Atonement in Scripture: Isaiah 53, Part 1


What Did the Suffering Servant Suffer?  Part 1


‘But He was pierced through for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,

And by His scourging we are healed.’  (Isaiah 53:5)

Penal substitutionary atonement means that Jesus takes a punishment from God onto himself that no one else takes.  In other words, in penal substitution, Jesus has to suffer and die instead of people, in some manner, to satisfy the retributive justice of God.


Undeniably, according to Isaiah 53:5, Jesus endured something he himself did not deserve.  But Isaiah envisioned the suffering Messiah as entering into a punishment that Israel was already suffering.  He shared in it with them, and experienced the same things his people did:  captivity under the Gentiles and all the exposure to imperial police brutality, hostility, discrimination, vulnerability, and shame that went with it.[1]


Hence, I believe Isaiah 53 supports the Eastern Orthodox (ontological-medical substitution) view of the atonement better than the penal substitution view held by the majority of Protestant evangelicals.  He does not seem to take on an additional punishment that Israel did not already suffer, which is what penal substitution requires.


Isaiah’s Understanding of Israel’s Exile

It is true that Isaiah 53:5 says that the Suffering Servant will experience a ‘punishment’ (NIV) or ‘chastening’ (NASB).  The cluster of other words that have close connotations, like being ‘crushed’ by God (53:5, 10) or being ‘cut off’ (53:8), can be essentially understood together with this punishment or chastening.


What is that punishment?  The conditions of exile.


The Karaite Jewish scholar named Yefeth ben Ali, in the 10th century, said of Isaiah 53, ‘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 great 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….’[2]  What is explicit in Yefeth ben Ali is implicit in those rabbinical writings which are open to the possibility of Isaiah 53 being messianic.  This is the most natural way to read Isaiah.


Exile is the dominant Jewish way of expressing the human problem.  Restoration from exile is the hoped-for resolution.  Exile needs to be understood in two main stages, which is the way Isaiah himself would have understood it.  First, God exiled Adam and Eve from the garden because they corrupted their own human nature.  They took into themselves the desire and power to define good and evil from within their own selves.  Out of love, and not out of jealousy or vindictive retribution, God prevented Adam and Eve and all their descendants from eating from the Tree of Life in their corrupted state and eternalizing the corruption of sin within them (Gen.3:22 – 24).  He closed the garden to them.  Thus, humanity in general began an existence in exile, still called to be life-bearers made in God’s image but without a direct, face to face connection with God as the source of life, alienated from the full fruitfulness of the land, and subject to forces without the benefit of God’s sheltering protection and wise guidance.


Second, God brought Israel into a new ‘garden land,’ albeit of a lesser sort than the original garden of Eden.  Israel also sinned by breaking commands of God.  God exiled them from their garden land as well.  So when the Messiah comes, Isaiah says, Israel will already have been ‘punished’ or ‘chastened’ (26:16) by God through exile.  Even though Israel came back to the land under Cyrus the Persian, the Israelites recognized that they were still ‘slaves’ as they had been in Egypt before, subject to and feeding the ‘kings whom [God has] set over us because of our sins; [who] also rule over our bodies and over our cattle as they please, so we are in great distress’ (Neh.9:36 – 37).


This is where Isaiah, living and writing still prior to the Babylonian invasion, offers hope to those who would come after him.  At the pivotal point when Isaiah begins to comfort Israel with the news that God will bring her exile to an end (Isa.40 – 55), he says that God will one day say to the people of Israel and to Jerusalem, ‘She has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’ (Isa.40:1 – 2).  In other words, Isaiah sees that the Jewish people will endure the punishment of exile.  He also sees that the Messiah, being born under those conditions, will also endure that same punishment.  That is decisive for a proper understanding of how Isaiah thought of ‘atonement.’


