Isaiah's Christmas Children: The Glory Child

Isaiah 8:16-9:7

Charles G. Dennison

Now it may very well be, if you were to tell the truth, that you are put off by readings from the prophets. You would much rather be somewhere else than in the prophets. There are, of course, those golden passages, those texts that rise right off the page, that seem to be self-contained units in themselves—cogent all by themselves—at least you think they are. There are those passages like Isaiah 9:6, the familiar text: "For unto us a child is born and unto us a son is given." You even rehearse verses like these and use them. You might even emboss your greeting cards with them. But while you are familiar with the words, at the same time you have to admit—if you are honest with yourself—the prophetic literature is not your favorite Scriptural literature. You would rather be somewhere else, the clarity of Isaiah 9:6 notwithstanding.

For you have noticed as you have worked through the passage that we read that you have these opaque, not quite translucent, statements appearing in the latter part of chapter 8. There are comments about binding up the testimony (v. 16); remarks about familiar spirits and peeping and muttering wizards (v. 19); sojourning refugees wandering about, "hardly bestead and hungry" (v. 21), as the King James puts it. As if the prophets were not difficult in their own right, we have to heap on top of that the obscurity of 17th century King James English. "Hardly bestead"? What does that mean? Well, I won't leave you in the dark. It means "painfully situated." Things don't get much better as you move into the ninth chapter—the verses immediately preceding our so-called golden passage (verse 6 in that ninth chapter). For instance, what do you make of the "day of Midian" mentioned in verse 4? What is that all about? What do you make of the boots and "garments rolled in blood" destined for the incinerator in verse 5?

But if the difficulty of these words and the images evoked by them aren't enough, we also have in the prophets those sudden and profound changes in direction—seemingly without warning. You are moving along in one direction and suddenly you are caught off guard. It seems as if there is a complete reversal within the space of a sentence. In an earlier message, we noticed one of those profound reversals of direction as we moved from verse 8 in chapter 8 into the ninth verse. The eighth verse speaks unmistakably about the impending judgment that is coming upon Judah. The ninth verse, however, speaks about the promise of justice that is going to be meted out upon the nations. The thought (by the time we reach the end of the thought in verse 10) is expressing itself in the greatest confidence concerning God's covenantal presence with his people. Verse 8 is God's judgment upon Judah. By the time we reach the end of verse 10, God's blessing is on these same people. What is going on here?

But further we are going to make it darker still, if I were to add one more unsettling feature from the prophets beyond the obscure words and images, beyond the radical redirections, mid-line it seems. (You might consider verse 3 there in chapter 9 for a radical reversal mid-line.) If I were to add one more unsettling feature (equally liable to put you off with regard to prophetic literature), I would call your attention to the frequent "confusion" within the prophets concerning not simply what is being said, but to whom it is being said or about whom it is being said. You cannot keep all of the characters straight. As you move through the prophets, you are not merely in the dark about what the prophet is talking about, you are in the dark about whom he is talking or to whom he is talking. The prophets become like one of those massive Russian novels, where you have the list of characters with all sorts of different names. In the middle of the novel, you have no idea about whom the author is talking.

But looking once more particularly along these lines of our passage, we may conclude that the latter verses in chapter 8 are particularly focused upon Judah. But chapter 9, while apparently picking up on the theme at the end of chapter 8 (you note that trouble, darkness, dimness and anguish of verse 22 in that eighth chapter), appears however to be addressed to the ten northern tribes. Chapter 9 makes mention of Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 1)—northern tribes. We move from Judah back to the ten northern tribes. We even move beyond the Jordan territory that is not within the province of Judah at all. Mention is made of Galilee of the Gentiles at the end of that first verse. We discover not then simply the radical redirection of the message from judgment to deliverance, but the radical disjunction of those addressed as we move from section to section. These are reasons why the prophets, except for those golden passages, may not be our favorite portions of Scripture.

