HOW ISAIAH 48 TO 53 REFUTES ATHEISM AND ATHEISTS
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
February 15, 2014
If there is no personal omniscient God, then there can be no fulfillment of large portions of prophecy beyond coincidence. That is the premise used by Christians to oppose godless atheism.
Isaiah 48 to 53 is first among the Bible’s proof of the existence of a God who accurately predicted the future. These texts accurately predicted that Jesus of Nazareth, an Israelite-Hebrew would suffer and die as a sacrificial atonement for the sins of Israel and that he would subsequently be resurrected.
Atheists cannot accept this interpretation and are compelled to offer alternative interpretations drawn from both Jewish and Christian liberals who deny the omniscience of God, the inspiration of the Bible and the fulfillment of prophecy. While labeling conservatives narrow and shallow for not believing liberal interpretations, they themselves completely reject any conservative interpretation for obvious reasons – they reject the existence of God.
This article will examine the key texts from Isaiah 48 to 53 which are at the heart of the controversy. The conclusion is obvious. If the texts cannot support the conservative Christian claim that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were predicted, then the claims of atheists are correct. However, if the texts are obviously prophetic of Jesus, then the claims of atheists fail. Note: Although I prefer the KJV, I recognize that most Christian scholars prefer either the New American Standard (NAS) or and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) as the most trustworthy translations. Honest scholarly research should not use paraphrased and one-man-written versions.
WHO IS THE SERVANT OF ISAIAH 48 TO 53?
For obvious reasons atheists and Jewish scholars must claim that the “servant” is always the nation of Israel. I urge the reader to very carefully study both these texts and their context. Sincere suggestions and corrections are encouraged.
Isa 48:1 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are named Israel and who came forth from the loins of Judah, who swear by the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth nor in righteousness. NASU
Isa 48:1 Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came forth from the loins of Judah; who swear by the name of the LORD, and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right. RSV
God, the O. T. Rock and Deliverer, is speaking through His prophet, Isaiah. He is speaking specifically to the southern kingdom of Judah which is part of the house of Israel (51:17). However, beginning in 48:12 it is clear that He is also speaking to Hebrew-Israelites everywhere.
Isa 48:3 “I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from my mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
48:4 “Because I know that you are obstinate and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead bronze,
48:5 therefore I declared them to you long ago before they took place I proclaimed them to you so that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them and my graven image and my molten image have commanded them.’ NASU
God gave future prophecies because His people were obstinate and did not want to believe in a God who could predict the future. This argument continues through verse 8.
Isa 48:13 “Surely My hand founded the earth,
And my right hand spread out the heavens;
When I call to them, they stand together. NASU
God declares Himself to be the Creator. He spoke existence! Even Einstein’s formula proves that mass is the result of light and energy.
Isa 48:19 19 “Your descendants would have been like the sand and your offspring like its grains. Their name would never be cut off or destroyed from my presence.”
48:20 Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans!
Declare with the sound of joyful shouting, proclaim this,
Send it out to the end of the earth. Say, “The LORD has redeemed His servant Jacob.” NASU
In 48:19-20 “servant” is clearly the descendants of Jacob, the Israelites who have been redeemed from Egypt (v21). Here it is God who has “redeemed” His servant, Israel. It is wrong to only quote texts like this to prove that “servant” can never refer to the Messiah when other texts have not been studied.
Isa 49:1 Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb –from the body of my mother He named Me.
49:2 He has made my mouth like a sharp sword. In the shadow of His hand He has concealed me. And He has also made me a select arrow. He has hidden me in His quiver. NASU
From the context of 48:19-21 the nation Israel personified is speaking. Here again Israel is God’s servant.
Isa 49:3 He said to me, “You are My Servant, Israel,
In Whom I will show my glory.” NASU
Again, without a doubt the servant is still the personified nation.
***Isa 49:4 But I said, “I have toiled in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. Yet surely the justice due to me is with the LORD and My reward with My God.” NASU
The speaker is the servant, Israel personified. But more than that, it is the innocent obedient servant. This fact eliminates wicked disobedient Israelites and opens the possibility of a greater explanation. Only if the nation were innocent and obedient could it say “I have toiled in vain.” The servant is speaking to the LORD (Yahweh). He is not admitting fault of sin or suffering because of his own sin. It is difficult to see sinful Israel speaking this way.
