A Surprising Idea in Isaiah 53

Lamb2During the season of Lent, Christians everywhere meditate on the death and resurrection of Christ.

There’s no more fitting text than Isaiah 53, which prophesies God’s shocking plan to send his Servant to die for the sins of his people.

You likely recognize these lines:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth
. (Isaiah 53: 6-7)

Here we find the painful imagery of the Lamb of God who willingly suffers for the sins of the sheep who have gone astray. Just a few lines later, though, Isaiah joyously predicts Christ’s victory over death and ultimate redemption of sinners:

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 53:11-12, NIV)

Isaiah 53 is very rich, and to many of us it is very familiar. But you might be surprised to discover the implications of one widely overlooked line. Look again at the beginning of verse 12:

I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong.

In many English translations, this sounds like weak praise. God’s Servant deserves to be among the great, but he’s just one hero among many. He should get a prize for his efforts, along with others who are “strong.”

Isaiah 53.12

Several scholars, however, think that this translation doesn’t communicate what the original Hebrew is saying.* Listen to how this line is translated in the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) version:

Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion,
He shall receive the multitude as his spoil.

The speaker here is God, and the Servant is not just “among the great.” He’s being given the multitudes. He’s not dividing his spoil with others—the people are actually his spoils. He’s being given the people because of his suffering on their behalf.

Wow. Isn’t this a stunning thought? The Suffering Servant doesn’t just deserve mild praise, he deserves to have multitudes of people to be given to him.

You may never have conceived of such a thing—giving a crowd of people to someone as a gift. But we find this same imagery in another significant place in Scripture:

I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain….
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
(Psalm 2: 6, 8)

Psalm 2 is a messianic prophecy in which God announces that he has anointed his true King, the Messiah. As God’s king is appointed to reign, he is “given” the nations as a gift. The people aren’t just his subjects, they are his “possession.”

A King Who Suffers for his Kingdom

Hmm. What a strange place to find this imagery. The victorious messiah of Psalm 2 seems to be the utter opposite of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Some Jewish traditions split them altogether, imagining that two different messiahs must come: the “Messiah ben Joseph” who suffers, and the “Messiah ben David” who reigns in power.

But if you read Isaiah 53:12 as being about God’s Servant being “given the multitudes,” these two messianic visions become one. First the Servant suffers to redeem his people, and then he’s proclaimed God’s true King. The multitudes that he is given are the people whose sins he’s atoned for. In effect, he’s “purchased” them. It’s actually because of Christ’s suffering that he is given his kingdom!

We find this idea in the New Testament in places like Acts 20:27, where it says that Christ “purchased” the church with his own blood. Paul puts it this way: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:23.) And the apostles often spoke of themselves as doulos Christou, “slaves of Christ.”

As much as it chafes our modern ears to be called “slaves,” it sounds like Jesus’ death on the cross did not just pay for our sins, it purchased our very lives. If we’ve received him as our Savior and Lord, we’ve actually been given to him.

We are his, we’re not our own. What does this mean for how we live?

Not Just for Me Personally

We Western individualists like to read the Bible as if it was written to each one of us all by ourselves. We sing praises to Christ for dying for “me personally,” and “paying for my sins.” Certainly that’s true! But the biblical world thought in terms of we much more than I. That’s why the Bible speaks of Christ purchasing an entire kingdom through his sacrificial death.

This year as you celebrate Christ’s resurrection, remind yourself of the glorious scene in Revelation when the “Lamb” of Isaiah 53 finally takes his throne:

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,
standing at the center of the throne,
encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.
They sang a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom
and priests to serve our God
and they will reign on the earth!”

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels,
numbering thousands upon thousands,
and ten thousand times ten thousand.
… In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
 (Revelation 5:6, 9-12)


* See Isaiah III Volume 2 / Isaiah 49-55 by Jan Koole, Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1998, pp. 336-339. Over four pages are spent analyzing this one line, explaining that while the translation we find in the NIV is admissible, it’s actually less likely to be correct as the one in the JPS Tanakh.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the third century BC, reflects this same interpretation, reading Isaiah 53:12 as “Because of this, he will inherit the many, and to the mighty he will apportion the spoils.”


