Interpreting the Messiah

The most loved and, perhaps, significant verse of Isaiah 9:1–12:6 also form the lyrics of my favorite piece in Handel’s The Messiah: “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 Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV). Perhaps our appreciation of these words stems from its awesome combination of divinity, power, aid, and peace. Perhaps we also read these words in retrospect, envisioning their fulfillment in the deeds and teachings of Jesus.

Nevertheless, their original setting resides in acts of violence and punishment. Another way to translate this verse is: “For a child is born to us; a son is given us. Dominion shall be upon his shoulder. And his name shall be called, Marvelous Counselor, Warrior-God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” In the context of these chapters involving the imperial domination of Assyria, these would be comforting words: the promise of someone who could outdo Assyrian domination. Most scholars view the words I have translated here as “Warrior-God” as “Mighty God.” Yet the same word is used to describe Nimrod in Genesis 10:8–10 as “first to be a mighty man,” with names of the kingdoms he founded. This word, gibbor in Hebrew, usually means “hero,” and can involve someone who excels in war.[1] This is the way the ancient Israelite community would likely read this word in this verse.

Scholars do speak of larger ways to interpret the word gibbor. A hero then would be anyone who used extraordinary power or means to accomplish a great action. That helps us some, but the ancient Israelites not as much. From the time of Sargon of Akkad in the third millennium, who attempted to create the first empire by conquest, the ancient Near Eastern mind understood peace to be the by-product of war. A prince of peace could have blood on his hands. What should we do with this? Do we throw out the tradition of applying this prophetic statement to Jesus in His first coming, since Jesus in the Gospels never killed anyone? Should we continue to soften it with most translators so that it fits better with Jesus’s life, who alone in history deserves the title “mighty God”? Would we better limit its prophetic application to Jesus’s second advent? Then what do we do with the image of a vulnerable newborn, not only mentioned in this verse, but highlighted in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels?

The rest of this week’s lesson includes Isaiah 9:1–12:6, chapters filled with prophecies of violence against the northern kingdom of Israel, violence against Assyria whom Isaiah, speaking for God, refers to as “the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the staff of my fury” and who will exercise that violence against Israel (Isa. 9:8–10:19, CEB). Within this section, Isaiah depicts these consequences to Israel’s waywardness in four sequential statements that each end with the words: “Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away; God’s hand was still extended.”[2] The extent of violence, albeit intermingled with words of hope and deliverance, raises the larger problem of the portrayal of Yahweh in the Old Testament over against Jesus in the New Testament. Why does such apparent disparity exist between Yahweh and Jesus, who referred to Himself as Yahweh (John 8:58)? When looking for understanding as to whether our own violence is justifiable, must we be forced to choose between God in the Old Testament and God in the New?

I have elsewhere advanced a canonical narrative reading proposing that two voices exist in the Old Testament—the voice of God’s preferred will, usually heard first in a narrative sequence, followed by the people’s will that usually fails to heed God’s preferred will. In response to the people, the second voice is heard acquiescing or adapting to the people’s will. A specific set of criteria establishes further these two voices. Time and space do not permit me to develop this further; and besides, it works primarily within a narrative framework instead of poetry. So instead of utilizing this method here, I would like to point out some principles that I have found useful for resolving the problem here.

The Setting: God Meets People Where They Are

This one is commonly applied to the problem I have outlined above. It recognizes that the people are simply not in a position to understand gentle speech and action. To speak softly and lovingly, and use only kind actions, would not turn them around from their downward path. They are used to external control, harshness, and violence. Try going to a similarly violent society and pleading with them gently, persuasively, to stop their violence. Does it work? According to Ezekiel, Yahweh was dealing with hard-headed and hard-hearted people so that He would have to give His prophets hard heads and hearts in order to be heard (Ezekiel 3:4–9).

