Two of the most famous Messianic passages in the Old Testament occur in the portion of Isaiah we have been considering initially in these studies on the book (chaps. 2-12)—8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10. We must look at these passages from the standpoint of historical– and composition-criticism, as a way of highlighting the important principle that a proper interpretation needs to begin (and proceed) from a careful grammatical-historical approach to the text.
Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]
In the most recent studies, I discussed certain critical aspects of the composition of Isaiah 2-12. While the date and provenance of portions of these chapters may be debated, there can be no question that 6:1-9:6 derives from the prophet Isaiah’s own time, and contains key historical and biographical material from the prophet, covering the last 40 years of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701). This section centers on the Assyrian crisis (and the Syro-Ephramaite war) during the years 735-732 B.C., and provides a firm historical setting. At the same time, the situation regarding the surrounding chapters (2-5, 9:7-12:6) is more complex. A plausible critical theory would involve a three-stage process of composition and editing/redaction:
- 6:1-9:6: a core document, presumably produced by the prophet’s own disciples (see the notice in 8:16), not long after the events of 735-2; it contains authentic Isaian material—oracles, and historical-biographical traditions.
- At some point, this document was placed within the context of chapters 5 and 9:7-10:34, which seem to represent authentic Isaiah oracles from the late 8th century (prior to 701). The emphasis is more on the theme of the impending judgment—warning Judah of the coming judgment from Assyria, and an oracle against the great nation of Assyria itself. Critical commentators are generally agreed that 5:25-30 and 10:1-4a have been misplaced, swapped from one location to the other; this may have occurred as a way of smoothing the transition when the 6:1-9:6 document was included.
- The addition of chapters 2-4, 11-12. This material appears to stem from a later period of composition, but likely still includes authentic Isaian material (though perhaps in an adapted form). It would seem that the oracles and traditions, related to the Assyrian crisis and its effect on Judah (chaps. 5-10), have been adapted to the context of the Babylonian conquest (and exile) more than a century later. The historical parallels between the two periods are obvious, and such an adaptation by a later author/editor would have been most natural. Evidence for such a dating of chaps. 2-4 was discussed in an earlier study, and will be addressed again in the upcoming study on 11:1-10.
I discussed 9:5-6 [6-7] in some detail as part of an earlier article (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). I will be reproducing portions of that two-part article here (and in next week’s study), and you should consult it for an in-depth examination of the text. With regard to the historical background of 6:1-9:6 as a whole, it may be summarized for each of the sections/components of that document as follows:
- Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah (discussed in the prior two Saturday Series studies), accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
- Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
- Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has also been discussed extensively in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It contains a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
- Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
- Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
- Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) “God-with-us”:
- “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
- O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
- (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
- For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
- “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
- Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
- Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
- Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).
Clearly, 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] functions as the conclusion of the document, and there is some evidence that it, along with portions of 8:5-22, stems from a slightly later time than the rest of 6:1-9:6. Many commentators would identify this with the accession/coronation of Hezekiah, and in this they are likely correct. The beginning of Hezekiah’s reign is typically dated to 715 B.C., though some would locate that event as early as 729, placing it closer in time to the events of 735-2 (see above). Early Christians were quick to take this passage as a Messianic prophecy (of Jesus’ coming/birth, cf. Matthew 4:12-16), and it is simply accepted in this light by many Christians today as well. However valid such an interpretation may be, it is important to keep the original historical context of the passage in mind as we study it. That is to say, how would it have been understood in the 8th century, by the people of the time, to whom the oracle was primarily addressed? The original point-of-reference is almost certainly that of Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah at the time of the Assyrian campaigns, when the kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) was saved from destruction and conquest.
Keeping this setting in mind, we can see how, in 11:1-10, the same sort of tradition—regarding a king who would oversee a time of salvation and peace for both Israel and Judah—could be adapted to the later context of the Babylonian conquest, providing a message of hope to the people of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. It even makes possible a future/eschatological interpretation of the oracle, part of the Messianic expectation of Jews and Christians in generations to come.
In next week’s study, we will proceed with a brief, but thorough, exegesis of both 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10, touching upon important critical questions and issues, and other points of interpretation, along the way.