34 Responses to “A Surprising Idea in Isaiah 53”

  1. 1
    Rodger Linkenhoker|April 4, 2014

    I had overlooked this line, thanks for the deeper meaning.
    I am not surprised though, I agree wholeheartedly that we who believe in Christ, belong totally to Him, for service to God through Him. John 17:20-26, seems to be saying very much the same thing, That God has given those who believe to Christ to Him.

  2. 2
    Rena|April 5, 2014

    I have never thought of that portion of the scripture from that view. Thank you for explaining this to us. Something else I had not realized “us”, “we” instead of

  3. 3
    James Mikolajczyk|April 6, 2014

    I am Anglican, although I have some experience with Evangelical churches. It is always felt shallow to me whenever someone said, “The Bible is a love letter to you from God,” or, “Christ died for you.” If that was true, then why don’t we have just one Gospel account or a single epistle? The Hebrew scriptures seem pointless to that end. In liturgical worship, I am accustomed to saying “we,” unlike contemporary services that generally say “I”. The Apostles’ Creed does begin with “I”, although the Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian creeds all begin with “we.” I think most of the historical Protestant ones do, too (e.g., Luther’s catechisms and the Westminster Confession).

  4. 4
    Cory|April 7, 2014


  5. 5
    Lois Tverberg|April 7, 2014

    James, I agree. It’s Protestants and Americans who emphasize individualism, and especially modern praise songs. I wrote a post about this called Worshiping Alone Together.

  6. 6
    Chipper Connin|April 9, 2014

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing.

  7. 7
    Al Harris|April 9, 2014

    The JPS version! Thanks for that, Lois. I virtually ignore my copy because I found it “too liberal”. I’ll have to reconsider now 🙂

  8. 8
    Lois Tverberg|April 9, 2014

    Al, I understand. For a long time I ignored the JPS because I was much more used to the NIV or ESV. The more I’ve learned about Hebrew, the more I’ve been realizing that the JPS is more sophisticated in catching poetic phrasing and idiomatic language. The scholarship behind it is outstanding, so I consult it a lot. But I still like the familiarity of the NIV or ESV when I want to meditate and pray.

    Honestly, the rest of Isaiah 53 in the JPS version won’t thrill Christian readers at all. It chooses against some of the ways we’ve translated it, even when there’s reasonable debate.

    That’s what I find most fascinating about this line, that Jewish scholars are pointing out something that Christians widely have overlooked. It’s extra surprising because Isaiah 53 has been a source of contention for 2000 years between Jews and Christians.

  9. 9
    Al Harris|April 9, 2014

    “He shall receive the multitude as his spoil.”
    On re-reading that it hit me that we are indeed precious spoils of war — just like Lot and all the others who were redeemed from the clutches of Chedorlaomer by Abraham. If we take it a step further we can see Abraham here as a prefiguration of the Great Redeemer — and if we can’t do that here, are we justified in our Christian interpretation of the Akedah (Gen 22:6-14)? — then we come to an amazing picture which I had never seen before today.
    In the JPS version Melchizedek blesses Abram before delivering “the spoils” to the king of Sodom. So as Melchizedek greets Abram with his train of redeemed captives (Ephesians 4:8)the prefigurement of Christ the priestly-king offers bread and wine to the prefigurement of Christ the Redeemer.
    Have I taken this too far? Can we have “Christ” sharing bread and wine with “Christ” albeit in symbolic form?

  10. 10
    Lois Tverberg|April 9, 2014

    Al, personally I don’t really like going this far outside the text, or leaping into speculative language about “types.”

