We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, who are still here, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

“For Unto Us a Child is Born”

#1 Background

Handel and Jennens quote several verses from Isaiah 7 and 9 in Messiah. (Charles Jennens wrote the libretto for the Messiah. He was ineligible for appoinments under the British monarchs William and Mary and so devoted himself to the arts. Jennens’ deep knowledge of the Bible and wide literary interest led him, from 1735, to prepare or contribute to libretti for Handel.)

In this session we will attempt to understand what these words meant at the time when they were written, as well as how they came to take on new meanings when they were read by subsequent generations of believers. We will also discuss some guidelines for appropriating them in our own lives.

Handel and Jennens’ use of an ancient text about a promised and promising birth invites us to analyze how old words can take on new meanings. As we follow the ways in which these words from Isaiah are re-contextualized even within the Bible itself, we may gain a deeper appreciation of what it means for prophecy to be fulfilled. In a sense, it is “filled full,” as new meanings are poured into the waiting words. Some participants may find this idea somewhat unsettling, especially if they have grown up thinking of prophecy in a purely pre­dictive sense. Yet this way of describing the fulfillment of prophecy is not intended to diminish the inspiration of the original prophetic words. It does, however, shift the emphasis from the magical to the miraculous. What could be more of a miracle, after all, than inspired words being recycled for God’s own purposes throughout the centuries!

This session is also about the way in which Scripture comes to claim us personally. It is one thing to appreciate the way in which ancient words became new as the community of faith sought to reapply them to their own situations. It is another to recognize that these words are God’s words for us in our own situations.

#2 Isaiah 7:1-17

To understand the Isaiah 7 and 9 passages we must turn back our mental timetables to before the Babylonian exile. Isaiah of Jerusalem, whom we met in Session One, had his hands full with faithless King Ahaz of Judah . Isaiah 7 tells the story of one critical encounter between the two men. Before we focus on that scene, however, let us try to get a broad view of its historical setting.

The year was approximately 733 B.C.E. Ahaz was King of Judah, southern part of what was Israel under David. The northern part of David’s kingdom now called Israel had come into being two hundred years earlier after Solomons death, when the northern tribes rebelled against the House of David, Pekah was king. Further north, Rezin was king of Syria. And to the east, in the northern Mesopotamian valley, the fierce Tiglath-Pileser was King of Assyria, a warlike empire intent on subjugating the smaller states along the Mediterranean. Pekah and Rezin had entered into an alliance against the Assyrian monarch, and challenged Ahaz to join. Ahaz believed the three of them together stood no chance against Assyrian arms and wanted no part of it. On the other hand, Pekah and Rezin were threatening him if he did not join, and Ahaz was terrified at the prospect of losing such a contest.

They were determined to get the Southern Kingdom of Judah to join them, so determined, in fact, that they laid siege to the capital city of Jerusalem to underscore their point. The message to King Ahaz of Judah was obvious: join us or else!2

To give Ahaz some credit, we ought to acknowledge that he was between a rock and a hard place. He could either join the alliance and risk antagonizing Assyria, or he could appeal to Assyria for help and hope that it would respond in time to save the city of Jerusalem from starvation. No wonder Isaiah 7:2 says that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Read Isaiah 7:1-17 now. As the scene between Isaiah and Ahaz opens, Ahaz is nervously checking the city’s water supply. Would it last? What should he do? The fate of the city and the whole Southern Kingdom rests in his hands.

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Isaiah Reassures King Ahaz

1 In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

3 Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah. 5Because Aram—with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah—has plotted evil against you, saying, 6Let us go up against Judah and cut off Jerusalem and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it; 7 therefore thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.

8 For the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.)

9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.

Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For 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. 17The Lord 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.’

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Into this tense situation walks the prophet Isaiah, accompanied by his son, Shear-jashub. Having a son with a name which meant “A Remnant Shall Return” had to have been useful for the prophet. The boy was like a walking billboard. On the one hand, his name gave the chilling impression that only a remnant of the people would survive; on the other hand, it hinted that the remnant would return to claim their heritage. Perhaps this is what God had in mind when God ordered Isaiah to bring him along that day.

When the prophet does finally speak, it is with a message that leaves Ahaz speechless. Although there is incredible pressure for Ahaz to do something, the word from the Lord is, in fact, to do nothing at all. “Be quiet,” Isaiah counsels (7:4). Be quiet and remember that the rulers of Aram and Israel are mere mortals. The implication is that they are no match for God, in whom Ahaz is being asked to put his trust. But the stakes are high. The prophet does not mince words: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (7:9).

