Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7
On Christmas Eve, and probably before it, many hear Isaiah 9 and Isaiah 11 echoed in songs.
The images of these two texts have infiltrated deeper levels of our memory, even spilling over into more culturally popular Christmas songs that have little to do, at times, with the feast of Christmas itself. The foremost challenge for preachers incorporating this text into the message of Christmas (and its relationship to the other readings for this occasion) is to recognize and value the complexity of its place in Hebrew scripture. Of course, even that task is far from simple!
First Isaiah dates from the eighth century BCE. As prophecy, it speaks to a situation of disarray. The northern kingdom has been subjected to Assyrian rule. This will soon be the fate of the southern kingdom as well. The “original” Isaiah warns King Hezekiah of this fate: it is not enough to say that the people are a covenant people, for they have broken the covenant.
Hope and comfort are still part of these chapters though they must be carefully defined! Tradition and the liturgy have turned Isaiah 9 into a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. The text however speaks of a different irruption into the history of God’s people. Isaiah 9 (as well as Isaiah 11) is most likely incorporating language from liturgical texts stemming from the coronation of a king, either hymns or perhaps descriptions of the rites.
The ritual progression moves from thanksgiving to ritual acts (acts of destruction, burning and subsequent enthronement) to blessing (see M.B. Crook, Journal of Biblical Literature 68). Whichever king is being enthroned, though intriguing to debate, is perhaps not as pertinent for our current concern. The point is that the people have lived in political darkness, either through oppression from a foreign power or through the idol worship (trusting powers other than God) and untrustworthy behavior of their own rulers. Hope is placed in a new king; though as we will see, this new king is not to be equated with God. Isaiah is here reflecting on the character of kingship from within the Hebrew liturgical tradition.
The child king is not the one who brought about the celebrated freedom. This is God’s own action. It is God who is the cause of the rejoicing; God who has given bountifully; and God who has broken the oppressor’s rod. All of this action is comparable to the day of Midian. This reference alone confirms that the actor in these verses is God’s self (and not the king). At Midian, Gideon was commanded by God to send away all the troops except for three hundred so that it would be clear that the victory was God’s.
What is the king’s role? The king remains the sign of God’s initiative (and a particularly powerful sign as the king, in the text, is a child). The king witnesses to God’s plan, not his own. Psalm 96 (also assigned for Christmas Eve) picks up on the fact that God alone is the one acting: “Ascribe to the Lord honor and power / tremble before the Lord all the earth.”
In verse 5, the old is destroyed. All the signs of the old, of the darkness, of faithlessness — the boots and the garments rolled in blood — are ritually burned. This burning happens before the coming and enthronement of the king. The king, this child, is now given the ritual markings: the cloak of power, of authority, of government is placed on his shoulders. The metaphor of “something” resting on the king’s shoulder is intriguing. We envision the mantle of office, the garment signifying authority. A monarch is wrapped in a cloak.
Again, the emphasis is upon something external that is placed upon the king. The yoke of the oppressor has been broken. But now, a new yoke is placed on the king (and subsequently on the people): the yoke of God’s reign, power, and authority, on the people. This child-king represents God’s claim on the people. This yoke is God’s judgment of the world with righteousness and the people with truth. The king is subject to this judgment as well, and at all times.
What is the meaning of these wonderful names? Names now ascribed (apparently) to the king? Or are they ascribed to the king? Another issue of translation arises here as these verses could also being referring these names to God (the king cries out God’s name: Wonderful Counselor … ). In fact, in other places of Scripture where these names arise, God is clearly the reference. These names denote the majesty and magnificence of God’s presence, as it is known among the people. God is the one who makes wonderful decisions, who alone is the mighty one, who alone is father, giving shalom, that is all blessings both physical and spiritual.
Though the Christian tradition has clearly seen the Messiah announced in this text, it is worthy to note the distinctions made within the text between the king and God. The king, the ideal ruler, is one who points to God and who brings the people under God’s government and authority. The king is also subject to that power. The Christian tradition now states something radically new in its use of Isaiah 9. The one born unto us is God’s very self.
This “king” is no longer merely pointing to God but is God, even if unrecognized among us. Perhaps the reference to a “child” here takes on particular significance. The child is not simply an off-shoot (by blood) of the tree of Jesse, but stands to remind us that this God who comes into the world remains always an unrecognized, dismissed, powerless (in the eyes of the world) God.
One final comment — a lectionary “tid-bit.” Over the next couple of weeks leading from Christmas to Epiphany, the three readings from Isaiah come from all three sections of “Isaiah” — First Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and Third Isaiah. All three readings speak out of vastly different contexts. Attentiveness to those contexts (judgment, exile, promise) can impact preaching as we move from Christmas (God’s unrecognized entry into the world in judgment and mercy) to Epiphany (God’s revelation to all the world).