  11. 11
    Henry Beachey|April 9, 2014

    Lois, I have considered Isa.53:12 MANY times over the last 40 years, and I always conclude, it is mistranslated. So I really appreciated the rendering of the 1st two lines in the JPS. Now that rings true to me. But I have a version of the JPS that I downloaded in e-Sword and it dose not read as you stated. I wonder why?
    And as for the big “I” in a Christian setting; it doesn’t work, even as you pointed out. The scripture says, We are crucified with Christ. The big I is to end. We are to be in harmony with, (one with) the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and our fellow Christians.

  12. 12
    Lois Tverberg|April 9, 2014

    Henry, the JPS version you have is the old 1917 version that is in the public domain. The one I’m referring to was published in 1984 – sometimes called the “New JPS.” They are very different. The text of the new JPS has never been made available online, but the book is of course on Amazon.

  13. 13
    Henry Beachey|April 9, 2014

    Al Harris, I appreciated your last post, I could talk for hours about it, but will just add this. Joseph a “type” of Jesus, saved all of Egypt, and all of his kindred. The Egyptians became his, after they ran out of money and land.
    I would add; in the acct. of Melchizedek and Abraham is the first place in the bible that the word Hebrew was used, referring to Abraham. It means, one who lays down his life for his friends. Indeed a picture of Jesus.

  14. 14
    Henry Beachey|April 9, 2014

    Thanks very much Lois, I will check it out. I like the J N Darby and KJ21 versions very well.
    I only found your site yesterday. I loved the article about speech and painting. Thanks

  15. 15
    Heather B|April 10, 2014

    I have been excited about and thinking on this verse all week. The new JPS can be accessed through this : http://taggedtanakh.org/Chapter/Index/english-Isa-53 but I will most certainly have to get a hard copy 🙂

  16. 16
    Lois Tverberg|April 10, 2014

    Heather, thanks, and thanks for sharing the link! Nice to see it.

  17. 17
    Al Harris|April 11, 2014

    Thanks for your encouragement Henry. Yes, like you, I find the theme of “types” enriches my understanding of the purposes of God and thickens those strands between the Old and New Testaments. But in deference to Lois — after all, this is your website, Lois — I will refrain from extending this theme here. I will close this particular line of thinking with the reminder that Jesus used “types” when he linked John the Baptist with Elijah, and Himself with Jacob’s “ladder” — the conversation with Nathaniel in John 1 to my mind is one of the most underestimated passages in the NT. But I’ll stop there. I fully realise how it can be a hazardous area to the over-zealous!
    I love this site. Thanks, Lois. It’s attractive and full of beautiful insights. Long may it flourish.

  18. 18
    Kanta K|April 11, 2014

    Thanks so much for this rich post.

  19. 19
    Wiliam|April 11, 2014

    Gives new meaning to the idea that the “Scriptures” are sooo very very pregnant about YA”WY and HIS plan for—-us! How beautiful to think I am a servant-redeemed!

  20. 20
    Richard|April 11, 2014

    The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), which I use along with the ESV, translates Isaiah 53.12 pretty close of the JPS translation mentioned in your article.

  21. 21
    Lois Tverberg|April 12, 2014

    Ah hah, great! Nice to see that they have it that way.

  22. 22
    Norm|April 12, 2014

    Better yet the Septuagint appears to agree, at least according to the English translation by Sir Lancelot Brenton 1851

  23. 23
    norm|April 13, 2014

    Also, The NET Translation in the full notes edition refers to a document by JW Olley, How is Isaiah 53:12a to Be Understood 1987. I found it online at Scribd, which can be accessed through their temporary 7 day free subscription.

  24. 24
    Lois Tverberg|April 14, 2014

    Thank you, Norm for the NET Bible reference. I read Olley’s paper and it pretty much agrees with what I read. It says,

    (p 353) “v. l2a is not simply a picture of the Servant having a place “among the many”, but rather of his receiving “of the many”. There will be those “of the many” who will serve him, and whose land and spoils he will receive.”

    Oddly, you don’t actually see this in the NET Bible translation, which has,

    “So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes,
    he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful.”

