Ancient and Medieval Jewish Commentators
Portrait of a Rabbi (1635), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
(1982; revised 9-14-01)
Isaiah 52:13 – Isaiah 53 (RSV)13 Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him–his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men–
15 so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
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 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.
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 dumb, 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?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 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;
11 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.
12 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.
Translated by T. Meyer, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 4 volumes, 1854-1858)
There is a remarkable passage in the very old book Pesikta, cited in the treatise Abkath Rokhel, and reprinted in Hulsii Theologia Judaica, where this passage occurs, p. 309:
“When God created the world, He stretched out His hand under the throne of His glory, and brought forth the soul of the Messiah. He said to him: ‘Will you heal and redeem My sons after 6000 years?’ He answered him, ‘I will.’ Then God said to him: ‘Will you then also bear the punishment in order to blot out their sins, as it is written, “But he bore our diseases” ‘ (53:4). And he answered Him; ‘I will joyfully bear them.’ ” (cf. Zohar, 2:212a)
Rabbi Alschech, in Hulsii Theologia Judaica, pp. 321 ff., comments:
- Upon the testimony of tradition, our old rabbis have unanimously admitted that king Messiah is here the subject of discourse. We, in harmony with them, conclude that king David, i.e., the Messiah, must be considered as the subject of this prophecy – a view which is indeed quite obvious.
Here are Raphael Patai’s credentials, from Gates to the Old City: A Book of Jewish Legends (New York: Avon Books, 1980):
Noted anthropologist, Biblical scholar, and author of 26 books (as of 1980). He taught Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and served as professor of anthropology at Dropsie University and at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and as visiting professor at the Univ. of Pennsylvania and at Princeton, Columbia, Ohio State, and New York Universities.
Concerning the suffering servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53, Patai writes:
“The Aggada, the Talmudic legend, unhesitatingly identifies him with the Messiah, and understands especially the descriptions of his sufferings as referring to Messiah ben Joseph.”
Patai considers Daniel 9:24-27 messianic, including the death of the Messiah:
“It is quite probable that the concept of the suffering Messiah, fully developed in the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Zohar, has its origin in the biblical prophecies about the suffering servant.”
Patai also lists Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-12, Daniel 7:13-14, and Zech 9:9-10 as messianic passages.
“R. Shim’on ben Jaqish explained: ‘And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water’ (Gen1:2) – this is the spirit of King Messiah, as it is written, ‘And the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.’ (Is 11:2).” (Gen Rab. 2:4)
“You find that at the beginning of the creation of the world King Messiah was born.” (Pes. Rab. ed. Friedmann, p.152b)
Some rabbis named the Messiah, “The Leprous of the House of Study,” based on Isaiah 53:4 (B. Sanhedrin 98b).
“The Holy One began to tell him (the Messiah) the conditions (of his mission), and said to him, ‘Their sins will force you into an iron yoke, and they will render you like unto this calf whose eyes have grown dim, and they will choke your spirit with the yoke, and because of their sins your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth. Do you accept this?’ He said, ‘with gladness I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish, even the dead who have died from the days of Adam until now. This is what I want.’ ” (Pes. Rab. pp. 161a-b)
“(When) the Son of David comes they will bring iron beams and put them upon his neck until his body bends and he cries and weeps, and he says: ‘How much can my strength suffer? How much my spirit and soul? And how much my limbs? Am I not but flesh and blood?'” (Pes. Rab. 162a)
“You have suffered because of the sins of our children, and cruel punishments have come upon you . . . you were put to ridicule and held in contempt by the nations of the world because of Israel . . . All this because of the sins of our children . . . great sufferings have come upon you on their account. And (God) says to him, ‘Be you the judge over these peoples, and do to them whatever your soul wishes . . . all of them will die from the breath of your lips.’ ” (Pes. Rab. ch. 36)
“Elijah . . . says to him: ‘Endure the sufferings and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.’ And thus it is written: ‘He was wounded because of our transgressions.’ . . . (Is 53:5) – until the time when the end comes.” (Mid. Konen, BhM, 2:29)
“As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and sacrifices removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world.” (Zohar 2:212a)
Patai: “When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic times, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah as the Redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age. The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two . . . ”
The development of the two-Messiah doctrine also had to do with a messianic parallel to Moses, who died before entering the Promised Land.
Referring to Zech 12:10-12, “R. Dosa says: ‘(They will mourn) over the Messiah who will be slain.’ ” (B. Suk. 52a; also Y. Suk. 55b)
Edersheim intensively studied the doctrines, practices, and conditions of Judaism in the centuries preceding and following the beginning of the Christian era.
The following list contains the passages in the Old Testament applied to the Messiah or to Messianic times in the most ancient Jewish writings . . . The Rabbinic works from which quotations have been made are: the Targumim, the two Talmuds, and the most ancient Midrashim, but neither the Zohar (as the date of its composition is in dispute), nor any other Kabbalistic work, nor yet the younger Midrashim, nor, of course, the writings of later Rabbis. I have, however, frequently quoted from the well-known work Yalkut, because, although of comparatively late date, it is really, as its name implies, a collection and selection from more than fifty older and accredited writings, and adduces passages now not otherwise accessible to us. AndI have the more readily availed myself of it, as I have been reluctantly forced to the conclusion that even the Midrashim preserved to us have occasionally been tampered with for controversial purposes . . .
