I was jamming out to some Handel on my way home tonight during an 80 minute trip through the desert, with the volume cranked up and singing along with my opera voice (you should have been there, it was quite the sight). So, anyway, the passage from Isaiah concerning the Messiah, that “the government shall be upon his shoulders”, intrigued me. I think the verse struck me somewhat differently as a Catholic.
What do you think that entails? Is it referring to the ecclesial governance of the Church, and how its authority transcends Earth and reigns in Heaven as well? Christ is the head of the Church (the Pope is the Vicar on Earth). Therefore this “government” is referring to the supernatural governance of Heaven, in connection with the mystical Church, no?
Clearly Handel is quoting Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” and the government refers to His dominion or rule, I assume of both the secular and ecclesial authority if those are separated in the His kingdom.
Grace and peace,
I have heard that altho Christ is the head
the hierarchy of the Church is the shoulder,
the cardinals archbishops and the bishops.
(also, I believe that the pope is the Face
of Christ, the Visible part of the head).
Here’s the thing. The concept and the understanding of ‘messianic expectation(s)’ really underwent a sort of evolution as time went on. At first, the expectation was really political: ancient Israelites expected an (ideal) Davidic descendant to become king and usher in a sort of golden age. Some scholars would say that this belief ties in with the idea found in the creation stories in Genesis that Yhwh, who is the true King, entrusted man to rule over the earth as the human representation of His kingly rule. Adam, however, proved to be an unwise king, and his dominion was taken from him.
By the time of the early monarchy, the ideology of the Davidic dynasty claimed that God is restoring His reign over creation through David and his royal house. However, as you may know, the unified kingdom was split by internal conflict, leading to the creation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. That however didn’t stop the Israelites from believing that one day, one of David’s worthier descendants would step in and usher in the golden age when Yhwh’s dominion over the earth would be established and everything would be restored to Edenic innocence.
It’s really in this context that Isaiah was speaking of the son who is born who will have dominion on his shoulders. While (as we know now) it ultimately refers to Jesus, for Isaiah and his contemporary audience it also had an immediate meaning. After a period of crisis which threatened to bring the Davidic dynasty to extinction, an heir was finally born: the future king Hezekiah. It seems that many Israelites (and probably Isaiah too) hoped that Hezekiah will prove to be the expected Davidid.
Eventually came the Babylonian Exile, which again threatened this expectation. It proved to be tough to kill, however: it evolved.
It is with Ezekiel that we begin to see a reinterpretation of the idea: the royal element is still present, but the Davidic element is not. (Apparently, Ezekiel didn’t keep his hopes high that the Davidic dynasty will be literally restored.) Instead, for Ezekiel the historical David is a figure of the ideal king who will save Israel: whereas heretofore the idea was that the future king will be a literal descendant of the David, now the expected one is seen to be a new, ideal David himself, who does not have to be necessarily related to the historical one.
Years later, the Jews returned from Babylon. They were governed by Zerubbabel, who was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the penultimate king of Judah. The David expectation was still in the minds and hearts of the Jews: will Zerubbabel be the one we’re expecting? Now of course, the expectation had an added layer of meaning: the expected Davidic descendant will not just bring about the golden age, but will also restore the Davidic house to its former, royal glory. Ezekiel seems to have left his mark on the Jews: it seems that Ezekiel’s ideal was for Israel to be governed by two heads: the ‘prince’ and the priest, and for the returning exiles, Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua fit the bill.
However, while he did some things of note (such as restoring the Jerusalem Temple), ultimately Zerubbabel failed to usher in both: Judah (aka Yehud) remained a Persian province, the Davidic monarchy was not reestablished - in fact, even Ezekiel’s ideal of a royal-and-priestly government was not fully implemented; in fact, by the 450s BC, only the high priest remained as a figure of authority. Another false start.
In the writings of the prophets who lived in that time like Haggai or Zechariah, you can see the shift in thinking occurring: while Zerubbabel is eulogized (God calls him His “servant” - the same term applied to David - and promises to wear him like a signet ring, a symbol of authority), but at the same time, these prophets look beyond Zerubbabel: the expected king is still in the future.
