“‘Indeed, My servant . . . was despised, shunned by men . . . We held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. . . . But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. . . . We all went astray like sheep . . . And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us.’ . . . Though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood. . . . ‘My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears . . . He exposed himself [“poured out his soul,” NW] to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.’”—Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
The picture Isaiah presents here is of a completely innocent, pure individual whose suffering and death provided atonement for his own nation, which did not acknowledge him.
Today, however, most Jewish commentators accept as an established fact that the reference is to the nation of Israel as a whole or to a righteous group within the nation.
The question is, Did the nation of Israel, or even a portion of it, ever fit this description, or does it apply to an individual?
For over 800 years after Isaiah’s writing these words of prophecy (c. 732 B.C.E.), there is no record of any Jew or rabbi who taught that this “servant” was to be viewed in a collective sense. Throughout this period, the prophecy was universally understood to refer to an individual and was generally regarded as a prophecy concerning the Messiah.
In addition, notice the comment in the prologue to the book The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters: “Surviving Jewish exegesis up to the end of the amoraic period [up to the sixth century C.E.] suggests that it was then frequently, perhaps even generally assumed without question that the figure referred to was the Messiah, which is of course how the Targum also, somewhat later, interprets it.”—Edited by H. M. Orlinsky, 1969, page 17.
What could be the motive for rejecting and reinterpreting the most natural understanding of this scripture as referring to an individual, even the Messiah? Was it not simply an effort to avoid any connection between this prophecy and Jesus, the first-century Jew who fitted its description in every detail?