Cosmic Lord

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

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Isaiah’s David and Conservative Scholarship

This is an expanded version of a college essay I wrote recently for my theological studies. It concerns the conservative claim that the book of Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidic king. 

Introduction

It has long been a mainstay of classical and conservative Christianity that the book of Isaiah explicitly anticipates a divine-human king who would take his rightful place on David’s throne. Resting their case on key “royal” texts, commentators in this tradition have argued for the Isaianic expectation of an idealized Davidic heir sharing the everlasting glory – the “ontological status” – of Yahweh himself. Invariably, he is identified with Jesus Christ.

I will examine the merits of this claim in what follows, pursuing it in conversation with traditionalist interpreters. In particular, I will argue that whilst Isaiah clearly envisions a superlative Davidic king – that much is uncontroversial – this object of prophetic longing remains an exclusively human figure. Even if the key redemptive individuals populating the book can all be interpreted within a Davidic-messianic framework, they, too, are pictured as essentially human. Ultimately, the expected Davidide occupies a subordinate position within the broader Isaianic portrait of Yahweh’s unmatched sovereignty. Arguments to the contrary either exceed or misconstrue the evidence.

I shall divide my essay into three, unequal parts, focusing primarily on the more contentious question of the Davidic king’s alleged divinity. First, I’ll critically explore relevant passages in Isaiah 1-39, demonstrating that even where they do expect a royal Davidide, they do not envision him as divine. Second, I shall survey Isaiah 40-55, concentrating on the infamous “servant” passages with which some scholars buttress their claims.[1] I’ll argue that whether or not these commonly-cited texts anticipate a Davidic-messianic figure, they also fail to show that he bears godhood. Finally, I shall briefly sketch a positive case for understanding the expected Davidide as a human agent within the book’s theology of divine kingship.

Isaiah 1-39

Since Isaiah 1-39 provides most of the putative data for a divine Davidide, I shall devote a larger share of my critical attention to this section. Here, we must contend with four main passages when discussing the Davidic king’s ontological status: 4:2; 7:14-18; 9:1-7; and 11:1-10.

Isaiah 4:2

Isaiah 4:2 is sometimes seen as the first Isaianic glimpse of a future, divine Davidic figure. Motyer argues that references to the “Lord’s Branch” and “the fruit of the land” reflect the coming king’s dual nature, bearing both a divine origin and human parentage.[2] “Branch” may well have messianic overtones (cf. Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8), but the point of its/his being “of” the Lord is to emphasis God’s gift of fruitfulness; the “Branch” would therefore be Yahweh’s instrument of redemption.[3] Interpreting “fruit of the land” as a veiled indication of the apparent Davidide’s human/earthly ancestry seems manufactured: a natural reading of the text doesn’t warrant such recondite interpretations, but rather suggests the joy of survivors returning to a newly bountiful landscape. Claims that mere earthen terrain would never be described with terms such as “pride” and “glory” also ignore biblical references to the contrary (e.g., Jer 3:19; Dan 11:16,41).[4]

Isaiah 7:14-18

Those who think Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidide tend to interpret Isaiah 7:14-18 in a straightforwardly predictive way – i.e., as a promise fulfilled with Christ’s miraculous birth, in whose person divinity and humanity were embodied (Matt 1:23). Advocates argue that this connection, along with the child’s name (“God-with-us”),[5] constitute strong indications of both Davidic lineage and divine origin.

Admittedly, “Immanuel’s” identity (v.14) is difficult to determine, and interpretations are legion.[6] Whether a Davidic-messianic understanding of the passage is possible,[7] contextual factors favour a certain immediacy regarding the prophecy’s ambit: the demise of the Syro-Ephraimite kings, whom Ahaz “dread[ed]”, would occur before the child reached the age of conscious moral choice (v.16; cf. vv.2,7-9). This implies the sign would come to pass within the lifetime of Isaiah’s audience.[8] Traditionalist interpretations, hewing to a disputable model of prophetic fulfilment that not even the NT consistently follows,[9] are constrained to mute the clear historical markers anchoring Isaiah’s oracle.[10] Claiming Isaiah adopts a “concertina” approach to history[11] – essentially bypassing the intervening seven centuries – represents an exercise in special pleading, and would have rendered the prophetic sign meaningless to his contemporaries.[12] Nothing explicit in the text warrants such exegetical contrivances.[13] The apparent force of the child’s virginal mother is thus negated; assuming v.14 denotes a specific woman,[14] it’s equally possible that her maidenhood was something she possessed at the time, without entailing supernatural conception. Finally, “Immanuel” is better understood as a theophoric name: less a reflection of one’s divinity than of his status as a sign of God’s enduring presence in the midst of historical crisis.[15] I shall further discuss claims concerning theophoric names below.

