According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah was writing about the People of Israel personified as The Suffering Servant of the Lord. There are no less than 8 quotations that show this to be the case. Please note that in the following four quotations, all from the Book of Isaiah, it is the People of Israel who are called the Servant of God:
Yeshayahu- Isaiah - Chapter 41:8 But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me,
Yeshayahu- Isaiah - Chapter 44: 21 Remember these, O Jacob; and Israel, for you are My servant; I formed you that you be a servant to Me, Israel, do not forget Me.
Yeshayahu- Isaiah - Chapter 45:4 For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen one, and I called to you by your name; I surnamed you, yet you have not known Me.
Yeshayahu- Isaiah - Chapter 49: 3 And He said to me, "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast."
Isaiah 43:10 is a very interesting verse.
Yeshayahu- Isaiah - Chapter 43: 10 "You are My witnesses," says the Lord, "and My servant whom I chose," in order that you know and believe Me, and understand that I am He; before Me no god was formed and after Me none shall be.
The above verse tells us that the Jewish People are plural when G-d uses the term 'witnesses,' but the People of Israel are also referred to in this same verse in the singular in the word, 'servant,' the very same word that we find in Isaiah 53.
Early in the Book of Isaiah, God predicts the long and difficult exile of the Jewish people. Chapter 53 occurs in the midst of Isaiah's "Messages of Consolation," which tell of the restoration of Israel to prominence as God's chosen people.
The key to understanding this chapter lies in correctly identifying who is speaking. Though the book was written by Isaiah, verses 53:1-10 are told from the perspective of world leaders. Following in the footsteps of the previous chapter (Isaiah 52:15 – “the kings will shut their mouths in amazement”), these verses describe how world leaders will be shocked with disbelief when God’s Servant Israel – despite all contrary expectations – is vindicated and blossoms in the Messianic age.
Yeshayahu - Isaiah - Chapter 53
1 Who would have believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed?
Who would have believed our report: So will the nations say to one another, Were we to hear from others what we see, it would be unbelievable.
the arm of the Lord: like this, with greatness and glory, to whom was it revealed until now?
In this opening verse, world leaders are shocked at the incredible news of Israel’s salvation: “Who would believe what we have heard!”
This verse refers to “the arm of God.” Throughout the Tanakh, God's "arm" (זרוע) always denotes a redemption of the Jewish people from physical persecution. For example, God took the Jews out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 26:8). (See also Exodus 3:20, 6:6, 14:31, 15:6; Deut. 4:34, 7:19; Isaiah 51:9, 52:10, 62:8, 63:12; Jeremiah 21:5, 27:5; Ezekiel 20:33; Psalms 44:3, 89:11, 98:1, 136:12).
2 And he came up like a sapling before it, and like a root from dry ground, he had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him?
And he came up like a sapling before it: This people, before this greatness came to it, was a very humble people, and it came up by itself like a sapling of the saplings of the trees.
and like a root: he came up from dry land.
neither form: had he in the beginning, nor comeliness.
and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him?: And when we saw him from the beginning without an appearance, how could we desire him?
Now shall we desire him?: This is a question.
This imagery of a tree struggling to grow in dry earth is a metaphor for the Jewish struggle in exile. A young sapling in dry ground appears that it will die. The Jews were always a small nation, at times as small as 2 million people, threatened with extinction. In this verse Isaiah describes Israel’s miraculous return from exile, like a sapling that sprouts from this dry ground. This idea appears throughout the Jewish Bible (see Isaiah 60:21, Ezekiel 19:13, Hosea 14:6-7, Amos 9:15).
3 Despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, and as one who hides his face from us, despised and we held him of no account.