***Isa 49:5 And now says the LORD who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant to bring Jacob back to Him so that Israel might be gathered to Him (for I am honored in the sight of the LORD and My God is My strength). NASU
Isa 49:5 And now says the LORD who formed me from the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and that Israel might be gathered to him for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has become my strength. RSV
***The “servant” in Isaiah 49:5 is definitely NOT the nation Israel. Rather it is ether the prophet Isaiah OR the Messiah because it is the servant’s task “to bring Jacob (Israel) back to Yahweh.”
***Isa 49:6 He says, “It is too small a thing that you should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel. I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” NASU
*** Isa 49:6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” RSV
***God is NOT speaking to Isaiah the prophet. It was NOT Isaiah’s commission to “restore the tribes of Jacob. and, especially, it was NOT Isaiah’s commission to “be a light to the nations (Gentiles) that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Messiah, not Isaiah, was given a two-fold commission to (1) restore all 12 tribes of Israel and (2) to bring salvation to Gentiles all over the earth. This text can only be correctly understood as a prophecy to be fulfilled by the Messiah!
Isa 49:7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One, to the despised One, to the One abhorred by the nation, to the Servant of rulers. “Kings will see and arise. Princes will also bow down because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.” NASU
Isa 49:7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the servant of rulers. “Kings shall see and arise. Princes and they shall prostrate themselves because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” RSV
God is NOT speaking to the nation Israel. He is still speaking to His chosen servant from 49:6 who is despised and abhorred by the “nation” (NAS, NIV). Clearly the reaction from “kings” and “princes” is to the Messiah and not to the prophet Isaiah. When the nation Israel and the prophet Isaiah are eliminated, the Messiah remains.
Isa 49:8 And in a day of salvation I have helped you and I will keep you and give you for a covenant of the people to restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages
49:9 Saying to those who are bound, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ Along the roads they will feed and their pasture will be on all bare heights.
49:10 “They will not hunger or thirst nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down, for He who has compassion on them will lead them and will guide them to springs of water. NASU
Isa 49:8 “In a time of favor I have answered you. in a day of salvation I have helped you. I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people. RSV
Since God is answering his righteous servant and promises to make him a “covenant” to the people of Israel. Again the nation is not the servant in this text. You cannot give Israel to Israel. Only the Messiah fulfills this prophecy and Jesus applied these texts to himself.
Isaiah 49:14-22 [Zion, the nation, is being described and is speaking.]
Isaiah 49:23-26 [God promises restoration of the nation.]
Isaiah 50:1-3 [God is angry with the sinful nation.]
Isa 50:6 I gave my back to those who strike me and my cheeks to those who pluck out the beard. I did not cover my face from humiliation and spitting. NASU
Isa 50:6 I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I hid not my face from shame and spitting. RSV
Since national Israel did not voluntarily allow itself to be punished, since there is no record of Isaiah being thus punished, the text is also a prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.
Isaiah chapter 51 begins with an address to the people of Israel who are “pursuing righteousness” –righteous Israel. They are “My people” and “my nation” (v4). God tells them “My righteousness is near” and Israel is waiting for “my arm” (v5).
51:7 “Listen to me, you who know righteousness — a people in whose heart is my law.
This illustrates that God addresses at least four (4) different hearers from Isaiah 48 to 53: (1) the nation Israel, (2) only the righteous in Israel, (3) the prophet Isaiah and (4) the Messiah.
**51:16 “I have put my words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of my hand to establish the heavens to found the earth and to say to Zion, ‘You are my people.'”
**God the Father is speaking to God the Son, the Messiah. God the Father has given God the Son power and authority “to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion [Israel], “You are my people.” There is no logical way to say that God is speaking to (1) the nation, (2) righteous Israel or (3) the prophet Isaiah. The only alternative remaining is Messiah!
51:17-23 [wicked Jerusalem]
52:1-11 [Jerusalem will be restored in righteousness.]
THE EXALTED SERVANT: 52:13 TO 53 ALL
52:13 Behold, My servant will prosper. He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted [RSV: very high].
In verse 13 it is not yet clear whether “servant” refers to the nation Israel or to the Messiah. This revelation will quickly unfold. Like Israel, Jesus of Nazareth will begin with a lowly status and end being greatly exalted in the closing verses of chapter 53.