Some argue for the Immanuel-child’s divinity by joining Isaiah 7:14ff with 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 via subsequent references to “Immanuel” (8:8,10). However, this assumes two things: (a) that 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 contain hints of divinity in their portraits of the coming Davidide; and (b) that these texts speak of the same individual as 7:14ff, linked as they allegedly are by way of “Immanuel”. I will critically examine (a) below. As for (b), there is reason to question the identification of the variously-mentioned figures. True, 7:14ff and 9:1-7 both speak of the birth of significant children. But attempts to link these passages – where “Immanuel” apparently refers to an exalted figure, whose identity becomes progressively clearer – fail to reckon with probable changes in the term’s usage; whereas “Immanuel” clearly refers to an individual in 7:14, it might better be seen as a cry of hope (or grief) in 8:8,10.[16]

Isaiah 9:1-7

Unlike Isaiah 4:2 and 7:14ff, 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 unambiguously expect a Davidic king: references to David’s throne (9:7) and Jesse’s “Branch/stump” (11:1,10) bear sufficient witness to this fact.[17] However, the contentious – and thus, crucial – question remains the nature of this longed-for potentate.

Numerous commentators have looked to Isaiah 9:1-7 for evidence of a future divine king, so apparently crystalline are the references to his glorified, transcendent status. Set against the background of a coming era of deliverance (vv.1-5), some argue the passage is a prophetic word concerning a divine-human saviour who will sit on David’s throne, even as he is identified with God himself. His alleged role as universal redeemer testifies to his lofty status, and commentators use vv.1-5 to buttress the broader claim that Isaiah 9:1-7 anticipates an exalted figure of cosmic scope. Verses 6-7, which speak of a remarkable infant and his accession to David’s throne, are the lynch-pin. On this view, the child’s “givenness” means that in addition to having human parentage (“born”), he is also of divine stock.[18] The complex of honorific names in v.6 apparently bears this out, for their application to the Davidic king is titular evidence of his divinity. “Wonderful [Counsellor]” (v.6a) may mean something like “supernatural”, reflecting the unique abilities of this supposedly more-than-human figure.[19] “Mighty God” (v.6a) is likewise said to denote godhood, since elsewhere, it is clearly applied to Yahweh (10:21).[20] Furthermore, proponents have suggested that “Everlasting Father” (v.6b) represents the king’s eternality and divine paternity, of which the passage’s reference to his kingdom’s endless duration (v.7) is a corollary.[21]

At first glance, the evidence marshalled from Isaiah 9:1-7 appears compelling. But several cogent objections can be levelled against it. First, interpreting references to “born” and “given” (v.5) as implying the divine-human nature of the coming king represents an artificial demarcation (cf. 4:2). The child’s “givenness” denotes the divine mercy that stands behind his birth, with the one acting as sign to the other.[22] Second, the titles of v.6 – said to be overt references to the king’s divinity – are better understood as theophoric names: ceremonial titles borne by a ruler, describing the God in whose name he reigned and on whose behalf he acted.[23] This didn’t mean the person in question was divine. Other OT texts show the (e.g.) relationship between Yahweh and Israel’s kings could be described in filial terms (God’s “son” [Ps 2:7]), without this indicating ontological likeness.[24] Hence, vv.6-7 don’t imply the Davidic ruler will bear godhood; rather, his actions and status point beyond themselves to the ultimate reality undergirding his rule.[25] Deferrals to 10:21, then, are moot: although that verse does refer to Yahweh, the application of “Mighty God” in 9:6 is a sign of God’s salvific power.[26] These titles serve to underscore his greatness, wisdom, and paternal concern – not the ruler’s per se – in redemption (v.7d).[27]

