Chapter 13 – Reconsidering Isaiah 53

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Isaiah 53 is foundational to the PSA view because if it is read in a casual manner, it can be read with the assumption that PSA is what it is about. However, in every instance where the New Testament makes reference to passages in this chapter, it does so in a non-substitutionary manner. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, we read Paul the apostle’s claim that “…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” The strongest candidate of Old Testament Scriptures would have been this Isaiah chapter 53. Nevertheless, in the phrase “died for our sins” Paul uses the Greek word “hyper”, indicating causation, not replacement or substitution. This indicates that Paul did not consider Isaiah 53 to be about substitution, but a prophecy regarding the cause as to why Jesus died – because of our sin, not in place of our sin, and certainly not as a payment for our sin – at least not in this passage.

Isaiah 53:3-8 “3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 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. 7 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 silent, so he opened not his mouth. 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?”

Now let’s take a closer look.

In Matthew 8:17 the New Testament uses the first phrase of Isaiah 53:4, but in a way that denies substitution. It says, “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”” The meaning given by Matthew is not that Jesus healed by making himself sick and literally bearing by transferring the diseases to himself, but rather that he was compassionately burdened by the human suffering that he witnessed, and he did something about it. Nevertheless, with a little imagination, you can entertain how some can distort this passage into meaning some substitutionary concept that the text never intended, and this is how the erroneous doctrine is being taught.

Furthermore, Matthew considers this prophecy to have been fulfilled before Jesus went to the cross, not as a consequence of the cross! It was not fulfilled by the death of Jesus, but by his life.

Verse 4 – a careful reader of the second phrase of verse 4 will see that “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God” is saying that the people wrongly thought that God was punishing the victim. A proper reading of this verse and the next shows that God did not cause this punishment, rather, the victim was enduring the pain and suffering due to the wrongs of others toward him, and the suffering was not caused by God or for God. The suffering was therefore not an act of justice, but of injustice!

Verse 5 simply continues and expands on verse 4, explaining in what manner it was that the suffering servant was wrongly punished. However, in most Bible versions there is a terrible mistranslation here this verse which enables PSA advocates to use (or, more properly, misuse) it as one of their primary texts. Both the Hebrew and the LXX (Septuagint) state that, “he was pierced because of [Greek “dia”] our transgressions, he was crushed because of [Greek “dia”] our iniquities”. This indicates that instead of the suffering being brought directly by God, it was the people unjustly causing the suffering. But even if you use the word “for” here, it still does not require understanding it as “in place of” or “as a substitute”. At best, “for” should only mean “for the sake of”. There is a big difference between doing something “for” others and doing something “as a substitute” for others, and nothing in the text indicates that this suffering was intended to be a substitute. You must presume this substitution idea and mentally insert it into the text.

The phrase “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” may have various meanings, but the result is that what the Messiah received brought us peace, and we are healed by his wounds. This is not penal substitution, but rather describes the ultimate outcome, the result of the events. By means of us pondering the suffering and wounds that he received, we can receive instruction that leads to peace and healing within. This describes the result of our realizing that humanity afflicted him unjustly, and we now recoil and seek peace and healing. Regardless of your preferred interpretation, there is still nothing in this text that gives a hint that it was some divine plan or method of substitutionary payment.

The word “punishment” or “chastisement” (depending on the translation) is the Hebrew word “musar” which indicates discipline, correction, reproof, or instruction. This same word is used multiple times elsewhere, particularly in the instructions of the book of Proverbs, and “punishment” is not how it is properly used. To translate verse 5 as “chastisement” or “punishment” is to deliberately use it to frame the PSA model, as without this presupposition there would be no justification for this translation.

Verse 6 continues describing the scene of verses 4 and 5, but from a different perspective, showing the cause of this injustice. It was because the people, like foolish sheep, had strayed away from God’s ways and followed their own ways. It was due to this straying that the LORD (YHVH) “has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The words translated “has laid on” is a most unusual choice of words, chosen to project the PSA view. In Hebrew the word is “hip̄·gî·a” (Strong’s reference number H6293), which actually means “to fall, to meet, or to encounter”. The Greek word is “paradidómi” (Strong’s number G3860), meaning, “to hand over, to give or deliver over”. The meaning is simply that God had the culmination of the error of the people fall on, or meet at, or delivered to, the point where they were willing to murder this innocent servant. There is nothing in the Hebrew or Greek text that indicates any transfer of sin or guilt from one party to another. The same Hebrew word, H6293 is used in verse 12, but most translations have this word as “intercession”. Apparently, the only place where translators conveniently use “has laid on” for H6293 is this one case in Isaiah 53:6, which should raise serious suspicions.

