Isaiah 53’s prophecy of Yahweh’s Servant suffering vicariously for the sins of others in order to bring about the redemption and healing of all the nations.
2. The rabbis upheld the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 more frequently than any other interpretation.
3. Both Christianity and Islam teach that Jesus is the Messiah of God.
“So Joseph also departed from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to the City of David which is called Bethlehem, in Judea, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be taxed with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So while they were there, the day came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in strips of cloth, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And in the same area there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And then an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said to them, ‘Listen! Do not fear. For I bring you good news of great joy, which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find the Baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’… Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.’” Luke 2:7-12, 25-32
When the angels said, 'Mary, God gives thee good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; high honoured shall he be in this world and the next, near stationed to God. S. 3:45 Arberry
4. The NT writings apply the prophecy of Isaiah 53 to the Lord Jesus to explain the atoning significance of his crucifixion and death.
Compare the following verses from Isaiah 53,
“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. 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?… Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. 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 to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
With the NT depiction of the earthly life, death, resurrection and heavenly ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” Matthew 8:16-17
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” Matthew 26:26-28
“For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
“For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.’” Luke 22:37
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’… and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’” John 1:29, 36
“it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’” John 12:38
“And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go up and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: ‘As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.” Acts 8:29-35
“so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:28
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25
5. The Quran, on the other hand, denies the atoning death of the Lord Jesus.
6. The Quran, therefore, contradicts both the rabbinic and Christian understanding of the Messiah’s having to suffer vicariously in order to bring about the perfect fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53.
7. As such, the Quran cannot be the word of God and Muhammad could not have been a true prophet of God.
In other words, Williams has no choice but to accept that, according to the very rabbi that he appealed to in order to undermine the Christian exegesis of Isaiah 53, Muhammad stands condemned as a false prophet and an antichrist for denying the atoning and salvific death of the Messiah as announced beforehand by God’s true prophet Isaiah!
With that said we can now turn our attention to some of the texts that the rabbi appealed to in order to prove that Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel.