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I’m not ruining Christmas. You are.

Anyway, Isaiah 9:1-7 is often considered to be a clear prediction of the birth of the God-man Jesus, especially verses 6-7, made famous by Handel’s “Messiah.”

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.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

At first blush, one can’t help but think that calling this child “Mighty God, Everlasting Father,” who gives “endless peace” and will establish justice “forevermore” could only refer to a divine child, and therefore Jesus. But two things need to be kept in mind concerning this passage.

The context of the passage is set up in Isaiah 9:1.

First, the context of the passage is set up in verse 1, where the land (namely, tribal regions) of Zebulun and Naphtali are in “gloom” and “anguish.” Why? Because they are under the thumb of the Assyrians and the time is the late 8th c. BCE.

[NERD ALERT: Around 733 BCE the Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III conquered this northern region, though this leaves unanswered why not one king but three would want to be named “Tiglath-pilesar.” Regardless, Isaiah’s words here are about the liberation of these tribal regions by a royal birth—“for a child has been born to us, a son given to us.” The identity of this son is not given, though some suggest Hezekiah, during whose reign the southern nation of Judah successfully repulsed the Assyrian attack on Jerusalem (701 BCE), which would further suggest that the ultimate reunification of the northern and southern kingdoms was in view, but we don’t know that really.]

Anyhoo, the context of this passage is the 8th c., and it made sense to people back then.

So how to explain all those divine sounding names given to this child? That’s not very difficult, actually, and brings us to our second point:

Israelite kings, like kings of other nations, were “adopted” by their deity and given exalted “throne names” that bear divine titles.

Look at Psalm 2:7, where God says of the just-crowned king, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” Not literally, of course. God isn’t having a baby. But ceremonially, as an indication of royal authority.

Or Psalm 45:6-7:

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. . .

“O God” refers to the king, who is anointed by “God, your [the king’s] God” to rule.

The exalted divine title we see here—”Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”—is a long, compound throne name. Such exalted divine titles of kings are just how it was done back then, in Israel and elsewhere.

No one—I repeat, no one—in the 8th c. would think that Isaiah is referring to a child who is actually divine, but of a child born to be king through whom God would work, in this case, the liberation of the northern regions from Assyrian control.

But what about Handel’s “Messiah”?! Glad you asked. Isaiah 9:1 is cited in Matthew 4:15-16 to describe the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee (see Isaiah 9:1), and so Matthew seems to be connecting by means of this geographic link Jesus’s ministry of deliverance to the deliverance referred to in the 8th c. BCE.

I suspect there is more to it on Matthew’s part than simply geography, namely that the “big” deliverance Jesus brings is foreshadowed in the “mini” deliverance that captures the attention of the 8th c. prophet. Now, at last, all Israel (and the world) will be united under Messiah Jesus.

It is striking, though, that Matthew doesn’t go on and cite the rest of Isaiah 9, especially verses 6-7, given that he is only one of two New Testament writers who bother to even tell us about Jesus’s birth. The other birth story is Luke’s, which ignores Isaiah 9 completely, as do the rest of New Testament writers.

You’d think the New Testament writers would be all over this, but they aren’t. Connecting Isaiah 9 to Jesus was the work of later church theologians—how late, I’m not sure, but Handel in the 18th c. wasn’t the first to make the connection. It goes back at least to Justin Martyr (100-165 CE).

Isaiah 9 is not a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. It is not an amazing prediction of a child to come who will be “God in human form” and Jesus is the only one to match that description. That would have meant nothing in the 8th c. BCE.

But . . .

Isaiah 9 can (and should) be seized upon by Christians at Christmas time, or any other time of year, to do with it what the New Testament writers do all over the place when it comes to connecting Jesus with Israel’s story. . .

. . . to see read this Old Testament episode in light of Christ. Not as a predictor of something that wouldn’t happen for 700+ years with no relevance to Isaiah’s audience,

but to allow the Gospel to change how we read Israel’s story.

We use the words of Israel’s story in a new and fresh way centered on Jesus. That is a truly Christian reading of the Old Testament.

Jesus isn’t true because he is miraculously predicted 700+ years before his birth. Rather, because Jesus is true, Israel’s story gets reframed around him.

