Many Messianic Jews know that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the most important Messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, outlining the vicarious sufferings of the Servant of the Lord for His people Israel, as well as for the nations of the world.
However, anti-missionaries and rabbinic leaders have often objected to this line of reasoning, claiming that the original Hebrew text speaks of a plural servant. That is to say, they argue that the servant of the Lord is not one person but rather a people, specifically, the people of Israel who are depicted as suffering redemptively for the sins of the nations.
Now, readers of English translations of Isaiah 53 might find this argument very surprising. After all, is the subject of the chapter spoken of throughout in the singular? On what basis, then, do the anti-missionaries make their textual case?
The argument actually comes down to two words found in two separate verses that allegedly hint at a plural subject: lamo in verse 8 (in the phrase nega`lamo - “a stroke for them/him”) and bemotayw in verse 9 (lit, “in his deaths”). It is claimed that these words provide the clue that the servant is actually a nation, hence the plurals.
The translation of the important part of these verses would then be: “for the transgression of my people [this is supposedly spoken by Gentile kings] there is a stroke for them” (in other words, there is a stroke of punishment that falls on the people of Israel); “and he [i.e., the servant of the Lord, taken to be Israel] was with the rich in his deaths” (as explained by the medieval Jewish commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, the Jews have suffered all kinds of deaths at the hands of their enemies-by the sword, by burning, etc.). What is wrong with these interpretations? Plenty!
First, the phrase nega`lamo as rightly understood by the New Jewish Publication Society Version, most likely means that the servant receives a stroke for them- in other words, for those people for whom he is suffering.
Second, in 44:15, Isaiah uses lamo to mean “to it” (not, “to them;” the verse reads, “he makes an idol and bows down to it”). So, even if you wanted lamo to refer to the servant (which, as stated, is unlikely), it could still mean “for him” as opposed to “for them.”
Third, the reason that the word “death” is in the plural in verse 9 is because it is an intensive plural, referring here to a violent death. Such usage of intensive plurals is extremely common in Hebrew, as recognized by even beginning students of the language. Thus, the word for compassion is an intensive plural, rah`mim while the word for God is `elohim (see “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus,” Vol.2.3, 1).
More specifically, in Ezek. 28:8, the prophet declares, “and you [singular] will die the deaths [plural] of one slain [singular] in the depths of the sea.” It is impossible to question the meaning here! A single person dies a plural death! (See also Ezek. 28:10, “the deaths of the uncircumcised [plural] you will die [singular].”) Whenever the Hebrew Bible refers to the deaths of an individual, it speaks of a violent death.
You might still be wondering: “I know the idea of two ‘hints’ to a plural-yet-singular-servant in this chapter doesn’t make a lot of sense, and your Hebrew points seem clear enough. I guess most Jewish scholars and translators agree with you on this. But why don’t the anti-missionaries accept your arguments?”
Simple. Old arguments die hard. Still, I think this one is just about to give up the ghost.
Articles of interest related to the Prophet Isaiah include:
Dr. Michael L. Brown is the general editor of the Messianic Prophecy Bible Project and president of FIRE School of Ministry in Pensacola, Fla.
This article was reprinted from The Messianic Times newspaper and Re-Posted with permission.