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 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 53:3-6 “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.”
 ESV

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.”” (ESV) The meaning given by Matthew is not that Jesus healed by making himself sick and 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.

A careful reader of the second phrase of verse 4 will see that it is saying that the people wrongly thought that God was punishing the victim. A proper reading of the verse 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 an act of injustice, not justice.

Verse 5 simply continues and expands on verse 4, explaining in what manner it was that the suffering servant was wrongly punished. Instead of the suffering being brought directly by God, he was actually “pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…”. In some Bibles the words “for” are also translated “because of”, or “on account of”, because that is what the Hebrew text shows. Since verse 4 is indicating that it was the people unjustly causing the suffering, and not God, it is most likely that verse 5 is merely expanding on the same thought, that it was because of, or on account of our transgressions and iniquities that he was suffering. But even if you use the word “for” here, it still does not mean “in place of” or “as a substitute”. At best it would 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 “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” may have various meanings. 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 has inflicted 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 a substitutionary payment.

The word “punishment” or “chastisement” (depending on the translation) is the Hebrew word “musar” which indicates discipline, correction, 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. The English word “punishment” is also used in verse 4, correctly, but it is a completely different Hebrew word. To translate verse 5 as “punishment” is to deliberately use it to frame the PSA model, as without this presupposition there would be no justification for this translation.

Verses 6 and 8 continue 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 meaning is simply that God had the culmination of the error of the people fall on, or meet at, the point where they were willing to sacrifice this innocent servant. There is nothing in this Hebrew 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 exposes their ungodliness with the thinking that this will result in peace and healing in their troubled hearts.

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.” ESV

Isaiah 53:10 Is another favorite PSA text that fails on multiple accounts. The text, unlike verses 3-6, is never mentioned even once in the New Testament, which is quite incredible if PSA is the intended meaning. The reason for its absence may in part be because in both the Greek LLX (Septuagint, a Greek text translated from the Hebrew), and in the Hebrew texts, some key words are not the same as what we are reading translated into English. Furthermore, there are multiple translation options that leave the author’s intent very vague. 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. Yes, the death of Jesus was well pleasing as an offering to God, but an offering is not a payment to God (unless we are referring to pagan gods). 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, and if he was a sinful offering it would not have been acceptable. But the manner of this pleasing 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.” God allowed the sins of humanity to put Jesus on a cross, and God was pleased that Jesus was willing to trust and obey until death, and in the end God vindicated His Son.

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 is a violation of the Hebrew grammar and its actual context and its statements when read with good reading comprehension skills, and 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, but must be presumed and forcibly injected into the passage in violation of every honest and scholarly textual interpretive method.