More from this series:

The Pete Ruins Christmas Series, Part 1: The “Pete Ruins Christmas” Series, Part 1: Christmas in America and the Old Testament

Podcast Episode 230: Pete & Jared Ruin Christmas

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Bill Waterstradt says:

    So, God is free to do what God wants. This should be our comfort and strength. Thanks, Pete, for breaking this all down, and I appreciate the new understanding and rationale for a fresh take on Isaiah 9. And we can still sing Handel!

  • Kenneth Winsmann says:

    Hi Dr. Enns,

    Big fan of your work. Especially of your attitude towards doubt which has helped me tremendously in finding an honest expression of Christianity.

    Pope B16, also known as Joseph Ratzinger, has a critique of modern biblical criticism that I’m sure you’re familiar with. Basically he says the practice has become “one sided” and that biblical scholars tend to read scripture as if there were only one author. He thought there should be a reform and biblical criticism should be done through the eyes of faith.

    I think this post may be an example of what B16 wanted to happen in the field. Especially that last paragraph. We can’t read the texts as if they were just any other classic historical document. We must also remember that there are TWO authors, and the divine author may have been making a point that was above and beyond what the human author intended.

    So in the spirit of Ratzinger I might amend that last paragraph to read

    “Because Jesus is true we read the OT in light of Christ, to better understand the divine authors meaning. One that the human author may not have fully comprehended.”


    • Phil Ledgerwood says:

      There’s a lot of assumptions packed into that position, not the least of which being that, if there is a divine author, that this necessarily implies there’s a second layer of meaning that the human author did not have access to. I guess my question would be why we would assume this.

      Since there isn’t a divine author producing different -words- than the human author, Ratzinger’s position would only work if the Scriptures had double meanings ascribed to the same words the human being produced. So, it’s not even really a case of divine authorship as it is the interpretations of a second party. The human author intends to speak to his audience, but God interprets that speech according to a hidden hermeneutic that would only come to light centuries later.

      The other option would be that the human beings are just writing down the words God dictates to them, which would eliminate the human author. In that case, the human would interpret the words according to their own context unaware that there was a secret meaning intended by God that would only make sense centuries later.

      • Kenneth Winsmann says:

        Catholics typically drive people crazy by not choosing between the dichotomies and embracing a “both/and” position rather than the “either/or” route. I think it’s possible that God inspired the prophets to speak to the people of their time and that He was also setting the stage for a greater revelation in the future.

        • Phil Ledgerwood says:

          I’m all for a “both/and” rather than an “either/or,” so don’t get me wrong, but what I’m asking is what our justification would be in this case for a “both/and.” It seems to me that there’s a preexisting theological commitment, so we have to make the situation a “both/and” in order to preserve the preexisting commitment. The text itself doesn’t seem to indicate that God is somehow manipulating the writers of Scripture to say things that would have hidden, double meanings later. That seems to be an assumption we would bring to the text.

          • Kenneth Winsmann says:

            Catholics don’t play by the “text itself” rules if you haven’t heard 😉

            But generally speaking I think the assumption you mentioned flows from the doctrine of inspiration and the idea that the “Inspirers” revelation is coherent and unified

          • Phil Ledgerwood says:

            Yes, right. But it’s that very factor that makes it difficult to evaluate critically.

            There are no shortage of books that talk about secret messages and codes in the Bible, or the Bible predicting modern American presidents, or whatever. We could come up with a theory that aliens traveled faster than the speed of light to reveal to the biblical authors truths about the future that they communicated the best way they knew how. We could come up with all kinds of theories and assumptions about what the Bible is or what it must mean or how it works, and the only way to really deal with those assertions is to ask why we would ever assume those things were true?

            If someone believes that God put hidden future messages in the Bible because the Catholic Church said so, there’s not really a way to respond to that, anymore than there’s a way to respond to the dispensationalist who believes Obama is the Beast of Revelation because Insert Ad Hoc Evangelical Pope Here told them so.

          • Kenneth Winsmann says:

            I understand the objection but I think you’re just taking it way to seriously.

            First, the primary position I’m describing is merely that God inspired scripture, and that this revelation is coherent and unified. This is a faith proposition so we can only talk of “critically evaluating” it up to a certain point. At that point, you will have faith or you won’t.

