May 11: Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

Isaiah 42:1; 61:1

In the previous note, we saw how the earlier traditions regarding charismatic (i.e., spirit-inspired) leadership and kingship were developed within the oracles and writings of the Prophets (in the 8th-6th centuries B.C.). The verses discussed (Isa 11:2; 28:6) were from the first half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 1-39), which, on the whole, is firmly rooted in the oracles and historical traditions of the prophet Isaiah from the late 8th century (c. 740-701). The situation is rather different with regard to the second half of the book—the so-called Deutero- (chaps. 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). Most critical commentators would hold that the oracles and poems in these chapters, while inspired by the Isaian themes and traditions, were written considerably later, during the Exile and post-Exilic period. Certainly, the main setting and subject matter involves the restoration of Israel and the return of the Judean people from Exile (cf. the reference to Cyrus in 44:28; 45:1, among many other details). While some would defend a traditional-conservative view of Isaian authorship, the message of hope in these passages is more intelligible, and makes more sense for the people of the time, if the exile had already occurred.

In any case, we are looking here at two key passages which draw upon the association of the spirit (j^Wr) of God with prophetic inspiration. In previous notes, we examined early traditions where the divine spirit comes upon (or “rushes” to) a person, resulting in an ecstatic prophetic experience. Such a person is shown to be gifted as a prophet or spokesperson (ayb!n`) for YHWH, and the speech/action that comes out of the encompassing charismatic/ecstatic experience is a sign that the person is “acting like a ayb!n`” (the denominative verb ab*n` in the reflexive or passive stem). The main passages for this line of tradition are Numbers 11:17-29; 1 Samuel 10:5-13; 18:10 (19:9); 19:20-24.

Isaiah 42:1

The poem in Isa 42:1-9 is generally regarded as the first of the “Servant Songs” in (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the theme had been introduced already in 41:8-9. The couplets in the opening verse establish the focus of the poem:

“See! my servant—I hold firmly (up)on him,
my chosen (one), (in whom) my soul delights!
I have given my spirit [j^Wr] upon him,
(and) he shall bring forth judgment/justice for (the) nations.”

The precise identity and nature of this “servant” (db#u#) have been much debated by commentators throughout the years. In 41:8-9, the “servant” is identified as the people of Israel/Jacob (the “seed of Abraham”) as a whole; however, here, and in subsequent passages, a distinct individual seems to be in view. Perhaps the best explanation is that it is a ayb!n` (prophet/spokesperson), patterned after Moses. The term is used specifically (and in a special sense) of Moses in Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1-2, 7, etc (cf. also Num 11:11; Deut 3:24). Moses was also the first (and supreme) ayb!n` of the early Israelite period (Num 11:17ff; Deut 18:15-18ff); on his role as spokesperson and intermediary between God and the people, cf. especially the tradition in Exod 20:18-21. Just as Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so a servant/prophet like Moses will lead the people in their return from the Exile.

What is clear is that, like Moses, this “servant” will be specially chosen by God to lead, and that the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH will be placed upon him. The spirit-inspired aspect of Moses’ leadership is surprisingly absent from the Pentateuch narratives, but there is at least one important passage where it is emphasized prominently—Numbers 11:10-30, discussed in an earlier note. The ideas expressed in that early tradition seem to relate in some way to the Prophetic theme of the Spirit being given to all the people (v. 29)—to the land and its people as a whole; this will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

With regard to the poem in Isa 42:1-9, the initial theme in verse 1 is developed through the two main sections (or strophes) in different ways:

    • Vv. 1-4—here the focus is on the servant functioning as leader for the people (Israel), establishing justice—i.e., rendering right judgment (fP*v=m!), and setting that pattern throughout the whole society. This justice is based fundamentally upon the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 4b).
    • Vv. 5-7—the Instruction given to Israel is aimed at the wider world—the surrounding nations—as well. This cosmic aspect is introduced with an allusion to the Creation in v. 5, including the important motif of the spirit/breath of God that gives life to all people (cf. the prior notes on Gen 1:2 and 2:7; Job 33:4). The “servant” will apparently play a role in extending God’s covenant with Israel out to the surrounding nations.

Isaiah 61:1

The opening of the oracle in Isaiah 61 is similar in some ways to that of 42:1-9; however, here there is a decidedly stronger emphasis on the idea of Israel’s return and restoration. The opening lines in verse 1 also speak of the spirit of God being given to a chosen ‘servant’:

“(The) spirit [j^Wr] of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me
in that He has anointed me to bring (good) news to (the) oppressed;
He sent me to provide wrapping for the (one)s broken of heart,
to call out release for (the one)s led away (into bondage)
and an opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)”

Here we find again the theme of justice—especially for the poor and oppressed in society. Only now the role of the spirit-inspired figure is narrowed to that of giving a prophetic announcement. It is proper to refer to this individual as an “anointed herald”, similar in many respects to the “voice” ordered to call out a message of salvation and justice in the initial Deutero-Isaian oracles (chap. 40).

The kingship motif of anointing is present here (cf. the discussion in the previous note), only it has been applied specifically to a prophetic context. Scriptural evidence for the anointing of prophets is quite limited, but it seems to have been a perfectly valid line of symbolism. That there were Messianic (i.e. Anointed) Prophet figure-types in subsequent Jewish tradition is clear enough (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Indeed, the Anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff is the Messianic figure-type that best fits Jesus during the time of his active ministry, and is the one with which Jesus specifically identified himself, according to the Gospel accounts. The authenticity of this self-identification would seem to be confirmed, on objective grounds, by its multiple attestation in at least two separate Gospel traditions (Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:20-23 [Q], and Luke 4:17-21ff). There is evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of the passage at Qumran (cf. my article on 4Q521).

May 10: Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

When we turn to the Prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find a significant number of references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God. These occur throughout the writings, but are concentrated especially in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They indicate a development of earlier lines of tradition, regarding the association of the divine spirit with leadership roles in ancient Israel—namely, that of the prophet (ayb!n`) and the king.

In previous notes, we examined the role of the spirit of God in the legitimate establishment and exercise of kingship. Going back to the time of Moses and Joshua, through the period of the Judges, and then with the first Israelite kings (Saul and David), there was a clear principle of spirit-inspired charismatic leadership. The spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH would come upon the person, enabling him/her to function effectively as ruler. The presence of the divine spirit was manifest primarily two ways: (1) giving the person the wisdom and discernment by which to lead, and (2) enabling strength and skill for battle, etc. The former was emphasized, for example, in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9, cf. Num 27:18), while the latter was stressed repeatedly in the Judges narratives. In the David-Saul traditions of Samuel, the connection was primarily between the spirit and the manifestation of an ecstatic prophetic experience (1 Sam 10:6, 11; 11:6; 16:13ff; 18:10; 19:20-24; cp. Num 11:17-29).

By the 8th century B.C., with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy, the older tradition of charismatic leadership more or less disappeared. However, the idea of the spirit of God coming upon the ruler continued, built into the very imagery of the anointing of the king. Thus, for example, we find repeatedly in the Prophets language to the effect that the Spirit of God is “poured out”, i.e. like water or oil. In particular, there are numerous passages which indicate that the anointing of a leader (king or ayb!n`) is in mind. This imagery occurs in numerous passages in the book of Isaiah, both in the first half (chaps. 1-39), as well as the second (so-called Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66).

Isaiah 11:2

Study of the book of Isaiah is complicated by composite nature of the material, and by the rather clear evidence that the book was composed in stages, over a considerable length of time. Even in the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39), which is much more clearly connected with the life and times of the prophet Isaiah himself, there is considerable debate regarding the date and provenance of the oracles, etc. For example, chapters 2-12 comprise a definite division; within this portion, chapters 5-10 unquestionably derive from the later half of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701), while much of 6:1-9:6[7] can be dated even more narrowly, to the time of the Assyrian crisis in the north and the Syro-Ephraemite war (735-732). The surrounding material in chaps. 2-4 and 11-12 is more difficult to date, with some evidence that it may have been composed a century or so later, though perhaps drawing upon authentic Isaian oracles, set in the context of the Babylonian conquest and exilic (or post-exilic) period. I have discussed this to some extent in recent Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah, and will not go over the matter any further here. Such critical theories are, by their nature, rather speculative and subjective, relying on limited evidence from within the text itself.

If Isa 11:1-10 is an authentic Isaian oracle, then it would date from the final decades of the 8th century, much like the rest of the material in chaps. 5-10. In 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7], the promise of a time of peace and prosperity (and restoration) for the people of the northern Kingdom is tied to the coming of a new king from the line of David in Judah (vv. 5-6 [6-7]). Many critical commentators would identify the original historical context of this passage as the accession/coronation of Hezekiah (715 B.C.?). In any case, the “birth” of the king (as in Psalm 2:7) almost certainly refers to the time of his coronation, and reflects the language and ritual symbolism of the ceremonies performed on such occasions. On the significance and background of the divine titles in vv. 5-6 [6-7], cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The same sort of language and imagery occurs in Isaiah 11:1-10, and likewise refers to the rise of a new king from the line of David. An 8th century setting may well have Hezekiah in mind, but, at the very least, would refer to a king coming after (or in place of ) Ahaz. Even if the oracle has a later period in view (Babylonian/Exilic/post-Exilic), the basic hope remains the same; not surprisingly, this came to be a key Messianic passage in later Jewish thought, though it appears to have been adopted less readily by early Christians.

The “golden age” that is ushered in with this king’s rule echoes the language in 2:2-4 (cf. Mic 4:1-4), and illustrates the clear (and intentional) parallelism between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. The king as a descendant of David is alluded to in the opening lines (v. 1): “And a branch will go forth from the trunk of Yishay {Jesse}, and a green shoot from his roots will bear (forth)”. By alluding to the origins of David, the implication is that the new king will recapture the greatness and character of David himself. This is indicated by the emphasis on the special spirit (j^Wr) that will come upon him (cp. this for David in 1 Sam 16:13, following his anointing by Samuel). This is given four-fold expression in verse 2:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH will rest upon him,
(the) spirit of wisdom and discernment,
(the) spirit of counsel and strength,
(the) spirit of knowledge and fear of YHWH.”

The emphasis is on wisdom and knowledge, rather than strength and prowess in battle, etc (in spite of the mention of hr*Wbg+, “strength, greatness, vigor”, in line three, with it possible allusion to military victory). That wisdom and discernment come from the spirit of God is attested, as a general principle, in Job 32:8 etc. The gifted leader was specially endowed with such qualities (e.g., Joshua in Deut 34:9, cf. above), a sign of divine inspiration, and so it is attributed to the new/ideal king here.

Isaiah 28:6

The same basic idea is expressed in Isa 28:6, at the conclusion of a brief oracle, contrasting the failed leadership of the northern Kingdom (which faced judgment in the form of the Assyrian invasions) with the promise of faithful leadership, under the Davidic king, in Judah. It is the presence of YHWH which will offer hope and salvation, even to the survivors of the destruction in the north, and this divine presence (marked by God’s spirit [j^Wr]) will extend to the faithful ruler of the people:

“In that day YHWH of (the heavenly) armies will be
as an encircling (wreath) of splendor and a surrounding (crown) of beauty for the remainder of His people,
and as a spirit [j^Wr] of (right) judgment for (the one) sitting upon the (seat of) judgment,
and as strength [hr*Wbg+] for (the one)s returning battle (at) the gate.” (vv. 5-6)

The two aspects of leadership (cf. above) are clearly delineated in verse 6:

    • “spirit of judgment/justice”, i.e. requiring wisdom and discernment, and
    • “strength” (hr*Wbg+, as in 11:2 [line 3] above)—that is, the vigor of the young warrior in battle; specifically the king leads his warriors to victory in the battle.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study on the references to the Spirit of God in Isaiah, including an examination of several key passages from so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10

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[7] 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[8]-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[7] 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]
    • 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.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13 (vv. 9-13)

Isaiah 6:1-13, continued

In the previous study, we examined verses 1-8 exegetically, deriving the critical analysis through a verse-by-verse study. This week, while continuing through the remaining verses (9-13), we will also take the additional step of considering some of the wider theological issues that arise in the interpretation of this passage, and how it has been applied subsequently by Christians within the context of their own life-setting.

Isaiah 6:9-10

“And He said, ‘Go, and your shall say to this people:
Hearing, you must hear,
and (yet) you shall not discern;
seeing, you must see,
and (yet) you shall not know!
Make fat the heart of this people,
make heavy its ears and smear over its eyes,
so that it should not see with its eyes,
and with its ears hear, and with its heart discern,
and then turn, and there be healing for it!'”

Verses 1-8 establish the setting for Isaiah’s prophetic mission, rooted in an authentic historical (and biographical) tradition, as we discussed last week. In verse 8, Isaiah dramatically volunteers for the mission, to serve as God’s spokesperson (n¹bî°, “prophet”) and deliver His message to the people. Now the nature of this mission (and message) is presented to him, in rather jarring and disturbing terms. There is a stronger poetic character to this portion of the vision, and I have rendered it (loosely) as poetry above.

