Thursday, December 20, 2012

To Us a Child Is Born (Isaiah 9:6)

Who prophesied “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”? Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6)

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Israel during the tumultuous reign of King Ahaz (Isaiah 1:1, 7:1). While the king was becoming the embodiment of failed leadership (Isaiah 6:1-8:22), the prophet provided hope to the people (Isaiah 9:1-7). He famously prophesied:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 NASB)
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) comments:
This familiar and beloved oracle offers to Judah, driven as it is to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish, yet another chance in the world. The prophetic oracle beginning in Isaiah 9:2 is introduced by what seems to be a prose transition in Isaiah 9:1. In the Hebrew text..Isaiah 9:1 is the final verse of chapter 8, so that it looks back to the ominous judgment of Isaiah 8:22 as well as forward to the promised well-being of the oracle. (Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Westminster Bible Companion), 81)
Daniel L. Akin (b. 1957) concurs:
Isaiah an extension of the “virgin conception/Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Israel would be attacked and crushed in humiliating defeat in 722 BC by the Assyrians. And yet, in the midst of their despair and hopelessness, a word of hope arrives. The gloom, distress, humiliation, darkness, and death of Isaiah 9:1-2 would be turned into the rejoicing, joy, light, liberation, and peace of Isaiah 9:2-5. How? By the coming of the Messiah-King. (Akin, A Theology for the Church, 487)
Prior to this hopeful proclamation, Isaiah acknowledges that Judah will be afflicted by the powerful Assyrian army (Isaiah 8:1-22). John N. Oswalt (b. 1940) details:
The Assyrian conquests began in the tribal territory of “Zebulun” and “Naphtali,” which extended from the Jezreel Valley northward to the foot of Mount Hermon. A major part of that area is what is known today as the Huleh Valley. The Jordan River flows through this valley before emptying into the Sea of Galilee. Not only was this a lush agricultural area, it was also the place through which the main trade route from Mesopotamia to Egypt ran (“the way of the sea”). Thus, it is easy to see why it was high on the priority list for conquest. But God is greater than Asyria, and he promises that just as these people have experienced the grief and despair of conquest, they will also experience the joy of and triumph of victory (Isaiah 9:3-5). As Gideon defeated Midian in the Valley of Jezreel (Judges 7:1-25), so God will defeat Israel’s enemies in that same place...But how will God accomplish this great feat? Through the birth of a child (Isaiah 9:6)! For the third time in as many chapters, the birth of a child is filled with great portent. (Oswalt, Isaiah (NIV Application Commentary), 160)
Judah’s hope will come in the form of a child. Given the well known list of epithets that conclude the oracle about the child, most conclude that Isaiah is referencing Ahaz’s son and successful successor, Hezekiah (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) explains:

The royal titles of kingship are conferred upon him: “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Each name brings out some extraordinary quality for the divinely selected ruler: a counsellor of unique wisdom and abundant power, endowed with enduring life, and the bringer of eternal peace. The description of his reign makes it absolutely clear that his role is messianic. There is no end to his rule upon the throne of David, and he will reign with justice and righteousness forever. Moreover, it is the ardor of the Lord of hosts who will bring this eschatological purpose to fulfillment. The language is not just of a wishful thinking for a better time, but the confession of Israel’s belief in a divine ruler who will replace once and for all the unfaithful reign of kings like Ahaz. (Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81)

The birth of this child will be a cause for great hope. Christopher R. Seitz (b. 1954) clarifies:

Most regard the references to birth and the language “child” and “son” at Isaiah 9:6 as referring to the king’s accession rather than to his actual birth, in line with the imagery of Psalm 2:7...and common Near Eastern practices. Whether or not this is so in the strict historical sense, the reference to birth is surely meant to pick up the language of Isaiah 7:14: “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (RSV). On chronological grounds, a royal accession oracle is out of place at this juncture in the presentation. Hezekiah’s mature reign still lies ahead, as is made clear by the material following (Isaiah 9:8-10:34), where the Assyrian foe is still gainfully occupied in the role of “rod of my [Yahweh’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5). Therefore one is already dealing with a decision to place the royal oracle at this juncture secondarily, whatever its original historical circumstances. If a link has been established intentionally between the “birth” of Isaiah 9:6 and the promise of Immanuel at Isaiah 7:14-16, then the effect is to focus the royal oracle on the birth rather than on the accession of Immanuel. The birth then portends great things and in that sense is analogous to children of the prophet, who are “signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 8:18). (Seitz, Isaiah 1-39 (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 86)
This child will be nothing less than a gift of God. Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) analyzes:
The initial announcement that a child “will be born” (yullad prophetic perfect verb) is further explained in the parallel phrase, God “will give a son to us,” that is, to the people of Judah. The second line emphasizes that this is a work of God’s gracious giving, not just a coincidence. No date of birth in the future is hinted at, and the only comparable son promised by God in earlier oracles was Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14-15. An identification marker that links these two sons is that they both will be righteous Davidic rulers. But the two sons do not have identical names. Concerning the Davidic ruler, “he [presumably God] will call his name” (not passive, “he will be called” as in NIV) titles that represent his character and roles. The eight words that follow could be eight names, but since Immanu-el, Shear-Jashub, and many other Hebrew names comprise two words (Isaiah means “God saves), it seems natural to divide these eight words into four titles. (Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (The New American Commentary), 240)
Who or what do you associate with the names Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace? When you look to the next generation of leaders in your region, does it elicit hope? When has God given you or your country a gift? How does Isaiah’s prophecy relate to the birth of Jesus?

Christians have long connected Isaiah’s 700+ year old messianic prophecy to the birth of Jesus. Though Isaiah 9:6 is not quoted directly in the New Testament, Matthew does, however, quote the related passage in Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23).

Geoffrey W. Grogan (1925-2011) traces:

The word “child” is in a position of emphasis. The first person plural “us” suggests a link with Isaiah 7:14...and the reader is probably meant to see the connection, for as far as the reader is concerned, Isaiah is acting as a teacher. Just as his theme of the Branch of the Lord...becomes more and more explicitly messianic, so it is with the motif of the child. If the child of Isaiah 7:14-16...typifies the ultimate divine Christ, the child of these verses is that Christ. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] & David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs-Isaiah (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 528)
John Goldingay (b. 1942) delineates:
It is usually assumed that the name in Isaiah 9:6b comprises a series of asyndetic phrases...and describes the person named. The son then is the Wonderful Counselor. Christian claims that Jesus fulfills the vision of Isaiah 9:6b can do justice to the designation Mighty God, but the difficulty comes with Everlasting Father, which hardly applies to Jesus. Conversely, a reading in the light of eighth-century B.C. Middle Eastern thinking can perhaps do justice to Everlasting Father as an extravagant Old Testament description of a king’s relationship with his people, but Mighty God is unparalleled in the Old Testament in such designations. Hans Wildberger [1910-1986]...suggests it is based on Egyptian ways of speaking of the king, but even these hardly parallel such an extravagant description. It is difficult to know what the original hearers would have made of the words if this is how Isaiah meant them. It is significant that the Jewish exegetical tradition assumed that at least the first three phrases referred to God, though it took them as describing God as namer rather than as part of the name. (Goldingay, Isaiah (New International Biblical Commentary), 72)
Remarkably, God needs only a child to respond to grievous oppression. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. (b. 1949) acknowledges:
God’s answer to everything that has ever terrorized us is a child. The power of God is so far superior to the Assyrians and all the big shots of this world that he can defeat them by coming as a mere child. His answer to the bullies swaggering through history is not to become an even bigger bully. His answer is Jesus. (Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners (Preaching the Word), 99)
God’s radical solution to the world’s sin was a baby. This is what the world celebrates at Christmas.

If Isaiah 9:6 foretells both Hezekiah and Jesus could it relate to another baby in the future? What dimensions does the fact that Jesus’ birth was prophesied add to the nativity story? When have you placed your hopes in a child? When has a child brought light into a gloomy world?

“Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” - Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)