            I personally hold to that position because…

            A. it is deeply rooted in the Christian Tradition

            B. The “text itself” seems to be credibly interpreted in such a way. (I don’t think interpretations of aliens and secret apocalyptic dates are similarly credible, although I grant they exist)

            C. The Catholic Church teaches this. I didn’t really hang my hat on this point because non Catholics don’t share this reason with me. But to say there is no way to critically evaluate the authority of the Church is an odd claim. *of course* it can be evaluated. That’s why reformed and catholic folk argue all the time 🙂

          • Phil Ledgerwood says:

            I would say the primary position you’re describing is not “merely that God inspired Scripture,” because in order for God to include double meanings in the text that transcended the knowledge of the human author, He would have to have a rather direct hand in the words that were produced. This is a particular view of inspiration.

            I believe, for example, that the Scriptures are inspired by God, but this is a very loose term that motivates Paul to deem the Scriptures “useful” for a handful of related topics. The idea that “inspiration” means “God controlled the actual words that showed up in some way” is a more specific view, and that’s the one you’re arguing for. God wants to communicate things totally outside the knowledge of the human author, so He has to “write” Scripture, too.

            The reason the claim that God wrote meanings unintended by the human authors into Scripture can’t be critically evaluated is because it’s just an assertion. There are no verses that claim this is the case, and there is no end to things I could read back into Scripture claiming that it was a double, future meaning that God intended but the human author did not. Like you say, it’s an a priori assumption that you bring to the text that you have to take on faith.

            And I’m fine with that – many people choose to believe that on the basis of faith and that’s their business. It’s just that there’s not a lot of sense to ask people to interact critically with that view, because either they believe it or they don’t. There’s no way to disprove it, and there’s no source for it outside the assertion itself. It would be like saying, “Thomas Aquinas says angels wear blue lapel pins. What do you think of that?” There’s just nothing we can use to evaluate that claim other than to note the absence of any actual source material that would lead someone to think that.

            What there -is- data for is that the tradition of finding multiple referents in a text goes all the way back to ancient Judaism. Their justification for that varies widely depending on school.

          • Kenneth Winsmann says:

            Dr. Enns doesn’t seem to have any trouble at all critically assessing the classical view of inspiration. He has written several books addressing the topic either directly or indirectly.

            Further, the idea has been debated theologically, historically, textually, and philosophically for hundreds of years. I think your objection on this point is demonstrably false. Not only is it *possible* to critically evaluate various theories of inspiration, it has already been done ad nauseum.

            While I appreciate the fresh perspective of inspiration offered, I just don’t see that it fits with the Christian Tradition as a whole. Further, I’ve always viewed the attempts to “redefine” inspiration as ad hoc reactions to modern criticism rather than theologically organic endeavors. The people pushing such ideas are typically those who became frustrated with the failures of sola scriptura, but somehow missed the boat across the Tiber 🙂

          • Pete E. says:

            You may have missed Phil’s point, but I’ll let him talk.

    • Pete E. says:

      I respect the point but the devil is in the details. I think so much of the NT use of the OT simply can’t bear the weight of that claim. I also think that taking seriously the Second Temple Jewish context tempers the dual authorship position–not eliminates it but tempers it.

      • Kenneth Winsmann says:

        I think it tempers it as much as taking the humanity of Jesus seriously would temper His divinity 🙂

        I was more curious as to where you would find common ground with B16. I think I have a pretty good idea on where you two depart.

        Could you give an example of a connection between two different texts in scripture where you think B16s hermeneutic might be fairly applied? (Namely, not exclusively reading the texts like any other classical historical document but also appreciating the continuity of a divine author through the eyes of faith)

  • This text is the one place I remember studying Hebrew really blowing my mind. Because Hebrew can have verb-less clauses, it is equally valid to translate as:

    Wonderful Counsellor is Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father is Prince of Peace.

    Which makes it even more obvious that it is not calling the child divine. I believe the discussion in our class was suggesting more along the lines of everybody being in the throne room feeling bad about their subservience to Assyria. Isaiah sees a pregnant royal and says this which is to the effect of “look, even in the midst of this death, God is still bringing life. This child is a reminder that God is everlasting, a counsellor, brings peace… even when it doesn’t look like it right now.”

