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The “Suffering Servant” of ch.53 of Y’shayahu (commentary)
"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

by Prof. Mordochai ben-Tziyyon, Universitah Ha’ivrit, Y’rushalayim

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הִנֵּ֥ה יַשְׂכִּ֖יל עַבְדִּ֑י יָרוּ֧ם וְנִשָּׂ֛א וְגָבַ֖הּ מְאֹֽד׃
52:13. My “servant” will succeed in becoming uplifted, and will become exalted and very powerful.
My servant – Yisraél.
כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר שָֽׁמְמ֤וּ עָלֶ֨יךָ֙ רַבִּ֔ים כֵּֽן־מִשְׁחַ֥ת מֵאִ֖ישׁ מַרְאֵ֑הוּ וְתֹֽאֲר֖וֹ מִבְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃
52:14. Just as many used to marvel about you and say “Their appearance is too hideous to be human”,
“Their appearance is too hideous to be human” – Hebrews have frequently been carricatured as hideously ugly: deformed, swarthy and with exaggerated hooked noses.
כֵּ֤ן יַזֶּה֙ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֔ים עָלָ֛יו יִקְפְּצ֥וּ מְלָכִ֖ים פִּיהֶ֑ם כִּ֠י אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־סֻפַּ֤ר לָהֶם֙ רָא֔וּ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־שָֽׁמְע֖וּ הִתְבּוֹנָֽנוּ׃
52:15. so will He [i.e. God] scatter many nations − their kings will be speechless because [suddenly] they will see things that were never talked about and will realise things that were never heard of [before]!
He will scatter – Hebrew יַזֶּה yazzeh, the same verb as that used for the “splashing” of the blood of the atonement sacrifices by the Chief Kohén in Vayikra 16:14.
will be speechless – literally “will shut their mouths”. They will be so astonished that they will not know what to say.
things that were never talked about… that were never heard of [before] – a nation so universally despised and derided rising to such eminence.
מִ֥י הֶֽאֱמִ֖ין לִשְׁמֻֽעָתֵ֑נוּ וּזְר֥וֹעַ יְיָ֖ עַל־מִ֥י נִגְלָֽתָה׃
53:1. Who would have believed our report [they will say,] about the ones that Adonai‘s Arm was revealed to?
“our report” – who can believe what we used to say about Yisraél?
Adonai‘s Arm” – a reference to the Exodus (see Sh’mot 6:6, D’varim 4:34, 5:15, 26:8, M’lachim Beit 17:36 and many similar references).
וַיַּ֨עַל כַּיּוֹנֵ֜ק לְפָנָ֗יו וְכַשֹּׁ֨רֶשׁ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ צִיָּ֔ה לֹא־תֹ֥אַר ל֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א הָדָ֑ר וְנִרְאֵ֥הוּ וְלֹֽא־מַרְאֶ֖ה וְנֶחְמְדֵֽהוּ׃
53:2. For they came up before Him like a suckling babe, like a root out of dry ground; they had neither appearance nor splendour; and, when we saw how unattractive they were, [we said] “Why should we desire them?”
“they” – literally “he”, i.e. God’s “servant”, Yisraél
“came up” – out of Egypt, the usual Scriptural terminology for Yisraél‘s departure from Egypt, as in Sh’mot 13:18 and many other places. Leaving Egypt is described as “going up” for two reasons: firstly, the Goshen region whereYisraél had been living (in the Nile Delta) is very low-lying, so the people “went up” in a very literal sense when they left; and secondly, because Egypt was a God-less place so that Yisraél also “went up” in a spiritual sense when they left there.
“before Him” – almost immediately after leaving Egypt, Yisraél appeared before God at Mount Ḥorev in the Sinai Desert.
“like a suckling babe” – a similar metaphor for the “newly-born” Yisraél nation to that used by Hoshé’a when he says “When Yisraél was a lad, I loved him…” (11:1).
“they had neither appearance nor splendour” – the newly-liberated slaves were ungroomed and unkempt.
נִבְזֶה֙ וַֽחֲדַ֣ל אִישִׁ֔ים אִ֥ישׁ מַכְאֹב֖וֹת וִיד֣וּעַ חֹ֑לִי וּכְמַסְתֵּ֤ר פָּנִים֙ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ נִבְזֶ֖ה וְלֹ֥א חֲשַׁבְנֻֽהוּ׃
53:3. They were despised and isolated from humanity − men of pains, accustomed to illness; they were despised like those that people turn their faces away from and we considered them worthless.
Can anyone deny that all these things have been said about Yisraél in the past (and are still being said about us today by some)?
