Isaiah 9:6 is often quoted in Christmas cards that get sent out during this season. It is curious of how many people actually stop to put much thought into what the verse actually means.
“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, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
The Hebrew literally reads, “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us[.]”
כִּי-יֶלֶד יֻלַּד-לָנוּ, בֵּן נִתַּן-לָנוּ
This is significant because in Hebrew a sentence normally begins with the verb, so by placing the noun first is to add an emphasis on this “child/son” being “born/given.” Isaiah is stressing the point that a child is being born with the government on His shoulders. Children are not usually born with such authority. In anticipation of this prophecy being fulfilled, the wise men searched for a child born as the king (Matthew 2:2). Earlier in Isaiah, children ruling is part of a curse (Isaiah 3:4-5), but now it is to increase peace.
This child is understood from a previous prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). The New Testament understands this child born as fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:23; 4:12-17; cf. Isaiah 9:1-2).
“A child born” expresses a natural course of birth. “A Son given” indicates the child of a divine origin (Matthew 1:18; Acts 4:27, 30). The Son of God was prophesied to be Messiah of Israel and the ruler over all nations (Psalm 2:2, 10-12).
“To us,” that is, to Israel first and foremost (Luke 2:11, 14), but also to the whole world (Luke 2:32).
“Government on His shoulders:” The expression “on his shoulders” is synonymous with having the government committed into his hands (see Isaiah 22:21-22). This “son” who is to rule is contrasted to oppressors (Isaiah 9:4). This king is identified as God Himself (see Zechariah 14:9).
“Wonderful” in Hebrew פֶּלֶא pele’. This is the same name of the Christophany in Judges 13:8 where His name is “secret” (cf. Psalm 139:6; Revelation 19:12, 13, 16).
“Counselor” in Hebrew יוֹעֵץ yō‘tsēts. This word is also applied to the Messiah in Isaiah 11:2, and is used as a synonym for “king” in Micah 4:9 (also notice the conceptual parallelism in the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 16:7, 10).
A particular grammatical rule noted by Gesenius1)Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, § 93.k indicates the פֶּלֶא is a construct form (though this rule is “not consistently carried out”). The symmetry and literary structure seem to validate the rule in this case making פֶּלֶא an appositional genitive. This would make the פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵ a complete expression, “wonderful counselor” instead of having the two separated by a comma as “Wonderful, Counsellor,” making them two separated names. All the other titles in this verse also have two words united to produce one title, this title should be expected to do the same. God is a “wonderful counselor” giving man wonderful counsel elsewhere in Isaiah (Isaiah 25:1; 28:29; 29:13-14).
The names form a chiastic structure.
פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵ Wonderful Counselor
אֵל גִּבּוֹר Mighty God
אֲבִי-עַד Everlasting Father
שַׂר-שָׁלוֹם Prince of Peace
Of these 4 names, the first and last correspond as do the two in the middle. All names are constructed from two words. In Hebrew, the first word of all the names emphasize the divine essence of the child being born. Interestingly, Mitch Glaser has noted that “many Jewish versions of teh Bible do not even translate the names, but rather transliterate them (change the Hebrew characters into English characters) so that their meaning is not obviously seen!”2)Mitch Glaser, Isaiah 53 Explained, Chosen People Ministries (New York, NY: 2010), p 150
“Mighty God” in Hebrew אֵל גִּבּוֹר. Isaiah applies this same name to Jehovah (Isaiah 10:20-21). Isaiah also tells us of the Messiah who is to be born of a virgin and named “Immanuel” עִמָּנוּ אֵל meaning “God with us” (cf. Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23). Immanuel is also said to be the ruler or owner of the land of Israel (Isaiah 8:8). Jehovah, the God of Israel is the owner of the land (Isaiah 14:24-25).
“Everlasting Father” in Hebrew אֲבִי-עַד. The word “father” can imply ruler (2 Kings 5:13), or prophet (2 Kings 13:14). Father represents the authority figure (Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Deuteronomy 32:6). The Messiah is also acknowledge as being eternal (Micah 5:2).
“Prince of Peace” in Hebrew שַׂר-שָׁלוֹם. His authority in governing will bring increased peace with no end (Isaiah 9:7; cf. Isaiah 32:17-18; 54:10). Isaiah expounds how the Messiah will be chastised so we can have peace with God (Isaiah 53:5-6).
The Septuagint translated Isaiah 9:6 into Greek to state: “For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called the Messenger of great counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him.”
The Targum is a Aramaic paraphrase which gives us a glimpse of how ancient Jews interpreted this passage from the way it is paraphrased. the Targum on Isaiah 9:6 states: “And there was called His name from of old, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, He who lives forever, the Messiah in whose days peace shall increase upon us.”
The Lord Jesus Christ gave us similar words prior to His resurrection. “these things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Though Isaiah 9:6 will be ultimately fulfilled when He returns to rule over the earth, we can have peace even now in the midst of a world full of tribulation and trials, which gives us plenty of reasons to praise Him this season and all year long.