The Problem of Language: Divine Determinism

One of the problems in terms of the violence as punishment is that Yahweh is said to cause it. In addition to Assyria serving as the rod of His anger, God is said to raise up their enemies against them. He “stirred up” the Aramaeans “from the east, and the Philistines from the west” (Isa. 9:11, 12, CEB). This is what I have come to call “divine determinism,” in which God is said to do what we would naturally suppose was the result of human choice or forces of nature. This divine determinism exists throughout much of the Bible. Even Jesus uses it. Consider this statement: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword. ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s household’” (Matthew10:34–36, NRSV). Interestingly, here, Jesus is quoting Micah 7:6 and for that reason I added single quotes to designate the fact. Yet Micah 7:6 itself does not apply the principle of divine determinism, even in its context. Instead, it reads: “For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household” (NRSV). Why does even Jesus use this principle?

We have a similar problem in Exodus where it says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12). One could argue that God revealed Himself to Pharaoh as a superior deity and thus, by giving him something to harden his heart against, He “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. Similarly, one could say that Jesus sent a sword by sending truth that would lead some, even in one’s home, to turn against the one who believe that truth. As helpful as this is, it doesn’t explain every instance of divine determinism.

Here is where it is extremely important to recognize the principle of inspiration—that the language is human. Since only the Ten Commandments are said to be of “divine composition” (GC v-vi), I believe that even Jesus’s words can be interpreted as human. That doesn’t mean that Jesus may not have spoken words that indicated divine determinism, but it does allow us the ability to recognize that human beings who wrote gospels could use their own words and logic. In terms of the Old Testament, the ancient Mesopotamian mind was steeped in the belief that the gods fated everything and everything that happened was according to the divine will. No doubt this thinking was fairly pervasive throughout much of the ancient Near East, including the Hebrews. And in some ways they needed to think that God was responsible for everything to avoid the worship of other forces and powers who would fill the gap that would result if God wasn’t the originator of disaster.[3] Keeping this in mind allows us to interpret these kinds of passages differently, so that we understand the punishments in the Bible to be the result of God not preventing something happening, of natural disasters, of the free choices of others, and so on.

Jesus Is the Frame of Reference

When we confront Jesus’s words and actions and His message that these words and actions reveal the Father, that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father, we are faced with two options: either we don’t believe that Jesus represented the Father (or at least we treat His claim to do so as less important) or we have to relook at the portrayal of God in the Old Testament and rethink our interpretations of it. To do the latter is important because, in my last eight years of teaching, I have had two theology majors come separately to me to tell me that the portrayal of God in the Old Testament is the greatest hindrance to their peers to having a relationship with Him. How can our Millennials and Generation Z trust God when He seems to behave and speak so differently than Jesus?

Given the way first Israel, and then Judaism, understood Isaiah 9:6, 7—that the child born to them would be named, “Wonderful Counselor, Warrior God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” as one who would wreak bloodshed—it is understandable why they would reject Jesus as the fulfillment of that and every other messianic prophecy. They expected the messiah to exercise dominion, gain peace by warfare, and control the people so that by force, they would be righteous.

Jesus did quite the opposite: He rejected dominion in both word and deed as having any part of His kingdom for the sake of humble service (Mark 10:42–45). When He chased the people in charge of monetary exchange from the temple, He was not suddenly in support of violence. So far as we know His raised whip never systematically lashed anyone and no one died as a consequence. Only tables and chairs got pushed over and the cattle got driven out (Matt. 21:12–13 John 2:13–17.  When Jesus confronted those who showed zeal for the law when they brought the woman caught having an adulterous affair to Him, He did not punish them or her; He resolved the situation by bringing accountability to the accusers and forgiveness to the accused (John 8:1–11).

To read the Old Testament through the lens Jesus has provided brings a more coherent interpretation of its portrayal of God. It can lead us to view violence as not belonging to God’s preferred will. It allows us to understand that we hear expressions of God’s will adapted to people’s choices much more frequently than we hear words that represent God’s preferred or ideal will. And if we let the gospels influence us fully, behind the strong human expressions and harsh punishments, we can imagine Yahweh-Jesus weeping over His hardhearted people, “How can I give you up; . . . how can I hand you over, O Israel?” (Hosea 11:8, CEB).

Jean Sheldon is professor emerita and adjunct professor at Pacific Union College.

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

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[1] Ludwig Koehler; Walter Baumgartner; and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. rev. ed. trans. M. E. J. Richardson, 5 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1994): 172; Kosmala, H. (1977). גָּבַר. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren, eds, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, trans. J. T. Willis, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977): 2:373.