Despised and rejected by men: was he. So is the custom of this prophet: he mentions all Israel as one man, e.g., (44:2), “Fear not, My servant Jacob” ; (44:1) “And now, hearken, Jacob, My servant.” Here too (52:13), “Behold My servant shall prosper,” he said concerning the house of Jacob. יַשְׂכִּיל is an expression of prosperity. Comp. (I Sam. 18:14) “And David was successful (מַשְׂכִּיל) in all his ways.”
and as one who hides his face from us: Because of their intense shame and humility, they were as one who hides his face from us, with their faces bound up in concealment, in order that we not see them, like a plagued man who hides his face and is afraid to look.
This verse describes the Servant as universally despised and rejected. This has been a historical theme for the Jewish people, as a long list of oppressors have treated the Jews as sub-human (the Nazis) or as a pariah state (the United Nations). See similar imagery in Isaiah 49:7, 60:15; Psalms 44:14; Nechemia 3:36.
While this description clearly applies to Israel, it cannot be reconciled with the New Testament account which describes Jesus as immensely popular (Matthew 4:25). “Large crowds” of people came from far and wide to hear him speak, and Jesus had to sail into the water to avoid being overrun by the crowds (Mark 3:7-9). Luke 2:52 describes him as physically strong and well respected, a man whose popularity spread and was "praised by all" (Luke 4:14-15). A far cry from Isaiah’s description of “despised and rejected.”
Although Jesus died a criminal's death, Isaiah is describing someone for whom rejection has spanned the ages – obviously referring to a nation, not an individual who suffered rejection for only a few hours.
4 Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed.
Indeed, he bore our illnesses: Heb. אָכֵן, an expression of ‘but’ in all places. But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he bore.
yet we accounted him: We thought that he was hated by the Omnipresent, but he was not so, but he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities.
Throughout the centuries of Israel’s exile, many nations persecuted the Jews on the pretense that it was God’s way of “punishing” the “accursed” Jews for having stubbornly rejected the new religions. In these verses, until the end of the chapter, the nations confess how they used the Jewish people as scapegoats, not for the “noble” reasons they had long claimed.
Indeed, the nations selfishly persecuted the Jews as a distraction from their own corrupt regimes: “Surely our suffering he did bear, and our pains he carried...” (53:4)
5 But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wound we were healed.
the chastisement of our welfare was upon him: The chastisement due to the welfare that we enjoyed, came upon him, for he was chastised so that there be peace for the entire world.
Isaiah 53:5 is a classic example of mistranslation: The verse does not say, “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities,” which could convey the vicarious suffering ascribed to Jesus. Rather, the proper translation is: “But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities;” This conveys that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others – not the opposite as Christians contend – that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others.
Indeed, the Christian idea directly contradicts the basic Jewish teaching that God promises forgiveness to all who sincerely return to Him; thus there is no need for the Messiah to atone for others (Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 36:3, Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33, Hoseah 14:1-3, Jonah 3:6-10, Proverbs 16:6, Daniel 4:27, 2-Chronicles 7:14).
My favorite verses for G-d’s mercy comes from Ezekiel chapters 18;
Yechezkel - Ezekiel - Chapter 18
20 The soul that sins, it shall die; a son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, and a father shall not bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
21 And if the wicked man repent of all his sins that he has committed and keeps all My laws and executes justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
22 All his transgressions that he has committed shall not be remembered regarding him: through his righteousness that he has done he shall live.
23 Do I desire the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Is it not rather in his repenting of his ways that he may live?
24 And when the righteous repents of his righteousness and does wrong and does like all the abominations that the wicked man did, shall he live? All his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered; in his treachery that he has perpetrated and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die.
6 We all went astray like sheep, we have turned, each one on his way, and the Lord accepted his prayers for the iniquity of all of us.
We all went astray like sheep: Now it is revealed that all the heathens (nations [mss.]) had erred.
accepted his prayers: He accepted his prayers and was appeased concerning the iniquity of all of us, that He did not destroy His world.
accepted… prayers: Heb. הִפְגִּיעַ, espriad in O.F., an expression of supplication.
