Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 4

This is the fourth post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the third post here.

All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001) unless otherwise noted.

GOD’S PROMISE #4 – “I WILL REBUILD THIS TEMPLE IN THREE DAYS”

Thomason writes,

“Again the high priest asked Him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” – Mark 14:61-62. (cf., Daniel 7:13).

The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus on the charge of blasphemy (Mark 14:64; Matthew 26:65). According to Leviticus (24:15), a blasphemer is one who curses God, which is punishable by death by stoning. The Sanhedrin (m. Sanhedrin 7:5) indicates that the blasphemer is only guilty if he pronounces the name of God distinctly. Yet Jesus’ carefully chosen words did not pronounce the name of God distinctly, as He referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” and to God as the “Mighty One.” According to Josephus (in Antiquities) blasphemy was interpreted more broadly as acts or words that violate God’s majesty.

The Sanhedrin were convinced that Jesus was a false prophet, which Deuteronomy 13:2-6 defines as one who leads others astray and Deuteronomy 18:22 defines as one who presumes to speak in the Lord’s name a message that does not come true. These definitions likely led the high priest Annas to question Jesus about His disciples and His teaching (John 18:19).

Jesus was punished by crucifixion instead of stoning, so some critics have argued that the punishment did not fit the crime and therefore, the crucifixion did not happen (Green, McKnight & Marshall 1992). Yet Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states, “If someone is guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight.” The Qumran Temple Scroll (11 QT 64.8, 10-11) interprets the passage as crucifixion, “You shall hang him on the wood so that he dies.” Accordingly, the punishment was appropriate according to Jewish standards and the crucifixion was the means by which the offender was punished and killed.

“But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our inequities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). “After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11).

In John 2:19, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (cf., Matthew 26:61, Mark 14:58) Jesus kept His promise and fulfilled Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament prophecies (e.g., Psalm 118:22, Psalm 22) through his death and resurrection.

There is a lot we could cover in response to Thomason here. Let’s begin with the incident in the temple that prompted Jesus words regarding the destruction of the temple.

“He Said, ‘I Am Able to Destroy the Temple'” 

The rabbi had been arrested, betrayed by one of his own. Just hours before, he had been sitting with his disciples – his friends – sharing a meal, but now he stands before Caiaphas, the high priest. The religious authorities wanted him dead but could not find anyone credible enough to offer a convincing false testimony against him. Then two men came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'” Caiphas rose from his seat and asked the man, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” The man says nothing.

This is the scene laid out for us by Matthew in his account of Jesus’ trial before Caiphas. (26:57-63) The earliest Gospel, Mark, records for us a similiar turn of events except there the men claim that Jesus had said, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” (Mark 14:58) Luke’s Gospel doesn’t mention the witnesses’ claim regarding Jesus at all.

Matthew’s original readers were likely at a loss when they read that Jesus claimed to be able to destroy the temple and to rebuild it three days later. The same goes for Mark. There is no place in either Gospel where Jesus suggests such a thing. Sure, in both Gospels Jesus talks about the demise of the temple (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2) but no where does he says that he would initiate it. So the original audience would have read those words and knew that this was nothing more than an attempt by the religious authorities to do whatever they could to have Jesus taken care of for good. His opponents were not above lying.

In John’s Gospel we read that after his arrest in the garden, Jesus is taken before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (18:12-14) and then finally to Caiaphas himself. But in John we are never privy to what happens when Jesus meets Caiaphas. Annas sends Jesus to him but then after an interlude involving Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus, we find that Caiaphas has sent Jesus to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. (18:28) So Jesus is never accused of claiming to be able to destroy and rebuild the temple in John.

An Incident in the Temple

One of my favorite movie series is The Lord of the Rings. Though I agree with most people that the movies were not as good as the books upon which they are based, they are still masterful works that bring to life the story of how two hobbits traverse Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. From the beginning we can recognize key themes: the danger of absolute power, the frailty of the human will, the benefits of cooperation, and the role that hope plays in hours of darkness. In the film series, these are emphasized by musical scores that appear over and again in key places, reconnecting us to those themes.

