Isaiah 9:6-7 is one of the more famous passages of the Old Testament. Up and down the country it is read or recited at carol services as an introduction to the incarnated Christ. Whilst Isa 7:14 provides the vital 'Immanuel' meaning 'God with us' it is Isaiah 9:6-7 that produces a stream of epithets that lead us to believe that we have no reason to dismay for the world is currently under the influence and control of the incarnated God. Then the annual church pilgrimage over everyone returns to their dark Godless existences to revel in the materialism and drunken debauchery that is rapidly becoming the true meaning of Christmas.
It is interesting to note however that it is far from certain that the passage in Isa 9:6-7 has the meaning that it traditionally attributed to it. A survey of the web reveals that there are really four primary interpretations that this passage is given. In the short essay that follows I aim to briefly discuss each of these views and then conclude with an expanded explanation of the view I hold.
The first interpretation is one that is associated with some Jewish interpreters; the claim is that this passage actually refers to Hezekiah. The rationale states that the underlying Hebrew is actually in the past tense. Thus the verse would start: "For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us." If this translation is believed then the argument is fairly compelling; Jesus was not born for another 600 years. Of course the problem then arises that the remaining parts of Isaiah 6:6-7 seem a little extreme for an early ruler. This objection is countered by the assertion that it was common for people to have titles of God in their name. In fact as Isaiah was prone to long multi-syllable names the whole stream of attributions could be as much a story as a description. It should also be noted that there has been discussion in Jewish literature with regard to 'how close' Hezekiah came to being the Messiah.
The force of the Hebraic translation given in the first interpretation has however been called into question. It can be shown that Is 9:6 is not in a genuine past tense; Hebrew does not have one. Instead it is in the perfect which generally shows completion. However it is argued that this is actually the prophetic perfect. That is an action that is not yet actually complete is perceived as being complete because it is being declared by the sovereign God. Thus Is 5:13 declares that Israel has gone into captivity even though it clearly hadn't at the time. Thus the argument goes that this passage still looks forward to a Messiah which is to come which gives us a second interpretation.
The third interpretation is the one that inspires most of the carol services that will be attended in the coming weeks. An example of this interpretation can be found at: http://www.foundationsforfreedom.net/References/OT/Prophets/Isaiah/Isaiah09.5-6_Names.html and in most of our Christian carols. I will quote a couple of lines from this site as I think the outline the problem that it has:
Our hope is around the child that would reign forever over a kingdom that would bring people out of darkness into light. This is the glorious kingdom of God now in our midst and yet is growing more and more apparent around the world. Nothing will stop this. We can stand on the observer deck of earth and see God's mighty redemptive plan be fulfilled.
For me there is a huge problem which may be viewed experientially or theologically. Put bluntly if Christ is currently running the government then He is making an appalling job of it. We are fresh out of a century with two world wars. The Jews have spent two thousand years being ground under the heel of almost every significant world empire. Christians are being martyred daily. Godlessness and apostasy abound everywhere and increasing feature within the church. The nations have developed weapons of destruction that allow one action to destroy more of mankind than many of the past wars together. To what extent is the glorious kingdom of Christ growing more apparent? More Biblically; which part of Revelation that deals with the times 'to come' gives the impression that the gospel is going to spread to take over the world?
The fourth interpretation is rather more complicated that any of the former three which is rather a shame as I think it is the more accurate. Essentially it splits the two verses into two pieces; those that were fulfilled at Jesus' first advent and those which will be fulfilled at His second.
Exactly how this division occurs differs with interpreter but for me I would assert that the opening clauses of Isaiah 9:6 are not a meaningless repetition. I believe it is quite deliberate that we are not told a child would be born that will grow into a son. Instead we are told a child will be born and a son will be given. Whilst it would not have been clear to the original reader I believe that with the light of the New Testament we can see these are different events. The child Jesus was born; he grew and then gave His life a ransom for many. But He will be returning as a fully grown son and then He will be able to assume and fulfill all of the titles given in the two verses without any need for a loose interpretation.
We have seen that this very common verse has four widely divergent interpretations. The two from the original recipients of the prophecy of Isaiah argue for either Hezekiah or some as yet unidentified Messiah. The interpretation that much of Christianity promulgates asserts that the two verses were fulfilled during the Lord's time upon this earth. The accompanying claims whilst beautiful have the problem of straining credulity and being Biblically indefensible. The fourth interpretation offered splits the fulfillment between a first and second advent with the amazing claims being finally fulfilled when the Lord returns in glory at the end of the tribulation.