[2] Isaiah 9:12b, 17b, 21b; 10:4b, CEB.

[3] Alden Thompson has used this interpretation to explain why mention of Satan in the Old Testament occurs so late. See Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989), 43–70.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Sooo helpful. Thank you!!

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So if violence is not part of God’s preferred plan… why did Jesus have to die a violent death in order for God to forgive humans? I will raise my hand as one of those troublesome moralizing millennials who struggle to understand why kind people would wish to worship or respect the Yahweh described in the Old Testament. It’s not a recent problem. I used to sit in the pew poring over Job or Ecclesiastes, hoping to understand how God could perform actions that my conscience found immoral, and yet be perfectly good. I never found an answer. It seems to me that for Christians to have any hope of moving into a more moral era, they must boldly disavow the Old Testament and the Yahweh described in it. Perhaps those stories are not historically true. Perhaps Yahweh is not the same entity as Jesus. There are options here, but modern Christians who claim a gospel of peace yet worship the xenophobic and violent God of the Old Testament don’t make a lot of sense to many of us.


A modern analogy: The different cultures on this globe function differently. They have different values and social expectations. This causes a lot of misunderstanding between countries. The Far East values “honor and generational respect”, as well as something we call “saving face”. When cultures collide each side must constantly be aware how the other side reads behaviour, even “body language” (Eg: oriental social rituals) so as not to seem disrespectful. When it comes to tough diplomatic jockeying all these factors become critical. Sometimes being “nice” reads as weakness; and bolstering the other’s ego is better than aggression.

If the ancient Hebrews compared themselves to their neighbours, they had to “fight fire with fire” (Elijah); and need to see God as more powerful than the other gods. God accommodated these cultures in order to reach them on their “home turf”. The same can be said of Jesus and the Cross. In the Jewish culture “hanging on a tree” was the lowest of the low one could sink; and that’s what Jesus needed to demonstrate - a social outcast wrongfully put to death. Hope for the downcast.


On Jesus’ quote about bringing a sword instead of peace, I have often heard this quoted out of context. In the context, He is not speaking of military war and peace. He is speaking of the disunity within a family when one member chooses to believe while the other does not. He is telling His followers that the bond between Him and them must be stronger than family bonds. This seems clear when, 3 verses later He says: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37) This is not the sword of battle, but the sword that may sever family relationships where necessary. He calls for detachment from the opinions of family members. The symbol of this detachment is the sword.

Alas! If people do not read their Bibles regularly, it becomes very easy for someone else to quote a phrase out of context and get away with a gross misunderstanding of the original intent.


Thanks, Dr. Jean Sheldon, for this essay. It’s great to enjoy your work, again.

Five years ago, I read Sheldon’s Spectrum Q&A, “Making Sense of a Vengeful God,” where she spoke about violence, Yahweh, and the difficulty many experience when reading about Him in the Old Testament, especially when compared to the New Testament.

I was so taken with her responses that I wrote to her, personally, at PUC, to tell her so.

In two parts—1 and 2, these are some of my thoughts on this latest piece, a few of which I shared previously with her:

• A small detail: Handel’s epic oratorio is called Messiah, not The Messiah; there is no article “the” in its title.

• Before one ever talks about God and violence, at least four facts have to be stated, first, because they form the backdrop for discussions of the larger issue:

a) The Bible is, essentially, the documentary of a road trip. It’s the story of how God made the Earth and its inhabitants, how those people got [morally] lost, and what God had to do to get them back home.

b) Because God made the Earth and its inhabitants, they’re His; they’re His property. They belong to Him by virtue of being made…in a universe that He also made.

c) The meta-framework for God’s interactions with the Israelites is the covenant relationship He initiates with them.

Every relationship—husband to wife, parent to child, teacher to student, friend to friend, city to citizen, consumer to merchant, landlord to tenant, ant to aphid, Sun to plant—has benefits and penalties for correct and incorrect interactions; correct and incorrect in the context of that relationship.

God and Israel are no different. Israel’s frequent chastisement, and its final fade-to-black as an occupied state under Rome, is the outcome of its failure to hold up its side of the bargain.