Is. lii. 3 is Messianically applied in the Talmud (Sanh. 97 b), while the last clause of verse 2 is one of the passages quoted in the Midrash on Lamentations (see Is. xi. 12).The well-known Evangelic declaration in Is. lii. 7 is thus commented upon in Yalkut (vol. ii. p. 53 c):
In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be His Name, redeems Israel, three days before Messiah comes Elijah, and stands upon the mountains of Israel, and weeps and mourns for them, and says to them: Behold the land of Israel, how long shall you stand in a dry and desolate land? And his voice is heard from the world’s end to the world’s end, and after that it is said to them: Peace has come to the world, peace has come to the world, as it is said: How beautiful upon the mountains, &c. And when the wicked hear it, they rejoice,and they say one to the other: Peace has come to us. On the second day he shall stand upon the mountains of Israel, and shall say: Good has come to the world, good has come to the world, as it is written: That bringeth good tidings of good. On the third day he shall come and stand upon the mountains of Israel, and say: Salvation has come to the world, salvation has come to the world, as it is written: That publisheth salvation.
Similarly, this passage is quoted in Yalkut on Ps. cxxi. 1. See also our remarks on Cant. ii. 13.
Verse 8 is one of the passages referred to in the Midrash on Lamentations quoted above, and frequently in other places as Messianic.
Verse 12 is Messianically applied in Shemoth R. 15 and 19.
Verse 13 is applied in the Targum expressly to the Messiah. On the words ‘He shall be exalted and extolled’ we read in Yalkut ii. (Par. 338, p. 53 c, lines 7 &c. from the bottom): He shall be higher than Abraham, to whom applies Gen. xiv. 22; higher than Moses, of whom Num. xi. 12 is predicated; higher than the ministering angels, of whom Ezek. i. 18 is said. But to Him there applies this in Zech.iv. 7: ‘Who art thou, O great mountain?’ ‘And He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.’ R. Huma says, in the name of R. Acha: All sufferings are divided into three parts; one part goes to David and the Patriarchs, another to the generation of the rebellion (rebellious Israel), andthe third to the King Messiah, as it is written (Ps. ii. 7), ‘Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion.’ Then follows a curious quotation from the Midrash on Samuel, in which the Messiah indicates that His dwelling is on Mount Zion, and that guilt is connected with the destruction of its walls.
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Behold, My Servant the Messiah shall prosper.
— Targum (“Targum Jonathan”) to Isaiah 52:13, various editions (such as Samson H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation; the Messianic Exegesis of the Targum. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1974, p. 63).
In the early cycle of synagogue readings:
We know that messianic homilies based on Joseph’s career (his saving rolepreceded by suffering), and using Isaiah 53 as the prophetic portion, were preached in certain old synagogues which used the triennial cycle…
— Rav Asher Soloff, The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Commentators, to the Sixteenth Century (Ph.D. Thesis, Drew University, 1967), p. 146.
The addition of 53.4-5 [to the cycle of synagogue readings] was evidently of aMessianic purport by reason of the theory of a suffering Messiah. The earlier part of [the Haftarah] (52.7ff.) dealt with the redemption of Israel, and in this connection the tribulations of the Messiah were briefly alluded to by the recital of the above 2 verses.
— Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (NY: Ktav, 1971, 1940), p. 298.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b
The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hathborne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].
— Soncino Talmud edition.
Ruth Rabbah 5:6
The fifth interpretation [of Ruth 2:14] makes it refer to the Messiah. Come hither: approach to royal state. And eat of the BREAD refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions. (Isa. LIII, 5).
— Soncino Midrash Rabbah (vol. 8, p. 64).
The Karaite Yefeth ben Ali (10th c.)
As to myself, I am inclined, with Benjamin of Nehawend, to regard it as alluding to the Messiah, and as opening with a description of his condition in exile, from the time of his birth to his accession to the throne: for the prophet begins by speaking of his being seated in a position of eat honour, and then goes back to relate all that will happen to him during the captivity. He thus gives us to understand two things: In the first instance, that the Messiah will only reach his highest degree of honour after long and severe trials; and secondly, that these trials will be sent upon him as a kind of sign, so that, if he finds himself under the yoke of misfortunes whilst remaining pure in his actions, he may know that he is the desired one..
— S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, editors, The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters (2 volumes; New York: Ktav, 1969), pp. 19-20. The English translations used here are taken from volume 2. The original texts are in volume 1. Cf. Soloff, pp. 107-09.
Another statement from Yefeth ben Ali:
By the words “surely he hath carried our sicknesses,” they mean that the pains and sickness which he fell into were merited by them, but that he bore them instead. . . . And here I think it necessary to pause for a few moments, in order to explain why God caused these sicknesses to attach themselves to the Messiah for the sake of Israel. . . . The nation deserved from God greater punishment than that which actually came upon them, but not being strong enough to bear it. . . God appoints his servant to carry their sins, and by doing so lighten their punishment in order that Israel might not be completely exterminated.
— Driver and Neubauer, pp. 23 ff.; Soloff pp. 108-109.
Another statement from Yefeth ben Ali:
“And the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The prophet does not by avon mean iniquity, but punishment for iniquity, as in the passage, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. xxxii. 23).
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 26; Soloff p. 109.
Mysteries of R. Shim’on ben Yohai (midrash, date uncertain)
And Armilaus will join battle with Messiah, the son of Ephraim, in the East gate . . .; and Messiah, the son of Ephraim, will die there, and Israel will mourn for him. And afterwards the Holy One will reveal to them Messiah, the son of David, whom Israel will desire to stone, saying, Thou speakest falsely; already is the Messiah slain, and there is non other Messiah to stand up (after him): and so they will despise him, as it is written, “Despised and forlorn of men;” but he will turn and hide himself from them, according to the words, “Like one hiding his face from us.”