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to do nothing. As if to acknowledge the difficulty of the task, God offers in 7:10-11 to give Ahaz a tangible sign of God’s good will, a sort of collateral which could reassure him of God’s ultimate intentions.

Ahaz’ response is the equivalent to a slap in the face. “I will not ask,” he demurs with false piety. “I will not put the Lord to the test” (7:12). While Scripture does contain warnings about testing God (see Deuteronomy 6:16 and Matthew 4:7), God has here honored Ahaz by offering him the sign. To refuse such generosity seems ungrateful at best. Isaiah’s impa­tient response confirms the unsuitability of Ahaz’ answer (7:13). He tells Ahaz not to push his luck: God will give him a sign whether he wants one or not!

Emmanuel

The sign had to be fairly immediate in order for it to fulfill its desired function as “collateral.” Isaiah’s words in 7:14-17 announce just such a sign. “The young woman” implies that Isaiah has a particular young woman in mind. It may well be that she is known to Ahaz, since no further information about her identity is deemed necessary. The most obvious candidate would be Ahaz’ own wife, though some have suggested that the prophet’s wife was intended. We should also note that the word for “young woman” does not necessarily imply that she is a virgin. It simply means one who is sexually mature (see Genesis 24:43). Hebrew has another word for “virgin” (see Genesis 24:16). As Old Testament scholar Bernhard W. Anderson remarks, “the sign is the child himself-not the manner of his birth.”


This particular young woman, then, “is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him emmanuel.” The fact that she is already with child (or is about to become pregnant-the Hebrew is a little hard to pin down here) underscores the immediacy of the sign. Within nine months time, Ahaz will receive God’s concrete pledge that “God is with us” (this is the literal meaning of the name Immanuel/Emmanuel).

The point is that Isaiah tells the king that in no more than nine months he will learn the truth of what God has been trying to tell him. The prophet was speaking to the king in a particular historical situation, about something the king was going to live to see unfold. He was not speaking about something centuries in the future, which could hardly have been much of a sign for a worried king. There is no reference to a virgin birth. The virgin birth is a specifically Christian doctrine; it was never a feature of the Jewish messianic hope. The only references to it in the Bible are in Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

Verses 15-16 hold out hope for the end of the siege, since they suggest that “by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose good” the child will be eating curds and honey. What is more, says Isaiah, before the child reaches this relatively tender age, the two nations of Aram and Ephraim will be deserted. Ahaz could not have asked for more!


But he did. We know from 2 Kings 16:5-9 that Ahaz refused to trust and obey. In spite of this and a subsequent sign (see Isaiah 8:1-4), Ahaz rushed to make an alliance with Assyria, preferring the insurance of a world power to the assurance of God’s word. Isaiah was understandably disgusted. Isaiah 8:16-22 relates the prophet’s decision to “bind up the testimony” and retreat into the prophetic community. Since the prophetic words had fallen on deaf ears, there was nothing to do now but wait for those words to be fulfilled (see Isaiah 8:5-8).

Messiah

Recitative for Alto

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.
(Isaiah 7: 14; Matthew 1: 23)


# 3   For unto Us a Child Is Born – Isaiah  9:2-7

Scholars think that what the prophet’s disciples bound up was what is called the Book of Testimony. This is the material in Isaiah 6:1-9:7. It includes not only the story of the prophet’s call in Isaiah 6, but also the messianic poem in Isaiah 9:2-7 from which Handel quotes in his Messiah.

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2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,as people exult when dividing plunder.

4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 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 the Lord of hosts will do this.

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It is important to keep in mind that the original meaning of the word for “messiah” was “anointed one.” It was used with reference to the ceremony at which a king was anointed with oil and thereby designated as God’s specially chosen representa­tive (see 1 Samuel 10:1). Isaiah’s poem describes such a king in unusually glowing terms. During his reign “all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (verse 5), and he will be known as the “Prince of Peace” (verse 6). As opposed to Ahaz, who could not even take advice well, this king will be called “Wonderful Counselor.”6 His strength is such that he is designated “Mighty God.”7 Finally, he is called “Everlasting Father.” Perhaps this, too, should be read in contrast to Ahaz, who was neither much of a father nor partic­ularly long-lasting. One could hardly accuse Ahaz of establishing his kingdom “with jus­tice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (verse 7)!