Third, references to an everlasting kingdom do not, by themselves, imply the eternality of the Davidic leader. More likely is the argument that they echo 2 Samuel 7:14ff, which speaks of the endless duration of David’s kingdom (cf. Ps 72:17).[28] Nothing in that passage suggests the equation of everlasting kingship and divinity.[29] Finally, there is reason to think the general tenor of 9:1-7 implies a ruler of a more limited (though nonetheless idealized) stature, counterposing the “manifest failures of the Ahaz regime”.[30] Some persuasively argue that God is consistently pictured as exclusive redeemer here, thereby challenging traditional readings that “inflate” the Davidic figure’s role.[31] The passage concentrates on Yahweh’s accomplishments (v.7d), denoting God as deliverer – not the subsequently-identified Davidide. “He” (v.1) refers to Yahweh, logically implying that Israel’s God is also the primary subject of vv.2-5 (cf. Isa 2:5). This strikes a better balance between the “gloom” of divine abandonment (8:22) and the “light” of divinely-ordained redemption.[32] Moreover, 9:1-7 doesn’t apply the term “king” to the wonder-child, possibly as a way of training attention on Yahweh’s kingship.[33] The Davidide is honoured, not in himself, but as an obedient agent within God’s redemptive programme.[34] If sound, this re-appraisal weakens a key plank in the classical-conservative case for a transcendent, uniquely glorified Davidic individual.

Isaiah 11:1-10

What of Isaiah 1:1-10? Does it anticipate a divine Davidide? Again, an affirmative answer exceeds the evidence. Motyer suggests the construction of v.10 denotes the origin of Jesse’s genealogical line: the Davidic “Root” is also the “root” from which Jesse and his progeny sprang, such that he is both Messiah and Creator (i.e., divine).[35] But the verse reads simply enough, especially when viewed in light of the preceding context (10:33-34): a “root” from Jesse’s line will grow and bud, despite the apparently lifeless stump that exists.[36] The passage does envision a lofty, idealized figure, whose advent is associated with the return of exiles and a new era of shalom-like harmony (vv.6-10). However, this needn’t be interpreted in “superhuman” terms.[37] Verses 1-2 depict someone acting as Yahweh’s deputy, discharging his unique duties only with the liberal assistance of divine endowment.[38] Meanwhile, 11:11ff affirm God’s superintendence over Israel’s deliverance/restoration. The Davidic figure may be God’s faithful vice-regent – offering another contrast to the corruption of contemporary elites (cf. 1:10) – but the basic thrust of this passage is one of deference and subordination, not (ontological) equality (cf. vv.2a-3b – “…will delight in the fear of the Lord”).

Isaiah 40-66

Whereas Isaiah 1-39 contains clear references to a Davidic ruler, there is scant mention of David in Isaiah 40-55 (cf. the heavily contested 55:3-5).[39] This should come as no surprise, since so-called Deutero-Isaiah focuses so closely on Yahweh’s kingship. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the “servant” texts punctuating Chapters 40-55, some maintain that Isaiah continues to envision a royal Davidide.[40] Interesting parallels obtain between the servant and (e.g.) Isaiah 11:1-10,[41] but citation of claimed textual evidence for the view fails to appreciate that much of the data parallel references in non-Davidic contexts (and are therefore insufficient to establish the traditionalist’s position), or remain ambiguous in their import.[42] It’s questionable whether the servant is consistently portrayed as an individual, much less a Davidic one (e.g., Isa 41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 49:3, implying a servant-Israel nexus).[43] Even where an individual appears to be envisaged, the passages in question lack unambiguous references to his Davidic heritage, akin to those one finds in Isaiah 9 and 11. The prospective exegete should therefore be cautious in eliding these two figures.[44]

Isaiah 49 and 53

But suppose the servant of Isaiah 40-55 is an ideal Davidic king; is there evidence to suggest this section contains an expectation of his divinity? Some scholars have argued so, leaning on a clutch of key verses from Chapters 49 and 52-53. I shall examine them in reverse order, starting with the latter text first. According to several commentators, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 contains several allusions to that figure’s deity: the servant will be exalted to a position of honour on par with God (52:13); the Lord’s “bared arm” constitutes a kind of incarnation (53:1);[45] and the servant’s agential role suggests a “perichoretic” relationship between him and Yahweh, with even incipient Trinitarian overtones.[46] These references are rather opaque, to say the least, and are better understood in more prosaic terms. That the servant is Yahweh’s instrument – his “bared arm” – can be explained as yet another instance of the master-servant/king-agent relationship (cf. 9:1-7; 11:1-10).[47] On this view, the servant is likely a human figure doing his Lord’s bidding. And “high and lifted up” (52:13) likely denotes a reversal of status from shame to honour (cf. 53:10b-12a), not “ontological identity”.[48] As for the assertion that we have here a statement of proto-Trinitarian thought, the most one can say about it is that it is entirely gratuitous.

