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Conversations in the Cathedral: Full reflection by Most Rev. Joseph Osei Bonsu

The maiden edition of Conversations in the Cathedral; an initiative of Most Rev. John Bonaventure Kwofie, took place on Wednesday, December 11 at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Accra.

The event which is an ecumenical event, seeks to bring together both secular and religious leaders to discuss issues of common concern.

The first in the series of many to come was attended by a representative of the president of the republic of Ghana, HE Nana Akufo-Addo, Former President, John Dramani Mahama, Pastor Mensah Otabil of the International Central Gospel Church and Chairman of the National Peace Council, Most Rev. Professor Emmanuel Asante among other dignitaries.

The reflection that kick started the conversation was based on Isaiah 9:6 and was delivered on behalf of Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Bishop of Konongo-Mampong.

Find text of the reflection below

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the passage for our reflection tonight is Isaiah 9:6, which reads as follows:

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.

This passage (i.e. Isaiah 9:6) forms part of the literary unit 9:2-7 [in Hebrew, 9:1-6]. The latter is the first reading for the Midnight Mass at Christmas in our Catholic liturgy. The whole passage runs as follows:

 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, As they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as men make merry when dividing spoils. For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, And the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.

 

For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames.

  For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, From David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains By judgment and justice, both now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!

 

Isaiah 9:2-7 constitutes the climax of the section begun in 7:1 in which we find the prophecy of the birth of a child in 7:14. Thus, in order to discover the identity of this child of whom the attributes of Isaiah 9:6 are used, we need to go back to Isaiah 7:14.

The passage reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  The words are addressed to Ahaz, King of Judah, and the House of David by the prophet Isaiah.  The oracle follows a traditional announcement formula by which the birth and sometimes naming of a child is promised to particular individuals (Genesis 16:11; Judges 13:3).

Isaiah’s sign seeks to reassure Ahaz that he need not fear the invading armies of Syria and Israel in the light of God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). These words in Isaiah 7:14 have their own historical context and primary level of meaning. In the context, fulfilment is required in the immediate future.

“The young woman” in the passage who will give birth to this child must be someone in sight to whom Isaiah points. The most likely woman to have been present with the king would have been the queen.  If this is true, the son that is to be born will be the heir apparent to the throne, i.e., the Anointed One.

Some scholars suggest that the young woman referred to in Isaiah 7:14 is Abi, the wife of King Ahaz, who gave birth to Hezekiah around 733-732 B.C.  The Davidic dynasty continued in Judah through Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-2), confirming Yahweh’s faithfulness.

Did the sign have “messianic relevance” as it was originally announced?  The passage turns on a threat to the throne and to the “son of David” who occupies it. The prophecy “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7) announces that the threat is empty and that the throne will remain secure.  Verse 9b speaks of being “confirmed” or “established”, and surely refers to confirmation in his position on the throne.

So the sign deals with the same issue.  And whatever involves the Davidic promise of the throne to his heirs must have relevance to the “Messiah”.  In this sense, at least, the passage is “messianic”. It is related to the fulfilment of God’s promises to David and his dynasty.  It warns King Ahaz that it is in the interest of the throne and his succession to allow his troubles to pass without escalating them by rash acts. In this way, he can pass on to his son an independent, even if poor and ravished, kingdom.

What has been said above is the simple, uncomplicated meaning of the passage. However, a deeper meaning in the promise was apparent to Jews of later centuries. Two things in particular were responsible for the later perception of this secondary level of meaning: the name given to the child, “Immanuel” or “Emmanuel” (lit. “God with us”; cf. Isaiah 8:8, 10), and the surrounding passages, which speak of the dawn of the promised golden age with the judgment of the wicked and the blessing of the righteous (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:2-7; 11:1-16).

This was the ultimate sense in which God’s presence was to be manifested in Israel.  The promised son of Isaiah 7:14 thus became readily identifiable as that son of David, the ideal monarch who would establish the expected eternal kingdom of security, righteousness and justice.

Accordingly, probably sometime in the third century B.C., the Greek translators of Isaiah 7:14 apparently regarded the passage as having a deeper meaning, as yet unrealized. In agreement with this interpretation, they chose to translate the Hebrew word ʿalmâ (which means “young woman”, who may or may not be a virgin), with the Greek word parthenos (specifically “virgin”) rather than neanis (“young woman”, used by the later Jewish translations of Theodotion, Aquila and Symmachus) in order to stress the supernatural associations brought to mind by the identity and work of this son.

When we come to the New Testament era, Matthew, taking note of the agreement between the tradition about Jesus’ birth and the words of Isaiah, not only prefaces the quotation from Isaiah 7:14 with a formula of fulfilment but even conforms the wording of the surrounding narrative to that of the quotation: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23).

The name “Emmanuel” means “God is with us”.  Since for the Christian the incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s willingness to “be with us”, it is understandable that this text was interpreted to refer to the birth of Christ.

There is no problem in referring the names Jesus and Emmanuel to the same person.  This may well be the reason Matthew spells out the meaning of the name Emmanuel, “God with us” (LXX Isaiah 8:8, 10).  Indeed, this is not a personal name but rather a name that is descriptive of the task this person will perform.

