E is for Everlasting

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

That’s from Isaiah 9:6. Many recognize it as part of Handel’s Messiah. It may be that Handel has done as much as any preacher or teacher to reinforce the connection between these words from the 8th century B.C.E. and the birth of Jesus. To be fair, Handel followed the lead of the early scholars of the church, who scoured the Hebrew Scriptures (what we tend to call the Old Testament) in search of references which seemed to look forward in hope to a Jewish Messiah.

The poetry in the Isaiah passage is beautiful, and it is easy to see why it came to be used in reference to Jesus. After the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in the year 70, relations between the Jewish Christians and the Jewish leadership were more than strained. Leaders of synagogues began to expel the followers of Jesus, and declare some of their teachings to be heretical. In response, and in defense of their faith in Jesus, the early Christians looked to the Jewish Scriptures to fortify their claim that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah.

Scholars ask hard questions about whether or not all the passages that were caught in the net of this fishing expedition should be applied to Jesus. When history is read backwards, and assumptions are made about the meaning of a text, the original meaning, in the original context is simply ignored, or set aside as unimportant.

The words from Isaiah 9:6 were most likely, in their original setting, meant to refer to the hope of Israel for an actual king, a military/political figure who would take the throne, and run the country: “the government shall be upon His shoulder”. In context, this passage was probably aimed at King Hezekiah. Isaiah the Prophet was calling upon the new king to remember his sacred responsibilities to God, and to God’s people, to govern faithfully, and fairly, with righteousness and justice.

That’s mostly what prophets in the Old Testament were about. We have this mistaken idea that prophets were like oracles or seers, or wizards, who somehow saw the future. Prophets in Israel’s history tended to be more like a “loyal opposition” in the house of commons. Their role, ideally, was to support the legitimate government, and at the same time remind them of their commitment to be faithful. The prophets also admonished the people of Israel when it seemed that they were losing their way.

For the most part, the closest the “prophets” came to predicting the future would be to say “If you carry on this way, there will be trouble to come” or “if you can mend your ways and return to God, things will get better”. Which I guess is a bit like what Jesus came to tell us.

These Letters from the Advent Alphabet are a ministry offering by Rev. Darrow Woods of Trinity United in Oakville, Ontario.

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