Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7
In difficult times, many of us look for sources and symbols of hope. Sometimes we find them in nature, the arts, humor, or comforting memories. Often, we turn our attention to individuals who seem to possess a certain charisma, constellation of gifts, or unique skills needed in a particular situation. For some, the sights and sounds of new life spark a sense of possibility—an ember of hope to inspire amid challenging times. Our text in Isaiah 9:2–7, like Isaiah 2:1–5, finds a nation withering under Assyrian domination. The seemingly endless anguish and despair characterizing Isaiah 8 find a moment of respite, if not full release, in Isaiah 9:2–7. These verses capture a series of hopeful images promising the dawn of a new era in the nation’s history. These promises culminate in the birth of a special child whose ultimate coronation as king inaugurates an era of boundless peace, unencumbered justice, and endless joy.
Free at last
Isaiah 9:2 transitions us from the gloom and despair of the earlier oracles by contrasting the “light” of this new day with the “darkness” of the previous era. While describing this darkness, the same Hebrew word appears in Isaiah 9:2 and Psalm 23:4. In Isaiah 9:2b, the Hebrew word is translated as “deep darkness,” although in Psalm 23:4 it is translated as “shadow of death.” In both contexts, the deliverance of God emerges as an intervention that creates an antidote to the dangers confronting each author. For Isaiah, God’s reversal produces a joyous harvest in Isaiah 9:3, which the author emphasizes by using a Hebrew root meaning joy three times in the course of four words. This eruption of joy is then connected to an explicitly political and social liberation. The imagery of Isaiah 9:4 references tools military rivals and enemies of Judah deployed to establish their dominance. Thus, the breaking of bars, yokes, and rods envisions the shedding of Assyrian military oppression—a point the author emphasizes by referencing “the day of Midian” at the end of this verse. Similar to Isaiah 2:1–5, Isaiah 9:5 describes the repurposing of military paraphernalia for the flourishing of a society in a time of peace.
A hero comes along
Isaiah 9:6–7 contains imagery and language consistent with ancient coronation rituals known throughout the biblical world. These verses refer explicitly to the continuation of the Davidic lineage and kingdom promised in 2 Samuel 7. Given Assyria’s destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their incursions upon Judean territories in the late 8th century BCE, the promise of a perpetual Davidic kingdom may have seemed untenable. Into this context, these two verses reiterate God’s commitment to the promises given to the nation centuries earlier. Similar to the patterns within Genesis, the reliability of God’s promises is connected to God’s ability to provide children who embody the future viability of the nation. So, the promised child in Isaiah 9:6–7 is a successor to continue the Davidic lineage rather than a future, idyllic king, as would emerge in later traditions. This promised successor helps to lead the nation into an era of prosperity and peace. According to the prophet, the new king establishes two essential pillars for this prosperous kingdom: justice and righteousness. Seemingly, as long as these two pillars remain intact, then the nation and its Davidic lineage will endure.
Like other passages in Isaiah (Isaiah 7) and the biblical corpus (Psalm 2), the ascendancy of an ideal Davidic king becomes a guarantee of God’s reign on earth. In part because of these royal images and their connection to a godly kingdom, these verses resonate deeply within many Christian traditions. The opening words of Isaiah 9:6, “for a child has been born for us, a son given to us …” often appear in Christian liturgies around Advent and Christmas seasons. As a result, the subsequent descriptions in Isaiah 9:6–7 acquire a messianic meaning and become part of the prophetic previews of the life and work of Jesus Christ. The honorific titles (for example, “Wonderful Counselor,” “Prince of Peace,” et cetera) become associated with Christ and Christ’s roles as Savior and Lord. New Testament authors use Isaiah, perhaps more than any other prophetic book, to describe significant events in the life of Jesus. Whether at Christ’s birth (Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6–7) or death (Isaiah 53:3–5), the prophecies of Isaiah supply the New Testament writers with the raw materials to articulate the significance of Jesus Christ.
The author concludes this section with a reminder of the ultimate source of this enduring kingdom and its re-emergence: “the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” This concluding phrase buffers any expectations that the successor can achieve this noble goal without the “LORD of the army” fighting this battle for and with him. Although the LORD will do this, the prophet makes it clear the chosen successor has a role to play. Thus, the “endless peace” promised in Isaiah 9:6 can only occur when God, and God’s given representative, work in concert to establish and uphold “justice and righteousness.”