Isaiah 53 describes the Servant’s rejection, suffering, humiliation, and death. It also foretells the Servant’s ultimate vindication and exaltation, revealing Him as the divine Messiah who fulfilled the mission He was called to Earth to complete. The chapter describes the Servant’s willingness to endure hardship and persecution for the sake of others. That said, why is Isaiah 53 called the forbidden chapter?
The Bible does not state that Isaiah 53 is called the forbidden chapter. The name forbidden chapter has come about because Isaiah 53 is not included in the synagogue calendar readings. In addition, the chapter references a servant, who some believe is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. In contrast, others believe it is a nation (Israel) or a person.
Why Is Isaiah 53 Seen as a “Forbidden Chapter”?
Jewish synagogue service includes The Torah reading and the Haftarah. During Jewish festivals, special Torah readings are prescribed. However, the Torah reading and Haftarah are regular components of Sabbath services. The Torah (containing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is divided into weekly portions and each portion is assigned to a specific week in the Jewish calendar.
After the Torah reading, a portion from the Prophets called the Haftarah is read. So, while the Torah reading cycle proceeds from Genesis through Deuteronomy, only selected passages from the Prophets make it into the Haftarah cycle. The specific Sabbath portion of the Prophets was selected because it matched the theme of the Torah portion read that week or related to a festival or historical event. Isaiah 53 bears no relationship to any of the chapters of the Pentateuch and is unrelated to any holiday or historical circumstance on the Jewish calendar. Therefore, Isaiah 53 is not read in the synagogue, making it seem like the “forbidden chapter.”
The “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53
Isaiah 53 speaks about a “Suffering Servant.” The interpretation of this phrase has brought about a debate, with one side proclaiming that Isaiah 53 was referring to the Nation of Israel as the suffering Servant of God.
In contrast, the other side believes the chapter gives a prophecy about the Messiah, which was fulfilled in the New Testament. There is also a belief that the passage is talking about an individual that could be Jeremiah, King Cyrus, or Isaiah himself. So, is the chapter talking about Israel instead of the Messiah or a specific person?
The belief that Isaiah is talking about Israel as God’s Servant is mostly based on previous chapters where he mentions Israel. For example, “Israel is my Servant” (Isaiah 41:8), “For you, Israel, are My servant” (Isaiah 44:21), and “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my Servant whom I have chosen (Isaiah 43:10). Given that Isaiah identifies Israel as God’s Servant, and the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53 speak of Israel as a suffering and humiliated individual, then the suffering Servant of God is believed to be the righteous people of Israel. So, the “Suffering Servant” is a metaphor for the people of Israel who suffered at the hands of the Gentiles.
However, believing that the prophecy of Isaiah 53 is not about the Messiah but about Israel is misleading because first, the Messiah is often referred to as the innocent lamb (1 Peter 1:19, John 1:29, Revelation 17:14). Jesus was prophesied as the Lamb of God in Isaiah 53:7 and Isaiah 53:12, who served as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. In Old Testament law, a sacrificial lamb had to be perfect to atone for a person’s sins. Jesus died for our sins, yet he was without sin, implying He is the innocent lamb. Verse 6 further points to our sinful nature, and the chapter concludes by stating, “For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors”
So, to say that the people of Israel could be described as “an innocent lamb who bore the sins of many” is misleading. Second, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering” points to an individual and not to a group of people. In addition, people, including Isaiah, are not blameless or without sin. The Bible states that all humans are sinful in nature (Romans 3:23, 5:12, 7:25; 8:3).
Biblical Evidence That Proves Isaiah 53 Is Talking About Christ
Jesus is the Messiah who was rejected, suffered and died just as Isaiah prophesied. He took on a human form and became our spiritual savior from sin. He comes from the lineage of David. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would come from humble beginnings (Verse 2), and in the New Testament, we see Jesus being born from a Virgin Mary who was married to a carpenter (Luke 2).
There are also specific parts of Isaiah 53 that point to the Servant as Christ:
- Suffered in our place and took our pain (Isaiah 53:4)
- Bore the punishment for our sins and even the sin itself (Isaiah 53:5, 11, 12)
- By his wounds/stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5)
- Interceded on our behalf (Isaiah 53:12)
Isaiah also said that He will bear the sins of many and suffer for our sake. The same message is restated in the New Testament 1 Peter 2:23-24. In addition, just as Isaiah foretold, the Messiah, who is Jesus Christ, remained silent during his suffering. He did not defend himself before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod (Mark 14:61; Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26).
In Isaiah 53, Jesus’ life on Earth was foretold to include his eventual torture and death. However, the phrase “by His stripes we are healed” is also included and refers to the punishment Jesus Christ took upon Himself to wipe all the sins of people who believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). Being “healed” in both these verses speaks of being forgiven and saved, which means spiritual healing, not physical.
The identity of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 remains a point of contention. However, Isaiah 53 can be seen as the “forbidden chapter” when we hide the plain and obvious meaning by reading it out of context and misinterpreting specific words. However, Biblical evidence points to Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of Christ, which was also discussed and fulfilled in the New Testament.