אָכֵ֤ן חֳלָיֵ֨נוּ֙ ה֣וּא נָשָׂ֔א וּמַכְאֹבֵ֖ינוּ סְבָלָ֑ם וַֽאֲנַ֣חְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻ֔הוּ נָג֛וּעַ מֻכֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּמְעֻנֶּֽה׃
53:4. Indeed, they tolerated our ills and our pains − they bore them; but [we convinced ourselves that] they were being plagued, stricken by God and afflicted.
“they tolerated our ills and bore our pains” – they (Yisraél) were forced to put up with all the “ills” and “pains” that we brought upon them.
“we convinced ourselves” – the “gentile kings” are too embarassed to reveal their own foolishness by actually articulating the words “we convinced ourselves”, but they are nonetheless implied − indeed, verses 2 through 5 all end with a statement of what “we” said or thought.
וְהוּא֙ מְחֹלָ֣ל מִפְּשָׁעֵ֔ינוּ מְדֻכָּ֖א מֵֽעֲוֺֽנֹתֵ֑ינוּ מוּסַ֤ר שְׁלוֹמֵ֨נוּ֙ עָלָ֔יו וּבַֽחֲבֻֽרָת֖וֹ נִרְפָּא־לָֽנוּ׃
53:5. They were pained because of our rebellious sins and crushed because of our iniquities; [we thought that] punishing them would benefit ourselves, and through their wounds we would be healed.
“they were pained because of our rebellious sins, crushed because of our iniquities” – we caused them (Yisraél) much pain and suffering by our own rebellious sinning.
“[we thought that] punishing them…” – see commentary on verse 4 (s.v. “we convinced ourselves”).
כֻּלָּ֨נוּ֙ כַּצֹּ֣אן תָּעִ֔ינוּ אִ֥ישׁ לְדַרְכּ֖וֹ פָּנִ֑ינוּ וַֽייָ֙ הִפְגִּ֣יעַ בּ֔וֹ אֵ֖ת עֲוֺ֥ן כֻּלָּֽנוּ׃
53:6. We strayed like sheep, each one of us turned in his own direction, but Adonai accepted their prayers for the iniquity of all of us.
“We strayed like sheep…” – the “gentile kings” frankly confess their own guilt.
“but Adonai accepted their prayers” – even though we persecuted Yisraél grievously and unjustly, they nevertheless prayed on our behalf and we were forgiven by God (see also verse 12).
נִגַּ֨שׂ וְה֣וּא נַֽעֲנֶה֘ וְלֹ֣א יִפְתַּח־פִּיו֒ כַּשֶּׂה֙ לַטֶּ֣בַח יוּבָ֔ל וּכְרָחֵ֕ל לִפְנֵ֥י גֹֽזְזֶ֖יהָ נֶֽאֱלָ֑מָה וְלֹ֥א יִפְתַּ֖ח פִּֽיו׃
53:7. They were persecuted and afflicted, but they did not protest; they would be brought [to their death] like sheep [being led] to slaughter, like a ewe that is silent before her shearers, and they would not open their mouths.
“they would be brought [to their death] like sheep [being led] to slaughter” – how tragically, and how literally, was this fulfilled at the Nazi death-camps of the 1940s (not to mention during the numerous autos da fé of the centuries-long christian “Inquisitions”)!
מֵעֹ֤צֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט֙ לֻקָּ֔ח וְאֶת־דּוֹר֖וֹ מִ֣י יְשׂוֹחֵ֑חַ כִּ֤י נִגְזַר֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּ֔ים מִפֶּ֥שַׁע עַמִּ֖י נֶ֥גַע לָֽמוֹ׃
53:8. Now that they have been released from detention and judgement, who could have imagined such a generation? for they were removed far from the land where they lived, and a plague came upon them through the transgression of my people.
“Now that they have been released…” – when Yisraél‘s long exile is finally ended, the gentiles will marvel that we could have survived such a long absence (sinfully inflicted upon us by them) from our own land.
“the land where they lived” – literally, “the land of [their] life”.
“a plague” – the term “plague” (Hebrew נֶֽגַעnega’) is used in the Scriptures to denote all forms of suffering.
“came upon them” – on this one occasion, the Hebrew text uses the plural form “them” (לָֽמוֹ lamo is a poetic synonym for לָהֶם lahem, “to them”).
וַיִּתֵּ֤ן אֶת־רְשָׁעִים֙ קִבְר֔וֹ וְאֶת־עָשִׁ֖יר בְּמֹתָ֑יו עַ֚ל לֹֽא־חָמָ֣ס עָשָׂ֔ה וְלֹ֥א מִרְמָ֖ה בְּפִֽיו׃
53:9. They submitted to the grave with the wicked and joined with the wealthy in their deaths, even though they had committed no crime and there was no deceit in their mouths.
“They submitted to the grave with the wicked…” – treated like common criminals, they submitted to the Divine Will and accepted God’s judgement upon them.
“even though they had committed no crime…” – this does not mean that every Hebrew who was ever persecuted was totally flawless; guilt and innocence are relative concepts and even if they had been guilty of minor infringements they did not deserve the inhuman treatment to which they were subjected. 