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 32, citing the edition of Jellinek, Beth ha-Midrash (1855), part iii. p. 80.
Lekach Tov (11th c. midrash)
“And let his [Israel’s] kingdom be exalted,” in the days of the Messiah, of whom it is said, “Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.”
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 36.
Maimonides, Letter to Yemen (12th c.)
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . . And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear,without his father or mother of family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at the fame of him — their kingdoms will be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact, their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence, and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.
— Driver and Neubauer vol 1: p. 322. Edition is Abraham S. Halkin, ed., Igeret Teman (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1952). See Soloff pp. 127-128.
Zohar II, 212a (medieval)
There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel. All of these come and rest upon Him. And had He not thus lightened them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgressions of the law; as it is written, “Surely our sicknesses he has carried.”
— Cited in Driver and Neubauer, pp. 14-15 from section “va-yiqqahel”. Translation from Frydland, Rachmiel, What the Rabbis Know About the Messiah (Cincinnati: Messianic Literature Outreach, 1991), p. 56, n. 27. Note that this section is not found in the Soncino edition which says that it was an interpolation.
Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman) (13th c.)
The right view respecting this Parashah is to suppose that by the phrase “my servant” the whole of Israel is meant. . . .As a different opinion, however, is adopted by the Midrash, which refers it to the Messiah, it is necessary for us to explain it in conformity with the view there maintained. The prophet says, The Messiah, the son of David of whom the text speaks, will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies. And, in fact the text teaches this clearly. . . .
And by his stripes we were healed — because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us; God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.
— Driver and Neubauer, pp. 78 ff.
Yalkut ii: 571 (13th c.)
Who art thou, O great mountain (Zech. iv. 7.) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him “the great mountain?” Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly” — he will be higher than Abraham,… lifted up above Moses, . . . loftier than the ministering angels.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 9.
The same passage is found in Midrash Tanhuma to Genesis (perhaps 9th c.), ed. John T. Townsend (Hoboken, New Jersey: Ktav, 1989), p. 166.
Yalkut ii. 620 (13th c.), in regard to Psalm 2:6
I.e., I have drawn him out of the chastisements. . . .The chastisements are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah; and this is that which is written, “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 10.
R. Mosheh Kohen ibn Crispin (14th c.)
This Parashah the commentators agree in explaining of the Captivity of Israel,although the singular number is used in it throughout. . . .As there is no cause constraining us to do so, why should we here interpret the word collectively, and thereby distort the passage from its natural sense?. . . As then it seemed to me that the doors of the literal interpretation of the Parashah were shut in their face, and that “they wearied themselves to find the entrance,” having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the “stubbornness of their own hearts,” and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense.
— Driver and Neubauer, pp. 99-100.
Another comment from R. Mosheh Kohen ibn Crispin
If his soul makes itself into a trespass-offering, implying that his soul will treat itself as guilty, and so receive punishment for our trespasses and transgressions.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 112.
R. Sh’lomoh Astruc (14th c.)
My servant shall prosper, or be truly intelligent, because by intelligence man is really man — it is intelligence which makes a man what he is. And the prophet calls the King Messiah my servant, speaking as one who sent him. Or he may call the whole people my servant, as he says above my people (lii. 6): when he speaks of the people, the King Messiah is included in it; and when he speaks of the King Messiah, the people is comprehended with him. What he says then is, that my servant the King Messiah will prosper.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 129.
R. Elijah de Vidas (16th c.)
Since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer for them himself.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 331.
Rabbi Moshe Alshekh (El-Sheikh) of Sefad (16th c.)
I may remark, then, that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we ourselves also adhere to the same view.
– Driver and Neubauer, p. 258.
Herz Homberg (18th-19th c.)
The fact is, that it refers to the King Messiah, who will come in the latter days,when it will be the Lord’s good pleasure to redeem Israel from among the different nations of the earth…..Whatever he underwent was in consequence of their own transgression, the Lord having chosen him to be a trespass-offering, like the scape-goat which bore all the iniquities of the house of Israel.
— Driver and Neubauer, p. 400-401.
The musaf (additional) service for the Day of Atonement, Philips machzor (20th c.)
Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.
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Maimonides (writes to Jacob Alfajumi): It is said about Him (the Messiah), And his delight will be in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:3).
He grew up before him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness: and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2 (Comp. Isaiah 52:14)
(again to Rabbi Jacob Alfajumi):
And likewise said Isaiah that He (the Messiah) would appear without acknowledging a father or mother: He grew up before him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground etc. (Comp. Luke 2:46-49; Matthew 12:46-50.)
He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Isaiah 53:3 (Comp. note as Pesiqta; Isaiah 49:7a.)
Zohar (Part II, fol. 212a and Part III, fol. 218a, Amsterdam edition):
AN EXPOSITION OF ISAIAH 53
BY DAVID BARON (Hebrew-Christian scholar)
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That the generally received older Jewish interpretation of this prophecy was the Messianic is admitted by Abrabanel, who himself proceeds in a long polemic against the Nazarenes to interpret it of the Jewish nation. He begins, The first question is to ascertain to whom (this scripture) refers, for the learned men among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and who according to them was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin’s womb, as is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uziel interprets it in the Targum of the future Messiah; and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim.
