Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“For unto us a child is born”

Essay Abstract

The words of Isaiah 9:6 are universally associated with the birth and role of Jesus. The text is considered as one of the prominent messianic oracles pointing to the awaited Messiah. Here, an appraisal of the oracle is offered in light of the literary function and historical context of the text and with due consideration of commentary on the subject. The significance of the child as a beacon of hope and redeeming Messiah is explored, with reflection on God’s promises and work of salvation throughout the ages.


The opening verses of Isaiah 9 usher in a proclamation of good news - the announcement of salvation to ‘the people walking in darkness’; the dawn of a new day when deliverance and joy replace oppression and distress. The extent of this new order is overarching across the ages and portrayed as having no end. This vision hinges on the birth of a child. His humble beginning as a child is contrasted with his achievements of a great everlasting government ushering righteousness, justice and peace. The oracle extends from verses 1-7 shedding light on the identity of this child.

Historical Backdrop

The passage falls within the first section of the book (chapters 1-12) which is concerned with the immediate issues of the foreseen and imminent judgement on Israel.1 Kaiser cites the historical context of the time of the oracle. According to his citations, in 734 Tiglath-pileser III separated the coastal districts belonging to the kingdom of Israel and transformed them into an Assyrian province; in 732, the north and the east suffered the same fate at his hands. The plain of Jezreel and Galilee became the province of Magidu, as well as the land across the Jordan.2 Goldingay places the passage in a smaller section of chapter 8:11-9:7; Israel and Syria had been forced to become part of Assyria’s expanding empire and now they desire independence seeking Judah’s help.3 King Ahaz is on the throne of Judah, and he is faced with the choice of making a treaty with Assyria or joining the confederation of Israel and Syria. The prophet Isaiah urges him to trust God instead but Ahaz hides behind false piety effectively refusing to place his faith in YHWH and thus the people will eventually incur the judgement pronounced in Isaiah 7:13-25 (historical accounts of king Ahaz are found in 2 kgs 16, 2 Chr 28).

Theological Backdrop

John Goldingay outlines that against this desperation the fear of YHWH stands in opposition to either option of self preservation, and thus man’s wisdom is pitted against God’s – man’s way out, against taking refuge in YHWH. The case is made by Goldingay that Judah does not know where to direct its fear (8:11-15). They look to mediums and spirits for direction, but their attempts will lead them into utter darkness. It is against this backdrop of darkness and despair that the good news is proclaimed. The oracle of 9:1-7 proclaims the birth of a child who will save and rule in righteousness, in contrast to king Ahaz who forsakes God’s way. Some have suggested Hezekiah is that child, the son of Ahaz, who was a righteous king in God’s sight, others have ruled out the possibility. Goldingay points out that Hezekiah was apparently born some years prior to this and thus could not be the awaited figure.4 Who then is the child? In one sense, the prophet speaks of a king who would bring a fulfilment of the promises of salvation of chapters 1-8; the ultimate deliverance for the people of Judah. Yet in a more broad sense, the words reach beyond the days of the prophet and the people of Judah.

Jesus the Messiah

Traditionally Christian commentators have regarded the text as specifically pointing only to Jesus, the awaited Messiah. Barry Webb for instance argues that Isaiah looks ahead proclaiming a time of the light of Jesus dawning in the very region where God’s judgement was to be experienced.5 Along similar lines, Oswalt views this as a prophetic text but does not view Hezekiah as the promised child referring to his mortality and fallibility as a leader, and moreover for the reason that the title ‘Mighty God’ could not be attached to any earthly king as this would constitute blasphemy.6 Thus the only possible figure would be an eschatological redeemer, and the ultimate fulfilment of the Immanuel sign given to Ahaz in Isaiah7.7

This purely Christological interpretation of the Oracle in Isaiah 9 is also affirmed by other commentators; H C Leupold is of the view that the child can only be Jesus the Messiah, furthermore that the child in chapter 7 (Immanuel) is the same as the child in the Isaiah 9 oracle.8 Leupold discounts the possibility of the child appearing in Isaiah’s time. He points to the fulfilment of the oracle in Jesus who was from Galilee (Matt 4:14-16). The use of the language of ‘light’ (9:2) is associated with Jesus in the New Testament and prominent in the Gospel of John. Moreover the title ‘Mighty God’ is taken to only mean that ‘He has nothing less than the full omnipotence at his command’ (p.186), the same title used of God in Isa 10:21.