Such an interpretation of Isaiah 9:2-7 requires us to read “against the grain” of our usual assumptions, since most of us are familiar with these verses primarily through their reading during the Advent season or through their inclusion in Handel’s Messiah. Yet, in the con­text of Isaiah’s political situation, one can see how they could well have originated with reference to Ahaz’ son, the beloved King Hezekiah. Following as it does on the heels of Isaiah’s prophecy in 7:14 (“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son …”), the birth announcement in 9:6 seems most likely to refer to Hezekiah (“For a child has been born for us …”).

Does this mean that centuries of interpretation have been wrong in reading these verses as a reference to Christ? I do not think so. Theirs is simply an example of framing the text within a different context, a practice which should add to the passage’s significance but does not require us to neglect all its previous meanings. In the next section we will explore some of the ways in which the Old Testament itself encourages this process of “recontex-tualization.”

The Shaping of the Book of Isaiah

In Session One we saw how the poetry of Isaiah 40 arose during the time of the Babylonian exile (around 539 B.C.E.). In this session we have explored the origins of Isaiah 7-9 during the days of Ahaz and Hezekiah (733 B.C.E. and following). What we have not done is to pose the question of how these texts from such disparate times came together. Who edited them into their present form, and how does that form affect the way we read them?

During the time of the Babylonian exile and then again during the postexilic period, edi­tors collected and arranged the literature we now know as the book of Isaiah. They were careful about their work, and we would be very wrong if we pictured this process as a casual “cut and paste” procedure. They were probably part of a group of prophets loyal to the tra­dition begun by Isaiah of Jerusalem, so we could expect that they would “bind up the tes­timony” with the greatest of care.

But an interesting thing happened when they combined the three major sections which comprise the book of Isaiah as a whole (chapters 1-39; 40-55; and 56-66). Since they did not clearly identify the historical situations in which these works originated, the oracles were, as one scholar puts it, “loosened from their historical moorings.” As a result, the words of Isaiah 40 became connected, not with the exile, but with the words of Isaiah of Jerusalem in chapters 1-39. This shift gives the impression that these texts are oriented toward the future. Thus, rather than reading Isaiah 40’s words of comfort as a message only for the exiles, we are now able to read them as a consolation for all ages. Instead of being framed forever by the details of their original historical context, they are freed up for “recontextualization” in whatever situation believers find themselves.

Bass

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Isaiah 9: 2)

Air for Bass (“The people that walked in darkness”)

The Bible thus begins with the creation of light and ends with the establishment of light eternal for the servants of God in Heaven. In between is the story of salvation, the story of God’s coming to us, of his bringing light into our darkness, darkness which we have chosen rather than light, because our deeds are evil (John 3:19).

The aria now sung by the bass continues the theme of the recitative by reflecting on the words of the earlier Isaiah of Jerusalem the prophet who had pronounced the Immanuel oracle. In the literary context in Isaiah, this passage follows a development from that earlier oracle of 7:14, set during the time of conflict between King Ahaz and his enemies to the north. Ahaz was unmoved by Isaiahs assurances, by the prophet’s insistence on neutrality in the impending conflict between Israel and Syria on one side and Assyria on the other. And so to extricate himself from his immediate threat, Ahaz appealed for assistance to Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria.

Isaiah could see it coming. Assyrian forces would inundate Syria and northern Israel; he could see the tide pouring into Judah and lapping at the gates of Jerusalem itself.

The Lord 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 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. (Isaiah 8:7-8)

The last exclamation is wonderfully ambiguous. On the one hand it reaches back to the Immanuel oracle of the previous chapter, the birth of the child named “God is with us.” On the other hand it can be heard here as a cry of despair, “God be with us!” The name may be construed either way. But even though the tribes of the north would be lost, Isaiah believed that God would protect Judah, the land ruled by the son of David. He calls on the distant countries to observe what will happen and stand 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 8:10)

Immanuel. The name is once again the promise of Judah’s security. Tiglath-Pileser was more than willing to accommodate King Ahaz’ plea for help. Westward he came, through Syria, through Israel, marking the end of the history of the northern tribes. Exiled here and yon, their people vanished from history, assimilated into the nations. The future of the people then rested with Judah alone, looking to her king, the son of David, for protection. Isaiah was once again right. The Assyrian armies penetrated Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem, but they did not succeed. The city remained untaken. God was with them. Immanuel.

The prophet could see nothing but willful faithlessness about him. The clearest assurances were of no avail; the soundest counsel yielded to folly. The people resorted to sorcerers and mediums and magicians rather than repairing to the Lord, to whom Isaiah called them. He had done his best: “Bind up the testimony,” he declares, “seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him” (Isaiah 8:16-17). There can be no dawn for such an obdurate people.

