Monday, November 26, 2018

The King In Isaiah 9 Is God

Before we get to the names in verse 6 that usually are the focus of discussion, we should consider some other evidence. Since Isaiah 9 is about the culmination of the monarchy in Israel, a good place to start is with the origins of that monarchy.

In 1 Samuel 8:7, God tells Samuel that Israel's desire for a king is a rejection of having God as their king. One of the consequences of the monarchy, the first one mentioned, would be that the Jewish people would have to serve in the king's military and produce his weapons of war (1 Samuel 8:11-12). The response of the people is to affirm their willingness to subject themselves to what the monarchy will bring with it, with a focus on how the king will lead them in warfare (8:20).

Not only does it make sense in the abstract that somebody like Isaiah would be interested in the origins of the monarchy, as addressed in 1 Samuel 8, but we also have evidence of that interest being expressed by his contemporaries. Hosea 13:9-11 refers to the central theme we see in 1 Samuel 8, the rejection of God in favor of a king.

In Isaiah 9, we see a reversal of 1 Samuel 8. A king is raised up who brings about the destruction of the implements of war (9:5) and brings eternal peace (9:6-7). But since the contrast between having a human monarchy and having God as king is at the center of 1 Samuel 8, the reversal that occurs in Isaiah 9 makes more sense if the human king is being replaced by God. A divine king makes more sense of the 1 Samuel 8 backdrop.

The theme of God ruling on earth in an eschatological kingdom is prominent in Isaiah (2:3-4, 12:6, 24:23, 40:10-11, 60:19-20). Even though he thinks Isaiah 9 refers to Hezekiah, J.J.M. Roberts acknowledges that in chapter 2, "Yahweh takes over the governmental tasks" (First Isaiah [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2015], 39). That theme, which is found elsewhere in Isaiah as well, not just in chapter 2, gives us more reason to expect the eschatological ruler of chapter 9 to be God.

Furthermore, there are connections between chapter 9 and other passages, and those connections suggest the deity of the figure in Isaiah 9. Notice how closely 2:2-5 aligns with 9:1-7. The implements of war are destroyed (2:4, 9:5), and the ruler provides light for walking (2:5, 9:2). The ruler is referred to as God in 2:3-5, and he's likely God in chapter 9.

Like chapter 9, the Servant Songs often refer to messianic, eschatological themes. See, for example, the relevant sections in the second volume of Gary Smith's commentary on Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66 [Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2009]). Even though chapter 9 and the Servant Songs aren't always addressing the same timeframe, they often are.

Isaiah 42:1, the opening of the first Servant Song, refers to the Servant as "chosen". Smith notes that the term isn't used of prophets, but is often applied to kings (ibid., n. 265 on 161). If the Servant is the king of chapter 9, then that explains the "chosen" terminology.

The light theme of 9:2 is reminiscent of how the Servant is referred to as a light to the nations (42:6, 49:6). It's not just that chapter 9 refers to the figure there as a light. It also refers to him as a light in a messianic, eschatological context and in connection with the Gentiles ("Galilee of the Gentiles" in verse 1). As J. Alec Motyer noted:

"It [Galilee] is nowhere else called Galilee of the Gentiles/'nations'….the reference to the Gentiles/'the nations' introduces a new idea, the involvement of the Gentiles in the time of hope….the Messiah is for the world (cf. 11:10; 42:1, 6; 49:6; 60:1-3) and Isaiah took the opportunity to introduce the topic here in his first major exposition of the coming King." (The Prophecy Of Isaiah [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993], 100)

50:10 associates the Servant with providing light for those walking in darkness. That theme is also found in 9:2.

H.G.M. Williamson notes that the last two words of Isaiah 9:3 occur in Isaiah only in that passage and in 53:12 (Isaiah 6-12 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018], 388). Most likely, the king of chapter 9 is the Servant of chapter 53.

What's said about the Servant's authority and relationships with rulers makes more sense if he's the king of chapter 9 than if he's not. The Servant brings justice to the nations (42:1, 42:3-4), and they wait for his instruction (42:4). Rulers will bow before him (49:7). He's prominent among the great (52:15, 53:12). Identifying the Servant as the Davidic king of chapter 9 is simpler than seeing the Servant as a second figure who has characteristics so reminiscent of the worldwide ruler described in chapter 9.