Traditionalist interpretations of Isaiah 49:1-7 also over-egg the exegetical pudding. Motyer, for example, asserts that “strength” (v.5c) implies the servant uniquely embodies divine power[49] – despite plain readings of the text which suggest that he “merely” benefits from Yahweh’s preservation amidst his arduous mission. Likewise, although others have argued that the servant actually incarnates divine salvation (v.6d), this, too, can be understood in instrumental terms – i.e., the servant acting on behalf of his God, functioning as a “tool” (cf. v.2, where the servant is likened to a weapon in Yahweh’s hand). Finally, the servant may well act as God’s “salvation” (v.7), but a more straightforward interpretation lies close to hand – namely, that he is an agent prosecuting the redemptive agenda of the One who sent and empowered him. To be sure, an agential role is logically consistent with the possession of deity. However, it certainly does not demand deity, and one is firmer textual grounds by eschewing that understanding.

[ADDITIONAL OBSERVATIONS: Complementing these rejoinders are certain features which suggest that if the servant is an individual, then he is an “ordinary”[50] human one. Although it is true that Isaiah 49 depicts him in exalted terms (cf. 11:1-10), it is also clear that he relies upon the generating and sustaining power of God. That in itself may reflect a (metaphysical) distinction between the servant and the One he obeys. He is formed, we are told, by Yahweh in the womb (49:5), which suggests a beginning in time. Eternality, however, is one of the hallmarks of true deity (cf. 43:13), and is a quality that separates Yahweh from his creation. Of course, it might be possible to argue that this doesn’t necessarily preclude pre-existence; Christians, after all, believe that Christ is both the eternal logos (cf. John 1:1) and the son born to a first-century Jewess. But the author of Isaiah was no Christian. Moreover, the traditionalist will find no comfort in (e.g.) Isaiah 7:14ff: as I have already suggested, that text does not predict the miraculous birth of some kind of divine-child, but instead denotes the impending advent of an infant who will constitute a sign of God’s presence. The present passage says nothing beyond the fact that the servant was, like every other human individual, fashioned by the One who is the ultimate source of all life. This speaks of a mundane being, who is constrained by the limits of materiality.

One may also cite Isaiah 49:4, which refers to the servant vainly exhausting himself – yet another indication of finitude, and thus, of humanity without divinity (cf. 40:28c). Although he is called to be a light for the Gentiles (v.6b) – a statement that could be construed as a claim to share in the divine light (cf. 2:5) – it is telling that he does not possess this intrinsically; that Yahweh will “make” him so implies that whilst he carries divine truth, he does not embody it by nature (cf. 58:8,10, where light is clearly associated with members of Yahweh’s covenant community). None of the above points is decisive in isolation, and one cannot definitively rule out some articulation of the servant’s deity. However, they constitute a cumulative case that is relatively strong. Isaiah 49:1-7 seems, then, to offer a picture of someone who remains deeply dependant on, and humbly committed to, the God who has commissioned him. Everything in the passage suggests, once more, ontological difference – not identity – between Yahweh and the servant. Traditionalist arguments, like those associated with previous passages, go beyond the data.]

Isaiah and Kingship: Yahweh’s Matchless Rule

The foregoing analysis has suggested that claims concerning Isaiah’s anticipation of a divine Davidide outstrip the evidence. But can a constructive case be made for understanding the Davidic king as a solely human figure? I believe so, and its possibility lies in the implications of one of the book’s key themes: Yahweh’s unmatched supremacy – his “isolated sovereignty” – against all other claimants.[51]