They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Isaiah 8:21-22)

And so do people live, groping and cursing in a darkness of their own choosing. But Isaiah’s God will not leave them in darkness. He is intent on coming to them with light. The next chapter begins with an affirmation of a reversal: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish” (Isaiah 9:1). There follows what may possibly be an editorial comment from one of the compositors of the book, to the effect that while the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (two of the northern tribes, here representing defunct Israel) were once brought into contempt, the time would come when God would make that territory glorious: “the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1).

Let the evangelist Matthew make the transition from that statement to verse 2, the text of the aria. Matthew uses these two verses to introduce the ministry of Jesus. Jesus has been baptized and has bested Satan in the wilderness. He leaves his hometown of Nazareth and moves to Capernaum, a city by the Sea of Galilee, in what had once been the tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. This, he says, was to fulfill Isaiahs words:

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.
(Matthew 4:15-16)

The gospel writer pictures the light dawning for the world when Jesus the Messiah begins his ministry. In the context of the oratorio, the light dawns with the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

And in the context of Isaiahs prophecy, that light dawns because of something that has happened, a historical event that portended a new chance for the nation. We do not know precisely what that event was. The life situation has been swallowed by the literary context in which the words are preserved. It may well have been the birth of a crown prince. It may have been the accession of a new king. In either case, it is likely that the person in question was good king Hezekiah, who succeeded Ahaz on the throne of David. And it is of this event that the chorus is about to sing.

#4  New Frames for Old – Matthew 1:18-25

When Matthew sets out to give his account of “Jesus the Messiah,” he includes the story of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Read Matthew 1:18-25.

Matthew 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel’which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

After describing how Mary found herself with child by the Holy Spirit, he claims,

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” (1:22-23)

We recognize the source of this prophetic saying as Isaiah of Jerusalem, and the text as Isaiah 7:14. If we look closely, however, we will see that the quote is slightly different from the one we used in our examination of that Old Testament text. Most significantly, the phrase “the young woman” is now “the virgin.”

We may well wonder why Matthew would have misquoted his own Scriptures! Yet, the changes in this verse reflect not so much Matthew’s innovation, as his use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint.8 This translation uses the word parthenos to translate the word which in Hebrew simply means “young woman.” While parthenos is not always used to denote literal virginity, this is its most common connota­tion. Thus, we can see how the Septuagint translation of this verse lent itself to Matthew’s interpretation. His use of the Greek assisted his attempt to reframe the ancient text in the context of the life of Jesus Christ.

We see something similar happening in Matthew’s appropriation of Isaiah 9:1-2. In the first verse from Isaiah 9 the picture is of the desolate lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the northern tribes of Israel that had been swept away by Assyria. Yet, verse two proclaims that their desolation is not permanent. In this, the beginning of the famous “Wonderful Counselor” oracle, Isaiah declares,

“The people who walked in darkness ave seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined.”

Messiah

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6).

Chorus (“For unto us a child is born”)

#5  Matthew 4:12-16

Israel had always avoided a kingship until Saul was anointed. The anti-monarchical party in Israel feared their becoming like other nations. God was their king. If they were to be ruled by an earthly king, they would soon be indistinguishable from other peoples. In many respects, what they feared eventually did come true.

The states of the ancient Near East had a wealth of traditions surrounding their traditional kingships. From land to land they differed, but there were common elements. There was songcraft and poetry to serve on various occasions of state: enthronements, royal weddings, and births in the. royal family. And there was always a connection of some kind of the king with the gods. The kingdom of Israel did indeed learn from the precedents in other nations. Psalm 72 is obviously a song written by some court poet for a royal wedding; the original occasion is now lost, but surely it was often used over the centuries of the kingdoms life. Psalms 2 and no sound very much enthronement psalms, composed for use on the ceremonial accession of a new monarch. Psalm 2 refers to the king as the son of God, adopted, as it were, on the day of enthronement. The king there confesses: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you ” (Psalm 2:7). This language used of the king should not be surprising when we consider that as early as the covenant with David in II Samuel 7, Solomon is specifically spoken of as the son of God.

He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him. . . . (II Samuel 7:13-14)

Nor should it be surprising when we realize that the phrases “son of…” or “daughter of…” are quite often used as figures of speech in Hebrew, to indicate a person or even a thing possessing characteristics associated with someone or something else. “Son of God,” then, when used of the reigning king, did not indicate for the Israelite any mythological idea or actual descent from deity, but simply that in some respects — majesty, strength, might — he shared characteristics with God. When Psalm 29 calls on the “sons of gods” to ascribe glory and strength to the Lord, the psalmist may well be thinking of earthly rulers (Psalm 29:1).

