Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

For historical backgrounds that may underlie this complex passage, please see the entries by Terence Fretheim (Christmas 2009) and Karoline Lewis (Christmas 2010).

December 24, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

For historical backgrounds that may underlie this complex passage, please see the entries by Terence Fretheim (Christmas 2009) and Karoline Lewis (Christmas 2010).

For historical backgrounds that may underlie this complex passage, please see the entries by Terence Fretheim (Christmas 2009) and Karoline Lewis (Christmas 2010).

For historical backgrounds that may underlie this complex passage, please see the entries by Terence Fretheim (Christmas 2009) and Karoline Lewis (Christmas 2010).

This commentary will explore the interpretive history leading to its presence at this powerful moment of the Christian year.

The libretto to Handel’s Messiah was composed in 1741 by the English landowner Charles Jennens, a patron of the arts interested in messianism. This work has deeply influenced modern hearing of Isaiah 9 and other Old Testament passages, passages originally intended to speak not about Jesus but about realities and hopes in the prophets’ own days. Messiah is arranged to tell a story not actually reflected in either the Old or the New Testaments: after a bass recitative of Isaiah 60:2-3 (“For darkness shall cover the earth….”), Isaiah 9:2 responds (“the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”), followed by the well-known chorus “for unto us a child is born….” This directly precedes the soprano recitative about the shepherds (Luke 2:8-13) and the chorus “Glory to God in the highest” (verse 14). 

Long before Messiah, Isaiah 9:2-7’s relationship to the gospel story was already complex and fascinating. The verse that invariably calls Christmas to modern minds, “for unto us a child is born” is never invoked by New Testament writers. In fact, when Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9:1-2, he correlates it not with Jesus’ birth, but with the beginning of his public preaching (Matthew 4:13-16).

The Septuagint translation of this passage may help explain the differences between its role in early Christian reflection and its later Christological use. Early Gentile Christians had little or no access to the version of Isaiah 9 so well known today, because the Greek read very differently. Divergences are vast in verses 4-5, which in LXX concern not war but economic exploitation. More importantly, verse 6 does not conclude with a series of royal names (“Wonderful Counselor,” etc.), but with only one, followed by further comment: “and his name is called Angelos (angel; messenger) of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace to the princes, peace and health to him.”

At that time the status of Jesus in relation to God was being debated, as the first chapter of Hebrews attests. Some did consider Jesus an angel. No first-century Christian text that employs Isaiah 9:6 in this debate has survived, but in the early second century Justin Martyr is found discussing Jesus’ teaching role in this way: “By calling him [Christ] ‘the Angel of great counsel,’ did not Isaiah predict that Christ would be a teacher of those truths that he expounded when he came upon this earth?” (Dialogue with Trypho 76). John Chrysostom similarly, in the fourth century, read Jesus as called “Angel of Great Counsel, God the Strong, the Mighty One” (Against the Anomobans 5:15).

John’s contemporary Jerome, drawing attention to the discrepancy between Hebrew and Greek renderings, suggested that the LXX translator, “terrified by the majesty of these names, did not dare to say of a child that he must be called God and so forth.” He insisted that the first four words should each stand on its own: not “wonderful counselor” but “wonderful, counselor”; not “mighty God,” but “God, mighty” (Commentary on Isaiah 3.9.16-17). For many centuries the two traditions, the one from the Greek and the other from the Hebrew, lived on side by side.

It’s not hard to understand the LXX translator’s struggles with this passage. Its relationship to its context is fairly opaque; its historical setting subject to considerable disagreement, and its internal flow difficult to follow. Moreover, the significance and punctuation of the throne names in verse 6 are debated, as Jerome’s discussion and the following translations show:

“Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (KJV).
“The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler” (Tanakh)
“Planner of wonders; God the war hero is Father forever; prince of well-being” (W. L. Holladay).
“One who plans a wonder is the warrior God; the father forever is a commander who brings peace” (John Goldingay).

Most scholars agree that the passage once celebrated a descendant of David and future king. Debate continues over whether the poem once proclaimed the birth of a future king or his ascension to the throne, and whether this was a traditional formulation or was composed in relation to a particular king such as Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Scholars also differ over whether the names refer to the child himself or to God. Christological readings from at least the time of Jerome view them as characterizing the one named. But other sons’ names in preceding chapters (Isaiah 7:3, “a remnant will return”; 7:14, “God is with us”; 8:3, “spoil is hurrying; plunder is hastening”) do not characterize the children, but the times surrounding their births. The configuration of these other names is part of what leads some to see in these phrases sentences describing God.

So how can this passage serve Christmas with integrity today? Given the holiday setting, ancient Judah’s kings probably won’t be the focal point of worship. Yet Isaiah raises themes worth exploring alongside of Luke. The most obvious are darkness and light, concern for the lowly among powerful empires, joyful hope heralded by birth, and the expectation of peace — all striking features of both Luke’s narrative and Isaiah’s song.

A consistent theme in Isaiah is leaders’ responsibility for justice and righteousness, internal security for meek and lowly as well as external security for the kingdom overall. “Prince of Peace” refers not simply to warm fuzzy feelings radiating to souls from God, but to an active, muscular, real-life peace, maintained by protecting weak from strong. Other passages in Isaiah describe the just ruler as “a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land” (Isaiah 32:2), allowing for wolf to live with lamb, leopard with kid, lion and calf together, a place made safe for the young of every species (Isaiah 11:6-9). This hope is renewed among candle and song each Christmas, renewed to ignite human priorities all through the year.