But having said this, it is not to say that God himself is unaware of our predicament. It is not to say that God himself is without his reasons for making the prophetic revelation what it is—even making it difficult as it is! For example, those quick, sudden redirections; those abrupt, surprising shifts from wrath to grace, from wrath to mercy, are as startling as God's grace itself. There it is! The message of these redirections is not meant in any way to lull Israel to sleep in a vain confidence that regardless of how bad things are or even how bad Israel herself might be, she can always count on God's love because there is that intrusion of mercy even in these passages about wrath. No, that message—the message of these radical redirections—is that against the background of God's just judgment, his grace, his mercy, is always surprising and inexplicable. In other words, given the deplorable state of his people, the appearance of grace is not the natural thing. It is not the expected thing. It is not even the logical thing. For the natural, expected and logical thing is the Lord's just judgment. Therefore as utterly gracious as his mercy is and as utterly unmerited as his deliverance for his people is, so completely disarming and befuddling and sudden are the prophets's announcements of salvation even in the contexts of statements about judgment to an unworthy people.

You might well work off of the prophets in this regard concerning your own estate. The temptation may be for you to think that God's mercy and grace to you is the natural thing. It is the thing to be expected. It is the logical thing. You may even in a flattering way point to aspects of your own personality and character that make this such a natural thing, such an expected and logical thing. Well, I am actually a very good person and God knows that, so the logical thing, of course, is that he will show me mercy. That is very close to the theology of Islam. It is not the theology of the Bible. With regard to these radical redirections, you move suddenly from a message about judgment to mercy. As utterly gracious as God's mercy is, as utterly unmerited as his deliverance for his people, so completely disarming and befuddling is the prophet's announcement of salvation to an unworthy people.

It is this mercy, it is this grace, which is further served by the prophet's movement from audience to audience within his message. There is this redirection from wrath to grace, the confusion as to who he's talking about—grace central to the one, grace central to the other as well. It is this mercy, it is this grace, which is further served by the prophet's movement from audience to audience in his message. As we have already noted, Isaiah's words at the end of chapter 8, beginning at verse 16, find their context in the prophet's address to Judah. But even moving on from Judah, the immediate address is more particularly to the small band of disciples that have gathered around the prophet himself in Jerusalem. It would seem that God's grace (as we watch the movement from audience to audience) has receded now from the ten northern tribes, but also from the two southern tribes and is now residing with the little group of Isaiah's followers. But before we can blink, we move into the ninth chapter of Isaiah and its message about the great light to shine upon a people in darkness. And who are these people? They are not Isaiah's disciples, living within territorial Judah and within Jerusalem, who might well expect to receive the light since they are eminently worthy. Nor are they Judah itself, who has claim (in their own estimation) to David's throne and proximity to the temple. Instead, the light is promised to the most unlikely candidate of all—the ten lost northern tribes. In the course of time and because of their dispersion, these were placed humanly speaking in an impossible situation beyond all retrieval. That is the power of the language. They walk in darkness as a perpetual state. They live under the shadow of death as a perpetual state. The point is not the possibility of rescue; the point is the impossibility of rescue. But it is these people described here who could not be any further removed from hope or light. It is these people who become the recipients of what is most precious from God, and this in order that Judeans, proximate to the throne of David and the temple (even Isaiah and his disciples), might know and be absolutely certain that the Lord's radiant favor is all of grace and his work of redemption is by his power and by his power alone. Nothing less than this is the lesson of Isaiah's glory child in Isaiah 9:6.

The glory child of Isaiah 9:6 is the fourth child in a list of five child figures belonging to this section of Isaiah's prophecy, Isaiah 7 through 12, the so-called "Book of Immanuel". Two of the previous children were Isaiah's own: Shear-jashub (7:3) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:3). The other child amongst those three was the mysterious child of 7:14—the child given the name Immanuel. If with the presentation of these three previous children, there had been a systematic and ingenious dismantling of human pride; an undoing for the nation of Judah like the undoing of the prophet himself in the description of his call in Isaiah 6, then this fourth child is the crowning touch. I say this to you not simply because of the way this child is described and the titles that are heaped upon him by the end of that sixth verse. Rather I say this because of the way in which the verse begins—the way in which his birth is presented. Whatever there was of the supernatural involved in the previous three children is now outdone in the fourth. I say this fully aware of how much has been said about Immanuel in connection with the supernatural. For even a virginally conceived Immanuel (if that is how we are to understand the child of 7:14) is outdone by the glory child of Isaiah 9.