While atheists, liberal Christians and Jews insist that 52:13 and all of chapter 53 only refer to the nation Israel, conservative Christians quote them as the strongest biblical proof of inspiration and Bible prophecy from a personal Omniscient God.
52:14 Just as many were astonished at you, my people, so his appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. NASU
52: 14 As many were astonished at him -his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of the sons of men. RSV
Because of the controversy over this text, it cannot be used to either support or disprove fulfilled prophecy. Conservatives argue that there is a shift from second-person (at you) to third-person (his appearance) which is a shift from addressing “you-Israel” to “him Messiah.” Liberals deny this shift or downgrade it to insignificance.
In April 2010 I engaged an atheist in a discussion of Isaiah 53:14. He argued that the person described in 53:13-15 was marred and disfigured because of a disease. His evidence was the word “disease” in The Bible in Modern English. This is not a recognized reliable translation from Hebrew; it is the product of one man using a total vocabulary of 1000 words and his audience was persons with learning disabilities.
52:15 Thus he will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see and what they had not heard they will understand. NASU
52:15 so shall he startle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him for that which has not been told them they shall see and that which they have not heard they shall understand. RSV
TO MY ATHEIST FRIENDS: In my opinion the following material is inspired by God and should be more than sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God is both personal and omniscient. Anybody who studies Isaiah chapter 53 with an open mind will be enlightened by the Holy Spirit and see God’s love for humanity.
Isa 53:1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? NASU
Isa 53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? RSV
If the NAS and NIV are correct, “our” refers to the message of the righteous prophets and it is addressed to national Israel. If the RSV is correct, it can refer to the recipients of the messages from God.
Isa 53:2 For he grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of parched ground. He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him. NASU
Isa 53:2 For he grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him. RSV
Admittedly the first use of “he” and “him” are inconclusive. They could refer to Israel growing up before God or to Messiah growing up before Israel. Both came from a very lowly status.
They key to understanding this verse is the identity of “we” and “him” in the phrase “that we should look at him.” “We” can refer only either to the prophets or to national Israel. The only way this can make sense according to the liberal (and atheist view) is to make the last line read “He [Israel personified] has no stately form or majesty that we [the citizens of Israel] should look upon him [Israel personified], nor appearance that we [citizens of Israel] should be attracted to him.” This is illogical. A leper would not say to other lepers “I cannot bear looking at you” because he would appear the same way.
This kind of manipulation detaches the speaker “we” from his own identification and inclusion with the remainder of his own people of Israel. “Looking upon him” would include looking at himself! The conservative Christian interpretation is that “we” refers to “the prophet and his people of Israel” and “him” refers to the Messiah.
***Isa 53:3 He was despised and forsaken [RSV: rejected] of men — a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and like one from whom men hide their face. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. NASU
It is illogical to say that “he” and “we” both refer to the nation Israel. There is no indication that the writer is including himself as the object being “despised and forsaken” because the writer is included in the phrase “and we did not esteem him.” This is obviously not a reference to the nation.
***Isa 53:4 Surely our griefs he Himself bore, and our sorrows he carried. Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. NASU
***The language of substitution now enters the description of the suffering servant of Israel. “We” and “our” are not the same person as “he.” The servant personally bore the griefs and sorrows of national Israel. Yet Israel will attribute the sufferings of the servant to God’s punishment to him for his own sins rather than as his vicarious suffering for Israel.
***Isa 53:5 But he was pierced through [RSV, KJV: wounded] for our transgressions. He was crushed [RSV: bruised] for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him and by his scourging [RSV: stripes] we are healed. NASU
***SUBSTITUTONAL SUFFERING: The atheist and liberal claims for this verse make no sense. One cannot declare that another will suffer for his/her own sins and also be the same person at the other who suffers. That is not substitution; that is not what “for” means! The text clearly says that “another” –other than Israel itself– will suffer “for” the sins of Israel. “He” and “our” are two different entities and “our” goes far beyond anything Isaiah did.
