The last two posts I made on prophetic analysis covered my approach to scripture and prophecy and the context of Yeshaiyahu’s (Isaiah’s) prophecies. This post discusses the first nine chapters of Yeshaiyahu, and subsequent posts will cover similarly sized chunks of this book.
Before I discuss what I think are particular points of interest in this set of chapters, I would like to point out some common misconceptions about this portion of Yeshaiyahu. These chapters contain passages that are central to messianic doctrine, but I believe those interpretations are due to foreign influences, shoddy translation work, and willful deviation from peshat. Strong words, I know, but allow me to justify them.
For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is given,
And the government shall be upon his shoulders.
And his name shall be called
“Wonderful, Councilor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
The “name” provided is a set of titles that both describe the ideal Israelite king and characterize the reign of Hizkiyahu, the last great king of Judah. It’s a beautiful passage, and it is truly wonderful to have such a succinct description of the monarchical qualities prized by ancient Jews preserved to posterity.
The trick is that the translation does not make sense as a set of regnal titles. The phrase translated as “almighty god” is better suited to the English “Hashem’s General” or “Great Warrior of Hashem.” Indeed, the descriptor appears in 2 Shmuel (2 Samuel) as the title applied to David’s generals and great warriors. And the concept befits the use of the title “Hashem Tsevaot” that Yeshaiyahu prefers in this chapter–Hashem, Master of Legions. “Everlasting,” while a reasonable translation, gives the wrong impression. The Hebrew word means “everlasting” in the sense of being a memorable, great, or timeless hero and leader, much as Americans might refer to George Washington as the “father” of the United States. And the word translated as “prince,” while it can mean “prince,” also more commonly means “minister.”
All that leaves us with the title “Wonderful, Councilor, Great and Mighty Warrior of Hashem Tsevaot, National Father, Minister of Peace.” It is, indeed, an impressive regnal designation, and only a great man could aspire to fulfill all the implications it inspires, but no supernatural being need be called to mind.
The other famous “messianic” passage in these first chapters is 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; Behold, a virgin [young woman] shall conceive, and bear you a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Again, there are translation issues at play here. The word translated as “virgin” means “young woman.” It is also important that Immanuel means “Hashem is with us,” something not lost in the messianic interpretation, but taken far out of context. This verse is part of a prophecy tells King Ahaz that Aram (often translated as “Syria”), under the rule of a king named Rezin is marching against Judah, that Ephraim is treacherously in league with Aram, but that Hashem will demonstrate his power by preserving Judah and, in 65 years, destroying Ephraim. The use of proper names leaves no doubt as to the context of this chapter.
Hashem then sends, through Yeshaiyahu, a question to Ahaz: How would it be best for Hashem to send a sign to both Ahaz and the people? Ahaz may ask for anything, but it needs to be clear that Hashem is involved. Ahaz refuses to request a sign, so Hashem decides to send a different kind of sign. He sends the king a son, whose fate is to demonstrate to the people and the world that Hashem is with Judah. It is a sign that does indeed come to pass. Hizkiyahu demonstrates throughout his reign, as he fulfills the requirements of all his titles, that Hashem is with him, and that Hashem, more importantly, is with Judah.
Hizkiyahu’s fulfillment of these prophecies and the accuracy with which Yeshaiyahu foretells the political climate that will define the coming period of Judah’s history are both a wonderment and a sign. They are a miracle in the sense of the word’s Latin progenitor, “miraculum”–something that makes you look in surprise. They are an amazing proof of Hashem’s hand in worldly concerns.
Hizkiyahu’s infancy coincides with that of Yeshaiyahu’s son, whose conception and childhood are discussed in parallel (8:3-8). Since Yeshaiyahu talks about the Assyrians in connection with the young prince, I believe he is establishing the time of upheaval to be in the young Hizkiyahu’s childhood. The ultimate conquest was, of course, forestalled to Hizkiyahu’s reign, when he refuses to pay tribute to the Assyrians, but there was definitely turmoil in the region beforehand.