Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The King In Isaiah 9 Isn't Hezekiah

Among those who look for a naturalistic fulfillment of Isaiah 9 or a fulfillment that doesn't identify the king as God, Hezekiah is a candidate who's often suggested (H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018], n. 103 on 393). In my last post, I argued for the deity of the king in Isaiah 9. While that characteristic of the king eliminates Hezekiah from consideration, there are enough additional lines of evidence against a fulfillment by Hezekiah to warrant a separate post on the subject.

The first mention of Hezekiah in Isaiah comes in the opening verse, alongside other Jewish kings. The first chapter goes on to refer to how corrupt Israel is, "from the sole of the foot even to the head" (1:6). Isaiah condemns rulers in general (1:10, 1:23, 1:26). Keep in mind that these condemnations of chapter 1 come just after Hezekiah was named as one of the rulers in the opening verse. The same themes are repeated later in Isaiah (e.g., 3:2, 3:14, 9:14-16), with Isaiah including himself in the condemnation (6:5). Just before chapter 9, Isaiah is highly critical of Ahaz. Just after the passage in question in chapter 9, he's highly critical of other leaders (9:14-16). Given how negatively Isaiah views himself and his Jewish contemporaries in general, including their rulers, it's very unlikely that 9:1-7 represents Isaiah's view of a contemporary king, even one as relatively good as Hezekiah.

Chapter 22 criticizes Judah for its overdependence on its own efforts at self-defense, including projects Hezekiah himself was involved with (22:8-11, 2 Kings 20:20, 2 Chronicles 32:2-6). Hezekiah's behavior described in chapter 22 doesn't align well with chapter 9.

In chapters 30-31, the rulers of Judah are criticized for reliance on Egypt at the time of Hezekiah, though he isn't mentioned by name. Most likely, Hezekiah is being included in the criticism to some extent. Given that the leaders are criticized for sinfully following a plan they didn't receive from God (30:1), failing to consult God, taking refuge in Egypt (30:2, 31:1), etc., it doesn't seem that Isaiah saw Hezekiah or the other leaders of Judah in terms of what he writes about in chapter 9.

Isaiah expands upon his view of Hezekiah in chapters 36-39. Instead of referring to him the way the king in chapter 9 is described, Isaiah provides contrasts between the two. Hezekiah isn't a light to northern Israel the way chapter 9 describes, there is no destruction of the implements of war, and there is no eternal reign of peace, justice, and righteousness. Far from being a Wonderful Counselor, Hezekiah has to go to others for miraculous intervention and counsel (37:1-4, 37:14-20, 38:1-3, 38:7-22). (The "Wonderful" in "Wonderful Counselor" is referring to "that which passes full human understanding", such as the working of wonders. See H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018], 398-99.) While Hezekiah accomplished some significant things, and God delivered him from some of his troubles, his reign was characterized by some weakness as well (37:1-4, 38:1-3, 38:9-39:8). You wouldn't think of him as Mighty God, and his life only reflected that aspect of God's nature in a highly inconsistent way. In contrast to being the Eternal Father ruling over an eternal kingdom, Hezekiah had to plead to God for an additional fifteen years of life (38:1-4). Instead of removing the elements of war, as in Isaiah 2:4 and 9:5, Hezekiah shows the Babylonians an armory he's built up (39:2). Rather than being a Prince of Peace who ruled over an eternal kingdom of peace, Hezekiah brought a loss of peace to the next generation, but was shortsightedly content with a brief peace he would experience in his own day (39:1-8). The contrast between 9:5-7 and 39:8 is stark.

When we go beyond Isaiah to examine the life of Hezekiah further, the idea that Isaiah 9 is referring to him becomes even more implausible. It doesn't seem that there were any early expectations for Hezekiah that were comparable to what we see in Isaiah 9. 2 Kings makes some highly positive comments about him (18:3-7, 20:3, 20:20), but with accompanying references to his weaknesses and defeats (18:13-16, 19:1-4, 19:14-19, 20:1-3, 20:12-19). What 2 Chronicles tells us about Hezekiah's comments near the beginning of his reign (29:5-11, 30:6-9) doesn't suggest that he or his contemporaries were expecting anything like Isaiah 9. There's no suggestion that he was a light to northern Israel along the lines of what Isaiah 9 refers to. His efforts at unity with the north mostly failed, even to the point of mockery (2 Chronicles 30:10). (For a discussion of the historical likelihood of northern Israel's opposition to Hezekiah in this context, see Robb Andrew Young, Hezekiah In History And Tradition [Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 2017], 225, 233.) Rather than eliminating the elements of war, as in Isaiah 2:4, 9:5, and Micah 4:3, Hezekiah is referred to as building up Judah's "weapons and shields" (2 Chronicles 32:5, 32:27). There's no destruction of the implements of war or eternal reign of peace, nor is there any indication that those were expected of Hezekiah before he came to power or early in his reign.

Micah and other contemporaries of Isaiah give no indication of viewing Hezekiah in terms like what we see in Isaiah 9. To the contrary, see Micah's negative view of Hezekiah and what would happen to Judah in the near future in Jeremiah 26:18-19.