Similarly another, Rabbi Mosheh el Sheikh, commonly known as Alshech (latter half of the sixteenth century), who also himself follows the older interpretation, at any rate of the first three verses (52:13-15, which, however, as we shall see, contain a summary of the whole prophecy), testifies “that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah.”
In fact, until Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yizchaki, 1040-1105) applied it to the Jewish nation, the Messianic interpretation of this chapter was almost universally adopted by Jews, and his view, which we shall examine presently, although received by Ibn Ezra, Kimchi, and others, was rejected as unsatisfactory by many others, one of whom (R. Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin, of Cordova, and afterwards Toledo, fourteenth century, who says rightly, of those who for controversial reasons applied this prophecy to Israel, that the doors of literal interpretation of this chapter were shut in their face, and that they wearied themselves to find the entrance, having forsaken the knowledge of our teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and of their own opinions. According to Ibn Crispin, the interpretation adopted by Rashi distorts the passage from its natural meaning, and that in truth it was given of God as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when any should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non-resemblance to it whether he were the Messiah or not.
Another (R. Eliyya de Vidas, c. 1575), says The meaning of He was wounded for our transgressions. . . bruised for our iniquities, is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of him being bruised, it follows that whoever will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer them for himself.
Before proceeding to an examination of the modern Jewish interpretation of this chapter, let me add two further striking testimonies to its more ancient Messianic interpretation–taken this time, not from any Targum, or Midrash, or Rabbinical Commentary, which might be said to express the individual opinion of this or that Rabbi, but from the Jewish liturgy, which may be said to bear upon it the seal of the authority and usage of the whole synagogue.
The first is taken from the liturgy for the Day of Atonement–the most solemn day of the Jewish year–and reads as follows: “We are shrunk up in our misery even until now! Our Rock has not come nigh to us; Messiah our righteousness (or, “our righteous Messiah”) has departed from us. Horror has seized upon us, and we have none to justify us. He has borne the yoke of our iniquities and transgressions, and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound at the time the Eternal will create him (Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth, raise him up from Seir to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.” (This forms part of the Musaph service for the Day of Atonement. The author, according to Zunz, was Eleazer ben Kalir, who lived in the ninth century. Yinnon, as will be seen, was one of the names given by the Rabbis to the Messiah, and is derived from Psalm 72:17, which the Talmud renders, “Before the sun was, his name. . .” a rendering and expression which implies a belief in the pre-existence of at least the name of the Messiah, and perhaps of the Messiah himself.)
The other passage is also from the Machsor (Liturgy for the Festival Services), and will be found among the prayers on the Feast of Passover. It is as follows: “Flee, my beloved, until the end of the vision shall speak; hasten, and the shadows shall take their flight hence; high and exalted and lofty shall be the despised one; he shall be prudent in judgement, and shall sprinkle many! Lay bare thine arm! Cry out and say, ‘The voice of my beloved; behold he cometh!'” (David Levy, the English translator of the Machsor, says in a note that this verse referred to the true Messiah.)
by S. R. Driver and Ad. Neubauer
(available online in abridged form)
Driver and Neubauer’s The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters was intended to be a complete collection of everything said about this passage in Jewish classical literature. First published in 1876, it included an introduction by E.B. Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford for nearly 50 years, discussing various objections to interpreting the passage of the messiah. The material here has been vastly abridged; but it includes a cross-section of views, including some who think the passage refers to Hezekiah, or Isaiah, or to the nation of Israel as a whole. But a surprising number of commentators favor an interpretation which sees in the passage references to a messiah who suffers for the sins of his own generation and of Israel.
Benjamin of Nehawend, a philosophic Karaite of much reputation (c. 800 A.D.), still believed that Isaiah 53 referred to the messiah (according to Yepheth ben Ali). “Many,” Ibn Ezra says, in the middle of the twelfth century, “explained it as being of the messiah”, on the authority of a traditional saying of the rabbis.
A few, however, still continued to explain the whole of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as referring to the messiah. But these were met by the great paradox: How can the same one both be put to death and yet also prolong his days and reign? Hence Moses ben Nachman supposed only a readiness to die. Ibn Crispin, only a nearness to death. Some rabbis explained the last verse of Moses, although (as Moses Elsheikh hints) they thereby had a difficulty in connecting it with what preceded. Moses Elsheikh himself followed the “unanimous opinion of the rabbis” that the section referred to the messiah; but so great was the difficulty of admitting the death of the messiah, that he also interpreted all the verses which spoke of death as referring to Moses.
From this difficulty, however, they could be freed as soon as they could satisfy themselves that the prophecy might refer to any group of men, some of whom had died, or even of any one man, except Jesus. The expected exhalation of the figure could be relegated to the future. And out of the many explanations suggested, it was only natural that the one most flattering to national feeling was extensively adopted. It might have in effect become universal, except for its unsatisfactoriness.
This new interpretation, emphasizing Israel’s suffering, began with Rashi. Rashi’s authority is put forward by some who followed him, with Ibn Ezra, J. and D. Kimchi, who were later than he; but no one before him. His great Talmudical studies, which seem to have been his earliest occupation, did not suggest it. On the contrary, in his notes on the Talmud he followed the older tradition. In the graphic story in which Joshua ben Levi is reported to have made diverse inquiries of Elisha and Shimon ben Yohai as to the coming of the messiah, and was told that he would find the messiah sitting at the gates of Rome among the poor who bare sicknesses, Rashi explains the words “bearers of sicknesses” by reference to this section of Isaiah. “‘ Bearers of sicknesses’, in other words, stricken; and he too is stricken, as it is written, ‘And he was wounded for our iniquities,’ and it is written, ‘And our sicknesses he bare’.”