This failure, then, is what we continuously read about in the Old Testament: God promises immense bounty for obedience, but tragedy for disobedience. The Jews choose disobedience. Again: This is The Context, without which the Bible makes no sense at all.

Infamous graffiti from a men’s bathroom, here sanitized: “No matter how smoking hot she is, somewhere, there’s a guy who’s sick of her crap.”

Everyone reading these words has a person they adore, think is just amazing, they desire, or even love.

Every one of you has a finite quantity for the exact number of days you would let this same person crash, rent-free, on your couch.

And, also:

d) God can’t make people do anything.

• Part of the answer to @thenerdwithin’s first question is in that very question: It’s because it wasn’t part of His preferred plan.

His preferred plan was that people do what they should. When they didn’t—as He knew they wouldn’t—God said to them, “I’ve basically hacked my own system. Instead of you dying, I’ll die. Then, all I need you to do is show that you take it seriously…and I can even help you do that.”

Then, to make the point, and so His death would not be missed, He died in the most barbaric way possible; via the exemplar, perhaps to this day, of a cruel and torturous death: crucifixion.

I mean, Christ could have died by hitting his toe on a rock, and it becoming septic. Who would have cared?



@Sirje’s response to @thenerdwithin is very insightful: The Bible is not written in a world of deer crossing signs, trigger words, vegan options, or even human rights.

Its a world of blood oaths. People’s lives are typically—in the famed mots of Thomas Hobbes—nasty, brutish, and short.

In the OT, God is dealing with a recalcitrant population who’ve been slaves for 400 years. They are feral. Working with them is touch-and-go. Their allegiance to even the simplest requirements can clatter off into chaos at any moment. So God had to manage them in an appropriate way…toward redeeming them.

That’s why, for example, the rules in the Torah are so tough, and infringements of many kinds are punishable by death. These were not people carrying jail cells with them through the desert. These were people under martial law. Any unmet bad behavior would spread like e. coli from bad quail. So it had to be snuffed out, and harshly.

BTW: All who haven’t yet, read this essay: “The Conquest and the Ethical Question of War.” It’s the best short analysis I’ve seen on the Canaanite invasion’s moral pretext.

• The NT takes place over a period of less than a century. Meanwhile, the OT takes place over roughly thirty-six centuries. So, at least in theory, that’s about 36X as much disobedience and bloodshed in the OT, but compressed into a space maybe twice the length of the NT.

If you read a trifold pamphlet called In-Depth: Murder in Irvine, CA: 2019, it would be brief, because Irvine only has about one murder a year.

But if you read a trifold pamphlet called In-Depth: Murder in Irvine, CA: 1983-2019—thirty-six years of murders—the pamphlet would make you believe nothing happens in Irvine but murder. This temporal context, then, also has to be computed when discussing the Bible.

This is a trailer for the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins:

This is another trailer for the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins:

The shots in each are from the same film. However, what you think the film is about, at least in part, is based on what you are seeing, and, even more, based on what you are seeing next to what you’re seeing. Context.

• Finally, the Lord of the OT IS the same Triune God of the NT.

You see Him burst through the insanity in Exodus 34:5-7, where

"the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.

“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,

"Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”

I love that repetition in v. 6: “The Lord, the Lord….” It’s like He’s singing. I love the fact that He’s saying His name, but that it is so untranslatable that its meaning, in human language, is this long, declarative statement that takes up two verses.

This is just sublime. People who read the Bible closely will see the so-called vindictive God simply does not exist.


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I like the colloquialism. People need to see the old, everlasting truths reworded so they puncture our poetic slumber, and make us sit up and exclaim, “Say what?”

What is so mindboggling is that this denomination doesn’t want to leave the Sinai desert.

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Thank you, very much, for saying that, @Sirje.

I also like what you said, here: "Everlasting truths reworded so they puncture our poetic slumber."

By the grace of God, I work to do that in what I say and write, especially about the Word.

I tend to dislike and be dissatisfied by the clichés many religious people use to talk about the Bible’s truths. As you imply, these are exciting ideas that can be restated and reframed endlessly, and should be.

Interesting. What do you mean by this, please?


