Question: "For a child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," Isaiah 9:6.
Recently I was told by a Lutheran pastor that this verse cannot be interpreted in a literal sense. As you read and understand this verse, do you believe it to be understood in a figurative sense or a literal sense? Are there parts of last two lines in this verse to be understood as literal and other parts as figurative?
Answer: The basis for statements such as the one you received is theological perspective. Lutherans are Reformed in their theology and almost always amillennial in their eschatology. This means they will interpret much of the prophetic material within the Scriptures as metaphorical, symbolic, and/or figurative.
Metaphorical, symbolic, and/or figurative interpretations of Isaiah do not answer questions, such as “why do the New Testament writers cite Isaiah in support of their presentation of the Gospel” if the prophetic material such as Isaiah 9:6 is not to be taken literally? With the exception of the Book of Psalms, Isaiah is referenced by the New Testament writers more than any other book. This seems odd if the view of the New Testament writers was that Isaiah was not to be interpreted literally as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
As mentioned above, the Gospels contain many references to the Old Testament and to the Book of Isaiah specifically. Matthew, for example, quoted Isaiah at least nine times and specifically a verse associated with the passage related to your question, Isaiah 9:2, stating clearly that this referred to Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:13-16). Interestingly, Matthew’s favorite way of introducing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies in the Lord Jesus Christ was “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” or something very similar. It is right to conclude that Matthew’s many references to Isaiah were used to prove his point that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies foretold by that prophet. Matthew viewed the messianic passages of the Book of Isaiah as very literal in nature. Likewise, Mark cites Isaiah six times, Luke five times, and John five times.
In terms of using Isaiah to support the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul surpasses the Gospel writers. Utilizing at least thirty-four references or allusions to Isaiah, Paul painstakingly lays out the Gospel of Jesus Christ by affirming to the believers in Antioch in Acts 13:34 that Christ’s resurrection was the fulfillment of Isaiah 55:3 and the “faithful mercies shown to David" and that one day every knee will bow before Jesus Christ (Isaiah 45:23 and Romans 14:11) and that the hope of all humanity rests in Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10, 49:8, 52:11, Romans 15:12, 2 Corinthians 6:2, 17) and that the Gospel message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is for all people everywhere of every time or age (Isaiah 52:15, Romans 15:21).
Turning now to the specific verse you mentioned in your question, we find that the New Testament writers utilize this to teach many things central to the Christian faith. Who is this child that Isaiah sees being born as a deliver to God’s people? The “child” spoken of here is the same one Isaiah previously spoke of in 7:14. As Young points out, this is clearly a prophecy of God becoming man: “His birth is surrounded with the mysterious and the supernatural. Again in 9:6 (of Isaiah) the Child is called El, the same word that is used here (in Isaiah 7:14), a word which in Isaiah always signifies deity.”
What is meant by “the government shall rest upon His shoulders"? Clearly this is not speaking about earthly governments or to the idea that Jesus Christ would be an earthly King, for Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36). Rather, the idea presented in the New Testament is that Jesus Christ brought the new covenant to God’s people and as such is Ruler, Sovereign, and Lord of that Kingdom. The New Testament presents God’s Kingdom as the Kingdom of grace, mercy, and salvation present now in the hearts of every believer and yet to be fulfilled in its entirety at the second coming of Christ (Matthew 26:64). The government of this Kingdom is upon the shoulders of our Lord, and He rules it with all power and might (Matthew 11:27, 28:18, John 5:22).
Each of the names mentioned in this passage, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace,” are descriptions of the character of Jesus Christ. He is indeed wonderful. The root of this word appeals for its force to the idea that our God is a God of wonders. He performs His wonders for His glory as a testimony of His righteousness and for our benefit. Because He is a God of wonder, He is qualified to be our counselor. Apprehension of and submission to the wisdom of God is the beginning of knowledge and blessing (2 Chronicles 1:10-12, 1 Corinthians 1:30) from the hand of our great counselor (Psalm 16:7).
Jesus Christ is “Mighty God,” el gibbor, who is mighty to save His people (Isaiah 10:20-21, Acts 4:12, 2 Corinthians 4:7-10). Jesus Christ is “Eternal Father” because He has time in His hands and cares for His people like a father (Psalm 90:2, 93:2, Isaiah 63:16, 103:13). He is the “Prince of Peace” to all who by faith trust in His finished work on Calvary for the forgiveness of their sins (John 14:27, 16:33, Acts 10:36, Romans 5:1).
In light of these and many more passages it can be defended that the prophetic passage of Isaiah 9:6 finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ literally.
Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdman’s Publishing Company, 1997), 290.