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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 9

Verses 1-7

The Messiah: God’s Light in the Darkness ( 9 : 1 - 7 )

The hymn in verses 2-7, concerned with the Messiah and the Messianic age, is one of the most familiar and beautiful of the Isaiah prophecies. Verse 1 is a prose introduction which gives the setting and the date of the poem in the view of the prophetic editor of the material of Isaiah. Following 8:22, with its picture of the darkness of the earth, 9 :1 presents another abrupt shift to a glorious future. This historical reference to the land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali is to be understood in connection with the campaign of Tiglath-pileser III in 733 b.c. which took away from Israel all of Galilee and turned it into an Assyrian province. The end of the verse refers to the caravan highway across Galilee; the last phrase should be understood as referring to the course of the highway “from the land beyond the Jordan to Galilee of the nations.” In the days to come Galilee will be restored and made glorious. The implication of the verse is that while Galilee had been removed from Israel by the Assyrians, Samaria itself had not yet fallen as it was to do between 724 and 721 b.c. Thus, at least in the view of an editor, the hymn which follows refers to the same events as does most of the material in chapters 6-8.

The first section of the poem (vss. 2-3) refers to the transformation which has come over the people who were in darkness. The light has shined upon them and there is great joy. The second section (vss. 4-6) gives the reasons for the joy, each of the three verses being introduced with the same word. First the rod of the oppressor has been broken as on the day when Gideon defeated the great Midianite invasion (Judges 7). The remains of battle equipment (vs. 5) are burned. Then at the climax is the announcement of the birth of a royal son on whose shoulder the government is to be placed and whose name will be composed of four titles of God himself. “Wonderful Counselor” refers to him who is all-wise in his plans and purposes. “Mighty God” refers to the Lord as a great warrior who cannot be defeated. “Everlasting Father” refers to God’s fatherly relation to and care for his people. “Prince of Peace” refers to more than God’s purpose to maintain a world without war. The Hebrew word for “peace” is much richer in that it includes within it also the concept of a harmonious and wholesome existence. These titles are commonly read as describing the character of the Messiah, although it was a common custom that children should be named with reference to God. In this case the child will bear a series of names which refer to the nature of God himself. In that way a special relationship between God and his king is indicated. The Messiah is the instrument of the purposes of God referred to in the titles.

Verse 7 promises the permanence of a government of peace and justice in the kingdom ruled from the throne of David forever. The final poetic line states that all of this will be accomplished by the zealous activity of the Lord of the armies of the world.

Christians have always read this passage as referring to Jesus Christ, and the words have become very familiar, not only from their frequent use in the Christmas season but also from their musical setting in Handel’s Messiah. Christ indeed was the fulfillment of the purpose of God as expressed here. To the people of Judah and Jerusalem, however, the words would have had their own meaning in the Judean context, unillumined by the fresh perspectives given to them in the New Testament.

The author of this poetic prophecy was one who was very familiar with the theology of monarchy as it had been elaborated in the Jerusalem court beginning in the time of David and Solomon. This theology centered in the understanding that God had made an unbreakable promise to David that a member of his dynasty would always reign in Jerusalem (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16). The Davidic king, therefore, in the Jerusalemite theology was to be the instrument of God’s government over Israel and, in the great day to come, over the whole world. Psalms 2, 110 are understood today to be among the hymns sung in Temple services where this theology of monarchy was being affirmed and God was being praised for his promise and purpose.

In the course of time, however, God’s promise to the Davidic dynasty was the occasion of query among some of the people, for different reasons. When the nation was in trouble, people could wonder whether or not God would keep his promises. The certainty that he would do so was the faith that people could hold on to in time of crisis (see Psalms 89). Few kin gs of either the Northern or the Southern Kingdom, however, reigned in accordance with the will of the Lord. And so the promise, as in Isaiah 9:2-7, shifts the theology and the promise in the Davidic covenant from the reigning king, in this case Ahaz, to a kin g whom God is about to provide. The theology of monarchy thus becomes less a description of what the office of the reigning king then was than a promise of what God would make it in the days to come.

In this context some interpreters today view verses 2-7 as a hymn or oracle composed by Isaiah or someone else to celebrate the accession of an actual Judean king. The words in verse 6 ‘‘For to us a child is bom,” are taken either as a reference to a “child-king,” or as a metaphorical reference to an adult king’s becoming a “son” of the Lord by adoption on the day of his anointing. If such a view is correct, then we must understand that Isaiah himself or an editor of the Isaianic prophecies has used the hymn for a slightly different purpose than that for which it was originally composed.

A difficulty with the interpretation just given, however, is the announcement of the birth of a child which is followed immediately by the statement about God’s government to be realized through that child. This type of thing is, as far as we know, not the common formula used for kingship in the ancient Near East. A much simpler and less forced interpretation is to read the words in connection with the setting of 6:1-9. That is, in the darkness of 734 B.c. and in the weakness of King Ahaz, God through his prophet takes the occasion to announce the forthcoming fulfillment of his promises of old. He himself will raise up the king in whom he will fulfill his promises. In both 7:14 and 9:6 the manner of that new event begins in the birth of a new royal son. We have noted that in the three birth stories of the Bible which are given us in some detail (Moses, Samuel, and Jesus), each story signified the dramatic intervention of God at a critical juncture. Similarly here, the statement of the birth of a child is the sign of a new mighty act of God in the salvation of his people.

“His Hand Is Stretched Out Still,” Concluded (9:8—10:4)

This section concludes the collection of prophetic oracles begun in 5:24-30 which was interrupted by the special scroll 6:1— 9:7. Four prophecies in 9:8—10:4 (9:8-12, 13-17, 18-21; 10: 1-4) all end with the same refrain, to the effect that God’s action in the judgment of Israel is not yet at an end. The prophecies, therefore, date before the final destruction of Samaria in 724-21 b.c. The first (vss. 8-12) speaks of God’s raising up adversaries against Ephraim and Samaria, though we do not have sufficient information in detail to be sure of the exact historical reference. The second prophecy (vss. 13-17) speaks particularly of the leaders of Israel, both the elders and the popular prophets who teach lies. These will be cut off in the judgment. The third prophecy (vss. 18-21) suggests the inner social and political chaos then existing inside the nation of the north during the last days of its earthly life. Finally, 10:1-4 is a prophetic lament comparable to those in 5:8-23 about the leaders of the nation who used positions of power and trust, in particular the law, as a means of defrauding the poor of the country of their right so that the latter became a prey.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 9". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/isaiah-9.html.