In verse 9, YHWH gives to Isaiah the message that he is to give to the people. However, this does not represent the content (or words) of the message per se, but rather illustrates the intended effect of his prophetic speaking. It makes use of a peculiar Semitic idiom, in which the verb is doubled for effect, with an infinitive together with an indicative (or imperative) form. Here the syntactical pattern involves an imperative; we can see the dramatic, staccato effect of this syntax, by displaying the Hebrew in transliteration:

šim±û š¹môa±
ûr°û r¹°ô

In translating this syntax, I find it is easier in English to give the infinitive first: “hearing, you must hear…seeing, you must see…”. The thrust is emphatic—that is, to give special emphasis to the verbal action. Here the sense is perhaps best understood as a prolonging of the effect of Isaiah’s preaching, and/or that the effect will be thorough and complete. In conventional translation, this is commonly rendered, in corresponding English idiom, as “keep on hearing…keep on seeing…”. In general, this is correct. The people will keep hearing Isaiah’s message, and yet will not understand or discern the truth; they will keep seeing the signs around them, and yet will not know or be aware of what is happening (until it is too late).

Even more striking is the way that this is described in verse 10, where YHWH commands the prophet to dull the senses of the people, so that they will not turn and repent. The theological difficulties with this idea were recognized at an early point, as indicating by the softening and rephrasing of the language in the Greek version, changing the infinitives to finite verbs, and making the people the subject of the action (i.e., “the mind of this people was made fat…”); cf. Roberts, p. 90. This will be discussed further below. For the moment, it is necessary to render the Hebrew as literally as possible, as I have done above.

The two-fold image of eyes/ears (seeing/hearing) has been turned into a three-fold image (eyes/ears/heart), folding in the separate idea of discernment/knowledge (= heart) from verse 9. For each sense-faculty, the prophet’s message involves the verbal action of covering it over. The three verbs are all imperatives in the (Hiphil) causative stem, clearly indicating that God, through the prophet, is causing this to happen:

    • “make fat” (hašm¢n) the heart, i.e. cover it over with a layer of oil or fat
    • “make heavy” (ha½b¢¼) the ears, i.e. weigh them down with a coating or covering
    • “smear over” (h¹ša±) the eyes, i.e. with a coating so that the person cannot see clearly

The purpose of this is stated in the second half of verse 10, marked by the adverbial conjunction pen (/P#). Its use negates a situation, often in the sense of something that is to be avoided, removing it from consideration. In English, such phrases are customarily translated as “lest…”, but this wording is rather archaic, and it is probably better to preserve more clearly the negative sense, which I do above (“so that…not…”):

“so that it [i.e. the people] should not see with its eyes,” etc.

What a strange mission for the prophet—to ensure that God’s people do not see or understand the truth! However, YHWH clearly tells Isaiah this is so that the people will not turn and receive healing (“and there will be healing for it”). The verb šû» literally means “turn”, often in the sense of “turn back, return”, used frequently in a moral-religious context, of people “turning back” to God. This wider application, especially when extended to include the idea of eternal salvation, makes the Christian use of vv. 9-10 genuinely problematic (see below). Here it must be understood in the more limited (historical) context of the impending Assyrian invasion(s) of Israel and Judah.

Isaiah 6:11-12

“And I said, ‘Until what (time), my Lord?’ And He said, ‘Until such (time) when cities have crashed (into ruins) with no one sitting [i.e. dwelling] (in them), and houses with no man (in them), and the ground [i.e. land] is left a (complete) devastation—and (until) YHWH (remove)s the men far away, and th(is) abandonment increases in the midst of the land!'”

Understandably disturbed by the mission God has given him, Isaiah wants to know how long (“until what [time]”) his speaking will have this negative effect. YHWH’s response (“until such [time] when…”) could not be more bleak, indicating that the prophet must continue his mission until cites have been destroyed, houses abandoned, and the land throughout has been completely devastated. This properly describes the effect of military conquest, and refers specifically to the invasion of Israel and Judah by the powerful Assyrian Empire (multiple campaigns between 733 and 701 B.C.). The northern Israelite kingdom (centered at Samaria) was conquered by Shalmaneser V in 722, and the southern Judean kingdom was devastated (and very nearly conquered) by Sennacherib some 20 years later. The exile of the people is prophesied in verse 12, emphasizing the extent of it in two ways:

    • wideness/distance from the land—i.e. the people being removed far away
    • and increase of abandonment within the land—i.e. there will hardly be anyone left in it (v. 11)

Though the Assyrians are the proximate cause of this devastation, it is YHWH who brings it about (and is the ultimate cause), as v. 12 clearly indicates.

Isaiah 6:13

“‘And (if) there is yet in it a tenth, it shall even turn (back) and shall be for (the) consuming (of it). Like the elah-tree and like the oak tree, which, in (its) being sent [i.e. cut] (down), (there is a portion) in them (that remains) standing, (and) its (portion that remains) standing (is the) holy seed.'”

The textual difficulties in this concluding verse are considerable, and cannot be dealt with in detail here. Many commentators feel that the text is corrupt, and, if so, it is practically impossible to retrieve/restore the original. The Qumran manuscripts and the versions offer little help, except to confirm the difficulty of the verse. The problems may have arisen from early scribal attempts to cast the verse in a more positive light, emphasizing an ultimate promise of hope in the midst of the devastation that was prophesied. For the purposes of this study, I have worked from the Masoretic text, without emendation.

With regard to the tree-illustration, the key term is maƒƒe»e¾, which refers to something that “remains standing (in place)” (vb n¹ƒa»). The idea is that nearly the entire tree has been “sent (down)”, i.e. cut down, felled; and yet there is the stump, a small portion that remains standing. This portion is called “the holy seed” (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] includes the definite article), by which is probably meant the basis, or foundation, from which the restoration of the land (and its people) can begin. In the context of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, this may refer specifically to the city of Jerusalem, which survived a siege and was not conquered, while many of the surrounding cities were. To the extent that the Isaian context was applied to the later situation of the Babylonian invasion (and exile), this promise of restoration, centered at Jerusalem, would have taken on special significance, eventually carrying Messianic and eschatological overtones (cf. chapters 2-4, 11-12).

Christian Application of Isa 6:9-13

For many Christians, and readers of the New Testament, verses 9-13 (esp. vv. 9-10) are familiar from their use in the Gospels and by the early Christian missionaries (such as Paul). This provides an interesting example of how Old Testament passages can be taken out of their original context, and applied to a new setting and situation. For commentators who wish to affirm both a single (primarily/original) meaning to the Old Testament prophecies, and the inspiration of the New Testament authors/speakers, it is necessary to posit something like an “inspired application”, which, though secondary, carries its own inspired meaning and truth.

Jesus himself made use of vv. 9-10, citing them, according to the Synoptic tradition, as part of an explanation for why he taught and preached using parables. We tend to think of the parables as illustrations which help the average person to understand what Jesus is saying; however, according to Mark 4:10-12 par, Jesus’ intention is the opposite. He is communicating the “secret” of the Kingdom of God, but this “secret” is being revealed only to his close followers. For others, the truth of the Kingdom remains hidden, and parables serve to conceal the truth from the people at large. It is in this context that Isa 6:9-10 is cited. The Greek wording (in Mark) differs from both the Hebrew MT and the Greek LXX, especially in its use of the verb aphí¢mi (“release, let [go] from”), with its connotation of forgiveness from sin: “…so they should not (at any time) turn back and it be released for them” (the parallel in Matt 13:14-15 is closer to the LXX). If forgiveness from sin is meant here, then it gives to vv. 9-10 an application toward the idea of eternal salvation that is rather troubling, in light of God’s active role (in the original prophetic message) in keeping people from recognizing the truth.

The Gospel of John does seem to take things a step further, in this direction, when the author (and/or his underlying tradition) cites vv. 9-10 in 12:39-41, using the prophecy as a way of explaining why many Jews at the time were not able to trust in Jesus. In the Johannine writings, the verb pisteúœ (“trust”) tends to be used in the specific sense of the trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God) that marks the true believer, and one who possesses eternal life. Thus, to say that these people were not able to trust means that they were not (and could not be) true believers destined for salvation and eternal life.

In the closing scene in the book of Acts (28:23-28), as Paul speaks with Jews in Rome, he also cites Isa 6:9-10 (vv. 26-27), similarly, as an explanation for why many of these Jews were unable/unwilling to believe (lit. were “without trust”, v. 24f). The closing words in v. 28, pitting the trusting Gentiles against unbelieving Jews, may seem disturbing to our modern-day sensibilities, but they reflect the historical situation faced by Paul and other missionaries at the time. He deals with the Jew/Gentile problem—i.e. why many Gentiles trust in Jesus while many Jews do not—more comprehensively in his letter to the Romans (esp. chapters 9-11).

What is common in all these passages, in relation to Isa 6:9-13, is the idea that God is specifically acting so that many people do not (and cannot) see or recognize the truth. This seems to go squarely against how we tend to think about God—that he wants everyone to understand and accept the truth, and any failure to do so is our responsibility, not God’s. In balancing the sense of the control human beings have over their own destinies, with the extent to which they are controlled by God (or the deities, in a polytheistic setting), the ancient peoples tended to emphasize God’s ultimate (and sovereign) control, whereas modern (Western) society, by contrast, stresses individual human control and responsibility.

Why does God not want His people to see/understand the truth and turn back to Him (in repentance, etc)? To answer this, we must keep close to the original historical context of Isa 6:9-13. Isaiah’s mission in chap. 6ff is to announce the judgment that is coming on the people of Israel and Judah, in the form, primarily, of the Assyrian military invasion(s). If the people realized the nature of this judgment, and its imminence, they might well repent, and this would prompt YHWH to curtail the just punishment that the people deserved for their sins and crimes. Instead, in order for the full punishment to be meted out, and for the judgment to be realized in full, the people are prevented from realizing (or accepting) what is happening to them, until it is too late.

This is comparable in some ways to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Exodus narratives. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), God brings about the full punishment upon Egypt, the completion of all the “plagues”, including the last and greatest (death of the firstborn). This, of course, does not remove the guilt or responsibility of Pharaoh—there is a sense in which he hardens his own heart (Exod 8:11, 28; 9:34; cf. also 7:13-14; 8:15; 9:7, 35; Roberts, p. 102 note)—but ultimately it is God (YHWH) who brings this about. The point is that God’s action (here through the prophet Isaiah) allows for the full judgment/punishment of the people to be realized. Only after this punishment has taken effect—through conquest, destruction, and exile—can the restoration of the people occur (v. 13).

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13

Isaiah 6:1-13

After a hiatus for Holy Week, we pick up our Saturday Series studies, currently working in the Book of Isaiah. The past few studies were divided according to the specific areas of Biblical Criticism—textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, literary criticism. Here, in this study on Isa 6:1-13, we will be using an inductive, exegetical approach, touching upon the various areas of criticism as they are relevant in the context of each verse.

Isaiah 6:1

“In (the) year of (the) death of the king Yah-is-my-strength {Uzziyahu}, and (it was then) I saw the Lord sitting upon (His) seat (of honor), being high and lifted (up), and His (garment)s hanging (down) were filling (His) palace.” (v. 1)

This majestic statement establishes the vision-scene recorded in chapter 6. It is significant that, though the introduction to the book as a whole (1:1) refers to it as a µ¹zôn (literally something one looks/gazes at), actual visions in the book are quite rare. This is one of the few, and it is significant since it marks the beginning of the historical-biographical strand (involving the person and times of Isaiah himself) that runs through the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39).

Textually, this establishing verse is straightforward enough. The only significant variation is found in the Greek version (LXX), where the anthropomorphic detail of YHWH’s hanging garments (Heb. šûl, plur.) is translated more abstractly as dóxa (“honor, splendor”). It is, however, an essential detail, since it relates to the overall vision of God (YHWH) on his throne. The prophet sees Him sitting on his seat of honor (kiss¢°, i.e. throne), raised high above the floor. The locale is further identified as the palace (hêk¹l) of YHWH—that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palace and temple were closely connected; indeed, the royal palace and the deity’s temple were often part of the same building complex. Moreover, the temple itself was envisioned as a divine palace, with the deity dwelling in it as a king or ruler. The sanctuary was the “throne room” for the deity, and people would approach God in the sanctuary just as one would the king on his throne. For a similar throne-vision of YHWH, see the vision of Micaiah in 2 Kings 22:19-23; it is a type of visionary genre that would last for centuries, down through generations of Jewish and Christian tradition.