We are no longer wandering around, learning what it means to be free. The God who “hacked his own system” died for our sins. We have that visual, and we have the experience. We no longer have anything to prove. We only need to cross the Jordan to be home. We have “a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is His flesh.” (Heb.10). We no longer need the “tutor” that lead us through that desert. (Gal. 3)

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When you say this, @Sirje, what kinds of actions does it mean we should not be doing, or what kind of statements should we not be making?


We should make the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ central to our Christian walk. Our theology does not start with Daniel 8 and end up at 1844. The Christian story begins at the empty tomb, and remembers the cross.

We don’t place the “good news” into the old wine skins of the Pentateuch, but we gather at the feet of Jesus when he described the real meaning of Christianity in his “Sermon on the Mount”.

We don’t prevent spiritually hungry from our midst because of their broken lives. We don’t differentiate physically from emotionally suffering people, welcoming the one but not the other, as we demand smokers ditch their habit before joining us at the cross.

We stop telling people what they must do and don’t do to be part of our family - Jesus welcomes us unconditionally. It’s about God’s unconditional love changing lives; not changed lives giving us permission to approach Jesus. We keep trying to do the job that belongs to the Holy Spirit.

SS is a weekly pep-rally, endlessly repeating how special we are, compared to every other professing Christian. This, too, is a sin. Let’s just read the Bible together, and let that be our guide as the HS makes it relevant to our particular lives.

We come together only read, share and motivate; not to rehash the history of the remnant.


It makes no sense to me that God would have use the methods of harshness and force to save people. Does God have to use the Devil’s tools to accomplish his goals? Does a God of love use physically threats and punishments so good may come. "Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—Let us do evil that good may result? Their condemnation is just!" Rom 3:8

I keep having to remind myself that what we read in the Bible, especially in the OT are perception of the writer as to what God is “saying” and doing. Unless there was an audible voice echoing across the land, individuals are perceiving what God is saying - to therm and to the nation.

“God’s people” were not 21Century people transported into ancient times like they are in Harry Anderson’s pictures. The newly emancipated slaves with whom Moses walked into the desert were a confused, mixed up people, now without external controls. They were not able to even take care of their basic needs. God fed them and directed them through Moses. There was no moral compass. They knew only what they has experienced for generations. It’s much like dealing with children. We have to set simple, basic rules so children don’t hurt themselves and others. The consequences have to be simple and to the point as well. I think Harry is right - God met them where they were and taught them the way they could understand- through Moses.

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For one to admit that Bible writers mixed their own “perceptions” within Scriptures is saying that Word is not always the God’s Word. Human ideas are mixed into Scripturas. Is this what you believe? Most Christians cannot accept this viewpoint.

I think this is just a guess, you have no evidence to hold this view. I would suggest they had very close families and lived about a good as other parts of society. However instructing the Hebrews to slay enemies was not helpful for their “moral compass.”

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This gets to the nitty-gritty of what scripture actually is. The writers were flesh ad blood people. We trust these people to be speaking for God. How did they get their information… from their personal perceptions. Were these people inerrant?

All we need to do is see if what they wrote came about the way they predicted… and the answer is … “no”…which takes us back to “where did they get the information”. At the time and place the nations all had different gods, and “Yaweh” was part of that conflict (eg; Elijah). The God of ancient Israel was not perceived the same way we see Him. Our view of God has been transformed by the NT. We carry that perception back into the OT - and then, back again into the NT.

There are two ways to look at this - the one is as Christians, whose picture of God has been modified; and seeing the mayhem, we conclude that these were rudimentary steps in a process of God fashioning a relationship with a humanity that was wild and imbued with superstitions. He had to “speak their language” to set them on the right trajectory, away from those superstitions.

The other way of looking at this, might be to say that the Hebrews and their predecessors did what they did in growing their nation, and attributed their actions to their God, like all the other nations in the area. Ultimately none of their hopes came to fruition.

Christianity is a different thing alltogether. Yes Jesus was a Jew and referenced the Jewish historical hallmarks, and quoted the OT as he travelled his way to the cross. But, he was never the actual “messiah” the Hebrews were expecting… because he wasn’t. He came, not only to the Hebrew people, but to all of mankind.

But a logical one. After having been controlled for hundreds of years, these people didn’t have a clue as to how to form a nation and set up a government - ie: Leviticus

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