The same can be said for books, including works like the Gospels. A key to interpreting any book is to see how it begins and to see the kinds of themes that appear in its opening chapters. We can tell from reading the opening verses of John’s Gospel that he has a high Christology – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1) And our first story featuring Jesus shows him as one bestowed with the Spirit of God, a sign to John the Baptist that Jesus “is the Son of God.” (1:32, 34) The first disciples, Andrew and Peter, recognize Jesus to be the Messiah (1:41) and Nathanael tells Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49)

Such proclamations by followers of Jesus that early in the story are meant to set the stage for all that follows. So in chapter two, we read first of a miracle story wherein Jesus turns water to wine (2:1-12) and then about an incident during the Passover season in Jerusalem. Let’s camp there for a moment. John writes,

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

This is the first of three Passovers that we read about in John’s Gospel, the final one being Jesus’ last. Jesus and his followers have made the trek to Jerusalem and enter the temple. What Jesus finds there disturbs him: people were selling animals for sacrifice and there were “money-changers.” So what does he do? Jesus proceeds to make a whip and begins kicking them all out. He pours out the coins of the money-changers and accuses those who sold animals for sacrifice of making his “Father’s house a house of trade.”

Destroy This Temple

What follows next appears in no other Gospel. Upon seeing Jesus’ zealous reaction to what he saw in the temple, the Jews ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (2:18) In other words, Jesus claimed that he was justified in kicking out these greedy temple-abusers because the temple was his “Father’s house.” How will he demonstrate that? Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (2:19) The response of the Jews is not unsurprising and is, in my estimation, completely natural. They ask him, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” (2:20) Jesus, standing in the temple, tells the Jews that if they destroy “this temple,” he can raise it back up in three days. But the text tells us that Jesus was not speaking of the temple they were standing in but of “the temple of his body.” (2:21) Describing the body as a temple is not a foreign concept; after all, Paul does so in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Jesus, however, doesn’t make this clear to everyone and thus the confusion. John tells us that later, after Jesus had been “raised from the dead,” that the disciples remembered what he had said about destroying the temple “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (2:22) So not even his disciples grasp what Jesus told the Jews in 2:19 until much later.

William_Hole_Jesus_Casts_Out_The_Money_Changers

At this point, we need to make a few observations. First, in the Synoptic Gospels the incident at the temple doesn’t happen until the final Passover of Jesus’ life. In Mark (11:15-19), the cleansing of the temple happens and Jesus tells the money-changers and those who sold pigeons, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.” (11:17) In Matthew’s version (21:12-13), Mark’s version of events is reiterated in an abbreviated form. Ditto for Luke. (19:45-46) John, on the other hand, places this event very early in Jesus’ ministry which has led various apologists to claim that there were two incidents in the temple, one at the beginning and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry. But this solution seems contrived. If it were the case that this happened twice, why did none of the Gospels report a second instance? For Jesus to cleanse the temple once is highly significant, but twice? That would be a powerful message! Yet none of the Gospels tell us about two incidents.

Others have suggested that while there is no doubt that the incident at the temple happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry, in telling his version of events John felt it necessary to insert the story early on.

There is reasonably widespread agreement now that: (i) the event happened only once, not twice (at the beginning and end of the ministry of Jesus; (ii) it took place in the last week of the life of Jesus; (iii) the Fourth Evangelist had no intention of correcting the timing of the event, but set his account at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to highlight its significance for understanding the course of the ministry. It provides a clue for grasping the nature and the course of our Lord’s work, his words and actions, his death and resurrection, and the outcome of it all in a new worship of God, born out of a new relation to God in and through the crucified-risen Christ. (Beasley-Murray, 1999, 38-39)

I admit readily that this is entirely possible. Assuming that the Gospel writers intended to write a thoroughly chronological account of Jesus’ life is mere fantasy. They were undoubtedly interested in getting the general order of things correct, especially in their culmination in Jesus’ death. But they also play fast-and-loose with the time-table as well. This may well be an example of that. [1]

Second, the cleansing of the temple may be what is commonly referred to as an “enacted parable.” Simply put, by overturning the tables and clearing out the complex, Jesus may have been playing out what would happen to the temple in 70 CE. In at least one of the Synoptics, this seems clear from how the incident at the temple relates to other events and teaching. In Mark the cleansing of the temple is sandwiched between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) and a lesson on faith based on the fig tree. (11:20-25) Later, the fig tree is a sign that the end would be soon coming. (13:28-31) So too in John, the cleansing of the temple is connected to its destruction, but not of the physical temple but of Jesus’ temple, his body.