But if Rashi’s later commentary was written after 1096 A.D.–after the hideous massacre of Jews in Spire, Worms, Maintz, and Cologne, by the wild swarm which gathered in the wake of the first Crusaders–then these deeds may have been the cause for his change of mind. Before then, according to Gratz (who is careful in noting any disparity of condition between them and any people among whom they sojourned), Jews “were neither in a condition of oppression nor contempt, nor were shut out from holding property”. Afterwards, though, according to Milman (“History of the Jews”), scenes were far too common in which the Jews suffered as innocent victims.
Rashi’s interpretation that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 referred to Israel as a nation, with stress on her suffering (instead of her dispersion) was accepted by most subsequent commentators. But it would have been a strange exception to the language of the prophets, and of Isaiah himself, who upbraids his people for their wickedness, their neglect of God, their dullness and blindness, hypocrisy, idolatries and disobedience, and who tells them, “Your iniquities have separated you and your God”–it would have been a strange contradiction had he, in the midst of this, described them as God’s righteous servant, who should bear the sins of the world. And that we, the gentiles, when converted, after the arrival of the messiah, should admit that they suffered in our stead, the just for the unjust, and atoned for us.
Abraham Farissoll apologizes for those who interpreted it of the messiah. “Whatever justice there may be in the expressions of our sages, who applied the prophecy to the messiah [note, therefore, that some sages did in fact apply this passage to the messiah], it should be borne in mind that although they themselves and their words are both truthful, yet their object was [only] allegorical.”
Moses Elsheikh says, “The verses in the chapter are difficult to fix or arrange in a literal manner, so that the various parts, from the beginning to the end, may be combined and connected closely together.I see commentators going up and down among them, and yet neither agreeing on the subject to which the whole is to be referred, nor disentangling the words with any simple plan.” He himself then plans, in “all humility”, to set himself to “apply to it a straightforward method, according to the literal sense of the text, such as should be adopted by one who would rightly unite the several words and periods, and determine what view is legitimate, and what not.” He then interprets it of the Messiah; yet, when he comes to verses 9-12, all of which speak of the death, he says, “These verses are all of them hard, though we shall not touch on everything which might be noticed.”
Shlomo Levi says, “Throughout this prophecy, all the commentators exert their utmost on its interpretation, and are at no small variance as to its import.” Even in later times, R. Napthali Altschuler expresses his surprise that “Rashi and David Kimchi have not, with the Targum, applied them to the Messiah likewise.”
Passani expresses his surprise at former commentators, and says, “Not one of the explanations is in complete accord with the language of the text, or succeeds in satisfying us–still less the [Christians].” He thinks that, like all other prophecies, most of Isaiah’s also point to the latter days, when the Messiah shall have appeared, but exhorts caution how it should be interpreted. “Take heed, O wise man, in your words, even though the language be meant to be metaphorical and indirect.”
Rabbi Tanchum seems to be carefully ambiguous. He uses the phrase, “any person or nation”, but speaks of the subject as being “one of the generation in exile”, who had died, yet “a guide and a deliverer”, who “rescues them from captivity and their enemies generally”, and speaks of “his hidden nature, the mystery connected with him not being revealed to them.” He concludes with a protest against there being anything allegorical, and seems to think that the intention of the prophet was, not to be understood.
Ibn Amran says, “As relates to the Jews, there is no little difficulty in giving a sense to these most obscure words of Isaiah at the present; they manifestly need a prophetic spirit; thus our older and more abstruse masters went apart from one another to different explanations. But,” he satisfies himself, “each very far removed from the exposition of the Christians.”
I may remark, then, that our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view; for the Messiah is of course David, who, as is well known, was “anointed”, and there is a verse in which the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, says expressly, “My servant David shall be king over them” (Ezekiel 37:24). The expression My servant, therefore, can justly be referred to David; for from what is explicit in one place we can discover what is hidden or obscure in another.
God declares in these verses how far the merits of those who suffer for the sins of their own age extend their effects, adducing a proof from the case of the Messiah who bore the iniquities of the children of Israel, “and behold his reward is with him” The Almighty argues with Israel, saying, “. . . look and learn how great is the power of the man who suffers for a whole generation; you shall see then from the exaltation which I shall confer upon the King Messiah how vast are the benefits of the chastisements of love to him that endures them.”
Our rabbis further say, “He shall be higher than Abraham . . . lifted up above Moses. . . and loftier than the ministering angels.” As Moses ruled even in the world of the stars–for the rabbis say that for this reason the hail, the locusts, and the grasshoppers were sent through his instrumentality–so, even more fully, will the Messiah hold sway over these likewise. This does not imply that he will be superior to Moses in wisdom or in prophecy, nor again, that at the time alluded to Moses will not in every respect be the greater (indeed anything different from this will not be credited by those who have real knowledge), but only that he will be more exalted than Moses was previously, in his own lifetime.
And he is to be loftier than the angels, according to the text (Ezek. 1:18), for these had “loftiness and fear”, i.e., in spite of their high position, they still stood in awe of the Almighty, not venturing, like the righteous one who “played before him, as a son before his father”, to make request of their Creator.
I maintain that up to this point we have had the words of God announcing the greatness of the Messiah in return for his sufferings.