But Israel, this unusual segment of humanity, will have the revelation and conditions to logically reflect on their own exile so that they could produce a self-diagnosis in the form of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The reason for their exile is the corruption of sin within the human heart (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21; Lev.26:41; Dt.30:6; Ps.51:10; Isa.1:4 – 6; 29:13; 32:6; Jer.4:4; 17:1 – 10; 31:31 – 34; Ezk.36:26 – 36).  Given the evasiveness of Adam in his blame-shifting when questioned by God (Gen.3:11 – 12), and given the propensity of human beings to evade responsibility, this self-diagnosis, willingly offered and documented and defended by Israel, is remarkable.  The prophetic writers of the Hebrew Scriptures understood that if God was going to truly bring Israel back from exile once and for all – and not merely into the temporary arrangement of the garden land of Canaan, but the fuller, original version of it which would be the actual garden of Eden once again – then God would have to heal the corruption of sin itself.  In other words, He would have to heal the deepest ontological problem behind the exile of humanity from Eden.


That is exactly what Isaiah envisioned.  He saw Israel as suffering from sin as an infectious, genetically inherited disease (Isa.1:4 – 6).  He traces sinful actions and words, along with hypocrisy, down to the heart (29:13; 32:6).  If the suffering Messiah of Isaiah 53 can bring Israel back from exile, which is what he does as Isaiah 54 and 55 describe, then he must do so by healing the corruption of sin within human nature.  Isaiah uses language of healing because he is concerned about being, or ontology:  ‘for our well-being…we are healed’ (53:5).  I will also explore Isaiah’s understanding of Israel’s sacrificial system.  But in the next post, I will examine Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 53:4, in the context of Jesus healing people, and what significance that has.



[1] R.N. Whybray, Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet: An Interpretation of Isaiah Chapter 53, JSOTSS 4 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1978) p.30 says that ‘the Servant cannot be said to be suffering, or to have suffered, in place of the exiles in such a way that they escape the consequences of their sins, since…it cannot be said that they have escaped punishment:  they are all actually suffering the consequences of defeat and banishment.  The Servant…shares their suffering.’  Whybray thus interprets the prophet Isaiah himself as the subject of Isa.53.  However, J. Alan Groves, ‘Atonement in Isaiah 53’, edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004) debates Whybray on whether Isaiah 53 is about a vicarious sufferer.  I will evaluate Groves’ essay below.

[2] S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer, editors, The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters (2 volumes; New York: Ktav, 1969), p.19 – 20.  The English translations used here are taken from volume 2. The original texts are in volume 1. Cf. Soloff, pp. 107 – 109.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. James Conrad says:

    Hi Mako,

    I am having trouble with your interpretation of the last line of Isaiah 40:2. The whole verse reads:
    “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
    that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

    With the preceding context, it seems strange to me to say that what is being received from the Lord’s hand is punishment. That would be a major reversal of the flow of thought. Maybe I am wrong? I’m not arguing with your main thesis that the Messiah entered into our suffering, but that Isaiah 40:2 might not be the place to go.

    Blessings in Christ,


  2. makonagasawa says:

    Hi James, thanks for your question. I’ve interpreted that as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, which was part of Israel’s exile. If that’s the case, then it is part of the punishment on Israel for abandoning the covenant. So, just to clarify: Are you suggesting that it should not be read as punishment at all?


    1. James Conrad says:


      Yes, my initial reading makes me hesitant to take it as referring to punishment. That interpretation would seem to break the parallelism of the verse. Is there a good reason to require reading it as punishment? Again, I agree with your main thesis, but maybe 40:2 isn’t the place to go…

      Merry Christmas!


      1. makonagasawa says:

        Zechariah also seems to interpret the destruction of Jerusalem as both punitive but disproportionate. He seems to use the same language as Isaiah: 1:12 Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which You have been indignant these seventy years?’ 13 The LORD answered the angel who was speaking with me with gracious words, comforting words. 14 So the angel who was speaking with me said to me, ‘Proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. 15 But I am very angry with the nations who are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they furthered the disaster.’ 16 Therefore thus says the LORD, ‘I will return to Jerusalem with compassion; My house will be built in it,’ declares the LORD of hosts, ‘and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem.’’ 17 ‘Again, proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘My cities will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’’’ Do you think it has bearing on Isaiah 40?


      2. James Conrad says:

        I think my only disagreement is with the idea that Isaiah 40:2 is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. I agree that the destruction of Jerusalem was punitive, but don’t see it here because of the parallelism of the verse. I see what they are receiving from the Lord’s hand as grace and forgiveness, which they received on the other side of the exile. The destruction of Jerusalem was punishment for spurning that grace of God in Christ.


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