Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-7
When a scripture passage begins with “But,”1 that’s probably a hint to question the lectionary selection.
And indeed, it is better to read this passage with Isaiah 8:16-22. Even with the proper literary context, this passage has proven difficult to interpreters. The ancient translations varied widely in their understandings of what the author was trying to say, and modern commentators disagree about the historical context. One scholar called it “perhaps the most enigmatic … in the entire book of Isaiah.”2 Nevertheless, what emerges is a stark contrast between a life of misery, darkness, and uncertainty under the influence of necromantic divination and a life of riches, freedom, and triumph under the rule of a righteous king.
Necromancy is perhaps not the leading temptation for Western audiences in the 21st century, although we’re apparently still buying Ouija boards. And in a slightly broader perspective, the popularity of ancestor veneration in Asian cultures, and the Mexican Day of the Dead indicate that this is not entirely an antiquarian concern. (These phenomena are not equivalent, yet they may all point to a similar human desire for contact with our forebears.)
The preceding verses make it clear that the deeper issue is something that almost every believer struggles with at one time or another: Divine silence, and the seemingly interminable wait for divine action. The LORD is “hiding his face,” but Isaiah vows to wait for him, and to seal up his prophecies in the meantime so that it can later be verified that they were accurate (Isaiah 8:16-17). Of course, some wanted a divine word sooner; in Isaiah 5:19, they say, “Let [the LORD] make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfillment, that we may know it!” Indeed, the experience of not receiving the favor of a divine word is a microcosm of the story of the Witch of Endor — King Saul sought out necromancy because “the LORD did not answer him” (1 Samuel 28:6-7).
As for the historical setting of Isaiah 9:1, it would appear (granted the uncertainty noted at the outset) that the verse speaks of two past events (“the former time” and “the latter time”) — two separate episodes in which Judah was delivered from a military threat from the north. The first was the intervention of Bar-Hadad of Syria on behalf of Asa of Judah against Ba’asha of Israel (circa 885 BCE; see 1 Kings 15:18–21 and 2 Chronicles 16); the second was Tiglath-Pileser III’s attack on Syria and Israel in 734-731 BCE that freed Judah from the threat of its neighbors (Isaiah 7; 8:5-10; 2 Kings 16:5-9). The implicit logic of the transition from 8:23 to 9:1 is that since YHWH has brought this oppression upon the nation, salvation will come only through seeking him (and not other powers such as the dead ancestors).
The military notes in Isaiah 9:1 may seem disjointed from any context — not only from the previous imagery but also from the hymn of 9:2–7, which is entirely different in literary form. It would seem that this text found its way into this position at a later time, perhaps when the hymn was composed. They do, however, indicate the hope that God will intervene to save Judah. The reference in 9:4 to the “day of Midian” is to the story that is told in Judges 6-7 about Gideon’s defeat of Midian with only 300 Israelite men. The comparison would have been evoked by the similarly long odds of Judah surviving the mighty Neo-Assyrian empire.
The hymn in Isaiah 9:2-7 reverses the underworld language of 8:19 in specific ways: the darkness and gloom that characterized those who rejected the LORD’s counsel give way to light (9:1), and distress gives way to joy (verse 2). While in no way as startling an image as what one finds in chapters 24–27, this does suggest that the overturning of death — the reversal of the sepulchral order of things that Isaiah saw as resulting from cults of the dead.
Isaiah 9:2-7 celebrates a “child” (verse 6) who is to bring “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (verse 7). In its original context, this had to refer to one of the kings of Judah. Since the passage tells of the growth of the nation and portrays the breaking of the staff of an oppressor, the common conclusion is that it originally was composed for Hezekiah (who oversaw an influx of population after the fall of the northern kingdom and survived Sennacherib’s siege in 701) or Josiah (who reigned at a time when the Neo-Assyrian empire was crumbling). The yoke,3 rod, and scepter of verse 3 and the trampling sandal of verse 4 (which is a rare Assyrian loanword) all relate this passage to the Neo-Assyrian period (see Isaiah 10:5, 15; 14:5, 25, 29). Since Josiah was 8 years old when he began to reign (2 Kings 22:1) while Hezekiah was 25 (2 Kings 18:1), one might favor the former conclusion — although of course one does not know if such an oracle could have been written earlier in Hezekiah’s life.
In keeping with Isaiah’s pervasive concern for a just society, the peace of the throne and the kingdom is said to depend upon the justice and righteousness of the king. Those two terms would nicely capture two dimensions of the king’s role: His responsibility to his human subjects and his responsibility to the LORD.
Other aspects of royal ideology reflected in the passage also merit mention. The list of titles has sometimes been compared with Egyptian coronation practices in which the king was given five names. The Hebrew is quite amenable to a five-fold formula (although most recent translations obscure the fact): “Wonder, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6; KJV). This does, of course, invite comment on the identification of a human king as “mighty god”: The divinization of the king in early periods of Israelite religion is also supported by Psalm 2:7, in which the king is “adopted” as a “son of God.”
In later periods, Christian theologians perceived in these passages references to Jesus as king, God, and Son of God — for example, Luke 1:32-33 and Matthew 3:17. From the standpoint of an informed and mature Christian faith, there can be no choosing between these two “horizons” for Old Testament texts that have been reinterpreted Christologically; one can only affirm multiple meanings authorized by the endlessly creative Holy Spirit.
1 So NRSV and NASB; or “Nevertheless” (NIV; KJV); or “For” (JNPS; NJB): Hebrew ki.
2 Marvin Sweeney, “A Philological and Form-Critical Reevaluation of Isaiah 8:16–9:6,” HAR 14 (1994): 215.
3 The “yoke of Assur” was a common Neo-Assyrian literary motif for rule over other nations.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of light,
There can be overwhelming obscurity in this world. But you shine your light and increase joy, and for your brilliance we are grateful. Amen.
True Light, Keith Hampton