When someone reads that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6) on Christmas Eve, we immediately and quite naturally think Isaiah refers to the birth of Christ. If anyone says, “Wait a minute, Isaiah was talking about the birth of King Hezekiah”, we might tell him to shut up, stop being irreverent, and stop trying to ruin Christmas, not to mention Handel’s Messiah.
But, in fact, Isaiah of Jerusalem was talking about an 8th century BCE event, the birth of an heir in the royal court.
Isaiah gave this oracle very early in his own career. He expected the birth of this heir to eventually bring about a restoration of northern territories recently beaten down by the Assyrians (Isaiah 9:1-5). But Isaiah lived to see the child grow up and become king. As king, Hezekiah reformed worship and integrated northern priests (like the Asaph psalmists I wrote a series of posts about) into the priesthood in Jerusalem. But Hezekiah did not restore the north. He barely kept the Assyrians from subjugating Judah as well. So Isaiah, himself, saw that his hopes for Hezekiah did not come true.
In Isaiah 11 we see that Isaiah transferred his hope to some indefinite time in the future.
Isaiah of Jerusalem did not write the whole book of Isaiah. After Isaiah 39, we have writings from the period of the Babylonian exile, written by members of a school of prophets Isaiah had founded. They continued to interpret the oracles of Isaiah and the events of Hezekiah’s time. They saw Hezekiah taking up the role of the servant of the Lord. But this role did not end with Hezekiah. In the present and future, the role of suffering servant would save Israel (Isaiah 52:13ff).
Finally, in Isaiah 65 and 66, we have an apocalyptic vision of God restoring Israel at some time in the future. Certainly the prophesy of Isaiah 9:6 fit’s a far future apocalyptic hope:
For to us a child is born.
To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders.
His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from that time on, even forever.
The zeal of LORD of Hosts will accomplish this.
So when we read Isaiah 9 on Christmas Eve, we are reading canonically, which is a fancy way of saying that we read it as part of the whole Book of Isaiah, indeed as part of the whole Bible. It points to something beyond the particular child Isaiah first spoke about. Originally the
“to us” in “to us a child is born” meant the royal court. But Isaiah included also the people of northern Israel, people who sat in darkness (v. 2) and lived under a yoke (v. 4), So today all who also long for light and freedom can look to the Child who was born “to us”.