Here, however, the prophet seems to set before us the words of Israel endorsing the Divine declaration, and affirming in their own persons its entire truth. “The ‘tried saying of the Lord’ ” , they exclaim, “which He has made known to us concerning the King Messiah, has opened our ears and removed the blindness of our eyes; we beheld a man, just and perfect, bruised and degraded by suffering, despised in our eyes, and plundered verily before God and man, while all cried, ‘God has forsaken him!’ ; he must surely, therefore, we thought, be ‘despised’ likewise in the eyes of the Almighty, and this is why He has made him ‘an offscouring and refuse’ (Lam. 3:45). But now the Lord has awakened our ear, and taught us that the chastisements of love are infinitely great; henceforth, then, will ‘his strength be magnified’, when we see him just, and humble in spirit, stricken, and smitten; for them we shall all agree in concluding that what we had seen before meant nothing except that he was carrying our sicknesses; and that his sufferings were for the protection of his generation.”
Such is the substance of what the prophet puts into the people’s mouth. And first of all they say, “He came up as a tender shoot”, etc. ; i.e., we see one who was as tender shoot with water for it to absorb, and growing great and tall; he was like this, however, only in the upper world; for though this just and perfect sufferer flourished and grew great before God in the upper world, yet in the earth which we see below, he was as a root coming forth out of the dry earth, where there was no water for him. Being lowly, therefore, in the sight of our eyes, he was without form and comeliness in the world; his form was “darkened” by the blackness of his sufferings (cf Lam. 4:8), and “his own leanness bore witness in his face”; neither had he any beauty that we could desire him on account of his righteousness, but, on the contrary, he was rejected in our eyes.
Isaiah 52:13 The commentators differ concerning this section. The Fayyumi [Sa’adyah Gaon of Fayyum] lost his senses in applying it to the prophets generally, or, according to some authorities, in supposing that it referred to Jeremiah. Some of the learned Karaites apply the prophecy to the pious of their own sect. Others think that the subject of it is David and the Messiah, saying that all the expressions of contempt, such as “many were desolated at you”, refer to the seed of David who are in exile; and all the glorious things refer to the Messiah. As to myself, I am inclined, with Benjamin of Nehawend, to regard it as alluding to the Messiah, and as opening with a description of his condition in exile, from the time of his birth to his accession to the throne. The expression “My servant” is applied to the Messiah as it is applied to his ancestor in the verse, “I have sworn to David My servant” (Psalm 89:4).
Inasmuch as now at the end of the captivity there will be no prophet to intercede at the time of distress, the time of the Lord’s anger and of his fury, God appoints His Servant to carry their sins, and by doing so lighten their punishment in order that Israel might not be completely exterminated. Thus, from the words, “he was wounded for our transgressions”, we learn two things: first, that Israel had committed many sins and transgressions, for which they deserved the indignation of God; and second, that by the Messiah bearing them they would be delivered from the wrath which rested upon them, and be enabled to endure it, as it is said, “And by associating with him we are healed.”
The expression “smitten of God” signifies that these sicknesses attacked him by the will of God; they did not arise from natural causes. And the word “afflicted” corresponds to “despised” in verse 3, the meaning being that he was afflicted with poverty.
Verse 6 exhibits Israel’s wickedness in not awaking to repentance after God had punished them with his plagues. They are compared in this respect to sheep without a shepherd, wandering from the way, and torn by wild beasts, going astray among the mountains without any to lead them back,. In like manner Israel in captivity has no one to call him, and lead him back to the right way, and if a guide rises up to them, desiring to bring them back, they hasten to kill him, and so cause their captivity to be prolonged. By the words “we have turned every one to his own way”, they mean that each is occupied with the necessities of life and with establishing his fortune. And while God looks upon their work, and they do not think of their sicknesses, their guilt is thrown upon this guide, as it is said, “And the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all.” The prophet does not mean literally “the iniquity”, but rather the punishment for this iniquity.
Verse 9 says, “And he made his grave with the wicked.” This means that he sometimes despaired so much of his life as either to dig for himself a grave among the wicked (i.e., the wicked Israelites), or at least desire to be buried among them. The general sense is that he resigned himself to die in exile.
It was said, “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all”, and the prophet repeats the same thought here, saying that God was pleased to bruise and sicken him, though not in consequence of sin. The prophet next says, “When his soul makes a trespass offering”, indicating thereby that his soul was compelled to take Israel’s guilt upon itself, as it is said, “And he bore the sin of many”.
The first question is to ascertain to whom [this passage] refers; for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and who, according to them, was the Son of God, and took flesh in the virgin’s womb, as stated in their writings. But Yonathan ben Uzziel interprets it in the Targum of the future messiah; and this is also the opinion of our own learned men in the majority of their midrashim, although one of the verses (verse 12) is referred to Moses our master.
In the same way I see in the exposition of Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman that he explains the prophecy [as being about] the King Messiah. The Gaon Rabbi Sa’adyah, however, interprets it entirely of Jeremiah. And Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, and also Rabbi Menachem [ben Shlomoh] Meiri speaks of this interpretation as “excellent”, though what may be the goodness or excellence that they see in it, I do not understand.
Rashi, however, and Rabbi Joseph Qamchi, and his son, the great Rabbi David Qamchi, all with one voice explain the entire prophecy of Israel.
As regards the course taken by Yonathan ben Uzziel and our other wise men, who interpret it of Messiah our righteousness, I do not know whether in saying this they mean Messiah ben Joseph, who they believe is to come at the commencement of the deliverance, or whether they intend Messiah son of David, who is to arrive afterwards. In either case, however, the sense of the words will not admit of such an explanation.