From a form-critical standpoint, this is a vision-narrative (in prose), set within a biographical and historical context—that of the life and career of the prophet Isaiah. It marks the beginning of his prophetic career (cp. the “call-narratives” of Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and certainly that which is central to chaps. 2-39, i.e. the Assyrian crises in the second half of the 8th century B.C. In the previous study, mention was made of the critical theory that the opening and closing sections of chapters 2-12 (chs. 2-4, 11-12) may have been composed at a later time (perhaps in the exilic or post-exilic periods), while including earlier (and authentic) material. There is no doubt, however, that the central chapters 6-8 belong to the time of Isaiah himself. This is clear from the opening words here in verse 1, where the vision is said to have occurred the year of Uzziah’s death (c. 740 B.C.). There is no reason, on objective grounds, to doubt the accuracy of this detail. Indeed, the prophetic narrative in chapters 6-8, in particular, derives from authentic historical tradition regarding the prophet Isaiah. Viewed source-critically, the detail in 8:1-2, 16ff allows for the (strong) possibility that these chapters have essentially been preserved from the circle (of disciples) around Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:2

“Burning (creature)s were standing from (the place) above Him, (with) six pairs of wings, six pairs of wings for each—(with) two it covered its face, and (with) two it covered its feet, and (with) two it soared (aloft).”

The main textual difficulty in verse 2 involves the precise meaning of the noun ´¹r¹¸ (here plural ´®r¹¸îm). The verbal root ´¹ra¸ means “burn” (as with fire); however, elsewhere in the Old Testament, the noun refers to a (venomous) snake, presumably with an ancient allusion to the burning/fiery effect of its poison (see Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). In Isa 14:29 and 30:6, the noun is parallel with other words used for a deadly snake (n¹µ¹š, ƒe¸a±, °e¸±eh), and clearly refers to a flying snake. Almost certainly that is the same image intended here in 6:2—a winged, flying serpentine figure. However offensive this might be to our modern sensibilities, especially with the traditional negative connotations of the serpent/snake motif, it would not have been nearly so problematic in Isaiah’s time. Hybrid creatures (with animal and human attributes) were frequently used in religious art and royal iconography throughout the ancient Near East, including Palestine and Syria, among the Israelites and related peoples.

The k§rû» (plural k®rû»îm) was a similar divine/heavenly being, which likely possessed both human and animal characteristics. Parallels in ancient Near Eastern iconography suggest a winged lion or bull with a human head. Such sphinx-like figures regularly flanked the throne, and the golden box (or ‘ark’) that served as the throne of YHWH, and placed in the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Jerusalem Temple, also had a pair of winged kerubs surrounding it. As for the image of a winged snake, it is well known from Egyptian royal and religious art (as on the throne of Tutankhamun, see below), and is also attested, for example, on a number of stamp-seals in Palestine, dating from the 8th and early 7th century (the very time of Isaiah). On this, see N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), nos. 11, 104, 127, 194, 206, 284, 381, 385; Roberts, p. 97. This detail would tend to confirm the historical authenticity of chapter 6. Mention could also be made of the tradition reflected in Num 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4, of a pole-mounted snake that served as a religious/cult object.

I have translated ´®r¹¸îm literally as “burning (creature)s”, though, as noted above, it is likely that winged serpentine figures (with human attributes) are being envisioned. They represent divine/heavenly beings who stand in the presence of YHWH and attend to him on His throne. The covering of their faces and “feet” (which can be a euphemism for the male genitals) indicates the awe and reverence they display before God, and anticipates Isaiah’s own response. In Egyptian iconography the (winged) snake or cobra serves a protective, guardian role; here, the sense is rather different, emphasizing instead the splendor and holiness of YHWH Himself.

Isaiah 6:3

“And this (one) called to that (one) and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy (is) YHWH of the (heavenly) armies! His weight/worth (is beyond the) fullness of all (the) earth!'”

Probably there are two flanking seraphs overhead, matching the two kerubs of YHWH’s throne, and they call out to each other. It is an overwhelmingly massive and majestic scene, the words uttered by the seraphs matching the visual in verse 1, of YHWH towering high, with his outhanging garments filling the entire Temple sanctuary. The adjective q¹¼ôš and noun k¹»ô¼ each reflect the attempt to express, however inadequately, the nature and character of YHWH. The root qdš fundamentally refers to the idea of purity, especially in the religious context of something that is consecrated or set apart. By contrast kbd carries the basic meaning of weight, with the religious and ethical connotation of the worth and value of something (as the weight of a precious metal, etc). The three-fold exclamation of God’s purity (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] has only a two-fold exclamation) indicates how different He is from the ordinary world of human life and existence. Similarly his “weight” far surpasses and transcends the full measure (“fullness”) of the entire world.

Isaiah 6:4

“And the ‘elbows’ of the (door)posts wavered from the voice of the (one) calling, and the (entire) house was filled with smoke.”

The imagery from the prior verses continues, blending theophany (manifestation of God) with the sacred space and ritual of the Temple sanctuary. In a sense, we are moving backward—from the throne of YHWH in the innermost shrine, out to the threshhold, and across into the outer sanctuary where the altar for burning incense stood. These last two details are reflected here in verse 4. The technical language can be difficult to render clearly in translation, with the expression “‘elbows’ [i.e. hinges, pivots] of the doorposts” referring to the threshhold of the inner shrine, and the “smoke” a reference to the burning of incense. The “house”, of course, is figurative for the Temple, either the entire building or the sanctuary specifically (here the latter is intended). On the image of the entire house being filled, one is reminded of the scene of the anointing of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “and the house was filled out of the fragrance of the myrrh-ointment” (12:3). From an historical standpoint, this detailed use of Temple-imagery is interesting, since it is unlikely that Isaiah himself would have ever seen inside the sanctuary (on Hezekiah’s presence in the sanctuary, cf. 2 Kings 19:14-15ff).

Isaiah 6:5

“And I said: ‘Oh, (what this does) to me! For I have ceased (to be)! For I (am) a man of polluted lips, and I (am) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in the middle of a people of polluted lips! For my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of the (heavenly) armies!'”

This verse indicates Isaiah’s response to his great vision. He apparently sees himself positioned in the Temple, probably at the threshhold of the inner shrine. His initial exclamation may be rendered more concisely as “Woe to me!” or “Oh, for me!”, however in my expanded translation above I have sought to capture the proper sense of the effect this vision has on the prophet. From a literary-critical standpoint, it is worth considering the kind of wordplay (and play on images) that is being utilized in the narrative here, something that tends to be lost or obscured in most English translations.

For one thing, we have the contrast between YHWH sitting (yœš¢») on His throne (v. 1), with Isaiah who recognizes that he has been “sitting” (yôš¢», i.e. ‘dwelling’) in the midst of an unclean people. Here the uncleanness (‰m°) of the human condition is contrasted with the purity (qdš) of YHWH. The effect of this realization is expressed by another bit of wordplay (dual meaning) involving the verb d¹mâ. This root fundamentally refers to something ceasing or coming to an end; it can be understood either in an existential sense (i.e. ceasing to exist, being destroyed), or in terms of an action or ability that ceases. The latter sense can specifically refer to the action/ability of speaking—to cease speaking, i.e. be silent. For a prophet (n¹»î°), a spokesperson for God, who speaks on His behalf, the effect on one’s ability to speak is most significant. I have rendered d¹mâ rather literally above, more or less assuming that the existential sense is primary. This follows the basic religious-theological idea that a human being is unable to see God and still live (Exod 33:20, etc). At the same time, it expresses the awe the prophet feels, and so he is unable to speak; this is similar to the reaction of the seraphim in YHWH’s presence (covering their faces).

There is a similar play on the motif of one’s lips (š®¸¹¾ayim). It again relates to the idea of a person speaking, but it also serves as the focal point for the pollution that characterizes the populace. Here the ritual aspect (unclean food, etc, touching the lips) is used to express a religious and ethical point, well expressed, for example, in 29:13: “this people comes near with its mouth, and with its lips it gives weight [i.e. honor] to me, but its heart is wide (apart) [i.e. far away] from me”. The pollution of the people (their lips) has more to do with a false/corrupt religion and ethic, than it does with their ritual behavior, in spite of the cultic (Temple) setting of the vision.

Isaiah 6:6-7

“And he soared to me, one from (among) the burning (creature)s, and in his hand (was) a glowing (stone) (that) he took with a pair of (tool)s for taking (stones) from upon the place of sacrifice. And he touched (it) upon my mouth, and said, ‘See, this has touched upon your lips, and your crookedness is turned (aside), and your sin is wiped (away)’.”

The word mizb¢aµ literally means the place of ritual slaughter (i.e. the altar for sacrificial offerings); however, it came to be used regularly for other kinds of altars, such as those for offering incense. That is the altar referenced here—the incense altar located in the outer sanctuary. The smoke filling the room comes from the offerings of incense, and the hot (glowing rƒ¸) stones are the coals from the altar. Here again is another play on the seraphs as “burning” creatures; one of them picks up a burning/fiery coal from the altar. Now, however, the fire from the altar serves a different ritual purpose—namely, to purify the prophet, specifically his mouth (and lips). For the human prophet to survive in the presence of YHWH’s purity and holiness, his impurity has to be removed. From a ritual standpoint, this may be referred to as expiation. The danger of contact between human and deity is “turned aside” (vb sûr); sometimes this entails a turning away of the deity’s anger and intent to punish, etc, but it can also involve the removal of any possible evil or offense from the human participant. In the case of the prophet Isaiah, it also involves a specific kind of consecration—for a particular prophetic mission.

Isaiah 6:8

“And (then) I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘See, I (am here)! Send me!'”

YHWH’s throne room is the location of His royal court, such as in the pattern of human palaces. This court-setting is only faintly indicated here; a more detailed example is found in the earlier throne-vision of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22, mentioned above). In that vision, YHWH asks of his servants and messengers, “Who will open (up) to Ahab, and (then) [i.e. so that] he will go up and will fall on the heights of Gil’ad?” (v. 20). One particular divine/heavenly being (“spirit”) comes forward and volunteers for the assignment (v. 21), much as Isaiah does here. The purpose of the mission in the Micaiah vision is to entice Ahab so that he will end up facing judgment (by military defeat) for his wickedness. Isaiah’s prophetic mission has a similar purpose. It is likely that the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips contains an allusion to the message of (fiery) judgment that the prophet must bring to the people of Judah (see a similar use of fire from the altar in Rev 8:3-5). This represents the dual-aspect of the burning/fire motif in the vision: the purity of YHWH effectively burns away (and destroys) all impurity—for the wicked this means destruction from God’s Judgment, while for the righteous, their sins (1QIsaa reads plur. “sins” in v. 7) are wiped away. This is part of the powerful imagery depicting YHWH as a “devouring fire” (33:14; cf. 10:17; 30:27-33; 31:9; Roberts, p. 100).

The nature and significance of the message of Judgment given to Isaiah is expressed in verses 9-13. While part of the same vision scene, these verses (esp. 9-10) are better known to many readers, from their use (generally out of context) in several key passages of the New Testament. This secondary application, along with certain theological questions that tend to be raised, makes a more detailed study of vv. 9-13 useful here. In next week’s study, we will focus both on the text itself, and on some of the wider issues of interpretation/application, as a way of demonstrating how a sound critical approach can help greatly in addressing such issues.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah 2:1-5

“The word which Yesha’yahu son of Amos saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim” (v. 1)

This superscription mirrors that of 1:1, and should be taken as the opening of the book proper, that is, of chapters 2-39. Another similar superscription follows at 13:1, which indicates that chapters 2-12 form a distinct division, though whether or not they reflect a specific source document or stage of composition for chaps. 2-39, is difficult to say. In any case, it is important to view a passage (such as Isa 2:1-5) within its wider Scriptural context–which here involves the division comprised of chapters 2-12. Thematically, chaps. 2-4 form a smaller unit, with a parallel section (11:1-12:6) at the end of this division. They share the (eschatological) theme of the restoration of Israel, alternating with oracles of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. The eschatological aspect of these chapters, with its theme of restoration, is more typical of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66), which critical commentators believe was composed later on, reflecting an exilic or post-exilic setting. This would be contrasted with the core section 6:1-9:6, which clearly is set in Isaiah’s own time, dealing with the 8th century Assyrian crises. The surrounding judgment poems and oracles of chapters 5 and 10 also appear more closely related to the late-8th century Assyrian setting.

Before looking at the individual verses and lines of 2:2-5, it may be worth considering the passage briefly in terms of the various areas of Biblical Criticism (see the introductory study).

Textual Criticism

This passage is, of course, contained in the great Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa), as well as (partially) in manuscripts 4QIsab,e,f. There are several interesting variants between 1QIsaa (the Isaiah Scroll) and the Masoretic Text (MT); most notably, the text of 1QIsaa is shorter in verse 3 (absent the portion in italics):

“(Let us) go, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob”

The other main difference is the reading of the plural verb form “and they will instruct us” (w®yœrûnû) instead of the MT singular “and He will instruct us” (w®yœr¢nû). There are a few smaller, minor variants, as well as some orthographic differences; but, otherwise the Masoretic Text is relatively secure, and we can work from it without undue complications.

Source Criticism

A textual point of note is that the text of Isa 2:2-5 has a parallel version (with some key differences, noted below) in Micah 4:1-5. This raises a number of source- and composition-critical questions. The relationship between the two versions has been explained in various ways:

    • The book of Isaiah derives it from Micah
    • The book of Micah derives it from Isaiah
    • Both versions are derived from a common earlier source

I am inclined to the latter view, which would tend to support the idea that the opening and closing portions of this division—i.e. chapters 2-4 and 11-12—date from a later period than the material in the central chapters 5-10, but that they still contain old prophetic material (even from Isaiah himself), united by certain key thematic and literary points. Our passage 2:2-5, in particular, seems to have much in common with the Deutero-Isaian oracles in the second half of the book.