Isaiah is suffused with references to this basic belief, so crisply distilled in the oft-repeated phrase, “Holy One of Israel” (e.g., 41:14,16; 43:3; 54:4; 60:14). Captured in that term is the notion that Yahweh is both metaphysically “other” and morally spotless. The prophet discovers this when he is confronted with a vision of God. There, Isaiah is overwhelmed by a transcendent monarch of unparalleled majesty (6:1; cf. 63:15); the thrice-declared fact of his holiness simply underscores this reality. That experience is the starting-point for “so-called Isaianic ideology”,[52] buttressing the book’s unrelenting critique of attempts to exalt oneself as Yahweh’s equal.[53] Isaiah’s fundamental outlook explains the denunciation of the Babylonian king in Isaiah 14:12-15, whose actions represent the unlawful arrogation of Yahweh’s unique position of glory. The general tenor of Isaiah 13-23 is one of God’s sovereignty in judgment, climaxing with a re-assertion of this king’s universal lordship via the execution of his devastating wrath upon the earth. Even the bridging narrative of Isaiah 36-37 is underpinned by the conviction of Yahweh’s sole deity; Hezekiah’s prayer, for example, affirms Yahweh as Lord – in contrast to mute, impotent idols – and the only one who may be called the “living God” (37:14-20).[54] That contrast, of course, is demonstrated in dramatic fashion, as the Assyrian army is completely vanquished (37:36-38).

The theme of Yahweh’s reign culminates with the book’s extended “lawsuit” against the great pantheon of idols in Chapters 40-55, a section that has been noted for its lofty, uncompromising monotheism.[55] Much of this polemical output serves to establish Yahweh’s status as unrivalled potentate and Israel’s only redeemer (e.g., 42:5-9). Yahweh repeatedly contrasts his royal glory with the lifeless “gods” of pagan devotion (40:18-25; 46:1-12). He alone commands the otherwise unchecked forces of nature; he alone foretells the future and ensures his plans prevail. Not only is he Israel’s king (43:15); he is God eternal, supreme over creation – including those elements used to create the idols he so resolutely opposes.[56] As Yahweh himself emphatically insists, he “will not yield” his “glory to another”, or his “praise to idols” (42:8) – precisely because no one else can be positioned as his equal (cf. 64:5). The final, eschatological picture of “all flesh” engaging in pure worship of the one, true God (66:18-22) perfectly complements – and indeed, fulfils – the lines of thought found in Deutero-Isaiah. Tellingly, there is no mention in that text of a supposedly divine-human Davidide (as we might expect if Isaiah consciously anticipated such a figure); he seems to have faded from the scene entirely. At the conclusion of history, the prophet implies, Yahweh alone will stand supreme.

In view of these proposals, it would seem that no matter how revered the coming Davidic king is, one shouldn’t claim more for him than Isaiah’s theological predilections will allow. Given the book’s unyielding emphasis on Yahweh’s matchless sovereignty (cf. 63:15) – and the consequent gulf that exists between him and all other things – it makes more sense to understand the Davidide as an honoured (though non-divine) individual, acting as Yahweh’s subordinate. Several of the passages surveyed bear this out. Isaiah 9:1-7 has shown that the (human) Davidide operates as an agent within, and as a result of, the cosmic Lord’s redemptive enterprise. His stature and titles signal God’s sovereign power, even if he himself remains a mundane figure. Isaiah’s broader theological horizons make the distinction between these two actors thoroughly intelligible. Yahweh’s glory is a unique and intrinsic possession (cf. 42:8); by implication, the Davidide simply does not have it. And on the assumption that the subject of Isaiah 49:1-7 is a Davidic figure, the aforementioned features of that oracle – features that seemingly imply an ordinary human being – would become doubly comprehensible. Not only do inner textual considerations invite the reasonable conclusion that the servant is non-divine; Isaiah’s basic theological foundations appear to rule out anything more. Conversely, we may ask whether a prophetic work so committed to God’s singular deity would then obscure its message by introducing a being who, as it were, “blurs” the relevant metaphysical categories of divinity and humanity (cf. 2:22). If my analysis is correct, there is not only reason to doubt traditionalist interpretations of the longed-for Davidide; a positive framework also exists that strongly encourages an affirmation of his exclusive humanity.

Conclusion

We must conclude. As I have sought to demonstrate, both intra-exegetical considerations and broader theological concerns suggest that Isaiah anticipates a human Davidic king, and nothing more. Even the book’s unambiguous references to an expected Davidide fail to yield compelling evidence for his divinity. Instead, the passages examined here indicate someone who occupies an inferior – though still important – position within the sovereign God’s salvific economy. The honour accorded him is reflective of the ubiquitous pattern of veneration that ancient kings enjoyed. On the other hand, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that traditionalist/conservative claims in this field sometimes stem, not from a dispassionate exegesis of the text, but from scholarly ingenuity in service of particular theological aims. As I have sought to demonstrate, those who argue that Isaiah expects the coming Davidide to bear divinity are frequently compelled to resort to some rather tenuous interpretive strategies. This isn’t to say that those living this side of the Incarnation shouldn’t read these texts through a Christological lens. That remains a legitimate hermeneutical move. However, Isaiah reveals to us an undimmed belief in Yahweh’s ontological uniqueness, such that expectations of a divine-human king – a transcendent son of David – are questionable at best.