    None of this opposes your conclusion. I agree it is completely fine and good to read the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus. But it did help me understand that this would have been a meaningful encouragement to people who heard it right away, not a promise that long after they were dead God would become a baby.

  • Pete, I see that you are disparaging an old family name of ours this morning. My grandfather named my uncle ‘Tiglath-pilesar’; we called him Uncle Tig. Then my father named my brother ‘Tiglath-pilesar II’. Now my son is about to be born and…well, you figure it out.

    Then you say, “this leaves unanswered why not one king but three would want to be named “Tiglath-pilesar”. You can see how this would hurt my feelings. I am not blaming you; you wouldn’t know. But perhaps you could be a bit more sensitive about such things.

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Great article, Pete. This way of looking at the NT use of the OT helps with a number of problematic instances. If Matthew believes Isaiah 9 is a direct -prediction- of Jesus, it’s an instance of bad proof-texting due to a lack of regard for the original text’s context.

    If Matthew is, instead, depending on the “localized” meaning of Isaiah 9 and importing that to describe the circumstances around Jesus, so as to say, “You remember what was going on, then? Well, this is super-that,” then he understands and respects the original text.

    • It is a case of pure imagination on Matthew’s part, same as many applications of OT by DSS writers.

      Isaiah does not even mention a virgin giving birth, but simply mentions a young woman, possibly a virgin, conceiving, as young women, including virgins, naturally do. The prophetic part of Isa. was not about a miraculous mode of conception but a prophecy to Ahaz about how the kings and kingdoms he feared would not need to be feared once the child had reached a certain age. See also how Isaiah impregnates someone elsewhere, naturally, and how that child too would become a sign.

      • Phil Ledgerwood says:

        That’s a fine critique of certain interpretations of Isaiah 7. Pete’s article was about Isaiah 9. Did you read it?

  • Michael Brown says:

    “Jesus isn’t true because he is miraculously predicted 700+ years before his birth. Rather, because Jesus is true, Israel’s story gets reframed around him.”

    Thanks for injecting this in this time of year with all its meaningless “the chances of all X prophecies being fulfilled by chance is Y(some absurdly small number)” sermons which happen in certain congregations…

  • Ned Quimby says:

    For sale: Messiah tickets, never used

  • Dennis says:

    Pete: Regarding the child of Isa. 9:6-7, this link
    summarizes two viewpoints. You obviously take Viewpoint One. How would you answer the arguments from Viewpoint Two?

    • Pete E. says:

      The main problems I see are that it hedges on what it means for Isa 9 to have double fulfillment. It also doesn’t seem to see (or know) about the whole throne name idea. Yes, of course, God means God–but it’s a throne name.

      • Dennis says:

        Pete: Why couldn’t Isa. 9 have double fulfillment (referring to Hezekiah & Jesus) like Ezek. 28 refers to the King of Tyre & Satan? Maybe I don’t understand your stance on double fulfillment. You say it is okay if Christians see Jesus in Isa. 9, but don’t you think God intended that match? True, the OT people wouldn’t get the reference to Jesus at that time, but that’s why it is called “double” fulfillment. Since you are in the series of “Pete Ruins Christmas”, I would like to see one post in which you discuss what OT passages are really prophecies of Jesus, if you think there are any.

  • Joe Deutsch says:

    I am often surprised at how much consciously acknowledging that the OT had to make sense to the immediate audience (or what was the point?) makes the evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation not make sense any more.

    Pete, I would be interested in your take on Isa. 7 and the whole “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” thing

  • Post-hoc reasoning. Nor do we know Jesus was born of a virgin, nor if the historical Jesus was God or even claimed to be God.

    • Scott Jorgenson says:

      A fine reply, if Pete were still arguing for Isaiah 9 as a forecast of future events, and thus as positive apologetic evidence for Christianity. But that’s not his approach at all. You’ve completely missed his point.

  • JulianofN says:

    Can you recommend any good books on Isaiah? It’s my favourite book, I’d love to know more about it.

  • Iain Lovejoy says:

    Just to mess it up further, given that Hebrew nominative sentences do not use a verb, doesn’t the verse in any event more naturally read: “A wonderful counselor is Almighty God etc”?