Solomon wrote “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9)” and that was clearly evident in the life of Isaac Levinsohn. His story was more akin to a journey both in his geographical wanderings and in his spiritual quest. He sought to please a holy and righteous God, to find satisfaction for his unanswered questions and rest for his soul.
Isaac was born in Kovno, Russia in 1855. Both of his parents were devout Jews and his father instructed him in Hebrew from the tender age of five and explained to him that if he obeyed the Rabbi in all things and prayed thrice daily, God would be most pleased with him. At eight years of age, his Rabbi began instructing him in the Talmud which led him to focussing on that extensive and exhaustive commentary rather than the Bible. Nevertheless as he approached the age of thirteen when he would be considered a man and responsible for his sins, he had already reached the conclusion that the Bible must be the book given to him by God.
Isaac’s Quest and Question
Hence, he secretly read the Bible for two hours before morning prayers and a further hour late in the evening. His burning question was “What must I do to be saved?” He was acutely aware of his sins through reading through the Scriptures (Psalm 53:3), recognising that none does good. He felt the burden and weight of sin and gave attention to prayer and fasting, but at the same time knew he was incapable of justifying himself before a holy God. He asked his Rabbi if he suddenly died, where he would go? He responded that he would be punished in hell for his sins first, though afterwards he would enter Paradise.
Isaac’s mother encouraged him to continue his studies in both the oral and written law. But when Isaac thought and reflected upon Genesis 12:1, “Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” He could relate to that and could not shake it off. Isaac determined to do leave his home- town in an effort to resolve his deep longing to please God and resolve his questions that burdened him daily. His family were crying and upset concerning his departure though gave him their blessing though he was only sixteen and there would be countless perils and upsets that he would encounter on his travels.
He travelled by train from Russia to Germany and had his pockets picked on several occasions. He frequently sought and found help and temporary refuge from kindly Jewish folk as he passed through various cities. Sometimes he had no accommodation and slept either in a forest or wherever he could and on other days, he did not eat. He became sorrowful and even contemplated hanging himself since he could find no rest for his soul.
Isaac endured hostile reactions from Roman Catholics amidst his travels. On one occasion he was met with a harsh reception, “Be off, be off or we will hang you, as did your wicked brethren, the Jews, hung Jesus Christ” and they set dogs on him. Moreover, an innkeeper forced him to leave on the discovery that he was Jewish. Sadly, these experiences hardened his resolve not to go near a Christian, and who could blame him? Hatred toward Christians meant that he would go days without food rather than accept any help from one. On the whole, those he met had no idea concerning the Jewishness of the whole Bible and it barely crossed their mind that the Messiah was Jewish and so were the first believers and that the Jewish people were chosen by God and that the Bible speaks clearly of a sovereign plan for Israel and the nations.
A little while later he then met a kind Gentile lady who gave him a few marks together with the address of a Jewish hotel. He was delighted to make friends with another Jewish chap and stayed at the same hotel, though he robbed him. The owner of the hotel took pity on him and provided for his immediate needs and set him up with some basic employment.
However, Isaac had his heart set on England and though he put his hand to various jobs such as working in that hotel and then a railway station, a porter, and selling milk, he struggled to obtain sufficient funds to travel to England. Whilst he was selling milk a wretched lad placed a rat in the milk can. Acting out of conscience Isaac poured the contents of the can away but was even more upset when his Jewish master was angry and demanded compensation and suggested he should have removed the rat and sold the rest of the milk. His consolation that he held onto was Genesis 12:1 and he maintained his resolve to get out of his country and to go to the place where the Lord would show him.
Isaac arrives in England.
Isaac arrived in Hull though it was a bewildering experience since he could neither read, nor speak English. He attempted to converse in German, Hebrew and Russian and initially he was mistaken for begging. He managed to acquire a German-English dictionary and a German speaker kindly directed him to the house to a Jewish-Polish chap.
He then went to London to celebrate Yom Kippur. He hastily managed to have a cock slaughtered for his atonement, yet the disturbing thought remained, “How can the blood of this bird cleanse me from my sins.” The Talmud teaches that since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and following the diaspora, every male was to offer a cock and every female a hen, as a sacrifice on the Day of Atonement.
One day, during a factory dinner hour, Isaac passed a church that was somehow different to what he had seen previously. He was surprised to see no pictures, nor graven images as he would have expected to have seen in his native land. He was curious, maintained a low profile though went in. Strangely, though he did not understand exactly what was happening in the service, it felt like a Jewish synagogue.
Isaac Encounters Jewish Believers
Soon afterwards some of his friends discovered that he had set foot in that church and made him promise he would never enter there again. Nonetheless Isaac had a great desire to return and resolved to do so in secret, which he did. To his amazement he met a Jewish believer. As they introduced themselves, he learnt that this man had in some respects a similar story having left Austria and had also faced the same spiritual conundrums that he was working through.