If it's going to be claimed that Hezekiah was in mind in messianic and eschatological passages in the writings of Micah and other contemporaries of Isaiah, then the more such passages we see without any naming of Hezekiah, the more unlikely the notion that they're referring to him becomes. If people thought so highly of a contemporary, especially a currently reigning king, why would they keep referring to him in such significant contexts without ever naming him? The absence of any naming of Hezekiah in the relevant messianic and eschatological passages, including Isaiah 9, is best explained by their not having been intended to refer to Hezekiah.

And it's not just that Hezekiah isn't named. Neither are Sennacherib, Assyria, and other individuals and groups relevant to a Hezekiah interpretation of Isaiah 9. Chapter 10 refers to Assyria by name, for example, whereas chapter 9 doesn't.

One way to try to get around some of these problems is to claim that the passage and others like it were changed and/or reinterpreted after Hezekiah failed to fulfill them. The absence of evidence for that scenario is enough reason to reject it. But it's also problematic in that it only addresses some, not all, of the issues I've raised in this post. Isaiah's pessimism about himself and his fellow Israelites, including their rulers, a pessimism that makes it highly unlikely that he'd expect Hezekiah to fulfill something like Isaiah 9, predates Hezekiah's reign. The historical context leading up to Hezekiah's reign, a context that makes it absurd to suggest that people like Isaiah were expecting events like those of Isaiah 9 to occur soon, can't be overcome by proposing that passages like Isaiah 9 were later rewritten and/or reinterpreted. All of the sources we have on Hezekiah suggest that his life had characteristics that were inconsistent with those of Isaiah 9, and there's no reason to think his characteristics were significantly different earlier. Where's the evidence that Hezekiah was ever the sort of person who would be expected to fulfill something like Isaiah 9? Are we supposed to believe that not only were passages like Isaiah 9 rewritten and/or reinterpreted, but so were the historical narratives reporting on Hezekiah's life? If so, why?

There's no evidence of any sort of disillusionment over Hezekiah's failure to fulfill expectations like the ones in Isaiah 9. Rather, all of the sources we have carry on, through the negative phases of Hezekiah's life and on into the reign of the next king, without giving any indication that there's some sort of major disappointment or failure of prophecy that's occurred.

Since Isaiah 9 is so different than what we see in Hezekiah's life and so different than what the Israelites of that time would have expected of him or any king in the near future, proponents of the Hezekiah interpretation often suggest that the language of the passage is unusually hyperbolic. As Brevard Childs notes, their view requires "massive demythologizing" of the text (Isaiah [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], approximate Kindle location 2334). Walter Brueggemann acknowledges that the passage refers to a kingdom that's "wondrous", "unqualified", "unconditional", and "completely fresh and without extrapolation from anything that has gone before" (Isaiah 1-39 [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998], 82). Robb Andrew Young, who sees the passage as referring to Hezekiah, refers to how "hyperbolic" it is and how "daring" its predictions are (Hezekiah In History And Tradition [Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 2017], 163-64). J.J.M. Roberts claims that the passage was originally about Hezekiah, but acknowledges some problems with that view:

"If, as I have argued, this oracle was originally composed for the coronation of Hezekiah, Isaiah's expectations for this king were sadly disappointed….If Hezekiah was the new king idealized in this oracle, how could Isaiah claim he would reign for ever? How could Isaiah so ignore Israel's long historical experience as to expect that no new source of oppression would ever arise? The language, as is typical of royal ideology, is hyperbolic, and perhaps neither Isaiah nor his original audience would have pushed it to its limits, beyond its conventional frames of reference, but the language itself invites such exploitation." (First Isaiah [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2015], 152-53)

Roberts acknowledges that "In Judah neither the king nor the office of king was considered ontologically divine." (153) He comments that there's "ongoing debate in Egyptological circles" about how divine a king was thought to be even in ancient Egypt (n. 25 on 153). The account of Hezekiah's life in 2 Chronicles notes the contrast between the God of Israel and pagan deities (2 Chronicles 32:19). It's very doubtful that among the ancient Israelites, somebody like Hezekiah would have been seen as God, a god, or even have had language like we see in Isaiah 9 applied to him in some kind of non-divine, highly hyperbolic sense. As H.G.M. Williamson notes, the language of verses 6-7 goes beyond "the rhetoric of court language" (Isaiah 6-12 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018], 392; also see 397).

He also notes that we don't possess "an actual accession oracle itself", despite all of the hypothesizing of scholars about what an oracle about the accession of a king would have looked like (393). If you want to see what was said when a new king was appointed in Israel, passages like 1 Kings 1:25, 1:34, 1:39, and 2 Kings 11:12 provide some examples. Those passages are far from what we see in Isaiah 9.

Given the implausibility of the argument that Isaiah 9 is referring to Hezekiah, we should ask why the view is so often proposed and defended. There's often an anti-Christian motivation. But, as I explained in some posts last year (here and here), Jesus' alignment with Isaiah 9 would be highly evidential in support of Christianity even if we were to conclude that he only fulfilled the passage in a secondary, typological manner. Isaiah 9 isn't referring to Hezekiah. Even if it were, that original context wouldn't have as much significance as many proponents of the Hezekiah interpretation seem to think.

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