Historical Criticism

The eschatological aspect of 2:2-5, with its theme of the restoration of Israel, centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations, is certainly typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted (above) the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. If this is correct, it would tell us something significant about how the book of Isaiah was composed, with the message of the historical Prophet being applied to the situation of Judah/Jerusalem in a later time. In this case, according to this theory, the promise of deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion would have been applied to the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

Literary Criticism

Isa 2:2-5 is short oracle, written in a highly poetic prose style; it may be called a poem, though with a loose metrical and verse structure. It would be characterized as a salvation- or restoration-oracle, rather typical, as I have noted, of the oracles in chapters 40-66 (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). The thematic structure of the poem can be outlined as follows:

    • Opening stanza on the Jerusalem Temple (v. 2, lines 1-4)
    • Visionary scene regarding the Nations (v. 2, line 5; v. 3)
    • Closing stanza on the New Age for humankind (v. 4)
    • Concluding exhortation (v. 5)

Thematically, the central scene has a chiastic structure:

    • The Nations come to the Temple to hear God’s word
      • Declaration of the Nations
    • God’s word goes out from the Temple to the Nations

Now, let us briefly examine each of these portions.


Verse 2a-d

“And it shall be, in the days (coming) after (this),
(the) mountain of the house of YHWH shall be set (up),
on the head [i.e. top] of (all) the mountains,
and lifted up from [i.e. over] (the) high (hill)s.”

This opening stanza, as such, establishes the central theme of the Jerusalem Temple, referred to traditionally as the “house” (bê¾) of YHWH, but also as a mountain (har). The mountain motif relates to the ancient fortified hill-top location of the Temple, the Canaanite site taken over by Israel to form the core of the future Jerusalem (the “city of David”, also known as Mount Zion). However, the mountain has an even more archetypal (mythic-religious) association with the Temple. The mountain was a figure-type for the meeting place between heaven and earth, i.e. the place where human beings could come into contact with the divine. A temple building served much the same symbolic purpose, and temples frequently were constructed on mountain or hilltop locations. Ancient Mesopotamian tradition, beginning with the Sumerians, constructed their great city-state temples to resemble a mountain (i.e. the ziggurat form).

The expression b®°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm, translated “in the days (coming) after (this)”, gradually came to have a specific eschatological connotation—i.e. in the “last days”, or “latter days”, the days to come in the future, at the end of the current Age. Though not as precise here, perhaps, it certainly still carries an eschatological significance. Thus, it is a prophecy of the role the Temple will play in the end-time—marking the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the New Age to come.

Verse 2e-3a

“And all the nations will stream to it,
and many peoples will go and say:”
“And peoples shall stream upon it,
and many nations will go and say:”

This couplet opens the central visionary scene of the oracle and introduces the declaration of the Nations in verse 3. The verb n¹har creates the image of people “streaming” to the Temple like rivers, all flowing into a central location, a great reservoir or sea.

Verse 3b-e

“(Let us) walk, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of Ya’aqob;
and He will instruct us from His ways,
and we will walk in His (well-)traveled (path)s.”

This statement, introduced in 3a, is essentially a declaration of faithfulness by the nations, collectively. The idiom of “walking” (verb h¹lak) is used here specifically for the idea of obeying and worshiping God. Even as the nations walk (travel) to the Temple in Jerusalem, they are demonstrating their loyalty and obedience to YHWH, the God of Israel, walking in His “ways” and “paths”. Again, traveling a path is figurative for following instruction, in a religious or ethical/moral sense. The verb y¹râ is related to the Hebrew noun transliterated as Torah (tôrâ); it literally signifies aiming or pointing in a particular direction (as when one shoots an arrow, etc), thus blending effectively the motifs of travel and instruction.

The idea that the surrounding nations, the non-Israelite peoples, might be converted, coming to worship YHWH—and even joining with Israel as the people of God—is a notable theme in Deutero-Isaiah (as indicated above), but is less prominent in chapters 2-39. It came to be part of the Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, and, as such, was inherited by early Christians who gave to it a unique interpretation. Naturally, it was applied to the early mission to the Gentiles, and was a key theme in the book of Acts (being foreshadowed also in the Lukan Gospel), as also by Paul in his letters.

On the mountain-motif, see the discussion above. The idea of the Temple as the “house” of God is traditional; here, the expression is “house of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob [i.e. Israel]”, referring to YHWH specifically as the God of Israel. The Temple is the place where Israel interacts with God, thus it is, in a sense, also Israel’s house (cf. verse 5 below). The expression is typical of the Deutero-Isaian oracles (e.g. 46:3; 48:1; 58:1), but also occurs a number of times in the Psalms.

Verse 3f-g

“For from ‚iyyôn (the) instruction goes forth,
and the word of YHWH from Yerushalaim.”

The couplet is parallel to that of 2e-3a (see above). Just as the nations come to the Temple to hear the God’s instruction (torah), so also God’s word goes out from the Temple, radiating outward to reach the nations. The narrative in the early chapters of Acts plays on both these ideas, both ‘directions’ —people from the surrounding nations come to Jerusalem to hear the Gospel proclamation (chap. 2), and then those who believe go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the same message into the nations (from chap. 8 onward, see 1:8, etc).

Verse 4

“And He shall judge between the nations,
and bring decision for many (people)s;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.”

Micah 4:3-4:
“And He shall judge between many peoples,
and bring decision for mighty nations,
(even) unto (those) far away;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.
And they shall sit (together)—
a man under his vine, and under his fig-tree,
and no one will bring fear (to them)—
for (the) mouth of YHWH of the (heavenly) armies utters it.

This three-couplet stanza is parallel to the opening stanza of verse 2; in both, the eschatological context is primary. Here it is defined qualitatively, describing the New Age to come—a ‘Golden Age’ of peace and righteousness. Because the nations now follow YHWH, obeying His instruction, their wicked and violent impulses, i.e. to attack one another, have been curbed and transformed. This ideal hope and promise of peace remains one of the most beloved of all Old Testament passages.

The Mican version is notably different, with additional lines in bold (above), and another minor difference in word order in italics.

Verse 5

“House of Ya’aqob, walk—we shall walk (together) in the light of YHWH!”

Micah 4:5:
“For all the peoples will walk—
a man in (the) name of his Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm]—
but we will walk in (the) name of YHWH our Mighty (One),
(in)to the distant (future) and unto (the end).”

This final exhortation also summarizes the eschatological promise of the oracle—that the nations will join with Israel (“the house of Jacob”) as the people of God. The version in Micah again differs noticeably, patterned after the prior verse 4; it also establishes a contrast between Israel and the nations—i.e. “our God” (YHWH) vs. the deit(ies) of the surrounding peoples. The emphasis in Isaiah 2 appears to be more inclusive.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (2000).



Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:2-31

Isaiah 1:2-31

In the Saturday Series studies this March and April, we will be exploring the rich trove of prophetic and historical material in the book of Isaiah. The critical areas, as they relate to the book, were discussed in last week’s introductory study. This week we will begin turning our eye to the text of the book, in practical terms, looking at a number of key passages and portions. Our analysis opens with the opening oracle in chapter 1. As the superscription in 2:1 serves just as well for the introduction to Isaiah (and certainly to chapters 2-39), many commentators feel that chapter 1 was added at a later point in the formation and redaction of the book, serving as a summary of various elements and themes that would be found throughout—both in chapters 2-39, and the so-called “deutero”- and “trito”-Isaian portions (chaps. 40-66). And, just as the book itself is composite, so the introductory chapter has a composite character, apparently including pieces of various genres, and areas of emphasis, with indications of different time-periods (perhaps) being referenced. A careful study of the chapter will bear out this evaluation, to some extent.

Isaiah 1:2-3

“Hear, (you) heavens, and give ear, (you) earth!
for YHWH opens (His mouth) to speak:
Sons have I helped grow (strong) and raised (them high),
and (yet) they have broken (trust) with me!
An ox knows (the one) purchasing [i.e. who purchases] it
and a donkey (knows) the trough of its master,
(but yet) Yisrael does not know—
my people do not recognize (this) themselves!”

The opening call to heaven and earth resembles the beginning of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 (discussed in earlier studies):

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

Indeed, there would seem to be a number of Deuteronomic themes and points of emphasis here in chapter 1, include several that relate specifically to the Song of Moses and its context. The background involves the idea of the binding agreement (or ‘covenant’, Heb. b®rî¾) in the ancient Near East, the religious setting of which entailed calling on various deities as witnesses to the agreement—and to bring divine judgment if either party violates its terms. Since in Deuteronomy, et al, the binding agreement is between Israel and God (YHWH), there is no need to call on the Deity as a witness; instead, all of creation is called—i.e. heaven and earth, which were often considered to be primary deities in the ancient world.

Generally speaking, chapter 1 functions as a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that would come upon Israel—specifically Judah and Jerusalem—for violating the covenant with YHWH. Within the confines of the agreement, the Israelite people are recognized, symbolically, as God’s children (“sons”), His own people. This makes their violation, literally a breaking of trust (vb p¹ša±), a breaking away from God, all the more tragic; it is like a son betraying his own father. This motif, too, is part of the Deuteronomic language expressed in the Song of Moses (vv. 5-6, 11ff, 19-20), and is something of a common-place in the Prophets.

A bit of irony is made use of in verse 3, to emphasize the point. Even an animal (ox or donkey) knows enough to be faithful to the one who owns it (and feeds it), and yet Israel, God’s own children and people, do not seem to know or recognize their relationship to Him!

Isaiah 1:4

“Oh, (you) sinning nation,
people heavy (with) crooked(ness)!
Seed of (those) doing evil,
sons of (those) bringing ruin!
They have abandoned YHWH,
despised the Holy (One) of Yisrael!
They have turned aside, back(ward)!”

Verse 4 is a woe-oracle in miniature, beginning with a striking alliterative declaration, the effect of which is almost impossible to capture in translation:

Hôy gôy µœ‰¢°
“Oh, sinning nation…”

The final line of v. 4 is absent from the old Greek (Septuagint/LXX), but exists in the great Isaiah scroll from Qumran (and other MSS). While perfunctory in context, these two words (n¹zœrû °¹µôr) help to establish the theme of Israel’s wickedness (and corrupt religious practice) as defined in terms of false religion and idolatry—i.e., turning away from God to follow after other deities. In the 8th-7th century Prophets, judgment comes to Israel as a result of their adopting false religious practices; however, the emphasis here in chapter 1, as in many of the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophetic oracles, is on the corruption of religion because of the wider evils tolerated in society (i.e., injustice, mistreatment of the poor, etc). Thus there is here an interesting juxtaposition of earlier and later themes, very much typical of the book of Isaiah as a whole.

The title “the Holy One of Israel” (q®dôš yi´r¹°¢l) is distinctive to Isaiah, occurring repeatedly throughout the book, though some commentators believe that it tends to belong to a later stage/period of authorship. It may derive from the Temple liturgy (cf. Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:19; and note the context of Isa 6:1ff; Blenkinsopp, p. 183).

Isaiah 1:7-9

“Your land (is) a desolation—
your cities burned (with) fire,
your soil, (there) in front of you,
(those) turning aside are devouring it—
and a desolation like the overthrow of <Sodom>!
And Daughter ‚iyyôn is left (after it)
like a covered (shelter) in a vineyard,
like a lodging-place in a cucumber-patch,
like a city watched (by those surrounding it)!
(If it) were not that YHWH of the Armies (of Heaven)
had left (behind) for us (just) a few survivor(s),
we would have been (just) like Sodom,
(and) bear a resemblance to ‘Amorah!”

This again is an oracle in miniature—a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that will come upon Judah (and Jerusalem), in the form of a military attack, along with the devastation that comes in the aftermath of invasion. This aspect touches upon the area of historical criticism. If this is an authentic Isaian oracle (or at least from the late-8th century B.C.), then there are two possibilities for a military invasion of Judah that could fit this prophecy: (1) the invasion by the Northern Israelite kingdom and Aram-Syria (734-733), or (2) the Assyrian attack under Sennacherib (701), in which Jerusalem survived the devastation, but only barely so. The latter option is preferable, and well fits the historical scenario, of Isaiah’s own time, emphasized throughout much of chapters 2-39. Moreover, the imagery in verse 8, of Zion (Jerusalem) completely surrounded, certainly fits the circumstances of the Assyrian siege.

Rhetorically, this Judgment is framed by the ancient tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). Judah/Jerusalem barely avoids the fate of their complete devastation. The use of the noun mahp¢kâ (from the verb h¹pak) in the last line of verse 7, suggests the following word in the Masoretic text (also in the Qumran MSS), z¹rîm (“[those] turning aside”, i.e. foreigners, strangers, passers-by), repeated from the previous line, may be an error. Elsewhere the noun mahp¢kâ is always used in the context of the “overthrow” of Sodom; the motif of Sodom/Gomorrah here raises the strong possibility that the text originally read s§dœm (<d)s=) instead of z¹rîm (<yr!z`). Textual emendation should be done with extreme caution, and as rarely as possible, especially when the manuscript support for it is slight (or otherwise non-existent). However, here I do tentatively emend the final word of verse 7, indicated by the angle brackets in the translation above.

