Isaiah 9: What did the Prophet Isaiah say about Jesus?
Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah and his divine names
Whether from Handel’s Messiah or at a carol service, many of us will hear the words of Isaiah about Jesus this Christmas: ‘For to us a child is born’.
But we rarely read these verses in their context — how does this prophecy fit with the rest of Isaiah? Although Christians see Isaiah 9 as a prophecy about the birth of Jesus, how do Jews interpret this chapter?
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6–7, NIV (5–6 in Jewish versions))
According to Alec Motyer, an Old Testament scholar, Isaiah 9 is in the middle of a section from chapters 7–11. The first three chapters (7–9) all focus on the birth of a baby who will deliver God’s people.
During the time of King Ahaz, Israel faced an immediate threat of invasion. But throughout chapters 7–11, these contemporary events were intertwined with a vision of a future everlasting kingdom.
As argued in an earlier article, Chapter 7 promised a sign of a baby — who will be “God with us” (Immanuel) in the distant future. Yet Chapter 8 recorded the birth of another child (Isaiah’s son) — Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz — as a fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel at that time.
Chapter 9 returns to this promise of the Messiah’s future rule. Then Chapter 11 builds on the nature of his eternal kingdom. Where the lion will lay down with the lamb — a picture of the new heaven and the new earth ruled by the son of David.
Jewish tradition: Messiah or Hezekiah?
Yet the reference to a son of David makes us think of the promised Messiah (Psalm 2, 2 Samuel 7). So it is not a surprise that other Rabbinic Jewish scholars associated these verses with the Messiah. For example, a passage from the Talmud (Tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta) referred to the child of Isaiah 9 as the Messiah. Similarly, the famous Jewish medieval scholar, Rambam (Maimonides) in his Epistle to Yemen:
The Messiah, indeed, ranks after Moses in eminence and distinction… Six appellations were divinely conferred upon him as the following passage indicates: “For a child is born unto us, and a son is given unto us, and the government is upon his shoulder, and he is called Pele, Yoetz, el, Gibbor, Abiad, Sar-Shalom.” (Isaiah 9:6(5)).
It is possible to reconcile these two interpretations. As a son of David, Hezekiah partially fulfilled this prophecy (leading Israel to temporary deliverance from Assyria).
But we know he did not reign forever as predicted in verse 7(6). After his death, the evil King Manasseh took the throne (2 Kings 20:16–21). Judah was then exiled from the land four generations later.
The promise of eternal peace would have to wait for the Messiah to come in the future. As noted in another passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a), Hezekiah had failed to achieve the final redemption for God’s people.
Past or Future?
A clear difference between Jewish and Christian translations is whether to render Isaiah 9:6(5) in the past or future tense. Most modern Jewish translations, such as the Chabad website, use the past tense:
For a child has been born to us, a son given to us, and the authority is upon his shoulder, and the wondrous adviser, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, called his name, “the prince of peace.”
How we interpret the verse depends on whether it was about Hezekiah or the Messiah. The Hebrew reads as something that has already happened.
But it is not uncommon for prophets in the Hebrew Bible to speak of the future in this way. For example, Psalm 3:4(5) literally states ‘he answered me’. The Psalmist conveyed his confidence that God will answer him by use of the past tense. As pointed out by the famous Jewish commentator Radak (David Kimchi):
And in the greater part of prophecy this is found, that the speaker uses a past tense in place of a future; for it is as though the thing had already happened when it has been spoken in the Holy Spirit. (Radak on the Psalms, Psalm 3:5)
Since the child of Isaiah 9:6–7(5–6) will rule forever, this is unlikely to be about Hezekiah. Therefore, Isaiah used the past tense to indicate his confidence in the fulfilment of this prophecy.
The names of God or the child?
Another difference between modern Christian and Jewish translations is how to render the names in verse 6(5). Do they refer to God or the child?
The oldest Jewish translation (the Septuagint, a Greek translation) attributes all names to the child. However, for Rashi, only “prince of peace” referred to the child Hezekiah.
Although the Chabad translation follows Rashi, not all Jewish commentators agreed. For example, Ibn Ezra, and a passage from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) interpreted that all names in this verse belonged to the child. Rambam also thought these names described the child (see his letter to Yemen above).
Therefore, there was no consensus on this matter in Jewish tradition. Christian translations (like the NIV) are consistent with many Rabbinic scholars’ interpretations.
Even if we agree that El Gibbor refers to the child, there is some debate on what this means. Most Christian translations render this as ‘Mighty God’. But other scholars have argued this name can mean ‘Mighty warrior’ or ‘Mighty chief’.
Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer in his commentary of Isaiah argued el Gibbor should be translated as Mighty God in Isaiah 9. First, when el appears together with a descriptor like Gibbor in the Hebrew Bible, it is always a description of God. So there is little precedent for translating this phrase as god-like or chief.
Second, Isaiah would have been aware that many would interpret this phrase as a description of God. In the next chapter, both Chabad and the Jewish Publication Society (1985) translate el Gibbor as Mighty God — unequivocally a reference to God (Isaiah 10:21).
How can Jesus be Everlasting Father?
Another common objection is that Isaiah’s use of the title ‘everlasting father’ means he could not be referring to Jesus. However, as we have seen, no one thinks this verse is about God the Father — so Isaiah is not confusing the roles of the Father and the Son.
If this verse is about Jesus, in what ways is Jesus ‘everlasting father’? First, ‘everlasting’ refers to to the eternal rule of the Messiah consistent with other verses in the Hebrew Bible (such as Isaiah 9:7(6); Micah 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:13).
Second, as pointed out by Daniel Hanes (Associate Director of Union Theology in the UK), Jesus is the author of our faith and cares for us as his children (Hebrews 2:13). Interestingly, that verse from Hebrews quoted Isaiah 8 as a reference to Jesus:
Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion. (8:18, NIV)
We would also expect Jesus to do everything that the Father does (John 5:19). Therefore, it is no surprise that Jesus loves us like a father.
An encouraging but realistic message
Isaiah 7–11 presents a realistic picture of our world. We have troubles, we have enemies, bad things happen.
Like in the time of Ahaz, God is gracious and often delivers us from suffering. Yet, we will have tough seasons where God seems to be absent or that he doesn’t care. Surely many must have felt that way in the exile after Hezekiah.
The theme throughout Isaiah 7–11 is not to give up hope. God has not abandoned us. His promises have not failed. The best is yet to come. God’s Son will bring a new heaven and a new earth:
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9, NIV)