The transfer of sin idea does violence to the texts of verses 4-6, which are simply saying that the end result of the evil was that an innocent victim was stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, punished, and wounded, all the while thinking that this would bring about peace and healing. These texts are describing a decadent society deciding to eliminate a godly individual who exposed their ungodliness, while thinking that this will result in peace and healing in their troubled hearts.

Verse 8 uses the word “for” in the phrase, “he was…stricken for the transgression of my people.” The Hebrew word is “mip·pe·ša‘” (Strong’s 6588), which means, “because of transgression”. There is no purchase or exchange here, as the word “for” is being used in the causal sense.

Isaiah 53:10 “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.”

Isaiah 53:10 Is another favorite PSA text that fails on multiple accounts. This text, unlike Isaiah 53:3-6, is never mentioned even once in the New Testament, which is quite incredible if PSA is the intended meaning. The reasons for its absence are likely because there was no PSA belief system in the New Testament times, and also the writers of the New Testament used the Greek Septuagint/LLX (a Greek text translated from the Hebrew centuries before Jesus). Furthermore, there are multiple translation options that leave the author’s intent very vague, especially when the Hebrew Masoretic text is compared to the Greek LXX text. But regardless of any translation problems, there is still nothing in this text that explicitly states that the victim was punished as a substitute for our punishment. In fact, the word “offering” is not in either the Masoretic or LXX texts, as it is assumed and supplied by the translators even though the passage can be understood in a different manner without that word.

Even if the word “offering” is used, an offering is not a payment to God (unless we are referring to a pagan god) and is contrary to very explicit statements (1 Sam. 15:22, Prov. 21:3, Ps. 40:6, Hosea 6:6, etc.). A payment would mean that God can be paid, or bribed, to look the other way, as if we had not sinned. In the New Testament, we read that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, Ephesians 5:2. If he was a sin or guilt offering he would not have been acceptable. But the manner of his offering as pleasing to God is born out in Philippians 2:8-9 “…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” A deeper study of the texts reveals that God allowed the sins of humanity to put Jesus on the cross, and God was pleased that Jesus was willing to trust and obey until death, and in the end God vindicated His Son. Jesus succeeded where Adam had failed.

Isaiah 53:11-12 “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. 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.”

Some teachers have used verse 11 to claim the PSA doctrine of justification, thinking that justification means to be accounted or declared righteous. However, when the text is examined we find that the word “accounted” is not in the text at all! It is presumed by the PSA bias and just added into the text to get it to confirm what they want it to say. The text is more accurate without “accounted”, and would read, “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be righteous.” This should remind the reader of Romans 5:18-19, “So then, just as one trespass brought condemnation for all men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification and life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (See Chapter 19 of this book for more about Romans 5.)

Verse 11 and 12 also use the phrases, “he shall bear their iniquities” and “he bore the sin” but the underlying text shows that the word “bear” is used metaphorically for “endure”. Sins are actions, not literal objects which can be moved and stacked on someone! A similar use is found in 1 Peter 2:24, “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.” The word “bore” here is also a metaphor for “endure”, and this becomes very clear when the greater text of 1 Peter 2:18-3:1 is examined. (See Chapter 28 of this book for more examination of this text.)

Concluding remarks about Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 is a great chapter that foreshadows the life and events of Jesus Christ. However, to hijack the chapter and read PSA into it requires multiple violations of the Greek LXX and Hebrew grammar and is contrary to its actual context when read carefully. It goes contrary to every use of those same texts when they are applied in the New Testament. Isaiah 53 is evidence of the weakness of the PSA claims due to the fact that PSA is not actually stated in the text and must be presumed or mistranslated and forcibly injected into the passage in violation of every honest and scholarly textual interpretive method.