Isaiah 1:10-17

“Hear the speech [i.e. word] of YHWH,
(you) leaders of Sodom!
Give ear to the instruction of our Mightiest [Elohim],
(you) people of ‘Amorah!
For what (purpose) to me (are) your many slaughtered (offering)s?
(So) says YHWH—
I have had (my) fill of (the) rising (smoke) of strong (ram)s,
and (the burning) fat of well-fed (cattle),
and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats
I take no delight (in them)!
For you come to be seen (by) my Face—
(but) who seeks this from your hand,
(the) trampling of my enclosures?
You must not continue bringing (these) empty offerings

This exposition of Israel’s sin lies at the heart of the chapter 1 oracle. That it effectively represents the covenant-violation is clearly indicated by the repetition of the call to the divine witness (heaven and earth) in the opening lines of verse 10 (see verse 2 above, and compare Deut 32:1). However, there is no suggestion here of the traditional violation of the covenant, i.e. of abandoning YHWH to worship other (Canaanite) deities, despite the use of this language in verse 4 (see above). Instead, the people continue to worship YHWH dutifully, at least in terms of coming to the Jerusalem Temple and presenting the sacrificial offerings, etc, required by the Torah. However, these offerings have been rendered “empty” (š¹w°) and detestable to God because of the evil and injustice that exists throughout society (vv. 16-17ff). This is a very different sense of the corruption of religion, and one that is more in keeping with the later Prophetic tradition, though it can be found prominently in the 8th-7th century Prophets as well (see, for example, Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

From a form- and genre-critical standpoint, verses 10-17 are in some ways the most consistently poetic of the chapter. Throughout, the section utilizes a 3+2 bicolon format, with synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism, disrupted occasionally by emphatic points of tension. The 3+2 meter (a 3-beat line followed by a 2-beat line) is referred to as the “limping” or qînâ meter, often characteristic of a lament (also in vv. 21-23).

Isaiah 1:18ff

It may worth here considering the structure of the oracle, from a form- and literary-critical standpoint. In verses 10-31, judgment-oracles (vv. 10-17, 21-26) alternate with prophecies of salvation/restoration (vv. 18-20, 27-31) for the people. As a rhetorical (and poetic) device, a judicial setting is indicated in vv. 18-20, tied to the ancient context of adjudicating the binding agreement of the covenant—i.e. whether or not it has been violated. Only here this imagery has been turned into an exhortation for the people, indicating that it is still possible to re-establish their relationship in the binding agreement with God. The basic terms of the covenant are stated clearly in verses 19-20:

“If you are willing, and would hear [i.e. are obedient],
you shall eat (the) good of the land;
but if you refuse and resist/rebel [i.e. be disobedient],
you shall be eaten by the sword!”

In verses 21-23ff, we find another judgment-oracle, this time emphasizing more clearly the injustice in society, a wickedness that turns the once-loyal city of Jerusalem into a prostitute. The closing lines of this oracle (vv. 24b-26), like those earlier (vv. 16-17), leave open the way to avoid the coming Judgment, and from a literary standpoint, function as a transition point into the prophecies of salvation (vv. 27-31 and 18-20). The opening lines of the final section make clear that the city of Jerusalem will be saved in the judgment, but only those in her who repent:

‚iyyôn will be ransomed in (the) judgment,
and (the one)s in her (who) turn back [i.e. repent], in justice;
but destruction together (for those) breaking away and sinning,
and (the one)s abandoning YHWH will be completely (destroy)ed!”

In the closing lines of the chapter, the traditional imagery of abandoning God to follow after other deities, embracing false religious practices, etc, comes back into view. The motif of pagan cultic garden-sites functions as a kind of antithesis to the true religion centered at the Temple sanctuary of Zion, but also, perhaps, to the tradition of the Garden of God accessible to humankind at the beginning of creation. Indeed, the language and symbolism in these verses seems to parallel the final chapters of the book (Trito-Isaiah) with their eschatological emphasis, both in terms of salvation and judgment (e.g. 56:1; 57:1ff; 59:9, 16-17; 61:3, 10-11; 63:1; 65:3, 11-13; 66:3-5, 17, 24).

Thus, we can see rather clearly, I think, how the complexity of the book of Isaiah is reflected in this opening chapter. A wide range of themes, genres, sets of symbols, and literary-rhetorical devices can be discerned, which, in a very real sense, mirrors those of the book as a whole. It is certainly possible that the chapter represents an authentic 8th-7th century oracle; however, it seems more likely that it is an assemblage of different oracle-forms and pieces, which an author (or editor) has combined to form a powerful, though composite, piece of prophetic poetry. In terms of the final book of Isaiah, its primary purpose is literary—introducing the many themes and motifs which will be developed throughout the oracles, etc, that follow.

Next week, we will turn to the second chapter, which may be considered as the beginning of the book proper (esp. of chapters 2-39). This time, we will focus on a shorter passage—verses 1-5—devoting our study to a more detailed exegesis. I hope that you will join me, next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:1 and Overview

After a brief hiatus these past two months, the Saturday Series feature on this site is picking up again. In the upcoming weeks, this series will focus on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Due to its size, complexity, and diversity of content, the Book of Isaiah provides a rich ground for demonstrating and applying the techniques and methods of Biblical Criticism—which is the primary purpose of this running series. My goal in these studies is to help readers understand what is involved in an objective, critical analysis of Scripture, and to illustrate how this can be done, using specific portions of the Scriptures—from the Old and New Testament alike. The most recent studies dealt with the Letters of John (New Testament Criticism); now we shall turn to Old Testament Criticism, working from the Prophetic book of Isaiah.

In each passage that we examine, we will be considering it through the lens of the different areas of Biblical Criticism; in the case of the book of Isaiah, there are four main areas: (1) textual criticism, (2) historical criticism, (3) source criticism, and (4) literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

This involves a careful examination of the Hebrew text, as it has come down to us. A primary objective (though not the only one) is to establish, as far as possible, the most likely form of the original text. How the text was shaped and developed over time is also an important consideration, though this can touch upon other areas of criticism related to the composition of the text.

One problem in text-critical study of the Old Testament is that there are so few surviving manuscripts, especially of manuscripts produced prior to the middle Ages (i.e. before the 9th/10th century A.D.). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been a great boost to Old Testament textual criticism, but even with these documents, the number of extant manuscripts is scant indeed. Fortunately, for the book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea material is especially rich, including two extensive manuscripts (1QIsaa and 1QIsab). The first of these is the great Isaiah Scroll, an essentially complete manuscript (and thus unique among the Scripture MSS at Qumran), likely dating from the mid-2nd century B.C. (c. 150-120). Its text confirms the general reliability of the Masoretic tradition, however there are also a number of significant variants; the text of the second MS (1QIsab) is even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT). In addition, there are the remains of eighteen other fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, as well a fragment from the Dead Sea site of Wadi Murabba’at. Thus, we are able to do a reasonably thorough textual comparison between the MT (and the Greek LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much more so than for other books of the Old Testament.

Historical Criticism

The term historical criticism covers two areas:

    1. The historical background of the text—where, when and how it came to be written, the circumstances of its composition, and
    2. The historicity of the text, which includes both (a) the historical reliability of the text, and (b) the history that is contained and preserved in it.

A Prophetic book as large and diverse as Isaiah poses considerable challenges for a sound and objective application of historical criticism. Much of the difficulty (and controversy) has surrounded the ascription of the book to the prophet Isaiah (cf. below on 1:1), and thus involves the question of authorship. Scholars had long noted that many of the oracles in the book seem to relate to the situation of Israelites and Jews living long after the prophet Isaiah’s own time—i.e. in the Exile and post-exilic periods. This especially seemed to be true in chapters 40-66, but similar passages can be found within chaps. 1-39 as well. Various theories have been developed to explain these apparent differences, ranging from the traditional-conservative to the skeptical-critical. I would outline four general approaches to the book as we have it:

    • It was largely, if not entirely, written by the prophet Isaiah himself
    • It substantially contains authentic Isaian oracles throughout, but was actually composed—written and edited—by later scribes (possibly including Isaiah’s own disciples)
    • It contains an authentic core of Isaian oracles (and historical tradition), around which a range of material was added, over a considerable period of time, and, most likely, by a number of different authors
    • While containing some authentic historical tradition (both of Isaiah and others), the various portions of the book were largely composed by later authors (and prophets), down into the exilic and post-exilic periods; the unifying theme of all this prophetic material was the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.

The first two approaches may be characterized as traditional-conservative, while the last two generally reflect the view of most critical scholars. I would tend to rule out the first option, as being rather difficult to maintain objectively, but strong arguments can be made in support of the last three views, and we will be considering these different approaches (or some variation of them) throughout our studies on Isaiah.

Source Criticism

Again, this can be understood two ways: (1) sources used in the composition of the text, and (2) sources used in the editing and redaction of the final book. These “sources” can range considerably, in size and complexity, from snippets of oral tradition to full-fledged written documents. Typically, within the context of Biblical Criticism, such sources must remain hypothetical, since only rarely will external evidence exist, or survive, in support of them. The evidence cited by scholars is almost entirely internal—that is, based on a study of factors within the text itself. These factors include things like differences in style and language, historical-critical details (see above), the specific form or genre of a passage, and so forth.

Critical scholars have tended to divide the canonical book of Isaiah into two portions (chaps. 1-39 and 40-66), often thought to reflect two distinct books which were combined together (as sources) at some point in the process of editing and redaction. The first ‘book’ (1-39) was generally thought to relate more directly to the prophet Isaiah himself (his life and times, and actual sayings), while the second (40-66, typically called Deutero-Isaiah), was from a much later time, reflecting the concerns of Israelites and Jews in the exile and post-exilic periods. Some would isolate a third ‘book’ (Trito-Isaiah, covering chapters 56-66 [or 55-66]). Most critical commentators today hold to some form of this basic approach, though realizing that the situation is much more complex, in terms of how the material developed—that is, at the level of composition. Here the idea of sources carries a slightly different meaning. As an example, we might consider the “source” of an individual oracle or historical tradition—where did it come from, how and when was it composed, and how did it come to be included in the text?

All of these questions and issues will be considered in these studies, without prejudice or presupposition regarding theories of authorship.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a wide-ranging term that covers a number of more specialized sub-categories of criticism. It generally refers to an analysis of the literary features and characteristics of a passage (or book)—its language, style, structure, symbolism, use of literary/figurative devices, etc. These, in turn, touch upon how a text was composed (composition criticism), and relate to matters of historical and source criticism (see above). Two key areas of literary criticism are form and genre criticism. In some ways genre criticism is an expansion of form criticism—an analysis of the structure of a passage, in terms of identifying it as a distinctive textual and literary unit, such as, for example, a proverb-collection, parable, or poem (oracle). Determining the genre of a passage involves more attention being paid to questions of style, content, and function. As an example, for a prophetic Scripture such as the book of Isaiah, many of the poetic forms relate to the genre of oracle, for which certain types or categories can be discerned (nation-, judgment-, woe-, etc). These will be discussed frequently in our studies.

Also under the banner of literary criticism is the area of rhetorical criticism—a study of the message of the passage, according to the author’s purpose, and the means and methods by which it is communicated to the audience. The term ‘rhetorical criticism’ is often understood in terms of classical (Greco-Roman) rhetoric, and, as such, is more applicable to the New Testament writings (especially the letters); however, viewed more broadly, it very much applies to the Old Testament Prophets as well, the writings of which are certainly intended to convince and exhort, etc, their audience.

Isaiah 1:1

To launch this series of studies on the book of Isaiah, I include here a brief examination of the opening verse of the book:

“The vision of Yesha’yahu son of Amos which he saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim, in the days of ‘Uzziyyahu, Yotam, ‘Ahaz, (and) Yehizqiyyahu, kings of Yehudah.”

The name of the prophet, typically given in anglicized transliteration as “Isaiah”, is actually a YHWH (Yahweh) sentence- or phrase-name, meaning something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “May Yah(weh) save!”, in Hebrew Why`u=v^y+ (Y®ša±y¹hû). The four Judean kings mentioned are similarly Yah-names—three certainly, but ‘Ahaz (zj*a*, °A~µ¹z) is probably a shortened form of a Yah-name (Y®hô°¹µ¹z, zj*a*ohy+) as well. This alone tells something significant about the religious culture in Judah in the 8th century B.C., with the well-established worship of God (the one true God) under the name YHWH (hwhy, on this divine name, see my earlier article).

