The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Isaiah 9:5-6 (Part 2)

Assuming the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722), a Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] would seem to be out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage [see previous study]). 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 (cf. also 8:5-10). 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.

Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited in the New Testament, 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in Matthew 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. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed above) 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.

An examination of these parallels is also 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.

Even though no commentary on Isa 8:23-9:6 [EV 9:1-7] survives from Qumran, there is an allusion to v. 5 in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 9 [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.