So, there's a series of themes connecting Isaiah 9 to the Servant passages. If the figure of chapter 9 is the Servant of later chapters, then evidence for the identity of that Servant is evidence for the identity of the king of Isaiah 9. And the Servant is identified as God. The reference to the Servant's being "high and lifted up and greatly exalted" (52:13) is language used to describe God elsewhere in Isaiah (6:1, 33:10, 57:15; also see 2:17), so 52:13 probably identifies the Servant as God. Given the connections between the Servant passages and Isaiah 9 (as well as Isaiah 11, which is connected to chapter 9), the deity of the figure of chapter 9 is implied.

We find such concepts among Isaiah's contemporaries as well. God himself will rule over a messianic, eschatological kingdom (Micah 2:13, 4:2-3, 4:7). God is referred to as a light (Micah 7:8). The close parallels between Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah 4:1-5 are often noted. And Isaiah 9 is similar to both Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 in the ways I described above when comparing chapters 2 and 9 in Isaiah.

But we should also notice the differences between Isaiah and his contemporaries. Micah 4:5 refers to walking in the name of the Lord. Isaiah 2:5 refers to walking in his light. Given that Isaiah was concerned enough about that theme to include it where Micah didn't, it's more significant accordingly that Isaiah parallels that theme in 9:2. When he refers to walking in light in 9:2, he's repeating a theme he was concerned about enough to include it where Micah hadn't. The walking in light parallel in 9:2 is less likely, therefore, to be accidental or insignificant.

We could view the light as an individual other than God or think of the light as being mediated through a being who isn't God. That's a reasonable interpretation and could be warranted if there were evidence suggesting it. But that's a more complicated, less natural reading of these passages. We don't normally assume that God's light is equivalent to another being or is mediated through somebody other than God. While the light theme in these passages doesn't require the conclusion that the figure of Isaiah 9 is God, the theme does add weight to that conclusion.

When we go beyond chapters 2 and 9 in Isaiah, to look at the light theme more broadly, we see further evidence that the figure in chapter 9 is likely God. Sometimes an entity other than God will be referred to metaphorically as a light (58:8, 58:10, 60:1, 60:3, 62:1). More often, though, either God or the Servant is referred to as a light. Close by chapter 9, we see God referred to as a light in 10:17. Like chapter 2, Isaiah 24:23 associates light with God's eschatological reign on earth, this time referring to how his glory shames the sun and moon (similar to 60:19-20 and Revelation 21:23, 22:5). Those walking in darkness, with the implication that they need light, should trust in God (50:10). The implication is that they get light from God. God's justice provides light (51:4). God is a light again in 60:1-2. In 60:19-20, we see God referred to as the final, messianic, eschatological light. Given the messianic, eschatological nature of chapter 9, with its notion of a final kingdom that's eternal, it's likely that the light there is God as well. When an individual or group is referred to as a light in Isaiah, God is usually in view. As far as I know, every reference to an individual as a light either refers explicitly to God or refers to the Servant, and I've argued that the Servant is God. Furthermore, Isaiah underscores the significance of the figure in Isaiah 9 by referring to him as a great light. In 12:6, one of the passages in Isaiah about God himself ruling on earth in the future, God is referred to as great in the midst of his people. When Isaiah refers to an individual in a messianic, eschatological context as a great light, he probably has God in mind.

So, we have multiple, independent lines of evidence for the deity of the king of Isaiah 9 before we even get to the names of verse 6. We could grant the translations and interpretations of verse 6 that are advocated by critics of the deity of the king in that passage, yet still conclude that the king is God.

But should we grant such a translation and interpretation? No. It's likely that verse 6 refers to the king's deity. The "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" translation is the best one, and it's best understood as describing the king rather than referring to names the king was given in honor of a God who's distinct from the king.

A divine name is most naturally taken as a reference to God, since it's a divine name. And because of God's importance and uniqueness, the ancient Israelites were more careful about divine names than they were about non-divine ones. While divine names were sometimes given to non-divine entities in honor of God, divine names would usually be reserved for God. The scenario being proposed by critics of the deity of the king in Isaiah 9 is a less common scenario, so its proponents bear the burden of proof. When we see names like those in Isaiah 9:6, the most natural conclusion is that God is the one being so named. It's not as though the two interpretations (the names are being applied to God, the names are being applied to somebody other than God) are equally likely upfront.