This statement, which reflects the span of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (see the historical references in 2 Kings 19:2-7, 20; 20:1-19; 2 Chron 26:22; 32:20, and the traditions within the book itself), establishes the historical setting for the book as a whole. In all likelihood, verse 1 stems from an editorial layer, as do the notices in 2:1 and 13:1; these contextual statements are separate from the oracles that follow, in which Isaiah’s name does not appear. His name is otherwise mentioned only within historical narrative portions (7:3; 20:2-3, and in chaps. 37-39). Technically, the oracles themselves are anonymous, and their Isaian authorship must be determined from other factors, including the traditional/editorial superscriptions in 2:1; 13:1. Those notices function like the superscriptions in the Psalms, attributing the (anonymous) poems to specific figures (David, etc).

Thus, even a simple statement like that of 1:1 can be considered in terms of the different areas of criticism:

    • Historical—questions of authorship: where, when, and by whom, the book (or portions of it) was composed; but also related to the composition, editing and redaction of the book as a whole
    • Source—the origin and attribution of specific oracles, as well as more substantial portions of the book
    • Literary (Form/Genre)—the role of superscriptions in introducing, and thus demarcating the start of, a particular poetic/prophetic form; from a rhetorical standpoint, the ascription establishes the prophetic authority for the oracle (and the book as a whole).

According to the view of many commentators, the first chapter was prefixed to the opening oracle of chapter 2, which has its own notable superscription, itself fitting as an introduction to the book. At the time that all of the material had been brought together, the chapter 1 oracle was included, as a summary introduction for the many themes that would be found (and developed) in the book. The superscription in verse 1 was then added, effectively as a title for the book. This is a reasonable theory, though it says nothing definitive about the overall authorship of the book. However, even as a traditional ascription, the association with Isaiah must be quite ancient, and thus objectively reliable to some degree. The notice in 2 Chronicles 32:32 suggests that the book of Isaiah was in existence (some form of it, at least) by that time; the author there refers to it as a “vision” (/ozj*), just as in Isa 1:1, even though there are few visions, as such, recorded in the book. It is possible the Chronicler’s statement corresponds generally to the time that the book of Isaiah reached something like its final form.

In next week’s study, we will focus on the introductory poem in chapter 1, focusing in detail on several representative passages.

The Antichrist Tradition: Part 1

As this series on “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” begins to come to a close, it is necessary to examine one of the most complicated (and controversial) components of early Christian eschatology—the Antichrist Tradition, which may be defined as follows:

The expectation that an evil world ruler would arise at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return, the climax of a period of increasing wickedness and corruption. He will be opposed to God and to Christ, and will openly persecute true believers in Jesus; he will deceive people, leading them astray, through supernatural power and influence that may resemble Jesus’ own, a wicked imitation of Christ himself. He is commonly referred to by the title “Antichrist”.

This tradition was reasonably well-established in Christianity by the end of the 2nd century A.D., and continues, with certain variations, into the present day. Many Christians today simply read this tradition into various eschatological passages in the New Testament; to do so, however, is highly problematic, for it assumes that the tradition outlined above had already taken shape, and was widespread, during the first century. As we shall see, the evidence for this is extremely slight. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the seeds of the later tradition are present in at least several of the New Testament writings. We can go back even further—for the roots of the Antichrist tradition can be found in key passages in the Old Testament Prophets, establishing a number of apocalyptic and eschatological motifs which would be developed in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., contemporary with, and prior to, the New Testament texts.

This study will explore the development of the Antichrist Tradition. There have been a number of fine critical studies along this line, going back to Wilhelm Bousset’s landmark Der Antichrist in der Überlieferung des Judentums, des Neuen Testaments, und der alten Kirche (1895, published in English translation as “The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Jewish Folklore”). One I have found especially useful is by L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents, vol. 49 in the “Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism” (Brill: 1996). This work will be cited as “Peerbolte, Antecedents,” followed by page number.

Part 1 of this study will begin with a brief examination of the word a)nti/xristo$—its meaning and significance, etc—followed by a survey of the main Old Testament references and passages that were influential in the formation of the Antichrist Tradition.


“Antichrist” in English comes from a transliteration of the Greek word a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos). It is a compound noun which means, literally, “against the anointed (one)”. There is no evidence that the word was ever used, prior to its adoption by Christians in the mid/late-first century A.D., nor is there any known contemporary usage by non-Christians. Since the “Anointed” (xristo/$, christós) essentially refers to the Jewish Messiah (or Messianic figure-type), anti/xristo$ conceivably could have been applicable in a Jewish context, referring to someone or something that was “against the Messiah”, or to a false Messiah. However, there is no real evidence for this, and, in all likelihood, the word was coined by early Christians, with the specific understanding of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (xristo/$)—on this, cf. my series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

As coined by first-century Christians, the word follows the pattern of similar descriptive titles with the prefixed preposition a)nti/ (antí), cf. Moulton-Milligan s.v., p. 49:

    • a)ntistra/thgo$ (antistrát¢gos), i.e. the leader of the opposing army (used by Thucydides, etc)
    • a)ntisu/gklhto$ (antisýngkl¢tos), an opposing assembly (i.e. senate, su/gklhto$, those “called together”)
    • a)ntixo/rhgo$ (antichór¢gos), an opposing ‘chorus’ leader, i.e. of voices

Perhaps closer in formal meaning to the Christian use of a)nti/xristo$ is the word a)nti/qeo$ (antítheos), when used in the (admittedly rare) sense of a rival God (qeo/$) or something imitating the Deity. The fundamental meaning of the preposition a)nti/ is “against”, but it can also mean “in place of”, and both of these aspects apply to the Antichrist Tradition as it was developed.

Old Testament Background

The background of the Antichrist Tradition is located in the Old Testament Prophetic writings—especially within the specific genre of the nation-oracle, i.e. oracles of judgment against specific nations (and their rulers). This genre has a long history, from virtually the earliest writings as they have come down to us (8th century B.C.), through to the exile and post-exilic periods. Indeed, most of the canonical Prophetic Scriptures contain some form of nation-oracle, the most notable being those in Amos, Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Initially these oracles were not eschatological, but referred to the judgment God would bring on a particular nation in the immediate or near future. The genre did not apply only to the surrounding (pagan, non-Israelite) nations—the Prophets regularly gave specific messages of impending judgment for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah which followed a similar pattern.

From the prophetic standpoint, a nation (and its people) was represented by its king, and, occasionally, a nation-oracle would be directed specifically at its ruler. While this symbolized the wickedness of the people as a whole, it had the practical effect of focusing attention on the king as a wicked/corrupt ruler. And, the larger and more powerful the nation, the more conspicuous the ruler is in his worldly ambition, arrogance, and corrupt/brutal use of power. We may call this motif, such as it is highlighted in several key Prophetic passages, that of the “Wicked Tyrant”.

The “Wicked Tyrant” Motif

This motif goes back to at least the late-8th century and the figure of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.). At the time, Assyria was the pre-eminent national power in the Near East, having expanded, through brutal conquest, to form an extensive regional empire. After the northern Israelite kingdom had fallen to Assyria (722-721), it was Sennacherib who led a successful invasion of Syria-Palestine, including an expedition against the southern kingdom, in 701. Dozens of cities were captured or destroyed, but Jerusalem survived, in spite of the siege laid against it. The relevant Scriptural accounts of these events are found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chron 32:1-23; and Isaiah 36-37. In 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff) there is a prophetic denunciation (and taunt) against Sennacherib, which may be seen as the earliest instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28).

There are two especially noteworthy examples of this “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets—(1) the oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23, and (2) the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19. Each of these emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the king, who would dare to put himself in the position of God (on earth), essentially appropriating the divine authority for himself. This follows the basic seminal pattern of the oracle against Sennacherib (above); however, the imagery in these (later) oracles is expanded considerably, no doubt reflecting a significant development in the tradition.

Isaiah 14:3-23: The King of Babylon

This two-part oracle is closer in tone and style to the poem against Sennacherib; indeed, as an Isaian oracle, it may have been originally directed against Assyria. The specific king and nation being addressed is not indicated within the oracle itself, and the target of Assyria is much more appropriate to the overall context (and historical setting) of the first half of the book (chaps. 1-39). It is a bit difficult to explain the sudden shift to Babylon in 13:1-14:23 (at 14:24 the focus is back on Assyria) on historical grounds, and many critical commentators believe that an earlier Isaian oracle has been applied to a later Babylonian setting (i.e. the Neo-Babylonian empire). However, the introduction to the oracle (14:3-4) clearly has it being addressed to the king of Babylon; the oracles in chaps. 13-14 presumably refer to the fall of the city (to the Persians) in 539 B.C.

The oracle itself appears to be comprised of two distinct poems—one, a more realistic description of the king (and city)’s fall (vv. 4b-11), and the other, a more figurative version of the same (vv. 12-21), drawing upon mythological traditions. The second poem is more relevant to our study, and, in its opening lines, we can see how some of the same motifs and themes of the oracle against Sennacherib (cf. above) have been developed:

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my covered seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”
… (vv. 12-15)

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (du@om) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb ud^G`) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); as noted above, Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms ll@yh@ (“shining [one]”) and rj^v* (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler. For more on this, cf. below.

Ezekiel 28:1-19

The oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 is even more complex, part of a series of oracles spanning chapters 26-28. If the Babylonian empire signified military power, the city-state of Tyre embodied commercial power. The product of centuries of Phoenician colonization and trade, the port-city of Tyre, with its fortified island location, was indeed a commercial power, with ambitions to become the center of world trade. Though threatened by the Babylonians, including a lengthy siege by Nebuchadnezzar (c. 585-572?), the city avoided destruction, presumably by way of a surrender treaty or similar agreement. This contrast with the fate of Jerusalem helps to explain Ezekiel’s emphasis on Tyre, devoting several oracles to the city’s expected and impending destruction. As it was envisioned, it would seem that this destruction never did occur, which may be one of the reasons that the book of Revelation chose to use these prophecies for the fate of the end-time “Babylon” (chaps. 17-18), where they could truly find fulfillment.

In this oracle, also in two parts (vv. 1-10, 11-19), many of the same basic themes are repeated, including the overweening ambition (and divine pretensions) of the king, along with his ultimate fate of being cast down into Sheol (here, tj^v^, the place of decay/destruction, v. 8). The arrogance of the king is stated more bluntly, and blatantly, in verse 2:

“…your heart has raised (itself) high, and you said, ‘I am (a) Mighty (one) [°E~l], (on the) seat of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm] I sit, in the heart of (the) seas!’ And (yet) you (are) a man, and not a Mighty (one) [°E~l], and (yet) you give your heart (to be) like (the) heart of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]!”

This idea of the wicked ruler daring to sit in the very seat of God would play a significant role in the subsequent Antichrist tradition. On the meaning of the titles El and Elohim, and how I translate them, consult the corresponding articles. Even more significant is how this ruler sets his heart to be like the heart of God—this marks his ambition and desire for power in a deeper and more essential way. The Greek term anti/qeo$ (antítheos) could be applied to this attitude, of wishing to function “in the place of God”, or “in imitation of God”; on the parallel between anti/qeo$ and anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), cf. above.

The poem in verses 11-19, like that of Isa 14:12-21, is more figurative in nature, drawing heavily on mythological tradition. We have again the idea of the Garden of God (v. 13), located at the top of the great Mountain (the Mountain of God, v. 14). This Garden-setting was only alluded to in 2 Kings 19:23 (par Isa 37:24), but it is described here in considerably more detail, referring to ancient traditions regarding the primeval ±E~den (/d#u@), the luxuriant locale mentioned in the Genesis Creation narratives (2:8, 10, 15; 3:23-24), containing a garden (/G~)—here called the “Garden of God” (“garden of the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$-/G~).

The satire, too, is much more expansive, depicting the Tyrian king as a k§rû» (bWrK=), a word of uncertain derivation, but typically referring to a divine or heavenly being, presumably with wings, as in the conventional image of an Angel (cf. Exod 25:20, etc). The richness of the divine Garden, with its jewels (precious stones), reflects the wealth and commercial aspirations of Tyre; moreover, the kerub’s wings provide covering (vb Ek^s*), which may allude to the protected position of the city (as an island-fortress). In spite of Tyre’s privileged position (provided to it by God, “I set you on the holy mountain…”, v. 14), it became arrogant and acted wickedly, corrupting its beauty and desecrating its space. As a result, God declares that it will be cast down and destroyed by fire (v. 18), a suitable image for the destruction of a city by military attack.

Here, more so than in Isa 14:12ff, we are likely dealing with an ancient tradition, regard the sin and punishment of a divine/heavenly being, that is being applied to an earthly king. One can only speculate on the details of such a tradition, as well as its possible relation to the sin and fall of Adam in Genesis 2-3. The idea that these oracles refer to the rebellion of Satan and the fallen Angels surely reads far too much into the text, though many today would accept such an interpretation, albeit rather uncritically. Conflict among deities features in many cosmological and religious myths, including aspects of the fall and punishment of certain divine beings; it is only natural that similar tales and traditions were current in Israel, though only fragments have survived within the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. Ezekiel appears to make rather more use of colorful, extra-Scriptural traditions, than do the other Prophets, but similar instances can be cited in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere. Such use of traditions is no bar whatsoever against the inspiration of these writings.