There may also be an emphasis on the change of worship that was to come. For Jesus to refer to his own body as the “temple” may signify that the worship that had been central to Judaism in the temple was about to end. There would be no need for money-changers or for those who sold animals to be sacrified. Jesus himself would be the final sacrifice; the temple in Jerusalem would no longer be needed. And that may be while John puts the story where he does because shortly thereafter, Jesus meets with a woman in Samaria and he tells her, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [i.e. the temple] will you worship the Father….But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:21, 23) Why won’t Jerusalem be central to the worship of God anymore? Because the temple is in Jesus and those who worship him are true worshippers.

Wounded for Our Transgressions

In her blog post, Thomason connects John 2:19 with a couple of different passages in the Hebrew Bible. She wrote,

In John 2:19, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (cf., Matthew 26:61, Mark 14:58) Jesus kept His promise and fulfilled Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament prophecies (e.g., Psalm 118:22, Psalm 22) through his death and resurrection.

In connecting passages like Isaiah 53, Psalm 118, and Psalm 22 to Jesus’ death and resurrection, Thomason isn’t doing anything that the New Testament doesn’t do. References to passages like Isaiah 53 can be found in the book of Acts (Acts 8:32-33) and 1 Peter (1 Peter 2:24) and Psalm 22:1 comes straight from the lips of Jesus while he is on the cross. (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) So it is clear that some New Testament authors saw in those passages an obvious reference to Jesus.

But the question is whether that understanding of those passages fits the bill or if there are alternative ways to view them. For the sake of time, we will be limiting our discussion to Isaiah 53.

The Servant Songs

Scholars have long recognized that the Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 1-39 is not the Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 40-66. For starters, the historical circumstances for Isaiah (1-39) and “Second/Deutero” Isaiah (40-66) are entirely different: the former evidently was written before Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon while the latter was composed afterward. There is also evidence of differences in First and Second Isaiah’s style in terms of vocabulary and poetic structure, all signs that we are reading from two different authors. (Anderson, 1998, 422-423)

We can also detect in Second Isaiah what is commonly referred to as “Servant Songs” or “Servant Poems.” They appear in Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12. In these passages we read of Yahweh’s “servant” (42:1, 49:3, 50:10, and 52:13) and because of the general ambiguity of these poems, the identity of the servant has been hotly debated. We have already noted that Christian interpreters viewed the servant of Isaiah 53 to be Jesus. But other candidates have been put forward, including Moses and even the prophet Jeremiah. Some have even viewed the servant as one of the kings of Israel or even the author of Second Isaiah. (Coogan, 2014, 409-410) Few of these are satisfactory in any way.

The most likely candidate for the servant is actually straight from Second Isaiah. He writes,

Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
(Isaiah 49:1-3)

So if were to ask, “Who is Yahweh’s servant?” our answer would be “Israel,” at least based upon 49:3. This notion is also seen earlier in Isaiah 41:8 where Yaweh calls Israel “my servant” and where he says to the nation,

“You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
(41:9b)

Let’s test this notion that Yahweh’s servant in the fourth Servant Song is Israel.

A Brief Exposition of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Before we begin, we must remember that Second Isaiah was composed sometime during the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. The city was destroyed, the temple demolished, and the inhabitants killed or taken away. So as we look at the fourth Servant Song we should see if the descriptions fit the bill. Do we see any notion of the humiliation of Israel? Do we detect any idea of the Exile?