Earlier this year, the second volume in H.G.M. Williamson's monumental commentary on Isaiah 1-27 came out (Isaiah 6-12 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018]). Williamson isn't a conservative. And he renders verse 6 as "A Wonderful Planner is the Mighty God" and "An Eternal Father is the Prince of Peace" (355). However, he acknowledges that seeing four names in the passage - e.g., "Wonderful Counselor", "Mighty God", "Eternal Father", "Prince of Peace" - is what's accepted "most commonly" and that his view is "a minority line of interpretation" (397). He acknowledges that the names are referring to God. He notes, for example, that "there is no known parallel to calling the king 'Father'" (397) and that "Mighty God" is "never used elsewhere for a human being" (399). Elsewhere in Isaiah, God is referred to in terms that are the same as or highly reminiscent of what we see in Isaiah 9:6 (10:21, 25:1, 26:12, 28:29, 54:10, 63:16, 64:8). Since God is being referred to by the names of verse 6, our focus should be on whether the names are meant to describe the king or are meant to honor God in the naming of the king without identifying the king as God.

One problem with a translation like Williamson's is that the child's names would be so lengthy. There's not much precedent for such lengthy names. Regarding the even worse proposal that would take all of the terms as a single name, Edward Young commented, "Dillmann called this name an unparalleled monstrosity, and Delitzsch labelled it a sesquipedalian name." (The Book Of Isaiah, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965], 333) Sometimes we see names that are about the length of what Williamson is proposing, such as in Isaiah 8:3. However, the issue here isn't whether people are ever given such lengthy names. Rather, the issue is which length is more probable. While something like "An Eternal Father is the Prince of Peace" is possible, it's less likely than shorter names, like "Eternal Father" and "Prince of Peace".

Another factor to take into account, related to the lengthiness of the names proposed for verse 6, is that the lack of qualifiers (clarifying that the figure isn't God) is harder to explain because of the length of the passage. The figure isn't just called "Wonderful Counselor", just called "Mighty God", etc. Rather, he's given a series of highly divine names without any qualifiers being added to any of them.

And it's unlikely to be a coincidence that verse 6 lines up so well with the Egyptian practice of giving a king four throne names and a fifth name that's personal. The absence of a personal name in Isaiah 9 is likely due to the fact that the figure in question didn't exist yet, so that Isaiah was unaware of his personal name.

Just before the names are given, there's a buildup focusing on the king: "a child…a son…his shoulders…his name", and just after the names are provided, there's further reference to the king in "his government" (9:6-7). Verse 7 closes with a reference to "the Lord of Hosts", but even if we assume that the Lord of Hosts is distinct from the king, the text closest to the names of verse 6 is highly focused on the king. In that sort of context, it makes more sense for the names to describe the king than for the names to describe a God who's distinct from the king.

The closing verse of the passage and the material on the king in chapter 11 have him exemplifying the names of 9:6. He provides good counsel (9:7, 11:2-5, 11:10), is mighty (11:2, 11:4), rules eternally (9:7), and maintains peace (9:7, 11:6-9, 11:13). Some of the parallels between the names of 9:6 and the descriptions of the king are especially striking. Verse 6 ends with references to the names Eternal Father and Prince of Peace, and verse 7 opens by describing the king's eternal kingdom of peace. Verse 2 in chapter 11 refers to the king's counsel and might, which not only are reminiscent of the first two names of 9:6, but are even in the same order as well. These similarities between the characteristics of the names of 9:6 and the characteristics of the king don't prove that the king is everything the names describe. But they do provide further evidence that Isaiah was using the names of 9:6 to describe the king.

Since there's so much focus on the king in the immediate context of 9:6-7, and so many of the terms and concepts of the names are applied to the king, why propose a more complicated interpretation in which the names of verse 6 are describing somebody else (a God who's distinct from the king)? The traditional Christian view that the king is God makes more sense of the immediate and larger contexts.

In my next post, I'll discuss evidence that the king of Isaiah 9 isn't Hezekiah. The deity of the king rules out Hezekiah, but there's also a lot of other evidence against the Hezekiah interpretation.

1 comment:

  1. --The "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" translation is the best one, and it's best understood as describing the king rather than referring to names the king was given in honor of a God who's distinct from the king.--

    Dr Michael Brown feels that the better translation of the third title would be 'Father Forever' or 'Father of Eternity', where Father has the sense of Possessor - in the same sense that the king is the 'father of the nation'.

    This fits the kingship context of Isaiah 9, and clears up that polemic about the verse not being possible to apply to Jesus who is the Son (not the Father).

    But OTOH as you also quoted:

    --He notes, for example, that "there is no known parallel to calling the king 'Father'" (397)--

    So that adds some uncertainty to the interpretation.