As Advent rolls around the corner, we will no doubt hear the many familiar verses and passages that have become associated with the season. One of the most prominent of these verses is Isa 9:6 which reads as follows:-
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
This is pretty much the same translation we get with the NKJV, NASB, NIV and the ESV, with minor stylistic differences. The NET, NRSV and JPS, however, presents a slightly different translation. In this article I would like to look at what is behind these differences and you may be surprised to find that there is a lot more going on here, and the final translation of the verse may be something rather unexpected.
Let us begin where I tend to begin in this series, with the original Hebrew. The Hebrew bible has different versification and in this case, the equivalent verse is actually Isa 9:5, and here is the text.
כִּי־יֶ֣לֶד יֻלַּד־לָ֗נוּ בֵּ֚ן נִתַּן־לָ֔נוּ וַתְּהִ֥י הַמִּשְׂרָ֖ה עַל־שִׁכְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ פֶּ֠לֶא יוֹעֵץ֙ אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר אֲבִיעַ֖ד שַׂר־שָׁלֽוֹם
The translation and transliteration is as follows:-
ki_yeled yulad_l’anu ben nitan_l’anu
For_a-child has-been-born_to’you a-son has-been-given_to’you
v’tehi ha’misrah al_shikhemo
and’it-will-be the’dominion on_his-shoulder
v’yiqra shemo pele yoetz el gibor
And’called his-name wonderful advisor mighty god
If we were to smooth out this translation, the first part would read something like this:-
For a child has been born to you, a son has been given to you, and the dominion will be on his shoulder.
The thing to notice here is that the words “yulad” (has been born) and “nitan” (has been given) in the Hebrew are in the perfect (completed) tense [or more familiarly, past-tense]. The common English translations (NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV) obfuscates this with “is born” and “is given”, whereas the NET, NRSV and JPS actually translates this more accurately as “has been born” and “has been given”. This also means that the plain reading of this verse would present Isaiah as referring to something that has already happened, as opposed to a future referent. Who could he be referring to then, if not a future messiah?
The second part of the verse gets even more complicated because not only is “yiqra” (called) in the perfect tense (ie. completed and past) but it is what is known as a qal-verb (simple unaugmented form) which means that it is an active verb. Active verbs typically require a subject (the acting agent) and usually has an object (that which is acted upon). Since “yiqra” is an active verb in the perfect tense meaning “called”, then there must be a subject, and an object. Someone called someone else something. Okay, so now we look back at our sentence and we have to ask ourself who the subject of this sentence is? Who is doing the calling here? The object we know from the suffix of “shemo” (meaning: his-name) so we know that someone called his-name something. The “his” here refers to the “child” from the first part of the sentence. When a noun ends with an “o”, that’s usually a third person masculine singular referrent – “him” or “his” – and since “shem” means “name”, “shemo” means “his name”.
The mystery here is in the identity of the subject or agent – who is doing the calling? Before we get into that, it is worth pointing out that the English translations completely alters the original meaning and translates “yiqra” passively into “he will be called”. What was originally a perfect active verb became an imperfect passive verb. Once again, NET, NRSV and the JPS gets this more right than the NKJV, NASB, NIV and ESV. The JPS Isa 9:6 reads:-
He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace, The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler”
At least they got the tense correct but even here, it translates the verb passively and avoids the problem of requiring a subject or agent for the verb. One clue to how to resolve this mystery comes from the Targum, the Jewish oral tradition and commentary of the bible. In it, it gives the translation of Isa 9:5b as:-
And his name has been called from before the One Who Causes Wonderful Counsel, God the Warrior, the Eternally Existing One, “The Messiah who will increase peace upon us in his days.”
Here you see that they have made the first three of the four titles the subject or agent, and the last title the name. In other words:-
And the wonderful Counsellor and mighty God, our(my) everlasting Father, has called him the Prince of Peace.
This construction and translation is legitimate because, for example, we find a similarly structured verse in Gen 3:20a:-
וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה
Transliterated and translated this is:-
v’yiqra ha’adam shem ishto chawah
and’called the’man name (of) his-wife Eve
Here we see both the subject and object follows the active verb “yiqra” with the name being the last in the sentence. If this is true, then the child does not have four titles as we have been taught, but one title – “Prince of Peace” – and the one declaring this is the wise and mighty God himself, our everlasting Father. This child was, literally, a “son” of God the Father.
The conventional (but erroneous) translation is popular because it lends itself to trinitarian arguments which identifies the child with the father, the messiah with God himself. Unfortunately this is not borne out by the actual Hebrew text. The text still has strong messianic overtones, especially in the following verse where it says (Isa 9:7):-
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
This verse falls within the first 12-chapters of Isaiah, the oracles against Judah, and comes on the heels of the vision Isaiah had in Isa 6:1. Isaiah served under four of the Israeli kings – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah. Uzziah was considered one of the good kings but he had just died. His son, Jotham, was already a co-regent for 11-years by that time, and would go on to rule another 5-years as a good king after Uzziah died. After Jotham, Ahaz (a bad king) reigned for 16-years before Hezekiah took to the throne at the age of 25. Hezekiah would have been born by this time* and it is quite possible that at the time Uzziah died or soon thereafter Isaiah was thinking about Hezekiah and prophesying about him when he said those words in Isa 9:6.
*The calculation of years is complicated by the unknown years of co-regency between kings.
Now, it is not uncommon for biblical prophecies to have multiple fulfillments and even if it was Hezekiah that Isaiah was originally thinking about, it could also refer to a future messiah. However, if this was referring to Hezekiah in the first place, there is no way that Isaiah would have conferred him the titles “mighty God” and “everlasting Father”. That would force the translation to follow the lines of the Targum, meaning that these titles were a reference to God, the agent, who was declaring the name of the messianic child to be the Prince of Peace.
This child is spoken of again in Rev 11:15:-
Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”
As we approach the season of Advent in these chaotic times, may we keep our eye on the one Prince of Peace whose kingdom will have no end.