In working on the December issue of our church’s newsletter, I spent some time pondering the famous words of Isaiah 9:6.
כי ילד ילד לנו בן נתן לנו ותהי המשרה על שכמו ויקרא שמו פלא יועץ אל גבור אביעד שר שלום[MT 9:5]
ESV: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
NASB: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
This verse has long been a stumbling block. Jews and Gentiles alike have sought to minimize its import for millenia. Even the LXX changes it to read very differently:
ὅτι παιδίον ἐγεννήθη ἡμῖν υἱὸς καὶ ἐδόθη ἡμῖν οὗ ἡ ἀρχὴ ἐγενήθη ἐπὶ τοῦ ὤμου αὐτοῦ καὶ καλεῖται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ μεγάλης βουλῆς ἄγγελος ἐγὼ γὰρ ἄξω εἰρήνην ἐπὶ τοὺς ἄρχοντας εἰρήνην καὶ ὑγίειαν αὐτῷ
For a child has been born to us, a son also has been given to us, who the authority will be upon his shoulder. And his name shall be called “messenger of the great council,” for I will bring peace upon the princes, peace and health to him.
The JPS Tanakh, a modern Jewish translation, follows this precedent. The child is not declared to be “mighty God” but is instead given a name that simply speaks of God as mighty:
For a child has been born to us, A son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.”
Is this where we should be going with Isaiah 9:6? Are the translations like those of the ESV and the NASB simply a Christian over-reading of this verse?
I thought E.J. Young made some very insightful comments about this verse, drawing in both the nature of prophecy and the progressive nature of revelation. He writes:
What then did Isaiah mean by his use of the term ‘el and why did he employ it? In answering these questions we must remember that the wondrous prophecy which we are now studying was not primarily the product of Isaiah’s own thought. It did not come to him as the result of private interpretation (see 2 Pet. 1:21). It was a revelation of God. Isaiah penned these words concerning the Messiah for the reason that he was borne of the Spirit of God. To what extent he himself understood the import of what he was writing we have no way of knowing. The revelation was made to him, however, that the Messiah was a divine Person. In the light of the New Testament we learn that this revelation was an adumbration of the doctrine of the Trinity. Isaiah, in other words, is now given a glimpse of the fact that in the fullness of the Godhead there is a plurality of Persons. Hence, in obedience to the revelation of God, he wrote of the Messiah that He was ‘el gibbor. With this revealed truth may our hearts delight, for He who is born the mighty God is therefore able to save all those who put their trust in him.
The Book of Isaiah, Vol. I, pgs. 337-338
Not only does it make sense of Peter’s words that Young cites, it compliments Paul’s words in 2 Cor 3:12-15 quite nicely:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.
We can only speculate, but I can imagine Paul being comfortable substituting “Moses” of v.15 as follows: “Whenever Isaiah is read a veil lies over their hearts.”
For those of us who believe that Jesus is the one of whom Isaiah 9:6 ultimately speaks, this verse is a great comfort precisely because the Messiah is no mere human. Q&A 17 of the Heidelberg Catechism explains why the Messiah must also be true God: “So that, by the power of his divinity, he might bear the weight of God’s anger in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Indeed, it is because of this that we can have confidence that in Christ we have all we need for salvation! (Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 30).
Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)