The nations realize that their lack of proper leadership (“shepherd”) caused them to treat the Jews with disdain. They further acknowledge how punishments that should have befallen the nations were averted through Israel’s suffering.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he would not open his mouth; like a lamb to the slaughter he would be brought, and like a ewe that is mute before her shearers, and he would not open his mouth.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted: Behold he was oppressed by taskmasters and people who exert pressure.
and he was afflicted: with verbal taunts, sorparlec in O.F.
yet he would not open his mouth: He would suffer and remain silent like the lamb that is brought to the slaughter, and like the ewe that is mute before her shearers.
and he would not open his mouth: This refers to the lamb brought to the slaughter.
In various contexts, the Bible uses the imagery of “sheep led to the slaughter” specifically in reference to the Jewish people. For example: "You give us as sheep to be eaten and have scattered us among the nations... we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered" (Psalms 44:12, 23).
This verse prophesizes the many hardships – both physical torment and economic exploitation – that the Jews endured in exile. Ironically, this prophecy refers in part to the 11th century Crusaders who "persecuted and afflicted” the Jews in the name of Jesus. In our time, while Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were "led to the slaughter," they still remained like a "lamb that is silent before her shearers" – without complaints against God.
8 From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken, and his generation who shall tell? For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them.
From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken: The prophet reports and says that the heathens (nations [mss., K’li Paz]) will say this at the end of days, when they see that he was taken from the imprisonment that he was imprisoned in their hands and from the judgment of torments that he suffered until now.
and his generation: The years that passed over him.
who shall tell?: The tribulations that befell him, for from the beginning, he was cut off and exiled from the land of the living that is the land of Israel for because of the transgression of my people, this plague came to the righteous among them.
The phrase, "land of the living” (Eretz HaChaim) refers specifically to the Land of Israel. Thus this verse, “He was removed from the land of the living,” does not mean that the servant was killed, but rather was exiled from the Land of Israel.
This verse again describes the world’s surprise at witnessing the Jewish return to the Promised Land. "Who could have imagined” that the nation we tortured now prospers? World leaders offer a stunning confession: “Because of my people’s sin, they [the Jews] were afflicted.”
Here the text makes absolutely clear that the oppressed Servant is a collective nation, not a single individual. This is where knowledge of biblical Hebrew is absolutely crucial. At the end of the verse, the Hebrew word for “they were” (lamoh – לָמוֹ) always refers to a group, never to an individual. (see for example, Psalms 99:7)
9 And he gave his grave to the wicked, and to the wealthy with his kinds of death, because he committed no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
And he gave his grave to the wicked: He subjected himself to be buried according to anything the wicked of the heathens (nations [mss., K’li Paz]) would decree upon him, for they would penalize him with death and the burial of donkeys in the intestines of the dogs.
to the wicked: According to the will of the wicked, he was willing to be buried, and he would not deny the living God.
and to the wealthy with his kinds of death: and to the will of the ruler he subjected himself to all kinds of death that he decreed upon him, because he did not wish to agree to (denial) [of the Torah] to commit evil and to rob like all the heathens (nations [mss., K’li Paz]) among whom he lived.
and there was no deceit in his mouth: to accept idolatry (to accept a pagan deity as God [Parshandatha]).
Throughout history, Jews were given the choice to “convert or die.” Yet as this verse describes, there was “no deceit in his mouth” – the loyal Jews refused to accept a pagan deity as their God. Rather than profane God’s Holy Name, they “submitted to the grave” – i.e. chose to die rather than renounce their faith. As such these Jews were often denied proper burial, discarded “to the grave as evil people.”
Further, wealthy Jews "submitted to his executions, for committing no crime" – killed so that wicked conquerors could confiscate their riches.
10 And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill; if his soul makes itself restitution, he shall see children, he shall prolong his days, and God's purpose shall prosper in his hand.
And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill: The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to crush him and to cause him to repent; therefore, he made him ill.