It is common for christians to think of the terms “righteous” and “wicked” as absolutes, referring to people who are either totally “good” or thoroughly “evil” − but life is not that black-and-white. No man is ever 100% “good” OR100% “evil” − all of us are somewhere in between. The Hebrew words tzaddik (“righteous”) and rasha (“wicked”) are used as relative terms as can be seen, for example, from D’varim 25:1 − “If there is a dispute between two men and they bring it before a Court and you judge them, then you shall rule in favour of the ‘tzaddik’ and against the ‘rasha’…”.



וַֽייָ֞ חָפֵ֤ץ דַּכְּאוֹ֙ הֶֽחֱלִ֔י אִם־תָּשִׂ֤ים אָשָׁם֙ נַפְשׁ֔וֹ יִרְאֶ֥ה זֶ֖רַע יַֽאֲרִ֣יךְ יָמִ֑ים וְחֵ֥פֶץ יְיָ֖ בְּיָד֥וֹ יִצְלָֽח׃
53:10. It was Adonai who desired to persecute them − He plagued them; their souls needed only to acknowledge their guilt and then they would see their offspring [live] and have long life, and that whichAdonai desires would prosper in their hands.
“It was Adonai who desired to persecute them” – The persecution inflicted upon Yisraél by the gentile nations was in fact God’s intention… those gentile nations were actually acting as God’s agents, even though they did not realise it; they were being used by Him to punish us for our rebellion and ultimately to bring us back to serving Him, so we would be worthy to fulfil our rôle in leading the World to His service.
He plagued them” – It was God Himself who caused our persecution by the gentile nations.
“their souls needed only to acknowledge their guilt…” – The reason He caused us to be persecuted was to make us repent and acknowledge our guilt.
“that which Adonai desires” – the final rehabilitation of Yisraél and the emergence of the King-Messiah who will usher in the final stage of Mankind’s evolution when all will live in peace, serving God and Him alone.
מֵֽעֲמַ֤ל נַפְשׁוֹ֙ יִרְאֶ֣ה יִשְׂבָּ֔ע בְּדַעְתּ֗וֹ יַצְדִּ֥יק צַדִּ֛יק עַבְדִּ֖י לָֽרַבִּ֑ים וַעֲוֺֽנֹתָ֖ם ה֥וּא יִסְבֹּֽל׃
53:11. In their souls’ turmoil they will realise [the purpose] and accept [it]; the righteous among My “servant” will be vindicated publicly by their knowledge, because they had to tolerate their wrongdoings.
“In their souls’ turmoil” – Throughout the centuries of Yisraél‘s suffering at the hands of the gentile nations.
“they will realise [the purpose] and they will accept [it]” – Yisraél will come to understand why God allowed so much suffering to come upon us and will accept His judgement.
“the righteous among My ‘servant’ will be vindicated publicly by their knowledge” – the torah-scholars will eventually receive the respect and recognition they deserve.
“because they” (Yisraél“had to tolerate their” (the gentiles’) “wrongdoings” (against us).
לָכֵ֞ן אֲחַלֶּק־ל֣וֹ בָֽרַבִּ֗ים וְאֶת־עֲצוּמִים֘ יְחַלֵּ֣ק שָׁלָל֒ תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶֽעֱרָ֤ה לַמָּ֨וֶת֙ נַפְשׁ֔וֹ וְאֶת־פֹּֽשְׁעִ֖ים נִמְנָ֑ה וְהוּא֙ חֵֽטְא־רַבִּ֣ים נָשָׂ֔א וְלַפֹּֽשְׁעִ֖ים יַפְגִּֽיעַ׃
53:12. Therefore I will assign to them an allocation among the many and they will share out the powerful as plunder, because they gave up their souls in death and were considered as outcasts, and even when suffering the sins of the many they were praying for those wicked ones.
“I will assign to them an allocation among the many” – God will eventually raise Yisraél to the full status of an independent nation in the World’s eyes.
“they will share out the powerful as plunder” – ultimately Yisraél will triumph over its enemies.
“they gave up their souls in death and were considered as outcasts” – i.e. submitted to persecution by their enemies.
“even when suffering the sins of the many they were praying for those wicked ones” – Hebrews have always prayed for the governments and people of whatever country they were living in, even while they were being persecuted in those lands, as the prophet Yirm’yahu, speaking in God’s Name, had advised the exiled deportees in Babylonia: וְדִרְשׁ֞וּ אֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הָעִ֗יר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִגְלֵ֤יתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ שָׁ֔מָּה וְהִתְפַּֽלְל֥וּ בַֽעֲדָ֖הּ אֶל־יְיָ֑ כִּ֣י בִשְׁלוֹמָ֔הּ יִֽהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם שָׁלֽוֹם “Work for the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God for it, because your own well-being is dependent on its well-being” (Yirm’yahu 29:7).
Compare verse 6 above.


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