My analysis here rests strongly on the insights of Bernhard Anderson and Richard Clifford, two accomplished biblical scholars. Though both men generally agree that the identity of the servant is Israel, they disagree on other details that can only help us in the exposition to follow. The main area of disagreement is with regards to the speaker in 53:1 and following: Anderson sees it as the nations while Clifford sees it as Israel itself. While I lean toward Anderson’s view, Clifford’s contributions will be noted where they are applicable.

The section can be divided into five different strophes: 52:13-15, 53:1-3, 53:4-6, 53:7-9, 53:10-12.

Strophe #1 – 52:13-15

The author wrote,

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
– so marred was his appearance,
beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals –
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The fourth Servant Song opens with the proclamation from Yahweh that his servant will go from “marred [מִשְׁחַ֥ת]” and “beyond human semblance” (52:14) to “exalted,” “lifted up,” and “very high.” (52:13) And just as the servant’s diminished state astonished “many,” so too will his exalted state “startle many nations” and “kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” (52:15) So if it is the case that the servant is Israel, what is going on here in 52:13-15?

We cannot downplay the destruction wrought by Babylon when it invaded Judah and leveled the city of Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic Historian wrote,

On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. The whole Babylonian army under the commander of the imperial guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon. (2 Kings 25:8-11)

Jerusalem loomed large in the mind of both the residents of the holy city and those who resided in the nation of Judah. And the temple served as the cult of Yahweh’s central hub, the place where atonement for the sins of the people were made annually. Without the temple, the people could no longer offer up sacrifices to appease Yahweh. It is no wonder that the author uses the Hebrew word מִשְׁחַ֥ת to describe Israel’s fallen state. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible מִשְׁחַ֥ת is used is in Leviticus (22:25) where the term is translated as “mutilated” (NRSV). Truly, Jerusalem’s fall and the temple’s destruction “mutilated” Yahweh’s servant.

Nevertheless, Yahweh’s plan is to exalt the servant to the astonishment of the nations and their kings. They will see “that which had not been told them” and they will contemplate “that which they had not heard.” (52:15) Israel will be restored to her former status and fulfill the purpose Yahweh had for his people.

And now the LORD says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:5-6, NRSV)

Strophe #2 – 53:1-3

In the second strophe we read,

Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(NRSV)

53:1 features two rhetorical questions, one that focuses on the unbelievable turn of events from a ruined to exalted state and another that focuses on the vindication of the servant. (Clifford, 1984, 178) The kings of the nations mentioned in 52:15 express their astonishment. Israel, who was little more than “a scraggly plant in arid soil with no beauty to make one notice him” (Clifford, 1984, 178) is to be exalted and placed in the highest position above the nations.

The kings are utterly amazed that such an unlovely, despised, and revolting figure is actually the one to whom “the arm of Yahweh” – the victorious power of the Divine Warrior – has been revealed. They had not recognized the Servant in his humilitation. (Anderson 443) 

Though Israel had been cast down and publicly shamed during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, the great reversal will come.

Strophe #3 – 53:4-6

The third strophe reads,

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(NRSV)

The nations had assumed that the punishment inflicted upon Israel was its own doing, that the servant was being punished for his own sin. But this was not what was truly going on. Rather, Yahweh had put on Israel the iniquity of the nations.

The terminology the text uses – “infirmities [חֳלָיֵנוְּ]” and “diseases [וְּמַכְאֹבֵינוְּ]” – recall the appearance of the servant in 52:14: “marred [מִשְׁחַ֥ת].” As we noted earlier, מִשְׁחַ֥ת only appears in the Hebrew Bible here in Second Isaiah and earlier in the book of Leviticus 22:25 where the text tells us that the priests cannot offer as a sacrifice animals with damaged testicles (22:24) because they are considered “mutilated [מִשְׁחַ֥ת].” In the Levitical passage, the point was to prevent Israel from purchasing substandard animals for sacrifice to God, with an emphasis on the castration of the animal.