If his soul makes itself restitution, etc.: Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “I will see, if his soul will be given and delivered with My holiness to return it to Me as restitution for all that he betrayed Me, I will pay him his recompense, and he will see children, etc.” This word אָשָׁם is an expression of ransom that one gives to the one against when he sinned, amende in O.F., to free from faults, similar to the matter mentioned in the episode of the Philistines (I Sam. 6:3), “Do not send it away empty, but you shall send back with it a guilt offering (אָשָׁם).”
"God desired to oppress” the Jewish people, in order to inspire them to return to Torah observance. If the Jews would only "acknowledge guilt," they would see their "offspring and live long days." This refers to the Messianic era when all Jews will return to Torah observance.
This verse emphasizes that the Servant is to be rewarded with long life and many children.
In this verse, the Hebrew word for "offspring" (zera - זֶרַע) always refers to physical descendants (see Genesis 12:7, 15:2-4, 15:13, 46:6; Exodus 28:43). A different word, banim (בנים), generally translated as "sons," is used to refer to spiritual descendants (see Deut. 14:1).
11 From the toil of his soul he would see, he would be satisfied; with his knowledge My servant would vindicate the just for many, and their iniquities he would bear.
From the toil of his soul: he would eat and be satisfied, and he would not rob and plunder.
with his knowledge… would vindicate the just: My servant would judge justly all those who came to litigate before him.
and their iniquities he would bear: He would bear, in the manner of all the righteous, as it is said (Num. 18:1): “You and your sons shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary.
One’s sins being forgiven through the suffering of another person goes against the basic biblical teaching that each individual has to atone for his own sins by repenting. (Exodus 32:32-33, Deut. 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-4)
This verse describes how God’s Servant “will cause the masses to be righteous” – not as some mistranslate, “he will justify the many." The Jewish mission is to serve as a "light to the nations," leading the world to righteousness through knowledge of the one true God. The Jews will accomplish this both by example (Deut. 4:5-8; Zechariah 8:23) and by instructing the nations in God's Law (Isaiah 2:3-4; Micah 4:2-3). As it says: “The world will become full of the knowledge of God, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
12 Therefore, I will allot him a portion in public, and with the strong he shall share plunder, because he poured out his soul to death, and with transgressors he was counted; and he bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.
Therefore: Because he did this, I will allot him an inheritance and a lot in public with the Patriarchs.
he poured out his soul to death: Heb. הֶעֱרָה. An expression like (Gen. 24: 20), “And she emptied (וַתְּעַר) her pitcher.”
and with transgressors he was counted: He suffered torments as if he had sinned and transgressed, and this is because of others; he bore the sin of the many.
and interceded for the transgressors: through his sufferings, for good came to the world through him.
This verse speaks of how the Jews always pray for the welfare of the nations they are exiled into (see Jeremiah 29:7). The verse continues to explain that the Jewish people, who righteously bore the sins of the world and yet remained faithful to God, will be rewarded.
Regarding the above passage, some have claimed that the "suffering servant" cannot be Israel, since Israel has sins. Yet this is a fallacy, since we know that no human being – not even Moses – is completely free of sin. Yet Moses was considered “righteous,” which takes into account not only one's good deeds, but also one's repentance after sin.
Melachim I - I Kings - Chapter 8
46 If they sin against You, for (there is) no man who does not sin, and You will be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy, and their captors will carry them away captive to the land of the enemy, far or near.
47 And they shall bethink themselves in the land where they were carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness.'
48 And they shall return to You with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, who led them away captive, and pray to You toward their land, which You gave to their fathers, the city that You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your Name.
49 And you shall hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven, Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause.
50 And forgive Your people what they have sinned against You, and all their transgressions that they have transgressed against You, and give mercy before their captors, that they may have mercy on them.
Immediately following this promise of reward for the Jews’ suffering (53:10-12), chapter 54 clearly speaks of the redemption which awaits the Jewish people.