Having dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in four previous Advent Season notes, I will treat the next passage in somewhat briefer fashion, a passage perhaps even more famous: the prophecy of Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [English versing 9:1-7]. Forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, verses 5-6 [EV 6-7] are among the best-known verses of the Old Testament, appearing in any number of situations during the Christmas season. However, as with Isaiah 7:14, these verses, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study of 8:23-9:6 (and the wider section 6:1-9:6) will indicate. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context:
- Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah, accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
- Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
- Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has been discussed extensively in the prior notes. It is a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
- Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
- Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
- Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”:
- “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
- O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
- (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
- For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
- “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
- Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
- Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
- Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section). There are a myriad of textual and interpretative questions involving this passage: I will address, briefly, several of them before discussing vv. 5-6 in more detail.
Isaiah 8:23a—[Wum* can be derived from [ou (“fly, flutter”) or [ou (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix Hl* is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (Jr#a# [“land”], hk*v@j& [“darkness”], or parallel hr*x*/hq*ox [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.
Isaiah 8:23b—Does /ovar!h* (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun tu@ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with /orj&a^h* (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs llq and dbk (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?
These questions are important for establishing the basic context for the poetic oracle that follows. Compare the very different renderings of two modern critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]:
…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.
As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…
There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people that walk in the dark
Have seen a great light…
There are fewer problems of interpretation in the poem proper, the stanzas of which can be outlined as follows:
- V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
- V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
- V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
- V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
- V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
- V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom
With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible, but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C. Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.
It is within this context that one must address the nature and identity of the child announced in vv. 5-6; this I will do in a second note.