    Apparently the NET translators don’t always read the sources in their own notes.

  25. 25
    Marcia Johnson|April 13, 2014

    Fascinating — love it!
    I was wondering whether this passage links to this same idea?

    ISA 43:4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
    and because I love you,
    I will give men in exchange for you,
    and people in exchange for your life.

  26. 26
    sandra smith|April 14, 2014

    How does this work with Revelation 2:26-29.

    Who has a share in the spoil? All those who believe? Will all believers be rulers? hmmm


  27. 27
    Lois Tverberg|April 14, 2014

    Sandra, I would agree – it does sound like Rev 2:26-27 is thinking of this:

    “To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations …just as I have received authority from my Father.”

    Yes, it does sound like Jesus’ faithful followers will be “rulers.” I admit, though, that I haven’t figured out who we’ll rule over. The rest of the new creation, I guess.

  28. 28
    Lois Tverberg|April 14, 2014

    Marcia, as I read Isaiah 43 it is specifically about God redeeming Israel from its enemies. But you do see the idea of “exchanging” one for another.

    In the song of Moses it uses imagery of God “purchasing” his people (Ex 15:16), which you hear again in Psalm 74:4:

    Remember your congregation,
    which you have purchased of old,
    which you have redeemed to be
    the tribe of your heritage!

    It parallels perfectly with God’s Servant “purchasing” the people that he redeemed.

  29. 29
    ginette kelley|April 19, 2014

    hello lois, grateful for your insights on isaiah
    however i’m also pleased you do not agree on ‘types’ i got thrown off of dr eli lizorkins blog when i disagreed with his proclamation that moses joseph jacob etc were all types of Jesus (to me this is blasphemy how can anyone be equated with Jesus as he is without sin and all those others were indeed sinners just like us
    looking forward to your new book keep up the good work

  30. 30
    norm|April 20, 2014

    Mrs. Tverberg,
    Yes, the JPS, Olley, and you appear to be on the same page in this instance. The way Olley explains it, it makes me wonder why it has been mistranslated and so often. I was wondering the very same thing about the NET, why would they include so much information, but leave it out of the translation. It is interesting, out of all the major English translations only the NKJV in the cross references for Isaiah 53:12 include Psalm 2:8, but like the NET it’s not reflected in the translation. Also, I was wondering if you have read any of William Holladay’s work on the book of Isaiah or Athol Dickson’s The Gospel According to Moses?

  31. 31
    Henry Beachey|April 22, 2014

    Lois,the J N Darby says in the footnote for Isa.53:12. He shall have for His portion the strong as a spoil.
    It may interest you that, years ago,(1970s) a Godly man, a good friend of mine, who is a Professor of Greek & Hebrew, told me that, the English J N Darby was the best English translation he could find. Darby also did a French and a German translation that are better than the English. I also found Isa 53:12 correct in a Danish translation I have.
    Darby is very good at showing which name of God was used in every place, and also shows which gender was speaking throughout the Song of Solomon, as a couple of examples.

  32. 32
    Kathy Sanford|January 3, 2015

    As far as types go, I can see where they might be too drawn out; but Moses, himself, describes Jesus in these words: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” Saying that Joseph, Moses, etc. are like Jesus doesn’t need to imply that every particular matches up, it just means there are some aspects of life and ministry that are somewhat similar. At least that’s the way I understand it. Thank-you, Lois, for all your fine insights and teachings — lots to ruminate on.

  33. 33
    Jim MacGregor|March 30, 2017

    I have found the following reference to also be good touchstone for comparison with Christian translations and popular beliefs:

    ”The Jewish Study Bible”. “Torah”. Edited by Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Zvi. Jewish Publication Society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

  34. 34
    Brian|September 7, 2017

    John 3 : 16 says it all. Jesus is real to them that accept Him as their personal Saviour. Isaiah 53 speaks boldly about the coming Messiah who is Jesus Christ our lord and Saviour.

    Infact the entire old testament speaks about Jesus.

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