Similarly Alexander offers a purely Christological reading of the text.9 He begins his interpretation by making links between the language of ‘light’ found in Isaiah 42, the glory of God in Malachi 4, references to God’s glory manifested in Jesus in the Gospel John and finally leaning on Matthew’s reference to the fulfilment of this prophecy in Jesus (Matt 4:12-17). He also sees the inclusion of the gentiles in the oracle in the phrase ‘Thou hast enlarged the nation’ (v3), again pointing to Luke’s recording of the proclamation of good news of ‘great tidings which shall be to all people’ (Luke 2:10). The breaking of the yoke, the rod and the staff of the oppressor is seen in the liberation of the first converts to Christianity under the new covenant which is effected in faith (and not personal works) – the victory likened to the day Gideon triumphed by God’s might. Along similar lines, the universal peace following will be in the hearts of believers and will be seen ‘in every case of true conversion’. The titles given to the child are said to be descriptions of Jesus’ character – even in being the prince who secures peace with God (Rom 5:1).10

Is the Child a Specific Person?

Goldingay suggests that the meaning of the names (Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) reveal something about God, not the child himself; based on the rationale that previous names (such as Isaiah, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Maher-Shalal-Hesh-Baz, and indeed Immanuel) point as signs of something other than the child, the meanings associated with what God is doing and being to his people. Thus he offers the following analysis of the significance of the titles of the child. Wonderful Counsellor is a reference to God’s effective design and implementation of his purposes (as in 5:19b; 26 and 28:29). Mighty God was also a description of YHWH in 10:21 and of his might in battle in 42:13. Everlasting Father is used in Psalm 9:26, 29 in describing God’s commitment to David’s line and the phrase brings to mind the picture portrayed of YHWH in the opening of the book of Isaiah as having reared children. Finally, Prince of Peace places the ideas of command (as in Gen 21:22) and Shalom (peace and completion) as attributes of YHWH; unlike other kings, his kingdom of peace does not come through war making and conquest by battle.

Goldingay notes the reapplications of the text in Matthew but expresses the view that there is no indication from the text that the son is a distant messianic figure (since the Old Testament does not use the word Messiah for a future redeemer) or that the child is not due for centuries.11 Moreover, it is pointed out that the New Testament does not link verses 6 and 7 to Jesus, although Matthew recalls verses 1 and 2. He reiterates that seeing Jesus in the passage is extrapolated from what we know of Jesus and not on exegetical grounds. Goldingay ultimately views the passage as ‘A vision of what God is committed to achieving through David’s line’ (p. 72).12 Some fulfilment is found in kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah, and ultimately in Jesus, although even then, he argues, the potential of the passage is possibly not yet realised.

Walter Brueggeman writes a commentary of this oracle with Christological inferences for the time before and after Christ.13 He speaks of a ‘great Davidic newness’ following the reign of Ahaz; his son Hezekiah would restore what his father lost; and this would become evident in chapters 36-39.14 The new king is set to perform all his royal duties as demanded in Deuteronomy. He would be an able and a wonderful counsellor as opposed to his predecessor who tragically missed the chance of securing victory through trusting in YHWH. Brueggeman suggests that ‘Mighty God’ should not be understood as a Trinitarian category nor as a claim of divinity rather that the king would possess all the power (particularly military/angelic) required for delivering his people. Finally, although the king is seen as a key player, the zeal of YHWH alone would ultimately accomplish this. A comment is offered of Matthew 4:13-17 in this analysis; stating that Isaiah did not predict, rather ‘the text surges beyond its original setting’ to illuminate and describe new events. Accordingly, the New Testament believer is identifying events within the life of Jesus that echo events in Israel’s history and fill the earlier prophetic oracles with meaning and significance, and thus it is thought legitimate that the gospel of Jesus is found in the words of the prophet.15 Brueggeman expands this application further and says that the text permits even more extended readings where God’s people become the light that shines in the darkness – a transformation effected by the zeal of YHWH.16

Is the Text a Prediction?

