If you are familiar with Isaiah 9:6 (9:5 in its Hebrew Bible versification), chances are that is due at least partly to Handel’s beloved masterwork, The Messiah.
For many Christians who trace part of their ancestry and/or heritage to Britain, the Advent/Christmas season would not be complete without the “Christmas” portions of The Messiah. The German-born Baroque composer George Frideric Handel moved to London at approximately the age of 25 and made his name and fortune with Italian-style operas for eager London audiences. However, over the course of about three-and-a half weeks in August/September, 1741, and invited to do so by his librettist friend Charles Jennens, Handel composed The Messiah with/for lyrics from the King James (English) Version of the Bible. A mild but fascinating irony is that, though written as an oratorio for the Easter season – its first public performance was in Dublin on April 13, 1742 – The Messiah has become a Christmas favorite.
An occasional feature of Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show was a segment of on-the-street interviews with persons whose fund of general knowledge was, let’s say, not quite up to the average. One episode featured a kind of race to the bottom in which Leno asked one “contestant,” “Who wrote Handel’s Messiah?” With nano-second promptness, the young man responded, “I don’t read books.” Dumbfounding, on so many levels!
My point? Whatever their familiarity with The Messiah, if ordinary people recognize anything in Isaiah 9, it likely is verse 6, because of its magnificent setting in the song, “For unto Us a Child Is Born.” (If you are dealing with verse 6 in any way as part of your Christmas Eve observance, may I suggest listening to or singing Handel’s arrangement as part of your preparation, and perhaps even featuring it in the service. Many recordings are available; you may have musicians who would like the opportunity to present it.)
The context of Isaiah 9:6. Hermeneuts and expositors as we are, we have had engrained in us from our biblical studies infancy the importance of context in/for most interpretive undertakings. Here, verse six itself reminds us of that with its introductory conjunction, “For.” This line follows something already said, a “something” important for understanding whatever this “For” introduces. This leads, in turn, to noticing that three more of the preceding verses begin the same way.
The first “For” begins verse 1 (Heb., 8:23); here, NRSV translates the Hebrew conjunction ki (kee) with “but” – that is not wrong, but it does conceal the consistent use of ki in these four verses (9:1 [8:23], 4, 5, 6). In 9:1, “For” contrasts what follows with the “distress . . . darkness . . . gloom of anguish; and . . . thick darkness” foretold for apostate Judah in Isaiah 8:11-22. The point of 9:1-2: God’s people in the regions of Galilee had been the first to come under the yoke of Assyrian rule, to be “brought into contempt.” As the coming Redemption began to unfold, these who now “walked in darkness . . . who lived in a land of deep darkness” would be the first to see and experience the “great light.” The Gospels present Jesus’ extensive Galilean ministry as the direct fulfillment of this “first-in-darkness, first-to-see-the-light” prophetic promise of Isaiah 9.
The second “For,” as well as the third, depict details of this coming redemptive act of God. God will break “the yoke . . . the bar . . . and the rod” of the oppressor (v. 4); with the instruments of oppression broken and useless, oppressors no longer can oppress. “All the boots of the tramping warriors [the immediate agents of oppression] and all the garments rolled in blood [of oppressors and victims alike?] shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (v. 5). Unable to dress for battle, and without hope of the major spoil that clothing of the slain represents, armies cannot execute the death and plunder for which their commanders have mobilized them. Outside oppression, at least, comes to a screeching halt.
A child . . . a son. Thus, we come to the fourth “For” of the passage. All this will not happen because of some mighty, grizzled general, veteran of many bloody campaigns: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.”
To appropriate the words of another familiar carol: “What child is this?” If God intends, Isaiah says, to introduce him to Israel (and to us) as a child, that is as much as to say he will not come as a young military man eager to establish and display his strength and vigor – think Alexander the Great. Nor will he come as an already whelming threat, an established tyrant from another land, doing what comes naturally to successful conquerors and tyrants, extending his reach as far as he able, never satisfied, marching on, and on, until something or someone stops him – think Xerxes the Persian, or Napoleon the Corsican. This one, coming as a child, will be different.
Given our world’s many-faceted brokenness, however, he will come bearing the necessary responsibility and authority to deliver, redeem, repair, and clean it up: “The government will be upon his shoulder.”
The Prince of the Four Names. These appellations have led some to call this child, “The Prince of the Four Names.” (Handel’s KJV text counted five, but its “Wonderful, Counsellor” should be “a wonder of a counsellor” – one, not two.) Many commentators note that these are descriptors of the Deity, as are many biblical Hebrew personal names, and names from Israel’s neighbors, as well. For example, Hebrew Johannan (John) means “Yahweh is gracious,” while Phoenician/Punic Hannibal means “Baal is gracious.”
True, but does this mean, as some assert, that these cannot be also names or titles of this human child, the coming prince? Not at all. The New Testament’s euangelion, the good news here – what Tolkien called “the eucatastrophe of [human] history,” adding, “There is no tale ever told that [we] would rather find is true” – is that we do not have to choose. Isaiah’s prophetic naming is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus came as a human child, but he also is the Divine Son, the Divine Prince, the Second Person of the Godhead.
A wonder of a Counsellor. Wise counsellors were highly valued in ancient courts. We can understand this more profoundly if we consider that it was not unusual for kings to be illiterate, dependent on scribes and other counsellors who could read to give them accurate information and sound advice based on it. A king with the intellectual resources and the learning to be one of his own wise counsellors was a rarity. (No wonder the Queen of Sheba traveled hundreds of miles to visit Solomon.) Already at the age of twelve, Jesus showed himself worthy of this title in his conversations with the theologians of the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:46-47).
Mighty God. In his later years, Mark Twain sometimes ridiculed God as a small Person for insisting, not only that Israel must worship God (Yahweh), but that they were to have “no other gods before” him, meaning (Twain thought) God couldn’t stand to be second. In the Hebrew text, though, “before me” means “in my presence.” God is present everywhere; only Yahweh is God. Only Yahweh is El Gibor, the Mighty God – the God of strength, of resource, of consequence in war, but even more importantly in peace. (Jesus’ ancestor Boaz was a man of gibor, of substance and consequence in his village of Bethlehem.) All other “gods” are no-gods; of course, they cannot stand, as gods, in the presence of the One who is God.
Everlasting Father. Yes, God is the One of superlative wisdom (“Counsellor”), and of unlimited power, substance, and resource. Lacking parental affection and lovingkindness, though, such a God, at best, would be cold and distant – at worst, potentially (or really) terrifying. This child who is to come will even more fully reveal and affirm Yahweh’s character already exhibited throughout God’s history with Israel. Everlastingly, God is the Father (and mother) of hesed/lovingkindness, always looking out for God’s children.
Prince of Peace. The Hebrew noun shalom denotes, encompasses, and encapsulates peace, wholeness, completeness, human and creation-wide flourishing. Shalom is not the absence of adventure and challenge, not necessarily even total absence of conflict. In a not-widely-known reflection, Julian[a] of Norwich expressed it well, “He said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’” (Rev. of Divine Love, ch. 68) From the already-but-not-yet eschatological perspective of Isaiah’s hope-engendering oracle, this is shalom.
Perhaps Juliana’s most famous saying summarizes it best: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This Child will bring shalom; more importantly, this Child will embody God’s shalom. How can we know? Isaiah answers, “The zeal [energy, resolve, commitment] of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.” A reason to celebrate Christmas, indeed!