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Epiphany 3A 1st Reading

Isaiah 9:1-4

Preface: I wrote my Master’s Thesis on female characters in Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As the Hobbit movies were coming out at the time, I had a discussion with several people as to whether or not I would be including Tauriel in my thesis. I chose to exclude her, as I was writing about Tolkien’s text and not Peter Jackson’s adaptation. Now, what does this have to do with Isaiah 9:1-7? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Nearly every single Christian I know would immediately recognize the titles of: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. And they would automatically identify these verses and these titles with Jesus, specifically with the birth of Jesus and our celebration of Christmas. Much of this we owe to a combination of the Church Fathers and Handel. The Fathers were in the habit of reading the Old Testament Christologically and, as far as I am aware, are responsible for attributing these verses Christ specifically. Handel, of course, is responsible for using these phrases to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Handel’s music and the Father’s readings have been formative for the church and now it is common to read this pericope as being a prophecy foretelling Jesus. I do not dispute the tradition of the church in this regard, but I want to look at these verses in their historic context. What did they mean when they were first written? What did they mean to the audience who first heard them? To find that, it’s necessary to strip away the layers of tradition and music that form our understanding of them.

To begin, a little background on the book of Isaiah. Current scholarship indicates that the book we have may well have been compiled at different periods surrounding the Assyrian war and the Babylonian exile, possibly by three different authors. But what matters for us today is understanding the historic context of chapter 9 and specifically verses 1-9. Chapter 7 indicates that this is the time of King Ahaz, who came after King Uzziah. During this period, history tells us that Israel, under king Pekah, (not Judah where Ahaz was king and where Isaiah prophesied) allied with Aram and waged a war of independence against the Neo-Assyrian empire under Tiglath-Pileser III. Judah refused to join in with Israel and was invaded by Aram and Israel. Jerusalem was besieged and, according to 2 Chronicles, lost as many as 120,000 soldiers in one day, along with the king’s son. Philistines and Edomites raided villages in Judah as well, taking advantage of the situation. King Ahaz asked Assyria for help. Tiglath-Pileser III sent armies that freed Jerusalem and defeated Israel, Aram, and the Philistines. But the alliance brought problems of its own: Ahaz paid for Tiglath-Pileser III’s help with money from the royal treasury and with consecrated items from the temple. He also built idols of Assyrian gods to please the foreign king. [1]

Isaiah is not happy with Ahaz. In Chapter 7, he had instructed Ahaz that the invasion by Israel and Aram would not be successful and to ask God for a sign. Ahaz refused and Isaiah says, well fine then, God has already picked on. Then we have the verses so many of us know as Messianic–a woman shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel. In Isaiah 8, we have another prophecy about a child: Maher-shalal-hash-baz–Hurry to the spoils! In chapter 7, the Isaiah had said that before the child knew good from evil the two kings would be defeated. Now he says that before the child can talk, Aram and Ephraim will be defeated. This brings us to chapter 9 and another foretelling concerning a child. Verse one speaks of lands taken for Judah in the invasion, lands Isaiah says will be returned to Judah. Then the prophet becomes poetic.

In verse 4, we first see the oppression that is being detailed: a yoke of burden, a staff on the shoulders, the rod of the oppressor. It is this all encompassing tyranny which is completely broken by God. That’s the framework for understanding verses 2 and 3, where those who have been subject to such maltreatment are now free and experience joy, light, and gladness. This destruction is comparable to that of Midian, which is a reference to Gideon’s victory in Judges 6. Verse 5 paints a vivid picture of war, trampling boots and bloody uniforms. Then verse, where Handel picks up the narrative, contrasts that with the birth of a child. A son is given. Instead of a staff on on his shoulders, he has authority. His four titles build to his being the Prince of Peace–the peace the poet just talked about God bringing after utter victory over the brutal government of the invaders. The fact that the child will be of the Davidic line harkens to the Davidic covenant; the covenant God made with David’s house–the throne of Israel. And for a third time in the book of Isaiah, a child is the portent of justice, righteousness, peace, and prosperity, as orchestrated by God.