[1] The attentive reader will notice that I have not included Isaiah 56-66 in my analysis. This is so for two reasons: putative references (e.g., to a royal Davidide/divine figure) are extremely rare and/or ambiguous; and, where a relevant text may be found, it is significant only to the extent that it echoes language already found in earlier sections of Isaiah (e.g., 53:1//63:5).

[2] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 65, 67. For an ancient rendition of this argument, see Bede, “Homilies on the Gospels 1.4”, cited in Stephen A. McKinion (ed.), Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah 1-39 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 36.

[3] Childs argues that because “Branch” is pegged to “the Lord” – not David or Jesse – the reference should not be seen as messianic-Davidic, but rather as a denotation (along with 4:2b) of Yahweh’s work in bestowing upon the land “abundance and fecundity”. See Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 36.

[4] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Revised) (WBC 24; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 75.

[5] Calvin argues that “Immanuel” is a sure indication that Isaiah was predicting the coming of the (divine) Christ. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1; trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 248-249.

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68-69. See Andy Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 122, who cites some scholars arguing for Immanuel’s identification with Hezekiah. Other candidates include Isaiah’s son, or a collective interpretation (i.e., mothers calling their sons “Immanuel” as a profession of faith). Abernethy himself argues that the identity of the child is unimportant.

[7] Goldingay, like many others, notes that there is nothing explicit about the Immanuel child being of Davidic origin. See John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 140. Watts (Isaiah 1-33, 140) suggests that “no record exists of special attention being given to Isa 7:14 in pre-Christian Judaism”.

[8] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 136, 141. Laato argues for an immediate historical fulfilment. See Antti Laato, Who is Immanuel? The Rise and the Foundering of Isaiah’s Messianic Expectations (Abo: Abo Academy Press, 1988), 172-173.

[9] E.g., Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:18). See James M. Hamilton, Jr., “‘The Virgin Will Conceive’: Typology in Isaiah and Fulfillment in Matthew 1:23”, in Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 233-236, 242-247, for a summary and defence of a typological (rather than predictive) approach to the NT’s understanding of prophetic fulfilment.

[10] Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 91.

[11] As Motyer (Isaiah, [TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999], 78) does; idem, The Prophecy, 87.

[12] As even John N. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 1-39 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 206-207) admits, despite his adherence to the conservative position; cf. Marvin E. Tate, “King and Messiah in Isaiah of Jerusalem”, R & E 65 (1968): 412.

[13] Other exegetes (e.g., John Calvin and Gary Smith) have posited that the child of v.14 is different from that of v.16. I can only say that this seems terribly forced, and undermines the integrity of the passage. See Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 250; Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC 15A; Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 215.

[14] Note the definite article preceding “virgin” in v.14, which could imply a specific, concrete individual (cf. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 200).

[15] Abernethy, The Book, 122-123; Greg Goswell, “Royal Names: Naming and Wordplay in Isaiah 7”, WTJ 75 (2013): 106.

[16] See Wolf, Interpreting, 94; idem, “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22”, JBL 91 (1972): 455; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 154. Cf. G.C.I Wong, “Is ‘God with Us’ in Isaiah VIII 8?”, VT [no number] (1999): 430, who interprets the cries of “Immanuel” negatively. This does not affect my broader point. Smith admits that Isa 7:1-17 lacks the messianic “flavour” of 9:1-7. See Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 215. Porter notes a number of other differences between these figures. See Frank Chamberlain Porter, “A Suggestion Regarding Isaiah’s Immanuel”, JBL 14 (1985): 20.

[17] See Goswell, “The Shape of Messianism in Isaiah 9”, WTJ 9 (2015): 108.

[18] This interpretation has a venerable history. See Motyer, Isaiah, 89; idem, The Prophecy, 102. See also Carl Umhan Wolf, “Luther on the Christian Prophecy, Isaiah 9”, Lutheran Quarterly 5 (1953): 390, for a summary of Luther’s views on this point; Augustine, “Sermon 187.4” in McKinion, Ancient, 70.