You see, the glory child of Isaiah 9 is shrouded in more mystery still. To begin with, his birth is described as a collective birth for all Israel, as if the whole of the nation were pregnant and delivering the child. "For unto us a child is born;" or as the New American Standard version has it, "a child will be born to us"—as if we are the ones giving birth to the child. This fanciful way of presenting the child is set before us, not in order to relegate the child or the birth to the world of myth or fantasy. Rather it is meant to highlight the unity of the people in the interests of their true hope. All Israel, as it were, is gathered for the purpose of giving birth to the substance of her hope. And that you see against the background of the judgment that has just been read out over all of Israel. The nation is dispersed. The nation is judged. The nation is gone. But now the nation is described as gathered—as if that nation were one person, as if that nation were one woman, giving birth to the child. Of course this is a poetical way of speaking and only in the theological sense of it does it have its full and proper meaning, since obviously in the literal sense, no nation gives birth to a child.

But now having seen this point, we are alert to the fact that in the literal sense, no parent, no individual parent, is identified with regard to this child. No parent, no individual parent, is identified with regard to this child and in this regard, the glory child of Isaiah 9 is the only child among all the children mentioned in Isaiah 7 through 12 so identified. No parent. No apparent parent. The intended impact of this description is to heighten the sense of the supernatural, even carrying you beyond what you may have perceived of the supernatural in the description of the Immanuel child of Isaiah 7:14. The intended impact then of this description is to heighten the sense of the supernatural and to suggest to you that the true parentage of this child is none other than God himself. The very next phrase in the verse fills out this interpretation: unto us not only is a child born, unto us a son is given. Once more the collective sense of it in the reception of the child, as if the whole nation were receiving the child as one; but likewise once more, no identifiable parent. The implication being that God is the parent and that it is he who is giving the child to the people. The child is his gift to them.

But you remember how we led into this section in the sermon. It has been made clear that God's people are not worthy to receive God's gift, are they? Neither are they in their own strength, capable of procuring the child or generating the child. Therefore, laid within the glory child of Isaiah 9 is the message that God's deliverance of his people will be through a child he uniquely begets—one who will be the pure embodiment of his own absolute grace and his absolute power—the manifest demonstration of both. And what a child this is! According to one reading, "His name shall be called as a counselor, wonderful; in might, like a God; for eternity, a father; in the realm of peace, a prince." But such a description of this child is not quite adequate. It does not quite capture the sense and magnitude of this child who has been given. Looking at the supernatural and divinely gracious character of the child himself, such a reading as has been suggested will never do. For in truth, this child is the most wonderful of counselors, exceeding all. No godlike hero is he—a champion for the people—rather he is the mighty God himself. He is indeed a father—he is the progenitor of eternity and of those who belong to eternity. And he is a sovereign with his own domain—that domain being peace. He is a sovereign that both owns that domain and in his very person is identified with it. He is not only the prince over peace; he is the prince that is peace. So the child, the glory child has come and has been acknowledged to be all of this. Has he not? even by you?

But even before you, there were the statements read out by the apostle Paul that he (this child) would be received by all Israel—that is, all Israel that is Israel; and not only by Israel, but by the nations flung far and wide. To those to whom this child has truly come, there is no question about his identity. Nor is there any question about whether their goodness or their works brought about his birth. You see how the Protestant message of salvation by grace alone must be proclaimed with the Christmas message. Do you see that no work by Israel, by a Jew—no inherent value rising from them, no inherent goodness, no work on their part laid in righteousness—could bring forth the birth of the child? The child was a gift. And as the child is a gift, so is the salvation that is to be found in him. There is no other way and there can be no other message than this. It is those people who are receiving this child on God's terms who know that the gift is all of grace and that it is all of God. Praise his name! Don't you?