Thomas McDaniel, Ph.D.

Published in The American Baptist Magazine, May/June 1987
( Click here , here , and here for the printed text;
click on the seven (+) in the text below for lexical and illustrative items.

"His name shall be called: 'The wonderful counsellor of God,
The mighty one of the everlasting Father, The reconciling prince of peace.' "
Isaiah 9:6-7

You would hardly think that a little more space than usual between to letters in Isaiah 9:7, or a scribe's writing something like an M for an m, would be much to get excited about. But they have been really exciting for me. Here are the reason why. Although the words "reconcile" and "reconciliation" occur about fifteen times in the New Testament, they are rare in the Old Testament. They occur only once in the O. T. of the RSV and the NAB (compared to nine times in the King James) and do not appear at all in the O. T. of the NIV. Therefore, the recovery of a another Hebrew word meaning "to reconcile, to rectify" has been cause for celebration, all the more so since it turns up in one of the messianic titles offered by Isaiah.

Hebrew has two ways to write the letter "m" (called mem, and pronounced a bit like the mem in 'memory'). When the mem ends a word, it has the shape more or less of a small square box. (+) But when it begins a word, or is in the middle of a word, it looks something like the letter "G" of the General Mills logo. (+) The difference is something like English lower case letters and capitals, except in English capitals are used at the beginning of a word, not at the end.

In light of the clearly defined rule for using the mem's, the first word of Isaiah 9:6 (Hebrew text), leMarbeh, has been a long standing puzzle. It is the word "increase" in the phrase, "of the increase of his government...there will be no end." In most Hebrew manuscripts and printed texts, the mem in this word is written with the "wrong" form. It is the square mem, even though it is in the middle of a word. (+) The square mem would be correct only if lemarbeh were two words, with a space after the mem.

I had long wondered about the significance of having an M for an m in the Hebrew leMarbeh in 9:6. The Dead Sea Isaiah Scroll, provided the clue to the puzzle. It followed a different scribal tradition, and the "correct" form of the mem was used, the one looking like the General Mills "G". But this letter is followed by a larger than usual space between letters. It is as much space as comes between words -- indicating that the Qumran scribes read two words here. Consequently, their mem is probably the "wrong" one. It should have been square. The scribes who produced our Hebrew text, by contrast, simply failed to put a space after the square mem to divide the words. They had the right mem. It could be argued that the Aleppo Codex, which is the most authoritative Hebrew text in existence, has a space after the final M, enough to indicated that it was considered as a separate word, though the marginal note wants to read it as a medial M and the second letter of the word. (+)

What difference does this make? A great deal! Not so much for 9:6, since the consonants rbh, without the lm, still means "greatness, increase" (as in the word rabbi "great one, master, teacher"). But the recovery of the lm in 9:6 restores a long lost word meaning "to reconcile, reconciling, reconciliation," a cognate of the Arabic words lam "to reconcile" (+) and li'm "peace, concord, agreement, unity." (+) The Hebrew letters lm need to be moved to the end of 9:5 (Hebrew text).

The significance can be seen in the translation above. Isaiah did not envision a Rambo Ruler, but a reconciling prince of peace. The best commentary on this translation comes in Isaiah 11:1-9. There the reason for the messianic name, "Wonderful Counselor of God," is spelled out: "The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord."

This counselor would be hailed as a hero, "the Mighty One of the Everlasting Father." The language here hints of the military model, "he shall smite the earth." But the heroic imagery was immediately redefined. This hero's weapons would not be those of violence or war, but would be those of diplomacy and judicial power. He would smite the earth with "the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips." His defense would be the garments of righteousness and faithfulness.

His third title, "the reconciling Prince of Peace" speaks of his political agenda, the full reconciliation of all human and earthly relationships. All too often, the imagery of the "Peaceable Kingdom" (spelled out in 11:6-9, "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. . . and a little child shall lead them. . . they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain") is taken so literally it's fulfillment must be projected into the end of time. Such literalism would have the Messiah be of no earthly or historical benefit. But when read as poetic hyperbole, the vision remains earthly and sets the new political and social agenda. The peace of the Messiah would not be built by war. All violence will come to an end by the dynamics of reconciliation, with the poor being treated rightly and the meek being judged with equity.

In light of the messianic titles in Isaiah 9:5 and their commentary in 11:2-9, there is for me a deeper meaning in Paul's affirmation, "in Christ God was reconciling the world . . . and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation" (II Corinthians 5:19).

This ministry of reconciliation could suffer the same fate as the word lm "reconciling" in Isaiah 9:7. It could become lost, even though it stares the reader square in the face. Hopefully and prayerfully the followers of the Messiah will popularize not only a new translation of a favorite text, but popularize the ministry of reconciliation by practicing it.