Why is Isaiah 53 written in the past tense?

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Modern Jewish expositors and some modern Christian commentators claim that Isaiah 53 doesn’t point to the Messiah. They base their assumption on the fact that Isaiah wrote chapter 53 in the past tense. These add that the chapter pointed to the sufferings of another “servant” (Isaiah 52:13).

Others claim that this chapter probably referred to the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of their enemies. Some, ascribe this chapter to the sad experience of a Jew in Isaiah’s time. Lastly, there are those that have even suggested that the prophet Isaiah was referring to his own past experience.

Isaiah 53

“Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
He is despised and rejected by men,               
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;          
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,                
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment,           
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

And they made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,              
And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.           
11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.                                               

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 unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.”

Without a doubt Isaiah 53 points to the Messiah. It shows that in taking upon Himself a human body, the Son of God became familiar with all the pain, sorrow, and disappointment that man may experience. Through the humanity of Christ, divinity experienced all what fallen people may experience. All the evil treatment and hate that sinners and wicked angels could bring against Him were His daily cup, and reached the climax in His trial and crucifixion.

Instead of feeling with Christ in His pain, men turned from Him with malice and contempt. They took no pity on Him, but ridiculed Him (Matthew 27:39–44). Even His disciples left Him and ran away (Matthew 26:56). Verses 4–6 of Isaiah 53 show the vicarious nature of Christ’s sufferings and death. For it was for us, and not for Himself, that He suffered and died.

The pain, humiliation, and abuse that we deserve, He took upon Himself. The righteous Servant (Isaiah 52:13) was given the burial of a sinner, not of a saint. Having given up His life for sinners, He was placed with them in death. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Biblical Hebrew – Not a Tense Language

The assumption that Isaiah 53 points to the past because it used the past tense is not linguistically correct. This is simply because the old Hebrew language didn’t have a “past tense.” In fact, the Biblical Hebrew is not a “tense” language.  Therefore, what is considered “past tense” in English could be either past, present perfect, or future perfect in the old Hebrew. Modern grammarians consider the old Hebrew an “aspectual” language. However, modern Hebrew does have tenses.

Biblical Hebrew verbs are conjugated according to completion, in-completion, and in-process. This means that the same form of a verb can be translated as either past, present, or future. The interpretation of the verse relies on the context and different grammatical signs. The most well-known grammatical sign is the “vav-consecutive.” This makes an imperfective verb to point to the past.

Isaiah 53 Points to the Messiah

This chapter of Isaiah predicts the sufferings of the Savior of mankind. This is especially true for verse 10 which says, “You make His soul an offering for sin.” No person could have atoned for the sins of humanity except the Son of God because He is the Creator of all. Christ’s death was the only acceptable and worthy atonement for the sins of humanity.

No other sacrifice would have been sufficient to the redemption of man (John 1:29; 17:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24). Therefore, without a doubt, the story of the Savior’s selfless love and His vicarious sacrifice constitute the theme of Isaiah 53. This is the greatest “good tidings” of all time (Isaiah 52:7).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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