Kaiser perceives the oracle as ‘a prophetic hymn of thanksgiving transformed into a prophecy of salvation’. The verses form a confession of faith (rather than a prediction) by the prophet in the future of his people according to God’s plan for deliverance under a second David.17 Kaiser however does not support the view that this Davidic king lived in Isaiah’s lifetime. The oracle is explained in terms of the inauguration of the kingdom of peace and the enthronement of the saviour king. The titles of the child explain further his person: ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ reflects the child’s authority from God, ‘Mighty God’ signifies the fullness of his power (only used in Ps 45:6 elsewhere in the OT), ‘Everlasting Father’ points to his enduring fatherly role (as in 2 Sam 7:16), ‘Prince of Peace’ recalls the divine name from Judges 6:24 ‘YHWH is peace’ promising an everlasting state of shalom. This vision of hope is sealed by the assertion that the zeal of YHWH will see this to fulfilment. Along similar lines, Thompson views the passage as portraying an ‘ideal king’ of Judah and Jerusalem.18

It should be noted that still others dispute that the text was even a prophetic utterance (see footnote).19

The Reader’s Perspective

In his book ‘Surprising Salvation’ Kirk Patston presents a reading of the passage in four different contexts or eras (an approach which he adopts throughout his commentary).20 The perspectives offered here are: reading the passage as if the reader was living during the attack on Judah, during and after the exile, after Jesus, and today. During the attack, people would have seen Hezekiah (the son of Ahaz) as the righteous king spoken of in Isaiah 9:1-7 – the record from Chronicles and Kings confirms the image portrayed of Hezekiah as a ruler who feared God ‘In everything that he undertook in the service of God’s temple and in obedience to the law and the commands, he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered’ (2 Chronicles 31:21). During and following the exile, the people would have read the oracle and looked forward to a Davidic king who would set up a kingdom that would last forever, and this in turn would have formed the messianic expectation in the lead up to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel identifies Jesus as the child in the oracle, and thus early Christians would have seen the wonderful fulfilment of Immanuel - ‘God with us’ as well as the Davidic king from Galilee (9:1). Finally, as Christians today, we live under the kingdom of King Jesus looking forward to a time of unprecedented peace, justice and righteousness.

Patston does note the significance that ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ includes not just the Hebrews but the Canaanites, Arameans, Hittites and Mesopotamians – an image of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s plan for salvation under his rule and dominion. Moreover, the titles given to the son, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace are said to be too wonderful for any human child to bear, and thus one can glean that these titles refer to none other than God himself. This understanding would be consistent with the interpretation of the names in the preceding chapters.

The Zeal of YHWH

It is evident that the child in Isaiah 9 is no ordinary child. His person possesses everything needed to bring light, salvation and to effect righteous government over his people. The oracle is ultimately about God saving and ruling over his people. It speaks of God’s consistent purpose that beyond darkness there is light, beyond judgement there is redemption. We see glimpses of this purpose reflected in figures such as Hezekiah and Josiah – glimmers keeping the hope alive; yet beyond earthly righteous kings, the need remained for a deliverer and mighty ruler, who is indeed father and who alone is complete in counsel. The need remained for a state of lasting righteousness and justice necessary for peace. The child ultimately ushers fresh hope in God who over the ages is committed to his people. Jesus is the ultimate reflection of the child acting in accordance with YHWH’s zeal. He is the fulcrum of the oracle. His birth and work bring true peace between God and his people and stands in contrast to the rebellious dominion of man. Under his rule we become reflections of this child, bringing light to the people living in darkness; always looking ahead in hope to YHWH our God.