The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel had an immense influence on Jewish and early Christian eschatology, a subject which will be dealt with more in Parts 2 and 3 of this study. Here space will only allow for a relatively brief survey of the passages most directly relevant to the development of the Antichrist Tradition. To some extent, the precise nature of the book’s influence depends on how one dates the text as it has come down to us. Most critical scholars would date the book (as certainly chapters 7-12) to the mid-2nd century B.C., placing it fairly close in time with other Apocalyptic writings, and even contemporary with some the earlier Qumran texts and parts of the book of Enoch, etc. This would allow the possibility that the book of Daniel is part of a wider apocalyptic tradition. On the other hand, if one takes the book at face value, as coming ostensibly from Daniel’s own time (in the early-mid 6th century), then it is much more likely that it is the primary source of the later lines of tradition.

The book of Daniel was certainly important to the Community of the Qumran texts, as is indicated by the number of manuscript copies, but also by the various “Pseudo-Daniel” writings that have survived. Among these may be considered the famous Aramaic “Son of God” text (4Q246), on which see my earlier article; I will touch on the Qumran texts in Part 2 of this study. A brief survey of the Pseudo-Daniel writings can be found in the article on “New Testament eschatology and the book of Daniel”.

There can be no doubt that much of early Christian eschatology was inspired by the book of Daniel. Of the many signs of this influence (cf. the aforementioned article), the following may be noted especially:

    • The idea of the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14), best known from Jesus’ statements in Mark 13:26-27 par; 14:62 par, and the other eschatological “Son of Man” sayings.
    • The tradition regarding the “disgusting thing of desolation” (Dan 9:27; cf. also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted in Mark 13:14 par, and likely alluded to elsewhere; this will be discussed further in Part 3.
    • The early Christian concept of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) appears to have been shaped significantly by Dan 12:1ff [LXX]; cf. Mark 13:19 par; Rev 7:14, etc.

Many of the prophecies in the second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) build upon the same “wicked tyrant” tradition found in other Prophetic nation-oracles (cf. the discussion above). It appears prominently in three main sections (cf. also the survey in Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 226-37):

1. Daniel 7—The Horn of the Fourth “Beast”

Chapter 7 is built around a vision of four “beasts” (lit. “living [creature]s”, Aram. /w`yj@) that come up out of the sea, each with fabulous, hybrid animal attributes (vv. 1-8). The fourth of these was the most deadly and terrifying in appearance (v. 7), with ten horns, among which another smaller horn arose (v. 8). This latter horn is described as having eyes “like the eyes of a man”, and also a mouth, which was speaking “great things”. These specific attributes indicate the shrewdness and bold ambition of this “horn”, whose very rise suggests violence—with three of the previous horns being “pulled (up) by the roots”.

Following a theophanic vision of God (the “Ancient of Days”) and the heavenly “Son of Man” (“[one] like a son of man”) in vv. 9-14, an explanation of the vision of the four creatures is given (vv. 15-27). As in the vision of the statue (chap. 2), these four beasts symbolize a sequence of four great kingdoms, the last of which will be the fiercest and most powerful, a conquering empire that shall “devour all the earth and trample it and crush it (to pieces)” (v. 23). As befitting the motif of the horn (symbol of strength and power), each of the ten horns is a king who will rule over the empire. The horn that comes after them is described more extensively, in verses 24-26, prophesying his character and actions; it is in verse 25 that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif:

“And (thing)s spoken against the High (One) will he speak,
and he will wear out the holy (one)s of the Highest;
and he will think to change (the) appointed (time)s and decrees,
and they will be delivered in(to) his hand
until a (set) time, and times, and a division [i.e. half] of a time.”

Each of these lines reflect a key theme or motif that would help shape the Antichrist tradition:

    • Opposing, attacking, or insulting God, especially by the things he says—i.e. boastful, arrogant, and impious words
    • Persecution of the righteous/believers (“he will wear out the holy ones”, also v. 21 “he made war on the holy ones”)
    • Replacement of true religion with false/wicked practices
    • He will be allowed to attack God’s people and institute false religious practice, i.e. he will have the power to do so, and God will permit it
    • This will last for a relatively brief period of time— “a time, times, and half a time”, usually understood as a symbolic period of 3 ½ years.

The wicked rule of this king will be cut short by God’s Judgment, when both the kingdom (the beast) and its king (the horn) will be destroyed (vv. 11f, 26). In its place there will be an eternal kingdom, that of God himself, a kingdom belonging to the holy ones (i.e., the people of God). The “Son of Man” figure is central to this dominion, and features in the vision as a singular figure that is parallel to the collective people of God (vv. 14, 22, 27).

2. Daniel 8—The Horn of the He-Goat

There is a similar vision in chapter 8, of a horned ram, followed by a male goat (he-goat) with a series of horns (vv. 1-14). A single great horn is broken, replaced by four others (v. 8), among which a smaller horn rises up (v. 9). The horn-symbolism is identical, only here the actions of the “little horn” are narrated in much greater detail (vv. 10-15), reflecting both the historical events associated with this king, and the wickedness and arrogance of his conduct. An interpretation of the vision follows in vv. 15-26. This expanded prophetic description means that the “wicked tyrant” motif is also given a significant development, in verses 10-12:

“And it became great, until (it reached the) army of heaven,
and it made to fall (down) to earth (some) from (the) army,
and from (the) stars, and he tread them (down);
even until (reaching) the prince of the army did he grow great,
and from him the continual (offering) was lifted (away),
and the established place of his holiness was thrown down;
and an army was given against the continual (offering), in rebellion,
and it threw down truth (itself) to the earth—
and it did (this), and pushed ahead (with success).”

The elements of the “wicked tyrant” motif are applied to a specific action—an attack against the Temple and its sacrifice. Additional aspects are brought out in the subsequent interpretation of the vision (vv. 23-25); these may seen by highlighting the particular expressions and phrases:

    • “a king strong of face”, i.e. of a harsh and fierce countenance
    • “understanding (the tying of) knots”, reflecting his shrewdness, skill in political intrigue, etc.
    • “his strength shall be mighty (indeed)”; the MT includes the phrase “but not by his own strength”, i.e. his wicked power is allowed/permitted by God, who represents the true source of strength.
    • “he shall do wondrous things (that) bring ruin” —the phrase is a bit uncertain textually, and in terms of its meaning
    • “he shall bring the mighty ones to ruin”, presumably his military conquests
    • “his cleverness (will be) against the holy ones”, i.e. his plans to attack (“make war” against) the righteous; this translation follows a reconstruction of v. 24-25, based in part on the LXX.
    • “deceit will (be) push(ed) forward in his hand”, i.e. he will act with deceit and will promote the use of deception
    • “he shall become great in his (own) heart”, reflecting his ambition and self-delusion, implying pretensions to deity, etc.
    • “with (a sense of) security he will bring many to ruin”, i.e. he will destroy them when they feel themselves safe and secure
    • “he shall take a stand against the Prince of princes”, that is, against God and his heavenly representative(s), esp. the prince of the heavenly army Michael
    • “by the end of a hand [i.e. without use of a hand] he will be broken (to pieces)”, this difficult idiom indicates Divine Judgment, without use of any human intermediary (“without a [human] hand”)
3. Daniel 11:21-45—The Rise of a Wicked Ruler (Antiochus IV)

Nearly all commentators are agreed that the “horn” of chapters 7-8, the wicked ruler who will appear, refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 B.C.). The details and context of the visions of chaps. 7-8 seem to bear this out, but the historical scenario becomes much more precise, and specific, in the great vision of chapter 11. Even traditional-conservative commentators generally recognize that these are prophecies relating to Antiochus IV, while allowing for the possibility of a secondary application to a wicked ruler in the more distant future. The wicked ruler described in verses 21-45 of chapter 11 is unquestionably Antiochus IV—his military exploits, political intrigues, and persecution of the people of God (the faithful ones of Israel/Judah). Special attention is given to his desecration of the Jerusalem Temple—including the elimination of the daily sacrifice, and the setting up of “the disgusting thing [JWQv!] bringing devastation [<m@v)m=]” (v. 31, also 9:27; 12:11) in the sanctuary.

This ruler’s self-exaltation, impiety, and opposition to God is described vividly in verses 36-39, providing the most developed form of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Old Testament, a portrait that would exert an enormous influence on subsequent eschatological and apocalyptic tradition.

The Judgment of the Nations

A separate line of tradition, within the Prophetic nation-oracles, involves the idea of the Judgment of the Nations, collectively. While the nation-oracles normally focused on one specific nation, and the judgment that was expected to come against it in the near future, these collections of prophecies (against different nations) led to the image of all the nations being judged, together, in a setting that was more properly focused on the end-time—that is to say, eschatological.

The idea of the hostility and opposition of the surrounding nations was a basic component of Old Testament tradition and ancient Israelite theology, deriving fundamentally from the distinction of Israel as God’s chosen people, in contrast to all other peoples. The very nature of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the binding terms of this agreement (the Torah regulations), drew a sharp line demarcating the holy from the profane, pure from impure, true worship of God and false, which corresponded closely to the ethnic distinction (i.e. Israel vs. the Nations). This sense of opposition only sharpened within the contours of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, expressed and preserved primarily in the Scriptural Psalms, with their repeated references to the protagonist being surrounded by enemies; often these enemies are more or less equated with the “wicked” and the “nations”. The royal context of this motif is perhaps clearest in Psalm 2, which depicts the new king as being surrounded by potentially rebellious vassals, as well as rulers from the nearby nations, eager to gain greater power and freedom for themselves. The portrait of these wicked/rebellious rulers in vv. 1-3 is justly famous:

“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.
‘We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!'”

For more, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 2.

From the standpoint of the Prophetic nation-oracles, the theme of the collective Judgment of the nations, by God, finds its earliest form in the oracle of Joel 3. While not strictly eschatological, the oracle does envision a future time when Israel (Judah and Jerusalem) has been restored (vv. 1), and this restoration follows the great Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21). The Judgment is depicted as taking place in a great valley, where all the nations have been gathered together (v. 2)—it is the valley where they will be “judged by YHWH” (fp*v*ohy+, Y®hôš¹¸¹‰).

While there is a definite military aspect to this imagery (vv. 9-11), there is no clear sense that the nations are actually engaged in battle. In light of the traditional motif of the hostility of the nations (to Israel), and their opposition to God, it is no great surprise that this scene of the gathering of the nations for Judgment would eventually develop into a gathering for battle—and that they would seek to make war against the people of God (Israel/Judah, and Jerusalem). This is expressed in two primary visions—the closing vision of Zechariah (chap. 14), and the great vision-set of Ezekiel 38-39. In both visionary scenes, the nations gather to make war against Israel, advancing on the city of Jerusalem, before they are defeated through the power and intervention of YHWH.

These Judgment-visions and oracles are not directly related to the Antichrist tradition, as such; however, they are relevant (and worth noting here) for several reasons:

    • The hostility/opposition of the nations (and their kings) to God and His people is placed within a clear eschatological setting—in the context of the Judgment (but prior to it) and the ultimate restoration of God’s people; indeed, their salvation is expressed in terms of deliverance from the wickedness and violence of the nations.
    • The wickedness of the nations (and their rulers), in this Judgment setting, has been expanded in scope, now depicted on a worldwide and cosmic scale; this has significance for the development of the Antichrist tradition.
    • The Ezekiel vision, in particular, has the coalition of nations being effectively led by a great king named “Gog” (goG), and, while this specific detail is only marginally related to the Antichrist tradition, it does provide an Old Testament parallel for the concept of wicked world-ruler—a menacing figure who exercises rule over all the nations, in opposition to God.

In Part 2, we will focus on the subsequent development of these lines of tradition in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Birth of the Messiah: Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6

The Immanuel Prophecies in Isaiah:
A uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic Tradition

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Similarly famous are the words of Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7], forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and appearing in any number of situations each Christmas season. I have dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in a previous four-part study, and also 9:5-6 in a two-part study; this article draws upon the results of those studies, and is divided a follows:

    • Survey of Isaiah 7:14
    • Survey of Isaiah 9:5-6 [6-7]
    • Messianic Application and Interpretation in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

The first point to note is that the verses of both passages, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study will make clear. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context of this material in the book of Isaiah:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah, 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 been discussed extensively in the prior studies. It is 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! “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]
    • 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).

Isaiah 7:14

As noted above, the original setting of Isaiah 7:14—and of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1-9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:

10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I have discussed (along with the identity of the ±almâ) as part of the earlier study (Parts 2 & 3). As neither “virgin” nor “young girl” quite captures the meaning of the Hebrew hm*l=u^, I have opted for “maiden” as the best solution, and one which can serve as an accurate enough translation.

Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:

    • It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
    • The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
    • The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
    • The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
    • The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
      a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
      b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
      This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)

What of this name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l)? Some believers may feel that such a momentous name could only apply to a Messianic (or even Divine) figure, rather than an ‘ordinary’ human (king). However, theologically significant names were common in Hebrew, often using “God” (°El) or Yahweh (shortened or hypocoristic form “Yah[u]”). This is more or less obscured in English translations, where names are typically given an anglicized transliteration rather than translated. For example, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y§sha±y¹hu) ought to be rendered “Yah-will-save” or “May-Yah-save!”; similarly, Ahaz is probably a shortened form of Jehoahaz (zj*a*ohy+, Y§hô°¹µ¹z) and would mean something like “Yah-has-seized” or “Yah-has-grasped [hold]!”. So, a name such as “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) could certainly be applied to a significant person or ruler (though at this time, Yah-names are much more common than El-names). Isaiah himself gave elaborate symbolic names for his two (other) sons: bWvy` ra*v= (Sh§°¹r-y¹shû», “[a] Remnant will return”, Isa 7:3), and zB^ vj* ll*v* rh@m^ (Mah¢r-sh¹l¹l-µ¹sh-baz, “Hurry [to] seize booty! hasten [to] take spoil!”, or something similar)—both names relating to the impending/future judgment on Israel.

In the historical context, the name “God-with-us” has a very specific meaning: Ahaz and the southern Kingdom faced an imminent attack by Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, along with the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. From a practical political-diplomatic view, the young king had two options: submit to the Syria-Ephraim alliance, or seek aid from Assyria to fend of the attack (effectively becoming an Assyrian vassal or tributary). Judging from the account in 2 Kings 16:7ff (and the rather different parallel in 2 Chron 28:16ff), as well as the Assyrian annals (cf. ANET, 282-4), Ahaz appears to have chosen the latter. Isaiah’s counsel in chapter 7 was to trust in God, for God is with Jerusalem and his people in Judah, and within just a year or two the threat from Aram-Ephraim will be eliminated. The use of the name “God-with-us” in Isa 8:5-10 is even more dramatic and telling, for the warning (and promise) of ±Immanû °El (vv. 8, 10) extends to all the surrounding nations (even to the Assyrian Empire): “take counsel (for) counsel and it will break apart, give word (to) a word and it will not stand! For God (is) with us!”. In this final exclamation, we have moved clearly from the sign (the child) to what it signifies—that God Himself is with us. Little wonder that early Christians would have applied this name (and this passage) to the person of Jesus Christ: “and the Word [logo$] came-to-be flesh and set-up-tent [i.e. dwelt] among us…” (John 1:14a); cf. further below.

Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7]

While there are certain textual questions involving the opening of the section (8:23 [9:1], cf. below and in the earlier study), the lines of the main oracle poem (vv. 1-6 [2-7]) are relatively straightforward and may be outlined as follows:

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible (cf. below), but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C. Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

Assuming the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722), can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

Some scholars would identify Hezekiah also as ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) of the prophecy in 7:10-17 (also 8:5-10, cf. above). Arguments in favor would be: (a) parallel with 9:5-6, as both prophecy the birth of portentous children containing a promise of salvation; (b) the name is suggestive of the words of 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”); (c) the subsequent use of the name/phrase in 8:8,10. Arguments against: (a) there is nothing in the two passages which specifically identifies the two children; (b) the other symbolic names in chs. 7-8 still seem to be real names applied to specific children, so Immanuel, if a real name, most likely belongs to a different child than Hezekiah; (c) Immanuel as a child of Isaiah (or even as a purely symbolic/collective name) remains a possibility. I am by no means convinced that Immanuel, even if a child of Ahaz, is the same as the (royal) child of 9:5-6. In some ways there is even a closer parallel between the child of 7:14-17 and Isaiah’s child in 8:1-4, but few (if any) commentators would equate the two.

As far as arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, three are especially significant:

    1. The message of deliverance and restoration in vv. 1-4 was not fulfilled in Hezekiah’s reign, particularly not for the Northern kingdom (the territories mentioned in the setting of 8:23). And, while Hezekiah was a good and faithful ruler (according to the testimony of 2 Kings 8:3-7ff), achieved some military success (2 Kings 8:8), and stood against Assyria (2 Kings 8:7, 13–chap. 19 and par.), an appraisal of his reign would not seem to match the glowing language of Isa 9:6. Indeed, in 2 Kings 20:16-19 [par. Isa 39:5-8], Isaiah himself prophecies the future Babylonian captivity—there will be only limited “peace and security” (20:19, contrasted with Isa 9:6). However, these points are weakened somewhat if one considers the character of the oracle in 9:1-6, which does not seem to carry the same predictive force found earlier in chapters 7-8: there are almost no specific historical details, no time indicator, indeed no clear sign of an immediate fulfillment. The perfect verbal forms, typically understood as prophetic perfects (indicating the certainty of what God will do), could also have a gnomic sense (indicating what God always does).
    2. It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7). For more on this Psalm, see below.
    3. The very lack of specific historical details (see point 1 above) could be taken as a strong argument against identifying the child with Hezekiah. Certainly, it could apply at least as well to later rulers (such as Josiah) or a future Messiah. If one accepts the basic interpretation of 9:5-6 as reflecting the enthronement/accession of a new king (that is, the language and symbolism of it), it has a timeless quality which could apply to any anointed king (the same is true of Psalm 2, etc). Only the historical context of the passage (c. 730-700 B.C.) would make it apply specifically to Hezekiah.

What of the titles or names in Isaiah 9:5? There are four: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms:

    • Ju@oy al#P# (pele° yô±¢ƒ), typically translated “Wonderful Counsellor”
    • roBG] la@ (°¢l gibbôr), typically “Mighty God”

However, the English rendering is a bit misleading, as if the first words were adjectives modifying the second. The nouns juxtaposed are not related syntactically in quite this way. The noun al#P# refers to something extraordinary, i.e. a wonder, marvel, miracle, etc. The relation between the nouns is perhaps better expressed by a comma, or hyphen: “Wonder, Counsellor” or “Wonder–Counsellor”. The noun roBG] refers to a strong (man) or warrior. la@, usually translated “God” (El), has an original meaning something like “mighty” (“Mighty [one]” = “God”); the plural form <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) is probably an intensive plural, roughly “Mightiest”. “God Warrior” is a fairly accurate rendering of the second name, or, translating even more literally “Mighty One, Warrior”.

    • du^yb!a& (°¦»î±ad), familiar translation “Everlasting Father”
    • <olv*Árc^ (´ar-sh¹lôm), “Prince of Peace”

In the third name, the two words have been joined (without a maqqeph [‘hyphen’]), the second of which is difficult to translate. du^ indicates, more or less literally, the passing or advancing of time, either in the sense of (a) into the distant past, (b) into the [distant] future, or (c) in perpetuity [i.e. continually]. As such, it is roughly synonymous with the word <lou (see v. 6). “Everlasting” is not especially accurate, but it is hard to find an English word that is much better. In the context of a royal title, something along the lines of “long life” is probably implied (similar to Egyptian titles, i.e. “living forever”, “good in years”, etc). This would create a parallel with the two names: “Father of ‘Long-life'”, “Prince of Peace”—two aspects of the promised time of renewal. However, there is a sense of du^ which also indicates “ancient” or “eternal” (Hab 3:6, etc) as long as one is careful not to infuse the latter rendering with an exaggerated theological meaning.

These four titles are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…” Let us also consider the prior three elements of verse 5:

    • Wnl*ÁdL^y% dl#y# yK! (“For a child has been born to/for us”)—the etymological connection of dly is lost in translation: “a (thing) born has been born”, “a (thing) brought-forth has been brought-forth”. The particle yK! clearly connects vv. 5-6 with 1-4, but in what way precisely? Is the birth of the child (or accession of the king) the means by which God will bring about the things detailed in vv. 1-4? Are 8:23-9:4 the reason for the birth? Or are the events of vv. 1-4 juxtaposed with the birth as parallel aspects of God’s action?
    • Wnl*Á/T^n] /B@ (“a son has been given to/for us”)—a point of poetic parallelism with the previous phrase.
    • omk=v!Álu^ hr*c=M!h^ yh!T=w~ (“and the rule has come to be upon his shoulder”)—the exact meaning of hr*c=m! is uncertain, it may be related to rc^ (translated “prince”, see in the fourth title at end of the verse). This phrase is parallel to the fourth: “and he has called his name [or he/they will call his name]…”—the name and the ‘rule’ (probably in the sense of symbolic emblem[s] of rule) being two ritualized aspects of sovereignty.

Messianic Interpretation

Given the importance of these Isaian passages for the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (cf. below), we might expect to find a similar Messianic interpretation and application in other Jewish writings of the period. However, this is not the case, at least in terms of the texts that have come down to us, both from Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls) and elsewhere. Indeed, I am aware of no direct citation or allusion to either Isa 7:14 or 9:5-6, in a Messianic context, in these writings. The situation would likely be different if the relevant portions of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Isaiah had survived, but, unfortunately, this is not so. The closest we have are the highly fragmentary comments on 8:7-8ff in 4Q163 fragment 2; sadly, the text breaks off just when the commentary is being introduced (“the interpretation [pesher] of the word upon [i.e. concerning]…”). We may gain some sense of the missing interpretation by comparing the citation of Isa 8:11 in the Florilegium text (4Q174), a chain of Scriptures which are given a Messianic and eschatological interpretation—relating to the deliverance of the righteous (the Qumran Community) and the defeat/judgment of the wicked in the last days (Fragment 1, col. i, lines 15ff). The surviving fragments of the Isaiah Commentary text 4Q163 pick up again at Isa 9:11, but much of the specific interpretation of the passage, in context, remains missing.

There is an allusion to 9:5 [6] in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 11 [XI, formerly III], the author compares his distress to that of a woman giving birth (verse 7ff): “9and the woman expectant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male, and through the pangs of Sheol there emerges, 10from the «crucible» of the pregnant woman a wonderful counsellor with his strength, and the boy is freed from the breakers”. He goes on to contrast the (righteous) birth of a boy with the (wicked) birth of a serpent (verse 12ff), a reflection of the strong ethical dualism found in many of the Qumran texts. This is not a Messianic use of the passage per se, but it may related to the eschatological tradition of the end time as a period of suffering and persecution for the righteous, prior to the great Judgment, and known in Jewish tradition as “the birth pains of the Messiah” (cp. Mark 13:8 par, and the context of Rev 12:2-6, 13-17).

The Gospel of Matthew, of course, in the Infancy narrative (Matt 1:22-23) cites Isa 7:14, applying the verse specifically to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. He also makes use of the name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l). This application is generally Messianic, however the emphasis is more properly on the identity of Jesus as the Savior of his people (1:21). This theme of salvation is very much part of the original oracles in Isa 7-9 (cf. above). Matthew does not use Isa 7:14 to identify Jesus with the Davidic Messiah—that is achieved primarily through the quotation of Micah 5:2 (along with 2 Sam 5:2) in 2:5-6.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catchphrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.

It is also in Matthew’s Gospel that the Isa 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] oracle is referenced. Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited specifically (nor anywhere else in the New Testament), 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in 4:15-16, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; and, though not specified, an identification of Jesus with the child in 9:5-6 would seem to be implied. This is certainly how early Christians would come to understand the passage (Justin is perhaps the earliest surviving witness [c. 140-160], cf. First Apology §33 and Dialogue §76). More broadly, it would come to carry a Messianic interpretation, though there is little surviving pre-Christian Jewish evidence of this, as noted above. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed in the previous article) is noteworthy:

    • Both passages are understood (in their original context) as relating to the enthronement/accession of a new (Davidic) king. The positive side of the event (light, joy, deliverance from [current] oppression) is stressed in Isa 9:1-6, the negative side (danger from rebellious princes/vassals/allies) in Ps 2.
    • Both speak of a birth (Isa 9:5; Ps 2:7). This may mean that the ‘birth’ in Isa 9:5 is symbolic of the king’s accession/enthronement, rather than a literal physical birth.
    • Both speak of (the king) as a son. The king as God’s son (i.e., “son of God” though the phrase is not used) is explicit in Psalm 2 (cf. also 2 Sam 7:14), while only implied, perhaps, in Isa 9:5-6.
    • Following the ‘announcement’ of birth/sonship, both passages have God’s declaration of royal inheritance and sovereignty (Isa 9:6; Ps 2:8-12)
    • Both passages came to be understood as Messianic prophecies, and were applied to Jesus by early Christians—Ps 2 (along with Ps 110) already, on several occasions, in the New Testament itself.

The Lukan Infancy narrative may allude to both Isa 7:14 and 9:5[6], by way of the wording of the Angelic announcements in 1:28 and 2:11, respectively; however, this is not entirely certain. In any case, the use of such passages is instructive for understanding how the language and imagery of the Old Testament developed over time, from the original historical context and meaning, to a broader symbolism related to the idea of the Davidic kingship and covenant; then follows the hope/promise of a restoration of Davidic rule (in the post-exilic period) under a new Anointed figure (Messiah), traditions of which are preserved and transmitted in Jewish thought and belief, until the time of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Anointed [Messiah]).  In the light of this new (incarnate) revelation, new meanings and applications of the Scriptures were opened up to believers—it is hardly surprising that at least a few of these would appear to relate so beautifully to the marvelous birth of our Savior.

Believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have, for example, applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.

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There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).