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Isaiah 9 - Not Jesus, but Hezekiah

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Shema.

“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” – In token of abundant authority and of peace without limit upon David’s throne and kingdom, that it may be firmly established in justice and in equity now and evermore. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall bring this to pass.” (JPS)

Christians cite Isaiah 9:5-6 (above) as being a Messianic text and a prophecy about Jesus. With a cursory reading, Jesus may even seem to fit. However, when it is taken it its linguistic, historical, and cultural context it becomes another story entirely.

One problem occurs in the translation of Christian Bibles that render this verse differently, “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. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (KJV)

Note how the phrase yats gibbor El is translated to “The Mighty God is planning grace” in the JPS while the KJV translates it to, “Counsellor, the Mighty God.” There are no commas in Hebrew or any breaks in this phrase to designate such a thing, so why does the KJV translate it as such? To make this appear to be a string of Godly and Messianic titles.

Note how the same thing is done to the phrase marbeh misrah shalom qets kiche David mamlakh. The JPS translates this to “In token of abundant authority and peace without limit upon David’s throne and kingdom” while the KJV translates this to, “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom.” The insertion of nonexistent commas to break up the sentence in the KJV renders this in a way that it attempts to distinguish between “the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end” and “upon the throne of David.” The JPS leaves it in tact, making the statement that the increase of government and peace shall be no end on the throne of David. Why does this matter? Because Christians claim that Jesus kingdom is “not of this world”, yet here it distinctly gives an increase of peace among a worldly kingdom – David’s throne!

The most important translation issue to look at may be the tenses. The JPS renders the phrase yeled yalad ben nathan misrah shekem as, “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders.” whereas the KJV translates it as, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder.” The KJV renders this to be in the future tense, so as to make it seem like a future prophecy about Jesus. The JPS translation, however, is correct. This should be in the past tense, as an event that already happened. The syntax of the Hebrew as well as the surrounding context requires it to be in the past tense.

Now, since it is in past tense (an event that already happened) this should be enough to discourage the belief that it is a prophecy about Jesus. But alas, some may still be clinging to the belief that it is or not convinced by the evidence, so here are some other reasons it can’t be about Jesus:

For one, it is about King Hezekiah. You might cry out in protest, “Wait a minute! This can’t possibly be calling a man, Hezekiah, things like ‘Mighty God’, ‘Prince of Peace’, or ‘Eternal Father’!” Well, this is when the cultural context comes into play. This was a throne name, or a royal title. It is not saying that Hezekiah was the God of Abraham, but rather that Hezekiah represented God as a King on Earth. In fact, this practice existed up until the 1980s in other Semitic kingdoms like Ethiopia, where the Emperor was called “Lord of Lords, King of Kings, etc.”

So how do we know this is about Hezekiah specifically? For one, it is a play on Hezekiah’s name which means God strengthens when Mighty God occurs. Secondly, as covered earlier, it is in the past tense and thus must refer to a recent king in the past. Third, this was exactly who this passage of Jewish scripture was always understood to be about by Jews. This is its historical context. Here are a few examples:

“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end. R. Tanhum said: Bar Kappara expounded in Sepphoris, Why is every mem in the middle of a word open, whilst this is closed? — The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah as the Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog; whereupon the Attribute of Justice said before the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Sovereign of the Universe! If Thou didst not make David the Messiah, who uttered so many hymns and psalms before Thee, wilt Thou appoint Hezekiah as such, who did not hymn Thee in spite of all these miracles which Thou wroughtest for him?' Therefore it [sc. the mem] was closed.” (Sanh. 94)

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let Hezekiah, who hath eight [shemoneh] names, come and mete out punishment to Sennacherib, who hath [likewise] eight. Hezekiah, as it is written, 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, Mighty, Judge, Everlasting, Father, Prince, and Peace.” (Sanh. 94)

“R. Johanan said: Since the days of Hezekiah, for it is said, Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with judgement and with righteousness for henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform this.” (Shab. 55)

Another example is what this King would do. He would be a “peaceable ruler.” But Jesus said in Matthew 10:34, “"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (NIV) It’s clear how the two goals and verses are inconsistent with one another. And as mentioned earlier, this king was a distinctly earthly king who would bring peace to David’s throne while Jesus was a supposedly heavenly king, whose heaven was “not of this world”, who had no interaction with David’s throne.

Finally, the most obvious might be that Jesus never held these exact titles. Christians may have attributed them to him in part, or similar titles when he was deified later during the Council of Nicea, but not once is Jesus recorded in the NT as holding these exact titles. Nor does the NT attempt to link Jesus with this text.

So what have we discovered? This is a verse that refers to past events, specifically the birth and reign of Hezekiah. In addition, Jesus cannot fit this verse because Jesus came neither to rule an earthly kingdom nor to bring peace to the world. The context of this verse – linguistic, historical, and cultural – simply doesn’t allow it to be a prophecy of Jesus.

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