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

Having approached the oracles in Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] and 11:1-10 from a general historical-critical standpoint (see last week’s study), we will here look at them from a literary-critical point of view. Working from the structure and form of the oracles, we will undertake a short exegetical survey, drawing out information, inductively, for each section and verse.

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

In terms of the form and structure of this passage, it is best understood as consisting of a prosodic introduction (v. 23 [9:1]), followed by a poem (9:1-6 [2-7]), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). The poem proper may be divided into 6 stanzas corresponding to each numbered verse (vv. 1-6 [2-7 in English translations]):

    • 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

It is a poetic oracle, the concluding piece of 6:1-9:6[7], a document consisting of unquestionably authentic Isaian material—oracles and historical-biographical traditions—from the period c. 740-701 B.C. (focusing especially on the Assyrian crisis of 735-732).

Isa 8:23 [9:1]

The context of the oracle is established in 8:23 [9:1], though it can be difficult to determine this with precision. Here a careful study of the text is important, but even then, scholars and commentators may be divided on the correct interpretation. Compare the translations in two leading critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]):

Roberts/Hermeneia

…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…

Blenkinsopp/AB:

There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…

These differences are based, in part, on difficulties surrounding the Hebrew. Note the following two examples:

    • Isaiah 8:23am¹±û¸ can be derived from ±ô¸ (“fly, flutter”) or ±ô¸ (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix –l¹h is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (°ereƒ [“land”], µ¦š¢kâ [“darkness”], or parallel ƒ¹râ/ƒôqâ [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.
    • Isaiah 8:23b—Does h¹ri°šôn (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun ±¢¾ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with h¹°aµ¦rôn (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs qll and kbd (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

Keeping in mind the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C., if 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]).

Isa 9:1-2 [2-3]

In the first two stanzas of the poem, God promises to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity. This is expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc. The contrast of darkness and light in verse 1 brings out symbolically this distinction between the suffering experienced by the Northern kingdom, and the imminent promise of future hope. This darkness and shadow specifically alludes to the threat of death, and evokes language associated with the realm of Death and the grave (see Job 10:21-22, etc). Light (as of the sun) is a corresponding image representing (new) life and salvation. It is naturally associated with God (as a divine attribute/characteristic), but applies just as well to the king/ruler who functions under God’s authority.

The imagery in verse 2 shifts to that of the harvest. The contrast (implied) is between the pain/toil involved in planting and the joy (´imµâ) that comes with the time of reaping. This is further compared, in the last line, with the rejoicing that comes after victory in battle. A small text-critical note: by reading haggîlâ (instead of haggôy lœ°) in the first line, the wordplay and parallelism of the stanza is properly preserved:

“You have multiplied the circling (with joy),
you have made great the (feeling of) gladness—
they are glad before your face,
like the gladness at the (time of) reaping,
like those who circle (for joy) in (the) dividing of plunder.”

Isa 9:3-4 [4-5]

The allusion to battle in the final line of v. 2 becomes the main theme of the next two stanzas. The promise of hope and salvation is defined precisely in terms of the defeat of Israel’s enemies. The image in verse 3 is that of an oppressive foreign power being overthrown, leading to freedom and independence for the people. Given the apparent historical context of the oracle (see above), it suggests the possibility that the Northern territories, turned into Assyrian provinces, would regain their independence. The “day of Midian” doubtless refers to the Gideon traditions in Judges 6-8, when the Northern tribes were similarly delivered from the control of a foreign power. Verse 4 gives a vivid and graphic depiction of a military defeat.

Isa 9:5-6 [6-7]

These verses, so familiar to many Christians, are almost always read completely out of their original historical context. Again, the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 would seem to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722). In this light, the standard Messianic interpretation of the child in vv. 5-6 [EV 6-7] is out of the question (in terms of the primary meaning of the passage). 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.

It is also possible that Hezekiah is to be associated with the title ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) in the prophecies of 7:10-17 and 8:5-10. Certainly the name is suggestive of the words describing Hezekiah’s reign, in 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”). For a consideration of arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, see my earlier article on the subject. In that article, you will also find a discussion of the divine titles occurring in vv. 5-6. There are four such titles: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms. They are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…”.

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).

Isaiah 11:1-10

As in 8:23-9:6, a period of salvation and peace is tied to the rise of a new king from the line of David. If 11:1-10 represents an authentic Isaiah oracle (i.e. from the mid-late 8th century B.C.), then it may well refer to the same king (Hezekiah?) announced in the earlier passage. Many commentators, however, would assign the composition of chapter 11 to a later period. In the previous study, I discussed the critical theory that the document 6:1-9:6, having been included with the wider (Isaian) context of chapters 5-10, was subsequently placed in the later literary context of chapters 2-4, 11-12. Certain thematic and stylistic considerations suggest an exilic (6th century) or even post-exilic setting, though this is hardly decisive, and there are even some critical commentators (e.g., J. J. M. Roberts, cf. above) who would accept Isaian authorship, on the whole, for the oracles in chaps. 2-4, 11-12.

Isa 11:1-10 has a very precise (literary) structure, consisting of two main parts (or strophes), bracketed by references to the new Davidic king (using the idiom “root/trunk of Jesse”).

Verse 1

“And there will go forth a branch from (the) trunk of Yishay,
and a green (shoot) will bear (forth) from his roots”

The oracle opens with a simple parallel couplet, establishing the theme: the rise of a new king (over Judah) from the line of David. The similarity of language with Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15ff, suggests that a 6th-century/exilic setting is in view. On the other hand, a Davidic emphasis is present in the 8th century Isaian material (7:2, 13, and elsewhere in chaps. 2-39 [16:5; 22:22, etc]), and the Jeremiah references may have been inspired by earlier Isaian usage. An authentic Isaian oracle (from the 8th century) would only make more likely that Hezekiah is the expected king; or, in any case, that it is one who would come after (or in place of) the disappointing Ahaz.