In a word, the interpretation of Yonathan, and of those who follow him in the same opinion, can never be considered to be the true one, in a literal sense, because the character and drift of the passage as a whole will not bear it. These learned men were concerned only with allegorical or adventitious expositions, and hence merely applied the traditions they had received respecting the Messiah to the present passage, without in the least imagining it to be its actual meaning.
Others have supposed it to mean the just in this present world; but these, too, for the same reason, by altering the number, distort the verses from their natural meaning. As then it seemed to me that the doors of the literal interpretation of the Parashah were shut in their face, and that “they wearied themselves to find the entrance”, having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the “stubbornness of their own hearts”, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our rabbis, of the King Messiah, and will be careful, so far as I am able, to adhere to the literal sense; thus, possibly, I shall be free from the forced and far-fetched interpretations of which others have been guilty.
He shall be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly. He will be more exalted than Moses; for when he gathers together our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth, he will be exalted in the eyes of all the kings in the whole world, and all of them will serve him, as Daniel prophesies concerning him, “All nations, peoples, tongues shall serve him.” (Dan. 7:14). He will be loftier than Solomon, whose dignity was so lofty that he is said to have “sat on the throne of the Lord” (I Chron. 29:23), and our rabbis say that he was king over both the upper and the nether world. (Sanhedrin 20b) But the King Messiah, in his all-comprehending intelligence, will be loftier than Solomon. Exceedingly above the ministering angels, because that same comprehensive intelligence will approach God more nearly than theirs.
This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the express purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come an deliver Israel, and his life from the day he arrives at the age of discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if anyone should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here. If there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.
My servant shall prosper, or be truly intelligent, because by intelligence man is really man–it is intelligence which makes a man what he is. And the prophet calls the King Messiah My servant, speaking as the One who sent him. Or he may call the whole people My servant, as he says above My people (52:6). When he speaks of the people, the King Messiah is included in it. And when he speaks of the King Messiah, the people is comprehended with him. What he says then, is that My servant the King Messiah will prosper.
Our rabbis declare that he will be higher than Abraham; more exalted than Moses; and loftier than the angels. Lofty through the angels, in that he will depend upon the intelligent powers which belong to him and are his ministers, and which tend to attach themselves to God, so that he will be like the Angel of the Lord of Hosts. Of him also, it is said, that “His angels He will appoint for you, to keep you in all your ways.” (Psalm 91:11).
In verse 52:14, the prophet, speaking of Israel as a whole, says, Just as all who saw you were amazed at the greatness of your distress, and said, What is the heat of this fierce anger (Deut. 29:24) that is upon this people more than any other people? and, Is this the city which men used to call the perfection of beauty (Lam. 2:15)? [so will they now be amazed at your glory]. For as before the Lord gave full measure in smiting you, so now he will give you full measure of prosperity, so that the dignity of this Anointed One, when he is anointed, will surpass that of all others who are anointed, by the radiancy of his countenance which will shine like that of Moses (Ex. 34:30).
[Normally this verse is translated, “he was marred beyond any other man”; but with a slight change in the spelling of one word it could read, “he was anointed beyond any other man”. Apparently this is how the verse is being interpreted in the above passage. It is interesting to note that one of the versions of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls also has this alternate reading–ed.]
I was perusing the book of the prophet Isaiah, and when I came to the Parashah Behold My servant, I set before myself the notes of those who had commented upon it, and pondered over them and examined the opinions they contained. But all alike, I found, lacked solidity and soundness; as was the more palpable, since each differed from the rest in the subject to whom he supposed it to refer, some expounding the Parashah of the congregation of Israel as a whole, and others, in one way or another, of the King Messiah, who will speedily be revealed in our days. This, in fact, is done by our rabbis, who , in the section Heleq (Sanhedrin 94a), on the words To the increase of his government (Isaiah 9:7), expound as follows: The Holy One sought to make Hezekiah the Messiah, and [to make] Sanacherib, Gog and Magog.
And the heretics explain it of their messiah, by their method of interpretation, discovering in its arguments relating to his passion and death, and their false belief in him, which, however, have been refuted oftentimes with unequivocal proofs by learned Jews. One of these, Rabbi Joseph ben Kaspi, was led so far as to say that those who expounded it of the Messiah, who is shortly to be revealed, gave occasion to the heretics to interpret it of Jesus.
May God, however, forgive him for not having spoken the truth! Our rabbis, the doctors of the Talmud, deliver their opinions by the power of prophecy, possessing a tradition concerning the principles of interpretation, so that their words are the truth. The principle which every expositor ought to rest upon is never to shrink from declaring the truth. And now I will make known what has been communicated to me from heaven, namely, the Parashah was originally uttered with a reference to Hezekiah, king of Judah and Israel, but being “a word deftly spoken” (Prov. 25:11), nevertheless alludes covertly to the King Messiah. . .
Says the author: Behold, we have explained the several parts of this Parashah in an elegant and plausible manner; and the interpretation here given is the one that is revealed and open to all, but there is a secret one, sealed and treasured up in its midst, which sees throughout allusions to the King Messiah (who is assuredly to be speedily revealed in our own days). And in the same sense it is expounded by our rabbis.