It was around this point that the ‘Davidic expectation’ took a backseat as the Jews began to settle down. There was still the expectation of a better world and the restoration of Jerusalem to its former glory of course, but emphasis is now on human activity: we can see this attitude reflected in the book of Judith (9:8-13). Joshua ben Sira (aka Jesus son of Sirach), writing in the 2nd century BC, did not include any hint of an individual messianic figure or anything resembling this in his book, though there are impressive references to the divine upholding of the Davidic dynasty (Sirach 47) and the Aaronic priesthood (Sirach 45), as well as to a general hope of deliverance (Sirach 35:18-19; 36:1-7). For Ben Sira, hopes of ‘messianic’ expectations by the hand of man have already been clearly realized.
Israel’s prime minister carried the key of the House of David on his shoulder (Isaiah 22:22); but obviously the king would have had the key on his shoulder before he gave it to any prime minister.
So it’s another reference to a royal attribute.
Shepherds also seem to have rested their staff or crook on their shoulders, as did work bosses. The staff was another royal attribute, so the verse (figuratively or literally) might be referring to the royal staff of government.
It was the advent of the Seleucids and the subsequent rise and fall of the Hasmonean dynasty that contributed to the sudden rebirth and further development of Jewish messianism, going hand-in-hand with the rise of resistance thought among Jews at this time. These events provided a catalyst for a radical reinterpretation of the scriptural tradition that eventually evolved into full-fledged Jewish messianism.
While we have little evidence that Jews during Persian and Ptolemaic rule attempted any sort of revolt against their overlords (for one, it was thought that any revolt would be unlikely to succeed anyway to the small size and limited resources of Yehud), the Maccabean revolt stirred up a strong feeling of resistance and assertion of Jewish identity in the face of assimilation. The exhibition of hopes for national redemption and spasmodic resistance to foreign rule were inspired by renewed interpretation of Israel’s sacred traditions. It was really at this point that you see different ‘messianic expectations’ pop up.
Some people still expected for a literal Davidic monarch to reestablish the golden age in the future. Others however, began to have a more cosmic, apocalyptic interpretation of the idea: the ‘golden age’ this figure will usher in is the eschaton, the ‘end of days’ when history as we know it will end and God will reorder the world, judge the living and the dead and give everyone their just rewards. This figure himself is now seen as a new Adam, a ‘son of man’; he will not just be a plain old monarch, he will be the end-time representative of God’s final triumph over evil and the recipient of the dominion conferred to the old Adam.
Still others found this idea hard to swallow if a mere human being is involved: so they thought, maybe this ‘son of man’ figure will not really be a human: an angel or a God-like being, perhaps? A few people even thought that it’s unlikely that God will hand down so great a responsibility over a mere creature of His: no, God Himself will come down and be the one we’ve all been waiting for, since it seemed that only He could guarantee the fulfillment of the so-called messianic hopes. Some doubted that God will even need a sort of representative: why can’t the expectation be something more ‘mundane’, say a miraculous sign of deliverance or some God-given courage?
At the same time, this expectation of a king became tied up with the promise that a Moses-like prophet will soon appear (hence leading to the idea of the expected ‘messiah’ (also) being a prophet) and the mysterious figure of Melchizedek in Genesis (which resulted in the idea of a priestly 'messiah.) The expectation mutated and multiplied.
And that’s why at the time of Jesus, there was not one singular ‘messianic expectation’. We Christians would argue, hey, Jesus fulfilled all of these expectations in their various permutations, in a sense.
One bears a heavy burden on one’s shoulders. In Is 22 the King places the key, the burden of authority, on the shoulders of his minister- he doesn’t ask him if he wants it, nor does Eliakim seem to seek it. And the power he receives can’t be wielded for his own benefit.
That’s why I think Christianity is so correct. It explains all the prophesies in the OT. Although those who believe in Judaism and Islam do not think that Jesus is Messiah, it really is the only thing that makes sense.
This is indeed beautiful but I still cringe when they don’t quite complete the “shoulders” in a couple of the voices. I guess English presents a problem in stretching out some of the endings. Those languages where syllables and words often end in vowels, are much more singable.