***Isa 53:6 All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way, but the LORD has caused [RSV: laid] the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. NASU
***SUBSTITUTIONAL SUFFERING: All of Israel, as a nation and individually, has sinned against God and God substituted the servant –He allowed the Servant to suffer—in place of all Israelites. There is no way to logically teach (as do atheists and liberals) that the nation Israel is described as suffering vicariously for itself. Yet these texts remain in the Hebrew Bible as part of the canon.
***Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet he did not open His mouth. Like a lamb that is led to slaughter and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth. NASU
Isa 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth. RSV
This is not a description of sinful Israel which constantly complained. However, it is a good description of Jesus during his trials.
***Isa 53:8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away. And as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? NASU
There is no logic in teaching that both “he” and “my people” both refer to national Israel in this text because of the intervening “for.” Yet Jesus of Nazareth was killed –he was “cut off out of the land of the living.”
“For the transgression of my people” clearly means that the suffering servant was killed as a substitute for national Israel. Being killed “for” your own sins is not substitutional.
***Isa 53:9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. NASU
Isa 53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth. RSV (also KJV)
“No deceit in his mouth” is certainly not a description of wicked sinful national Israel. Yet it is a good description of Jesus of Nazareth.
National Israel was not buried in association with a rich man. Yet Jesus was buried in a rich man’s grave and as buried by a rich man.
***Isa 53:10 But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief. If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring. He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. NASU
Isa 53:10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him. He has put him to grief when he makes himself an offering for sin. He shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days. The will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. RSV
Isa 53:10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer. And though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. NIV
***This is probably the most important text of Isaiah 53. First, since guilt-offerings could only be flawless and healthy, the suffering servant here cannot possibly be either the prophet Isaiah or the personified nation of Israel!
Second, since guilt-offerings died, this is another reference to the death of Messiah. The prophet wrote as he was instructed even though Israel did not have human sacrifices.
Third, after his death Jesus saw both his literal seed (Mary and half-brothers) and spiritual seed. Jesus prolonged his days via resurrection.
Fourth, even if this were only a reference to the rebirth of national Israel, it would still be an example of fulfilled prophecy and would still prove atheism wrong.
Isa 53:11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, he will see it and be satisfied. By his knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many as He will bear their iniquities. NASU
Isa 53:11 He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous and he shall bear their iniquities. RSV
The post-Calvary New Covenant doctrine of Righteousness by Faith is here prophesied by Isaiah. The Righteous One, Jesus the Messiah, will “account” or “impute” righteousness to the believer who has true “knowledge” of Him. This is not an Old Covenant doctrine. There is also no logical way to explain this away as a reference to the nation of Israel because Israel was wicked and needed to have its “iniquities” “borne” by the Messiah.
Isa 53:12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great and He will divide the booty with the strong because He poured out Himself to death and was numbered with the transgressors. Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. NASU
53:12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great
And he shall divide the spoil with the strong because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors. yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors. RSV
The cycle is complete: Messiah begins as in un-noticed nobody in the final verses of chapter 52 and ultimately becomes highly exalted as also prophesied in those verses. Once again, this all happened because Messiah substitutionally “poured out his soul” –he died; he “bore the sin of many” in order that he might “make intercession” for their “transgressions.”
Beyond a doubt, the servant texts of Isaiah 48 to 53 are much more complicated than to simply apply them to the nation of Israel. This writer does not deny that the nation is often in view. However, often that “nation” is narrowed to the “righteous obedient nation.” Many times it is evident that the nation is guilty and requires punishment.
The servant enters as a substitute to suffer “for” the nation. God will allow the suffering servant to bear the sins of Israel. Much more, God will place the sins of Israel on the servant and the servant will die as all guilt-offerings died.
This radical solution is completely foreign because Israel did not have human sacrifices. Sin is the violation of the very character and nature of a holy God. God is both just and merciful. The only way to righteously restore fallen man is for One who is equal to the character of God to become a man, to live a sinless life, and to die vicariously (for) the sins of mankind. Such a person is clearly prophesied in Isiah 48 to 53 (especially 49:4-8; 51:16 and all of 53). Isaiah correctly prophesied it. The Bible is truly inspired by God. God does exist.
I plead with atheists, agnostics, Hebrews and those of other religions to sincerely study Isaiah 48 to 53 and discover for yourselves the magnificent inspiration of these texts. God will enlighten and bless your sincere study.
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
316 Aonia Rd
Washington, Ga 30673