[19] Motyer, Isaiah, 89.

[20] Motyer, Isaiah, 89; Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 240; Wolf, Interpreting, 97-98.

[21] Interpreting the names in Isa 9:6 as connoting the Davidide’s deity has a long and venerable history. A quick glance at McKinion, Ancient, 70-76 reveals that many of the luminaries of the ancient church – from Justin Martyr, to Ambrose, and Augustine – held this view. Although I depart from such an august array of witnesses, I do not do so lightly. For a modern parallel, see Motyer, The Prophecy, 102.

[22] H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27 (Volume 2) (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 395.

[23] Goswell, “The Shape”, 107. Cf. Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418, who argues that these were throne names bestowed upon a king at his coronation; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 175; Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah, and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 43, who argues this was a common ancient practice; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 397-398.

[24] Abernethy, The Book, 127; Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418; Paul D. Wegner, “A Re-examination of Isaiah IX 1-6”, VT 1 (1992): 107-108.

[25] Childs, Isaiah, 81.

[26] Goldingay, The Theology, 140; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 110.

[27] Abernethy, The Book, 127-128; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 111.

[28] Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 241; cf. Laato, Who is Immanuel?, 194, 303.

[29] Williamson, Variations, 36; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 403.

[30] Goswell, “The Shape”, 101.

[31] See Goswell, “The Shape”, 101-110, esp. 102. See also Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418.

[32] Cf. Wegner, “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1-7?”, in Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, eds. David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2009), 240.

[33] Wegner, “What’s New”, 244.

[34] Goswell, “The Shape”, 102; Williamson, Variations, 32-34.

[35] Motyer, The Prophecy, 14, 121.

[36] Goldingay, The Theology, 141; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 209.

[37] Contra Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 278.

[38] Goswell, “Messianic Expectation in Isaiah 11”, WTJ 79 (2017): 126-127, 129.

[39] See Goswell, “The Shape”, who argues that Isaiah 40-55 has no place for a Davidic king; cf. Childs, Isaiah, 437, and Christopher R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (London: OUP, 1956), 218, who argue likewise. As for Isa 55:3-5, many scholars argue that it refers to the “democratization” of promises originally made to David – now applied to the entire community. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 439-440) argues that the use of the third-person singular in v.4, combined with the Davidic reference, suggests that we are dealing with an individual Davidide, and that he ought to be identified with the Isaianic servant of Isaiah 40-53. However, he concedes that this line of evidence is not decisive.

[40] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 344-345.

[41] See Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 44, for an exploration of some of those parallels, with a focus on Isa 11:1-2 and 42:1-2; cf. Wolf, Interpreting, 191.

[42] See, for example, the arguments marshalled by Daniel I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah”, in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 47. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 148, n.83, who persuasively refutes such claims.

[43] Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 50. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 138-144.

[44] See North, The Suffering Servant, 142: “We are not at liberty to assume that the picture of the servant is homogenous throughout the Songs [of Isa 40-55]”; Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 166. It should be noted, however, that later “servant” passages seem to bear an individualist stamp (although the identification of the subject of Isa 49:1-7 remains disputed).

[45] Motyer, The Prophecy, 333.

[46] For a summary of such arguments (as well as cogent rejoinders), see Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[47] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[48] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[49] Motyer, The Prophecy, 387.

[50] “Ordinary” in the sense that he is not divine or transcendent. The servant (like the Davidic king of Isaiah 1-39) is clearly an extraordinary figure.

[51] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[52] Williamson, Variations, 18. See Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Revised) (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 574. who says Isaiah’s vision is an integral part of his “religious consciousness”; Nathan MacDonald, “Monotheism in Isaiah” in Firth and Williamson, Interpreting Isaiah, 58.

[53] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[54] Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 574; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 56.

[55] William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 386. See also MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 45.

[56] R. Reed Lessing, “Yahweh Versus Marduk: Creation Theology in Isaiah 40-55”, Concordia Journal 36 (2010): 237-238. See also Goswell, “Isaiah 1:26 – A Neglected Text on Kingship”, Tyndale Bulletin 62 (2011): 235, who notes an almost exclusive emphasis on Yahweh as king in Isaiah 40-55; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 48.