For Unto Us a Child is Born…3000 years ago

This piece of music from Handel’s Messiah will be familiar to many of us. Many of us know the scripture reading Isaiah 9:2-7 through this piece of music. It is a beautiful and powerful piece of music. And it misleads us in understanding this particular scripture. We hear the scripture or the music and we think we know what it has to say to us:

“The world was a horrible place, full of destruction and Jesus came and released the world from sin. Now everything is wonderful because Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace.”

And that’s not actually what the passage is about. The early Christian church used this passage to talk about Jesus but the passage isn’t about Jesus.

The passage begins by describing the setting and helping us to get a feel for the mindset of the people. This part of the book of Isaiah was written when Assyria was powerful. In Bold and Brazen, Barbara J. Essex writes “Isaiah shows that social injustice is evidence that Israel’s relationship to God is shaky. Since the people fail to live up to their communal values, they will be subject to superior military and imperialist powers. Isaiah challenges the people to put their trust in God and to live public and private lives that reflect that trust.”[1]

So the context of the original writing is that the Hebrew state of Judah was a smaller and weaker country with the Assyrian empire nearby always threatening. As the Assyrian empire dissipated the Babylonian empire was coming into power. The people hearing this writing for the first time were hearing it as they watched their enemies become stronger and as they lived with the threat of invasion. And in the midst of that uncertainty, Isaiah offered some comfort.

“You are living with violence on the horizon. You are living with the threat of being overrun. It will not always be like this. Into the midst of your fear and uncertainty, a bright spot will come. There will be someone who will come and be a great leader and when this happens, you will be safe from your enemies and you will be filled with joy.”

This was not a hope for centuries in the future but at hope for the immediate future grounded in real life political events.

Following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites pushed out the people of the land where they were settling and set about creating a state. This was originally a theistic state with God as the head. There were various leaders, followed by a system of judges who managed the various needs of the community and were military leaders, in conjunction with the priests and religious structures. But the Israelites looked at their neighbours and recognized that their neighbours, who were becoming powerful, all had kings. The country eventually split into two states: Israel and Judah. Israel was overtaken by Assyria and Judah was left to fend for itself against much more powerful nations.

In ancient Israel and Judah, the king was to protect the people and there was a belief that the people’s fate is directly tied to the king’s fate. The king was to be just in judgement, but the law did not come from the king. The law came from God as set out in what is now our Hebrew scriptures.

Within Biblical tradition there is a common expression of the king as God’s son. The intent with these images is not to imply that the king is divine but to remind the people that the king acts as the judge of God’s law and that the king is under God’s protection. In this model, the king is accountable to God and not to the people. As part of the coronation covenant made between the king and God, if the king is not ruling justly, God may choose to end the dynasty. According to 2 Samuel, God promises king David an eternal covenant. Any future, legitimate, king of Israel must be descended from David.

While it was common to anoint the king in many ancient traditions, Israel and Judah are the only places where the title of “anointed one” or “messiah” is given to the king. This becomes one of our names for Jesus but it was originally intended for a very human king.

Our scripture passage is reminding the people that even though the future looks bleak there will be a king who will renew the nation. Isaiah’s contention is that the king, and therefore the people, have not been following God’s law but there will be a king who will return to God’s justice and law and when that happens, there will be joy and peace in the land.

This particular passage was probably used part of a coronation ceremony. There are several different ideas about which king is represented here but it was intended for very real life context and not a future dream. The dream was of a political king who would come and save the people in their own time and place.

This passage contains the words which we associate with Handel’s Messiah, “wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, everlasting father, Prince of peace.” According to the Jewish Study Bible[2], names would often contain descriptions of God. The descriptions were not of the person being named but of the God followed by the family.

The Jewish study Bible translates the verse this way: “The mighty God is planning grace; The eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.”  It changes the verse from being about the king to focusing on God. The passage is not predicting Jesus, nor does it say anything about his divinity. What it does tell us is that any future legitimate king will live up to the descriptions of God. This future king will be just and bring peace to the land.

The people hearing these words originally hoped and prayed that this king would come in their time. They prayed that hope would be restored to the land. They prayed that there would be justice and safety. They prayed that violence would end and prosperity would come to the people and the land.

It is an ancient prayer that is repeated 3000 years later. We continue to pray for the fulfilment of these words. As Christians, we recognize that Jesus embodied the traits that the people longed for in a king. And we continue to pray for peace and justice in the world.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus reminded the people that the kingdom of God is among you and that the kingdom of God is near and that the kingdom of God is yet to come. The words were true when this passage was originally written and it is still true today. On Reign of Christ Sunday we continue to recognize the ways in which Jesus brings the kingdom of God among us. We continue to pray that this scripture will be fulfilled in our time.

[1].  Barbara J.Essex, Bold and Brazen:Exploring Biblical Prophets (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2010), 25.

[2]. Jewish Study Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) Isaiah 9:5.


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