The Messiah formerly known as Prince of Peace

It’s nearly Christmas. Which means it’s that time of year where Isaiah 9 gets its annual outing. This is an amazing chapter, prophesying the birth of the Messiah, who will bring great light to people walking in darkness. And he shall be called,

‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

(Isaiah 9.6)

There is so much in these titles that inspires wonder, but today I just want to ponder that final title, Sar Shalom – Prince of Peace.

Why, we might ask, is the Messiah referred to as the Prince of Peace and not the King? Given that the Messiah is often depicted in poetry and prophecy as a King (e.g. 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2; 72) it seems odd that here he’s demoted to Prince.

I’ve heard a few takes on this over the years. For example, some argue that the Messiah is described as a Prince in order to distinguish him from the Father within the Trinity. One might even take it further to say that the whole Trinity is depicted in this verse. Counsellor (Spirit, cf. John 14.26-28), Father (Father!) and Prince (Son), all sharing the identity of Mighty God.

Perhaps. I’m sure there are layers of Trinitarian meaning to be discovered in this passage, as there are throughout Isaiah’s prophecy. But I’m not convinced Isaiah expects us to divide out the titles between the Godhead – they all seem to be given to the Messiah himself.

Other have suggested that this verse is about the pre-resurrected-and-ascended Christ. Since he has not yet been humbled and exalted to the highest place and given the name above every name (Philippians 2.6-11), he is described as a Prince who is yet to fully inherit the Kingdom.

But the logic of this seems strange, since a Prince typically becomes a King only when the previous King has died or been usurped. So, who is currently the King in this picture? God the Father? And what happens to Him at Christ’s ascension? I think this suggestion takes us into some odd theological territory…

I wonder if there isn’t a simpler – but no less wonderful – explanation. What if we’re not meant to see this as a royal title, but a military one?

The word sar is used over 400 times in the Hebrew Bible, and whilst it sometimes does refer to a Prince, it’s more often translated ‘commander’, ‘captain’, or ‘chief’.

In the Joseph story for example, Potiphar is the ‘captain’ of the guard, Joseph is given favour with the ‘keeper’ of the prison, and he interprets the dreams of the ‘chief’ cupbearer and ‘chief’ baker (Genesis 39.1, 22-23; 40.ff). All of these titles translate the Hebrew word sar, and each of these figures is a leader or ruler over a group of people or a particular area of responsibility. None of them are royal princes.  

Frequently the word is used in a military context to refer to the ‘commanders’ over armies. There are too many references to list, through every genre and phase of Israel’s existence – and including the mysterious ‘Commander of the Lord’s army’ in Joshua 5.15. I think it’s fair to say that on balance the Bible uses sar more often as a military title than a royal one.

The dilemma ‘why a Prince and not a King’ is only an issue if we read sar in Isaiah 9.6 as a royal rather than military term. And I would suggest that the context more naturally suits a military interpretation.

Immediately before the promise of this Messianic child, we read:

‘For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.’

(Isaiah 9.5)

Isaiah envisages a time in which war will be eradicated entirely. And how will this be achieved? By the zeal of ‘the LORD of hosts’ (Isaiah 9.7). A military title. Peace will be established by the God who commands angel armies.

Perhaps then, rather than ‘Prince of Peace’ we should think of Jesus as the ‘Commander of Peace’.

Of course, royal and military titles are not mutually exclusive, since Kings often led armies into battle, and indeed in the very next chapter of Isaiah the Assyrian boasts,

‘are not my commanders (sar) all kings (melekh)?’

(Isaiah 10.8)

But reading Isaiah 9 this way paints quite a striking picture of a God who enters the battle as a warrior.

The ESV Study Bible notes say:

‘[The Prince of Peace] is the ruler whose reign will bring about peace because the nations will rely on his just decisions in their disputes.’

That is certainly true – see Isaiah 2

‘He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.’

(Isaiah 2.4)

That idea of Messianic wisdom is also captured in the title ‘Wonderful Counsellor’. But I think that calling Christ the Sar Shalom goes further than merely wise decision making. The coming Messiah will not simply be a Prince sitting on a throne, issuing royal decrees from a distance. Rather, he will be a commander who enters the battle himself, and directs heavenly hosts to bring about the end of conflict once and for all.

My friend Natan recently put it like this in an advent reflection. To call Jesus the ‘Commander of Peace’ is to say that,

“God is declaring war against anything that destroys the world and breaks our hearts, in order to bring in lasting peace – within and without.”

I think that’s a beautiful way of expressing it. Of course, the big surprise is how the Messiah wins this battle.

We see this surprise fleshed out in Matthew’s account of Gethsemane. When a large crowd gathered to arrest Jesus, armed with clubs and weapons, one of his companions struck the high priest’s servant with a sword. Jesus rebuked him, saying ‘Put away your sword, for all who live by the sword, die by the sword.’ He healed the maimed servant, and declared,

“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

(Matthew 26.53-54)

The Messiah is able – in partnership with his Father – to command the heavenly host (cf. Isaiah 9.7). And yet he understood that Scripture prophesied a different way of victory. While many expected a warrior-king who would overthrow Israel’s enemies, Christ – the Commander of Peace – came as the suffering servant, who won the battle by laying down his own life to defeat the great enemies of sin, evil and death.

When we see Jesus finally depicted as a warrior in the book of Revelation, he is riding a horse surrounded by the armed hosts of heaven, and his robe is dipped in blood (Rev 19.13). But this is not the blood of his enemies. It is his own blood, for he is the Lamb who has been slain, now alive and reigning (Rev 5.6ff). And as both Revelation and Isaiah declare, of the rule of his government and peace there will be no end.


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Photo by Samuel Lopes on Unsplash   

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