For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 NRSV
These are familiar words this time of year. You may be humming the music from Messiah now. This Advent we’ll spend some time with the four titles in this verse, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.
Isaiah’s words and writing date from 742 until 701 or 687 BCE. That means Isaiah lived several centuries before Jesus. Christians associate these titles from the prophet Isaiah with Jesus. But was Jesus the son Isaiah is speaking about?
Well, yes and no. Biblical scholars think this text dates from the time of the Assyrian Empire. This is after the time of David and Solomon when Israel had separated into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been overtaken by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, was under the threat of attack from Israel and Syria. King Ahaz of Judah had two bad choices. One was to enter into an alliance with Assyria. However an alliance with the Assyrian empire would endanger the continued existence of the kingdom of Judah. Alternatively, Ahaz could join forces with Israel and Syria to try and defeat the Assyrian Empire. Also a choice full of danger for Judah’s continued existence.
The prophet Isaiah has a third way for King Ahaz, do neither. Ahaz should wait for God to deliver Judah. Isaiah proclaims the birth of a child will be the sign of God’s protection. Scholars think that child was Ahaz’ son Hezekiah.
Ahaz ignores Isaiah’s counsel and makes an alliance with Assyria that results in the loss of territory to Assyria and causes Judah to pay tribute to Assyria. Ahaz also compromised worship in the Temple and swore allegiance to the Assyrian king and his gods. The Old Testament regards Ahaz as an evil king. His son, Hezekiah did try to remove idolatry and purified and repaired the Temple. The Old Testament portrays Hezekiah as one of the good kings. We don’t, of course, know what would have happened, how history might have been different, had Ahaz listened to Isaiah.
If Isaiah prophecy was about Hezekiah, how can Christians claim the same prophecy to be about Jesus?
When we try to discern whether Isaiah meant Hezekiah or Jesus, we need first to think about the role of prophets and prophecy. Often modern people treat prophecy as a method of predicting the future. But for the most part, prophecy is not about predicting the distant future. Prophets speak about the near term future. The prophet’s task was to tell the truth to the rulers and the people. Prophets told the consequences of disobedience and/or obedience. Sometimes particular signs were given.
Remember Isaiah and Ahaz are living in the time of the divided kingdom but, God’s covenant with David still exists. There is still the expectation that there will be a ruler of David’s line who will govern the nation rightly and justly.
In the short term, Isaiah’s words may well have been about Hezekiah. Hezekiah did try to restore proper worship and proper ways of living for his people. Hezekiah was not completely successful. He was not the one who restored the long awaited Davidic rule. Ultimately (after Hezekiah) Judah falls to Babylon.
It also makes sense to consider Isaiah’s words as speaking about the ideal king. Isaiah describes the king God wants for God’s people. Isaiah’s words tell us God’s desire and hope. Its an explanation that tells how a king ought to be king.
And that reading means we can think about how Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s words. Christians came to understand that Jesus is the king God wants for God’s people. King Jesus rules the way God wants a king to rule. King Jesus is the one who is the long awaited king.
It is however, not necessarily an obvious step from Isaiah’s words, wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace to Jesus. And this is what we’ll spend Advent thinking about. How is Jesus the wonderful counselor? Mighty God? Everlasting Father? Prince of Peace?
My reflections this Advent are based on Walter Brueggemann’s book Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study Guide.
If you are in the Grand Rapids MI area this Advent, you are welcome to join our discussion of this book at Westminster Presbyterian Church. 9:40 am Dec 4,11,18.