Since such an animal was no longer whole, it did not accord with the standard of holiness. It would always be tempting to take such an animal from the herd and give it as an offering to God. (Hartley, 1992, 362)

Emphasized in Second Isaiah is the notion that the seemingly substandard Israel was the one chosen by Yahweh to bear the “infirmities” and “diseases” of the nations. So then, the infirmed brings about healing of infirmities and the diseased brings about the curing of diseases. The nations who were once estranged from Yahweh will be brought into the fold but only through his chosen servant whom he must punish if the nations are to experience wholeness (שָׁלוֹם) at his exaltation.

The strophe ends with what seems like the unjust nature of what has happened to the servant. It is the nations, not the servant, who went astray, yet Yahweh has punished the servant and not the nations. The choice of imagery – “all we like a sheep have gone astray” – picks up again in the next strophe.

Strophe #4 – 53:7-9

We read here,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
(NRSV)

As in 53:6, in 53:7 the imagery of a lamb or sheep is picked up again. Whereas the nations had behaved like sheep by wandering astray, the servant Israel bears the punishment from God silently, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” and “like a sheep…before its shearers.”

The kings note also that the servant was “taken away” by a “perversion of justice.” So terrible was this and seemingly final that they ask, “Who could have imagined his future?” That is, they had no expectation that the servant would recover from his sudden demise. The speaker expresses the servant’s end in terms of death: “he was cut off from the land of the living” and he was buried with the wicked and the rich. (53:8) Physical death need not be in view here. After all, in other Hebrew texts we read of death being used as a metaphor for being in a destitute state which warrants despair. For example, in the book of Jonah while the prophet sits in the belly of the fish, he cries out,

I called to the LORD out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice….
The waters closed in over me:
the deep surrounded me:
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my ife from the Pit,
O LORD my God.
(Jonah 2:2, 5-6, NRSV)

In Second Isaiah the metaphor is used to communicate how terrible the suffering the servant must endure to atone for the sins of the nations. And the injustice of it all is that all this happened though “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (53:9) As Anderson observes, the servant is “meek and innocent through the whole ordeal.” (Anderson, 444)

Strophe #5 – 53:10-12

The final strophe reads,

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong:
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
(NRSV)

Anderson contends that the final strophe is Yahweh speaking throughout. (Anderson 444) I am not entirely convinced of this as it seems the kings of the nations are still speaking up until the first half of 53:11. However, if it solely Yahweh then the “you” of 53:10 are the kings of the nations of 52:15, the ones that were speaking from 53:1-53:9. And this view has some appeal, for we know from other biblical texts that God had used foreign powers to bring Israel to its knees: Assyria in the northern kingdom and Babylon in the southern. If, on the other hand, it is the kings of the nations who are speaking then this fits in the idea that it is Yahweh who punishes Israel, something the text made clear for us in 53:4. Regardless, the intention of the fifth strophe is that the servant, Israel, will be rewarded and restored. We can see this specifically in the wording of 53:10 and 53:12.

There are two ideas in 53:10 that hint at the nature of Israel’s restoration. (Clifford, 181) The first is that the servant will “see his offspring [זֶרַע].” The second is that the servant will “prolong his days [יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים].” The juxtaposition of these two in 53:10 is seen in other biblical texts, especially those related to Israel in the Promised Land. For example,  In Deuteronomy 11 we read,

Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, and so that you may live long [תַּאֲרִיכוְּ יָמִים] in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants [וּלְזַרְעָ֑ם], a land flowing with milk and honey. (11:8-9, NRSV)

This idea is repeated in Deuteronomy 17:20 and in 30:18-19 (though in 30:18-19 it is part of a warning). It seems unlikely that the connection between the two ideas is accidental here in 53:10. But what do we make of it? Well, since at the time of the writing of Second Isaiah Israel was not in possession of the land but had been removed from it by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the promise is that one day they will possess it again. This is a recurring theme in Jewish literature following the events of the Exile. [2] 

Second Isaiah also states that “out of his anguish, he shall see light.” (53:11) Here the author is drawing from themes first composed by the author of Isaiah, specifically in Isaiah 8:16-9:7. There the expectation is that though Israel would face “the gloom of anguish” and they will be “thrust into thick darkness” (8:22), there would come a Davidic king, a Messiah, to take the throne once again in Jerusalem. (9:7) The people of Israel may have been walking in darkness, but at that time they will see “a great light.” (9:1) This eschatological expectation (9:1 – “in the latter time”) is obvious in 53:11 and the entirety of the fourth servant song.