1 Tremper Longman and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan 2nd ed., 2006).

2 Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12 : A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1972). P. 127, Cf. Kleine Schriften.

3 John Goldingay, Isaiah, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001).

4 Webb also presents the view that the awaited child could not be Hezekiah since Hezekiah was born three years before these events.

5 Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah : On Eagles' Wings, Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996).

6 Oswalt also notes that the Targum significantly identifies the child as a messianic figure. John N. Oswalt, "God's Determination to Redeem His People " Review and Expositor 88, no. 2 (1991).

7 Oswalt writes that ‘Immanuel’ is the same Messianic figure in the 9:1-7 oracle, though making a distinction of the Immanuel born in Isaiah’s time (a child of judgement) and the Immanuel in the Messianic age (Jesus) who is the child of salvation. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986).

8 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Isaiah : Volume I, Chapters 1-39; Volume Ii, Chapters 40-66 (London: Evangelical Press, 1968).

9 Joseph Addison Alexander, Isaiah (Minneapolis, Minn.: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1861).

10 Alexander sees a parallel between his rule on the throne of David and the words of Micah where the king, the son of David is promised and should rule over the earth in peace and righteousness forever. Again the calling of the gentiles is perceived here as well as the re-unification of the kingdom of Israel. Finally Alexander points to the words of Gabriel to Mary ‘he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end’ (Luke 1:33). Ibid.

11 It is also noted that the words used to announce the birth of the child mirror the words used in Jeremiah 20:15 and Ruth 4:17

12 Goldingay.

13 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

14 Brueggeman makes the case for the oracle of 9:1-7 referring to a king in Isaiah’s time, however states: ‘…because the poetry is lyrical and was no doubt liturgical in its setting and has since been resituated in the canonical book of Isaiah, we need not insist too closely on the Hezekiah connection” (p82)

15 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament : A Book-by-Book Survey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008).

16 This view aligns well with Jesus referring to his disciples as the light; we observe that the language of light is imputed to believers. We are all familiar with the phrase Jesus spoke to his disciples: “You are the light of the world--like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:15). The Apostle Paul was building on this very concept (which as we will see is a pre-messianic teaching), when he preached in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: “For the Lord gave us this command when he said, 'I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth’” (Acts 13:47)* - the Apostle was quoting here the words given to the prophet Isaiah of the remnant of Israel (Isa 49:6); see also Isaiah 60:3 with reference to God’s people, Israel. The mission the Apostle was given was ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God’ (Acts 26:18).

17 Kaiser.

18 Michael E W. Thompson, "Isaiah's Ideal King.," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24, (1982).

19 An interpretation offered by Watts, is based on an unconventional translation of the Hebrew. He views the passage as an appeal to hope, that the future has got to be different to the current bad times. Watts does not affirm that the passage is from the prophet Isaiah; rather that the voices portray divergent elements in the crowd replying to Isaiah’s prophecy of gloom. These objections may represent a pro-Israelite group (v1/2), the cynical bystander (v2/3), the holy war enthusiasts (v 4/5), and the monarchists voicing their hope in the restoration of the house of David (v 5-7). Another unconventional construction is Watt’s translation of the ‘ki’ phrases usually taken as the causal ‘ki (for) (‘for a child is born) but here taken to mean ‘if’ – which implies a very hypothetical flavour.  Ultimately this construction means that this is not part of the word of the prophet to Israel, moreover that the New Testament lifts the verses out of context and reinterprets the themes of dominion and kinship to fit the person of the crucified suffering servant, and that perhaps the original meaning of these themes find a place in Christ’s second coming as triumphant king. It should be noted that this construction is uncommon, and relies on the premise that the speaker of the oracle is not the prophet, moreover assuming the alternate voices – overall there is little evidence supporting this theory. John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1985).

20 Kirk R. Patston, Isaiah : Surprising Salvation, Reading the Bible Today (Sydney South: Aquila Press, 2010).









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