‘A Son Is Born for Us’

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, Eternal 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 onwards and forevermore. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will do this.

Isaiah 9.6-7 is traditionally interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus, quoted in sermons every Christmas. It follows on the heels of Isaiah 7.14, which is applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. As with Isaiah 7.14, however, the original context prevents this view.

Isaiah prophesied in the eighth century BC, making him a contemporary to Hosea and Amos. And Isaiah, it is claimed, predicted the coming of Jesus nearly eight centuries ahead of time. This interpretation of Isaiah 9.6-7 is met with criticism, which is in turn rebuked.

Objection: ‘The text says the child has been born, not will be born’. Defense: ‘It is proleptic. The child is named Mighty God and Prince of Peace, which is Jesus’. Objection: ‘The child is also called Eternal Father, but Jesus is not supposed to be God the Father’. Defense: ‘Father just means ruler or originator here, so the child must be Jesus because he brings endless peace’.

Prophetic Names

It appears that, in this period, prophetic epithets given to newborn children was somewhat conventional. We find six other examples of this, three in Isaiah and three in Hosea. The symbolic meaning of each name is found in the context of the book, though sometimes we have to look beyond the surrounding paragraph.

So [Hosea] went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And Yahweh said to him, ‘Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.’

—Hosea 1.3-5

The prophet Hosea marries a prostitute, and names his children according to his message of impending judgment on Israel. Part of the reason for this judgment is Jehu, the man who took the throne of Israel by slaughtering the previous rulers in the Valley of Jezreel, an event described in 2 Kings 9.

She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then Yahweh said to him, ‘Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.’ [...] When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then Yahweh said, ‘Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.’

—Hosea 1.6,8-9

Twice more Hosea has a child, naming each to dramatize his prophecy that the Northern Kingdom of Israel would soon face disaster. In these two instances, the reason for the symbolic names are spelled out for the reader. ‘Jezreel’ refers to the valley of that name, ‘Lo-ruhamah’ means ‘No Pity’, and ‘Lo-ammi’ means ‘Not My People’.

Then Yahweh said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub [...]’

—Isaiah 7.3

Here translators are presented with a difficult choice. Do they leave the son’s name untranslated, no different than names like ‘Isaiah’ (Salvation is Yah) or ‘Ahaz’ (Owns)? Or do they translate it, showing it is a symbolic name? The latter seems to be the better option. The name ‘Shear-jashub’ means something like ‘A remnant will return’, foreshadowing a later part of Isaiah’s prophecy in 10.20-23:

On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord Yahweh of Hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

—Isaiah 10.20-23

The name ‘Shear-jashub’ isn't accidental. Isaiah and his son go to King Ahaz of Judah to speak to him, and Isaiah ends up prophesying the birth of another son, whose childhood will act as a sign that Judah will be spared destruction at the hands of Israel, or Assyria, kingdoms which were major threats in Ahaz’s time.

Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore Yahweh himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. Yahweh will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

—Isaiah 7.13-17

‘Immanuel’, a name meaning ‘God is with us’. The next chapter, Isaiah again prophesies concerning this child’s birth whose childhood will be a sign for the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and the prophet gives the child another symbolic name:

And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then Yahweh said to me, ‘Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call “My father” or “My mother”, the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.’

—Isaiah 8.3-4

Here, ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ means something like ‘Quick to the Spoils, Swift to the Plunder’, a description of Assyria’s conquest of Syria and Israel. That this child is the same one as ‘Immanuel’ is described in the following paragraphs:

Yahweh spoke to me again: ‘Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, Yahweh is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory. It will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks, it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck. And its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.’ Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed. Listen, all you far countries. Gird yourselves and be dismayed. Gird yourselves and be dismayed! Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught. Speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.

—Isaiah 8.5-10

The important point to note is this: none of the children given the symbolic names were themselves the subject of that symbolism. ‘Jezreel’, ‘Lo-ruhamah’, ‘Lo-ammi’, and ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ were names given to children to symbolize a message of catastrophe that would be fulfilled during their lifetimes. Likewise, ‘Immanuel’ and ‘Shear-jashub’ were names given to children to symbolize a message of protection or restoration. Yet the child named ‘Jezreel’ was not the one who would actually enact the vengeance prophesied against Jehu’s throne. ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ was not the one who would conquer Israel and Syria. And ‘Shear-jashub’ was likely not going to be alive in the time when Isaiah envisioned Israel’s restoration.

A Key in the Text

In either Hosea or Isaiah the convention of symbolic names happen in quick succession. Hosea names three children within a single chapter. By the time we reach Isaiah 9.6-7, the prophet has already done this three times. Despite this prophetic naming convention, most Christians read the ‘child’ in Isaiah 9.6-7 as Jesus.

If the nature of this prophetic naming convention wasn’t enough to hint that the name in Isaiah 9.6-7, ‘Pele-yoez-el-gibbor-abiyar-sar-shalom’, is not a prophecy that the messiah will be God himself, there is a key detail in the text that actually helps us identify who the intended child is.

As mentioned before, Isaiah 9.6-7 says the child ‘has been born’. The child is contemporary with Isaiah, not someone to be born eight centuries later. The context leading up to this point is Isaiah 7-8, which has been wholly concerned with the Assyrian conquest of Israel and Syria. King Ahaz of Judah is worried his country will be devoured by Assyria as well. Isaiah has prophesied twice that this will not happen. How, then, will Judah be saved from destruction by Assyria? That is the purpose of the prophecy in Isaiah 9; the child who ‘has been born’ will be the one through whom this salvation is achieved.

The textual key is an idiom Isaiah uses:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Pele-yoez-el-gibbor-abiyar-sar-shalom. 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 onwards and for evermore. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will do this.

—Isaiah 9.6-7

This idiom is found only twice in the biblical library. The first here in Isaiah 9.6-7, and the second in Isaiah 37.30-35 (and its parallel, 2 Kings 19.29-34).

‘And this shall be the sign for you: This year eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that; then in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downwards, and bear fruit upwards; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will do this. Therefore thus says Yahweh concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege-ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says Yahweh. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.’

The context in either passage is the same: Judah is under threat by Assyria, and God promises by his ‘zeal’ that he will preserve the Judean kingdom because of his ‘David’. And in either passage, it is Isaiah giving the prophecy. In the first, Isaiah 9.6-7, the prophet is speaking to King Ahaz. In the second, the prophet is speaking to Ahaz’s son, King Hezekiah. It is during Hezekiah’s reign that Judah is threatened by Assyria, yet survives.

Isaiah's prophecy to Ahaz was meant to comfort him, knowing that the Davidic dynasty would continue on through Ahaz’s own son, Hezekiah, the ‘son’ who had been ‘born to us’. The prophetic name which Isaiah applies to him, ‘Pele-yoez-el-gibbor-abiyar-sar-shalom’, however it is meant to be translated, is not meant to inform us about the nature of the ‘son’ the prophecy is concerned with; it does not mean the ‘son’ is himself God. Rather, just like all of the other prophetic names described above, the name given in Isaiah 9.6-7 only intends to describe how God would be known through Hezekiah’s reign.