In addition, Isaac was impressed by the solemnity and earnestness of the preacher who delivered the sermon. His new- found friend explained how Isaiah 53 spoke so movingly and clearly concerning the Messiah and in turn introduced him to the Rev. H.A. Stern. Isaac admitted that he had never met anyone so holy and humble as Mr Stern.
It was only a matter of time before Isaac faced persecution from his Jewish friends. Nonetheless, at this time he wrote to, and received a vast number of letters from his family which were tender, heartfelt, and penned with the utmost sincerity. His family wanted him to return and were most concerned that he would believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Nevertheless Isaac wrote to them explaining that Rabbi Stern had explained to them that the Messiah they were waiting for had already come and that He obeyed the whole law of Moses and through His death, He provided atonement for sin.
There were difficulties in reconciling that in view of expectations of a Messiah who would be exalted. Nonetheless some speak of Messiah Ben Joseph and Messiah Ben David, namely a suffering Messiah and a ruling Messiah. Could it be that they were one and the same and that Messiah had come but would also return to Jerusalem?
Isaac finds rest for his soul in the Jewish Messiah.
As they exchanged frequent and lengthy correspondence, Isaac detailed passages that convinced him concerning the identity of Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah. Genesis 49:10 spoke of the sceptre of Judah, but where was that? And where was Shiloh? Where was the sceptre of Judah after the temple was destroyed by the Romans? Interestingly Micah 5:2 (1), stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah from the tribe of Judah, and he would not be considered great in the world.
His father responded questioning why the persecutions at the hands of the so- called Christians in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and England? Sadly, sustained persecution from those calling themselves Christians has caused incalculable hurt, damage, and destruction to Jewish people worldwide for hundreds of years. How ignorant, shameless, and brutal are those people who fail to take note in their own Bibles of God’s love for His chosen people!
Isaac persisted with further passages from the Tanakh. Isaiah 9:6 and Psalm 2 spoke clearly of the Son of God. Proverbs 30:4 asked the questions: “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name and what is His Son’s name, if you know?” The Brit Hadasha (New Testament) is often considered Antisemitic though that is far from reality. The whole context and setting are Jewish, and the Scriptures quote from the Torah, Writings, and the Prophets. It commences with the book of Matthew, which is a Jewish gospel, written by a Jewish author about a Jewish Messiah to a Jewish audience. It commences with a Jewish genealogy proving that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham and David. Isaac also noted that in Daniel 3, when Daniel’s three friends were in the fiery furnace, a fourth was also walking in the midst of the fire and his form was like the Son of God (Daniel 3:25).
It was therefore no surprise that Isaac came to faith and trusted in Jesus the Messiah for salvation and forgiveness of his sin. Immediately Isaac was disowned by many though undoubtedly the hardest pill to swallow was rejection from his family. His brother and sister wrote in great distress imploring him to return and repent. Long and heartrending exchanges followed until he was eventually shunned. He further wrote around twenty times to them though no answer came his way. Isaac held on to the fact that he had satisfied the yearning of his soul.
Isaac became a preacher, he taught in Sunday school, he visited the poor and the inmates of Bethnal Green and those in workhouses. He shared his faith with Jewish people who came to trust in Jesus the Messiah as their Lord and Saviour. He visited people in hospitals and laboured in the gospel in the East End of London.
He married, acquiring a loving and loyal wife, raised six children, and enrolled at the Pastor’s College at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Ten years passed since he heard from his family. Tragically his father died as a victim of the persecutions. Isaac was worried that his mother would not accept help from him though the story did not end there. It was a mystery to his mother that he would demonstrate such kindness when they had turned away from him and she freely admitted that she would not have done the same from him. Rather she consoled him that his words were of comfort and the gift was greatly received.
Isaac was himself consoled, surprised, and encouraged and sent her a sermon about Messiah in the Passover by Charles Spurgeon who pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Isaac explained that had he not been a believer in Messiah he would not have been able to do what he had done. He pointed to the example of Jesus who when he suffered and was crucified said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).”
Again to his surprise and encouragement his mother read the sermon and lent it to others. She was obviously moved by what she read and wrote, “Can it be true?”. He received visits from his sisters to whom he preached the gospel, plus old friends, associates and various relatives. His brother also came and became convinced of the gospel and others professed their love for the Lord Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.
Isaac Levinsohn finished his story quoting the words of the Apostle Paul. Paul was once vehemently opposed to the gospel until he met the risen Messiah, and his life was transformed.
“Brethren, my hearts desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved (Romans 10:1).”
If you would like to read the whole of Isaac’s story in his own words, you can access it via this link.