Isaiah may well have been a court poet, a kind of poet laureate called on at some occasion to compose a poem appropriate for the birth of a prince or the accession of a king, say Hezekiah. The verses now sung by the chorus, Isaiah 9:6, are part of such a poem or song.

At first reading the psalm does sound very much like the celebration of a birth in the royal household. But given the imagery of Psalm 2, of God’s “begetting” the king as his son, probably at the enthronement, it is quite possible that Isaiah wrote this piece for Hezekiah’s ceremonial accession to the throne. This would have been an occasion of national jubilation. A new chance. Isaiah is hopeful it will bode well for the nation. This is why the people who have been walking in darkness have seen a great light, for a child is given us this day to be our ruler: “the government shall be upon his shoulder.” The new prince, or king, is given a series of four divine titles. There was precedent for this outside Israel and within. Consider David’s noble titles: “Son of Jesse … the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1).

The new ruler is to be “Wonderful Counsellor” (the comma between the two words in the King James Version is a mistake). Perhaps this means “he who plans wonders.” He is to be “Mighty God,” a figure of speech for “godlike in might,” “divine hero.” He is to be called “Everlasting Father,” not meaning that he is immortal, but that his paternal care for his people is perpetual. He is to be the “Prince of Peace,” of shalom, meaning much more than that he is a ruler who brings cessation of warfare. He is also one who brings
in the reign of all of what that pregnant Hebrew word means: prosperity, health, virtue, peace, all aspects of a positive life. Though omitted in the text of the oratorio, the oracle goes on to say:

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 onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:7)

These are Messianic words. They pertain to the Anointed One, the King. The prophet himself was not peering centuries into the future to predict Jesus’ birth; he saw no further than Hezekiah. But he read into Hezekiah’s coming the messianic hope, the hope of a ruler worthy of David, the hope that would eventually survive the extinction of the kingship itself in 587 B.C., the hope that nourished Jewish expectation for the future, the hope that was vibrant wherever and whenever oppressed Jewry looked for divine deliverance, the hope that was still very much alive when Jesus conducted his ministry.

Strangely enough, this oracle of Isaiah is never quoted in the New Testament, nor is Jesus ever referred to by any of the divine titles ascribed to the messianic ruler in this passage. Yet in Christian faith, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and it is not wrenching a verse from context to see it so. The verse rests squarely in the middle of the biblical highway across the wilderness that leads to God’s salvation of humanity. The prophet spoke then and there of hope for a national renewal and salvation that he himself might see. But in the themes he uttered and the notes he struck, he was speaking far more. He was describing the one further down that road, the one indeed to whom the road leads, the one who would say to his disciples just before he left them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This passage, known as the Great Commission, closes the book of Mat thew. Its last words are “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So Matthew envelops his gospel with the promise of God’s presence, beginning with the Immanuel oracle (1:23). Just as Jesus is never referred to by any of the royal titles of our passage, he is never called Immanuel either, but when the gospel ends with Jesus’ utterance “I am with you always,” Matthew makes it clear that he is our Immanuel, our sign that God is with us. The name of the young woman’s son and the royal titles of the Judean kings all reverberate at the sounding of the name of the Virgins Son, the Son of God. The Messiah has come! And this is what the chorus celebrates.

Here is one of the high moments of the oratorio. It is the people again who join together in joy over the birth of the royal child, exhilarating in the titles of the one whom they adore. Handel plagiarized the music from one of this own operas (much of the music of Messiah was originally written for other purposes), but with the exception of making the simple conjunction “for” bear altogether too much weight, at few places in the work do text and music work together more sympathetically than here. We have reached a climax in the structure of the oratorio. The recitation of prophecy has been building up to this moment, Messiahs birth and the prospect of deliverance, of salvation.

Small wonder that Matthew should make reference to these verses as he tells the story of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, the former territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Read Matthew 4:12-16.

Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned

 In his slightly modified version of these verses from Isaiah, Matthew proclaims Jesus as the “great light” that shines “for those who sat in the region and shadow of death.”

We have come a long way with these texts! What may have begun as a reference to Hezekiah was refrained, first by the editors of Isaiah into a “messianic” framework, and then, via the Gospel of Matthew, into a frame that reflects the life of a very specific Galilean carpenter. Handel (or Jennens) obviously took his cue from Matthew as he interpreted these verses in the musical framework we know as Messiah