Good, Bad and Both
– Isaiah 53; Deuteronomy 31:27; Numbers 23:21
Christians point to Isaiah’s prophecy recorded in Chapter 52 verse 13 through 53 verse 12 as the most obvious proof to the legitimacy of Jesus’ claims. The prophecy describes a servant of God who suffers for the sins of the world. Who else can this be but Jesus? Or so goes the missionary argument.
The fact is that no one saw Jesus suffer for the sins of the world. This is an unsubstantiated claim made by his followers on the occasion of his failure to fulfill the Messianic prophecies of the Bible. People think of Jesus when they read Isaiah 53 only because the Church built its theology of vicarious atonement on the basis of this passage and because the Church invested 2000 years in an advertising campaign to associate Jesus with vicarious atonement. But the connection is not verifiable. The connection between Jesus and Isaiah 53 is as real as the connection between the drink known as Coca Cola and the colors red and white. It is a connection created by man.
But who else could this passage be talking about?
The Jewish commentators explain that this passage is talking of the righteous of Israel. The Christian argues against this interpretation by pointing to the many passages in Scripture which teach that Israel suffers for her own sins (e.g. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). How then could this passage describe Israel? The servant of the passage suffers for the sins of others and not for his own sins while Israel suffers for her own sins.
This Christian argument fails to consider two important Scriptural truths. The first Scriptural truth that the Christian fails to consider is the concept of collective guilt and the second is the concept that there are different ways of evaluating the same entity and both can be true. Allow me to elaborate.
When the prophets speak of the guilt of Israel, how many people need to sin before the guilty verdict is decided against the nation? What percentage of the nation must violate God’s commandments before the nation is labeled as “sinful”?
Joshua 7 provides us with the answer to this question. That chapter relates how one man sinned yet the entire nation is described as having violated God’s covenant. All it takes is one man and the nation is already guilty.
There is no question that the sins that brought this bitter exile upon us were more than the sins of one man. But the fact that the nation is declared to be guilty does not preclude that there are some righteous people amongst us. These righteous people, whose vindication is described in Isaiah 65:8-14, are not suffering for their own sins. It is this group of righteous people who suffers for the sins of the world and who Isaiah is speaking of and the Christian argument about national sin is simply irrelevant.
But there is another foundational Scriptural truth that the Christian is missing. And that is the truth that God sees the same people from different angles. Let us take the people of Israel in the generation of Moses. On the one hand they are described as rebellious and stiff-necked (Deuteronomy 9:6; 31:27). On the other hand we are told that God sees no iniquity or perverseness in Israel (Numbers 23:21). How can this be?
This same seeming contradiction is found in Scripture concerning King David. On the one hand David speaks of his sins and his guilt (Psalm 38:5; 40:13; 51:5,6). But on the other hand he speaks of his righteousness (Psalm 7:9; 18:25). So was David a sinner or a righteous person?
We can find the answer to this dilemma when we realize that God judges people on different levels. On the one hand, no living being is justified before God (Psalm 143:2). This includes even the angels (Job 4:18) and it would certainly include the men that are deified by the various religions. Yet on the other hand we find that Scripture is filled with righteous people. Because God also judges people by taking their frailties into account (Psalm 103:14). Another way of understanding different judgments against the same people is by recognizing that sometimes the judgment is declared in relation to other people. In the sense of the absolute, the person may be guilty, but in contrast to other people the same person may be considered righteous.
With this understanding we can approach the judgment against the Jewish people. We know that they suffer for their own sins as the Scripture clearly spells out in so many places. Yet we see that they have not violated God’s covenant (Psalm 44:18). The prophet tells us that in the Messianic era, Israel will be vindicated and her righteousness will be obvious to all (Isaiah 62:2). Israel will be rewarded for having hoped to god throughout her long exile (Isaiah 25:9; 26:2; 49:23).
Isaiah 53 is speaking of the righteous of Israel. Did these people sin? They certainly did as did every living being created by God. But are these people righteous? They certainly are, if only because they hoped to God and to no one else.
The nations of the world cannot appreciate Israel’s loyalty to God. They ridicule this loyalty. They call it legalistic and hypocritical. They see Israel’s rejection of their idols, not as an expression of love for God, which it is, but as an act of immorality and arrogance. They cannot fathom how one can be human and sinful and still enjoy God’s light.
But when God will openly reward His servant who maintained loyalty to God the nations will realize that it was only because of Israel’s yearning for God that God blessed the nations of the world.
The prophet Micah gave expression to the voice of the servant described in Isaiah 53. The servant is not sinless, but the servant dwells in God’s light even when surrounded by darkness. And the servant’s enemies will be confounded when these simple truths will be revealed (Micah 7:7-9).
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal