Early Isaiah 1-12 contains three significant passages read by the apostles, the evangelists, and the early church as messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. These passages vary in their context in Isaiah. For Isaiah 7:14-16 it is clear in context that the prophet had a contemporary in mind, likely Hezekiah, rather than a future messiah. In retrospect it was applied to Jesus, the prophet proclaimed more than he knew. In 9:6-7 it appears that there is both a contemporary subject in mind as well as space for an eschatological fulfillment. No mere human ruler could live up to the hyperbolic language here.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Isaiah 11 takes us even more clearly into this eschatological perspective.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. … They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 11:1-3, 9
Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics) notes that Isaiah 11 is more clearly prophetic pointing to some future event … “the lack of specificity is intentional, as this is more of an eschatological (and messianic) oracle.“
[Isaiah 11] serves as a fitting climax to the oracles in Isaiah 6-11, bringing out the further promise of the coming king, but with a correction. G0d must start over with the stump of Jesse, because the Davidic line will fall into darkness, into chaos, into self destruction and exile. The Davidic dynasty will be cut down to a mere stump, but God can bring new life even from an apparently dead stump. (p. 104)
There is judgment and hope in the words recorded by Isaiah. Everything will be put right.
The oracles of the historical Isaiah found in Isaiah 7-12 regularly and repeatedly refer to the coming of a human king to deal with the malaise recounted in Isaiah 1-6. … There can be little doubt that Isaiah in Isaiah 7 and to some extent in Isaiah 9, has in mind a king who would arise in his own era, perhaps Hezekiah, and set various things right by ruling wisely and justly. But already in Isaiah 7, and even more in Isaiah 9, and finally very clearly in Isaiah 11 our prophets speaks not only of the near horizon but of a more distant one where an ideal or eschatological ruler with divine attributes and the very character of Yahweh will come and set things right once and for all. The interim near horizon solutions are presented only as a foreshadowing and preview of coming attractions, and not just by the later NT writers, but already by Isaiah himself. (p. 111)
Witherington argues (convincingly) that the either-or mentality, either Isaiah was referring to a contemporary event or he was pointing to the distant future, is the wrong way to pose the question. Clearly there is an immediate context at play and a contemporary king in view in some cases – but there is also a measure of forward looking to the time when God will rule with his Spirit resting on a branch from the stump of Jesse. The historical Isaiah knew that no contemporary king could fulfill the role outlined in Isaiah 11.
The New Testament authors used the book of Isaiah in a variety of ways … as “a resource, a font of images and ideas,” a transference of ideas about Yahweh to Jesus, as well as “homiletical use … for purposes other than those Isaiah had.” (p. 114) Isaiah was a part of the common consciousness and it was used in this manner. However, in the case of these three passages in particular (Isaiah 7, 9, 11) the early church saw Jesus clearly standing as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision – especially as the coming ruler of Isaiah 11.
Does the either-or mentality affect your reading of Isaiah?
What does it mean to read Jesus as the fulfillment of these three Isaianic oracles?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.
The links to books above above are paid links. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.