Bringing the presence of God to man, he brings the promised salvation – which, as Matthew has already explained, is also the meaning of the name Jesus (v 21b).  Matthew probably intends the words of Jesus at the end of his Gospel: — “Behold I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) — to correspond to the meaning of Emmanuel.  Jesus is God, among his people to accomplish their salvation.

Against this background of Isaiah 7:14, let us look briefly at the content of the literary unit of Isaiah 9:2-7 before we focus on verse 6 which is of particular interest to us. It may be divided into four subunits: vv.2-3 deal with the people’s new situation; vv. 4-5 indicate that this new situation is the result of God’s activity in freeing the people and putting an end to war; v. 6 notes that this divine activity is itself the result of the birth of the ideal king; v.7 offers a description of that king’s reign.

Now, let us examine Isaiah 9:6.  The first line says, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us”. Here Isaiah is using the Hebrew literary tool of repetition to emphasize the point: the child is born, the child is given.  It should be clear that the child that is “born to us” and is “given to us” in Isaiah 9:6 is the Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14. The child is God’s gratuitous gift, on which man had no claim (John 3:16; Romans 6:23).  In Christian tradition and liturgy – especially in the Christmas liturgy – this passage is used to refer to Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.

It is stated of this child, “Upon his shoulder dominion rests”. This refers to authority. The ensign of office used to be worn on the shoulder, in token of sustaining the government (Isaiah 22:22).  Here the government on the Messiah’s shoulder is in marked antithesis to the “yoke and staff” of the oppressor on Israel’s “shoulder” (Isaiah 9:4).

The son shall receive the kingdom of the earth from the Father, to vindicate it from the misrule of those to whom it was entrusted to hold it for and under the Most High, but who sought to hold it in defiance of his right; the Father asserts his right by the Son, the “Heir of all things”, who will hold it for Him (Daniel 7:13, 14).

The child is also called “Wonder-Counselor”. This means that he will be remarkable for his wisdom and prudence.  He is called “God-Hero,” or “Mighty God”. This means he will be a warrior and a defender of his people, like God himself.  The designation “Father-Forever” means that he will always be devoted to his people.  Earthly kings leave their people after a short reign; he will reign over and bless them forever.  As Prince of Peace, his reign will be characterized by peace.

This king is expected to bring about an era of peace. He will be able to do this because God will give him all the empire governed by David.  This, of course, did not come about in the time of Hezekiah, nor has it ever come to pass since then.  In the context of Isaiah’s message, this is a vision of hope.  The glory of the king is still in the future – it is a matter of potential and possibility, not of accomplished fact. The oracle has endured because it formulates a goal of universal peace, which is still desired by humanity.

This list of titles or attributes for the future king includes divine titles that would be unusual if referring to a human Davidic king.  Indeed, other scriptural passages confirm that the first three titles imply divinity; e.g. “Wonderful” regularly means “supernatural” (cf. especially Judges 13:18), and it is Yahweh who is “wonderful in counsel” in Isaiah 28:29.

There have been attempts to reduce Mighty God to “god-like hero” (cf. Ezekiel 32:21, where, however, the term is plural), but Isaiah 10:21 uses the identical term alongside “the LORD, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20). “Everlasting Father” has no exact parallel but there is a paradox in so naming a child yet to be born. “Father” signifies the paternal benevolence of the perfect Ruler over a people whom he loves as his children.

Peace in Hebrew implies prosperity as well as tranquility, and v 7 takes up the Hebrew of Prince (in the word government) as well as peace, adding now the first explicit assurance that the prince will be Davidic. The titles given to the royal “child”, especially “God-Hero” or “Mighty God (9:5), suggest that he is more than a human being.

This is clearly an eschatological figure, the Messiah.  However, as has been stated above, there can be no doubt that the prophet Isaiah could be thinking of an actual king in Jerusalem in the late eighth century B.C.  The divine titles were part of the royal ideology.  Psalm 2:7 declares that the king is the begotten son of God, although this is probably understood as a formula of adoption.  Psalm 45:7 addresses the king as elohim, “god”.  The king is not considered equal to Yahweh, but he is regarded as a superhuman being.

Christianity applied this prophecy to the birth of Jesus and that is why this Isaiah passage features in our Christmas liturgy. In doing so, it focused less on the primary political situation which Isaiah was addressing and more on the fact that these wonderful attributes looked forward to the birth of an eschatological figure, the Messiah.

For us Christians, then, this child, with all these attributes, can only be Jesus. The divine attributes point to a remarkable congruence with the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.  As in this latter instance, the birth of a child in Isaiah 9:6 symbolizes the hope of humanity for a brighter future.

The prophecy affirms that the key to this future lies in justice and innocence rather than in military might.  God, through the birth of the ideal king, will shine the light of his own delivering power into the darkness of the human situation and cause the explosion of messianic joy in the world (cf. Isaiah 9:3).

 

Source: Radioangelus.com

 

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