The song ends with Yahweh noting again that the servant “bore the sins of many.” (53:12) That word translated as “many” in the NRSV comes from the Hebrew word רָב and is the same word translated as “many” in 52:14. We also see the repetition of the notion that the servant will be exalted. In 53:12 the exaltation is expressed in terms of partaking in the spoils of war and being among “the great,” likely a reference to powerful nations.

The poem ends by referring back to the beginning. Just as the opening claimed that great kings and many nations would be astonished at the Servant, so the conclusions announces that Yahweh will make him great. His greatness is described in the concrete terms characteristic of Israelite tradition. The Servant will receive a portion with the great and will divide the spoil of conquest, for he is the true conqueror who advances along the royal road of God’s kingdom. (Anderson, 445)

Summary

The brief exposition I offered above will not persuade the ardent Christian, especially Thomason, but it does show that it is possible to understand Isaiah 52:13-52:12 without making recourse to Jesus as its subject. In fact, the text must have meant something to its original readers and since they had never heard of Jesus and lived centuries before he was born, it almost goes without saying that there must have been a way to understand the passage without him. [3]

Back to the Future

So what do we make then of Thomason’s claim that Jesus death and resurrection fulfill what was written in Isaiah 53? We can see that this is simply not the case and that it is possible to understand the passage as referring not to a future messiah but to Israel who had experienced intense suffering at the hands of foreign powers but is promised to be exalted to the shock of the nations.

While we will not be addressing either Psalm 22 or Psalm 118, we can make a general statement about them similiar to the one above regarding Isaiah 53. Those texts must have meant something to the original readers that had absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. And, in fact, often those texts are not treated with any deal of respect but they are instead divorced from their contexts or cherry-picked to support the Christian interpretation.

In my estimation, as an Amateur Exegete, Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. It was meant to convey a sense of hope for a future restoration of Israel in its own land. Jesus wasn’t even on the radar and, in fact, no Messiah was. [4]

ENDNOTES

[1] There are some problems with this view. For example, the text of John implies that Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover and did not leave the area until the Pharisees learned that Jesus was making and baptizing disciples. (4:1) In the Synoptics, Jesus remains in the area until his death and does a good deal of teaching but does not leave the region.

[2] The idea that Israel would one day take back the land they had lost to foreign powers is all over the place in the prophetic works. One of the most vivid of passages about this comes from Ezekiel and his valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). There the people are described as dead and in their graves, similiar to the ideas in Isaiah 53:8-9, and they are told by Yahweh that they will be resurrected and restored to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

[3] Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman responds to the common Christian interpretation with four points. First, he notes that the Hebrew prophets were not in the business of predicting events that would happen centuries from their own context. What they had to say was for their time and for the people within their hearing. Second, in the fourth servant song the suffering that is spoken of has already been endured by the servant. The vindication is yet to come but the suffering has already passed. Third, the word “messiah” appears nowhere in the fourth servant song and so it is not messianic in character. Finally, since the text isn’t about a future messiah, the text must be referring to something. If we let Second Isaiah speak we can see that the servant is in fact Israel. (Ehrman, 2014, 154)

[4] That isn’t to say that there was no expectation that a Davidic Messiah would be involved in the restoration. We already stated that based on the connection of Isaiah 53:11 to 9:7 that there was an expectation. But Isaiah 53 isn’t specifically about that Messiah but instead focuses on the restoration of Israel to its exalted status and its return to the land.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament. Abridged Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

George R. Beasley-Murray. John. Second edition. WBC vol. 36. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Richard J. Clifford. Fair Spoken and Persuading: An Interpretation of Second Isaiah. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1984.

Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bart Ehrman. The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

John E. Hartley. Leviticus. WBC, vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.

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