Verses 2-5

The bulk of the poem (vv. 2-9) describes the reign of this new king as a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity for Israel (presumably a unified Kingdom), conveyed in ideal (and idyllic) terms. The first portion focuses on the theme of the justice that would be established throughout society during his reign. The wisdom and discernment with which he governs follows the ancient principle of Spirit-inspired leadership (v. 2, cf. my recent note on this point). It is marked by fairness and impartiality, reflecting the very character of God as Judge (v. 3). Of special importance is the way that he works on behalf of the poor and weak, protecting them from oppression and violence (v. 4). Righteousness and faithfulness (to YHWH) are the overarching attributes that explain and characterize the justice of his rule (v. 5).

Verses 6-9

The ‘golden age’ of the new king’s reign is described, in the second half of the poem (vv. 6-9), in more mythological terms, drawing upon the idea of a state of peace and harmony that may once have existed (and will once again) in the natural world. These are certainly among the most beautiful and memorable lines in the entire book. The emphasis of peace and security from wild animals, while drawing upon earlier lines of tradition (Hos 2:18 [20]), may be another indicator of a 6th-century/exilic date for the poem (compare Ezek 34:25-26).

The main point of this imagery is that it will be an ideal time of peace for God’s people. This was also the theme in 2:2-5 (discussed in an earlier study), one of several literary parallels between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. Roberts, in his commentary (pp. 180-1, cf. above), cites examples from Egypt and Assyria, where the accession of a new king is announced as a time of peace and security; however, in some ways, a closer parallel is to found in Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, however far removed it may be from the ancient Near Eastern milieu.

Verse 10

The closing lines reprise the motif of the rise of a new Davidic king (from v. 1), forming an inclusio for the poem:

“And there will be in that day a root of Yishay {Jesse},
which, standing, (will be) for a n¢s of (the) people;
to him (the) nations will go in search,
and his resting(-place) will be worth(y).”

An important aspect of this king’s rule will be the way that the surrounding nations come to him. In its earlier form, this idea simply reflected the sovereign-vassal relationship that existed between the kingdom of Israel and a number of nations in the region, during the reigns of David and Solomon. This Israelite ’empire’ was brief, and collapsed shortly after Solomon’s reign, but would remain an ideal, in terms of Israel’s restoration, for centuries to come. However, during the later Prophets of the exile and post-exilic periods, this motif of the ‘gathering of the nations’ came to be expressed in a new way, as part of a developing eschatological (and Messianic) understanding of Israel’s future restoration.

This same eschatological aspect was seen in 2:2-5 (cf. the earlier study), centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations. As I have noted, the theme is 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 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. From the standpoint of the composition of chaps. 2-12, this would mean that the (earlier) Isaian message promising deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion could well have been applied to the setting of the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

The new king will stand among his people, functioning as a n¢s for them. I left this word untranslated above; it essentially refers to something that is displayed prominently, serving as a rallying point for a group of people (such as a flag or banner). It also becomes a point around which other nations will gather as well, coming to the king (and his court) in search of truth and justice, etc. The religious emphasis of 2:2-5 (i.e. the nations joining Israel in worship of YHWH) is not as definite here, but it certainly would have been implied, in light of the language used in the rest of the oracle. There is likely a bit of wordplay in the final line, which could alternately be translated something like “and honor/worth will rest (on) him”. This honor/worth (Heb. k¹»ô¼, literally “weight”), in the context of the oracle, refers to the presence of God that is around the king, and the Spirit that comes upon him, gifting him with divinely-inspired wisdom (v. 2). Thus, in coming in search of Israel’s divinely-inspired king, they nations are effecting seeking after God.

Conclusion

Both of these remarkable oracles, however and whenever they were composed, announce the coming of a king (from the line of David) who will usher in an ideal time of peace and prosperity, bringing salvation and renewal to the people. A working critical hypothesis, based on the results of these two studies, might be outlined as follows:

    • The Isaian document of 6:1-9:6[7], composed sometime after 732 B.C., concludes with the announcement of deliverance for the Northern territories that had been conquered and annexed by Assyria. This was associated, most likely, with the birth (and/or accession) of Hezekiah, who did indeed make overtures to the North for them to join with him in a political and religious revival.
    • This hope, never realized during Hezekiah’s reign, came to be applied to the later context of the Babylonian threat in the early 6th century. As Jerusalem was saved from Assyrian invasion during Hezekiah’s reign, so the southern kingdom might be delivered under another faithful king from the line of David.
    • Ultimately, this ideal, and promise of future salvation, was reinterpreted from the standpoint of the Exile—i.e., the restoration of Israel in a post-exilic period as a golden age of justice and righteousness.

Such an outline would provide a veritable snapshot of Israel’s Messianic hope, in its early stages of development (captured within the complex literary structures of the book of Isaiah). It can be no surprise that Isa 8:23-9:6 and 11:1-10 came to viewed as Messianic prophecies subsequently in Jewish tradition, and that early Christians continued this process, applying the oracles to the person of Jesus as the Messiah. That such a Messianic interpretation is a secondary development, quite apart from the original context of the prophecy, should be clear enough. However, this does not in any way diminish or devalue the Messianic (and Christian) view. The inspiration of Scripture is wide and expansive enough to encompass all of these aspects.

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.

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.