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his first appearance? He will make his first appearance in the land of Israel, as it is written, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple” (Mal. 3:1); but as to the manner of his appearance, until it has taken place, you cannot know this, not so that you could say he is the son of a specific person, or to be from the family of that person. There shall rise up one whom none have known before, and the signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin. For the Almighty, when he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, “Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth from his place.” (Zech. 6:12) And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or his mother or family being known, He came up as a shoot before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at the fame of him—their kingdoms will be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact, their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence, and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.
My servant, i.e., the King Messiah, shall be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly–he shall be higher than Abraham; lifted up above Moses; and loftier than the ministering angels. Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel was unable to comprehend how the Messiah could be lifted up above Moses, of whom it was said that “there arose no prophet in Israel like him”. (Deut. 34:10); and still more how he was to be greater than the angels, who are spiritual beings, whereas the Messiah is born of a woman. It is, in fact, upon that expression that the idolaters [Christians] rest the chief article of their faith, the divinity of the Messiah. Abarbanel rejects also the opinion of the learned En Bonet, who explains it of the doctors, “for how”, he asks, “could it enter into anyone’s mind to speak of the doctors as exalted above Abraham or Moses?”
In my own humble opinion it seems that in this instance En Bonet is right; for in point of nobility the Messiah will excel even Abraham, and therefore it is promised that he shall be high. And in the ability to guide Israel he will be superior to Moses. For Moses, when he was a shepherd, had compassion on the kid which escaped from him in order to drink, and brought it to his bosom; and for that purpose the Almighty had chosen him (Shmoth Rabba)–how much more then that he might guide and tend Israel?
The opinions of our wise men on the interpretation of this verse have now been discussed. But we do not gather clearly from their language whether they are speaking of Messiah son of Ephraim or of Messiah son of David.
In a word, the explanation of the rabbis and of the Targum of Yonathan cannot possibly be conceived as being truthful in the sense of being literal; it is allegorical and adventitious, consisting, as it does, in the adaptation of one of their traditions to the language of the text. And a proof of this lies in the fact that the Targum itself refers the subsequent verses to Israel, and not to the Messiah, and that one verse , the last, is referred by our rabbis to Moses.
In my own humble opinion, I believe that they mean to assert that the verse speaks solely of Messiah son of David, to whom all the gorgeous language in it will apply. The prophet next addresses the people of Messiah son of Ephraim, and encourages them not to be afraid of the myriads which were against them; that even though the son of Ephraim were slain, the Almighty would avenge him by the hand of Messiah son of David, who would sprinkle the blood of many nations.
The words mean, then, As when you, O Messiah son of Ephraim, went forth into the world, many were astonished at you, wondering how it could possibly be that his countenance was so marred beyond men, and his form beyond the sons of men, whether also such was the usual appearance of a conqueror–as they thus mocked you without measure, so will the Messiah son of David sprinkle the blood of many nations.
The fifth mansion in Paradise is built of onyx and jasper, and set stones, and silver and gold. . . there dwells Messiah son of David, and Elijah, and Messiah son of Ephraim. There is also the “litter of the wood of Lebanon” , like the tabernacle which Moses made in the wilderness; all the furniture thereof and “the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom of gold, the seat of purple”, and within it, Messiah son of David who loves Jerusalem. Elijah takes him by his head, and lays him down in his bosom, holds him, and says, “Bear the sufferings and wounds with which the Almighty does chastise you for Israel’s sake”; and so it is written, He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, until the time when the end should come.
The Messiah, in order to atone for them both [for Adam and David] will make his soul a trespass-offering, as it is written next to this, in the Parashah Behold My servant. And what is written after it? He shall see seed, shall have long days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
I am much surprised at those commentators who have applied themselves to investigate the meaning of this Parashah. One, for example, maintains that it was the intention of the prophet to allude to Moses; another, that he referred to the Israelitish people; a third applies it to king Josiah; a fourth dwells much upon the King Messiah, and so brings the Midrash into the text. For ourselves, however, we know with certainty that scripture never bears any other than the simple and literal meaning.
Moreover, not one of the explanations mentioned is in complete accordance with the language of the text, or succeeds in satisfying us, still less does the opinion of the disbelievers who make these verses the foundation of their faith.
Thus the words had no form or comeliness cannot possibly be interpreted of Moses, for everyone is well aware that Moses had a fine form and the strength of a lion. And if (as is indeed the case) the words, For the transgression of my people were they smitten allude to Israel, then the person described as suffering for the nation cannot be the nation itself.
And as regards the explanation which refers it to the Messiah, we may say, Take heed, O wise men, in your words, even though the language be meant to be metaphorical and indirect.
I have therefore been led to the conviction that the Parashah may after all be referred intelligibly and naturally to Hezekiah.
I will now proceed to explain these verses of our own Messiah, who, God willing, will come speedily in our days. I am surprised that Rashi and Rabbi David Kimchi have not, with the Targum, applied them to the Messiah likewise.
It follows necessarily from this verse (Deut. 34:10) that no prophet whose office was restricted to Israel alone could ever arise again like Moses; but it is still quite possible that a prophet like Moses might arise among the gentile nations. In fact the Messiah is such a prophet, as it is stated in the Midrash on the verse, Behold My servant, etc. , that he will be “greater than Moses”, which is explained to mean that his miracles will be more wonderful than those of Moses. Moses, by the miracles he wrought, drew but a single nation to the worship of God, but the Messiah will draw all nations to the worship of God. And this will be effected by means of a marvelous sign, to be seen by all the nations even to the ends of the earth, that is, the resurrection of the dead.