There is some disagreement among Scripture scholars, but many say that when Isaiah made this prophecy, he was first of all referring to a coming successor to the evil King Ahaz of Judah. (Ahaz was so bad that he was not buried even in the royal tomb of Kings, see 2 Chr 28:2). In this interpretation of the prophecy, the king who was to follow Ahaz would be the one to inherit these titles.
This immediate heir was Hezekiah, Ahaz’ son. He was a great reformer king and brought the kingdom of Judah back to the proper worship of God: “(Hezekiah) put his trust in the Lord, the God of Israel; and neither before him nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:5).
However Isaiah’s words may first have been taken, there is also agreement that these royal titles soon came to be seen as belonging to someone far greater than Hezekiah — the long-expected Messiah. Even by Isaiah himself. As the Benedictine Scripture scholars Frs. Joseph Jenkins and William H. Irwin note, “Isaiah later projects his hopes into a remoter future,” which went beyond Hezekiah’s time and became part of what is called Isaiah’s “Immanuel oracle” regarding the House of David. This Emmanuel prophecy is what Christians saw revealed in Jesus.
While we have come to see Jesus as this “prince of peace,” he is not called that in any Gospel passage. However, the message of peace follows him from beginning to end:
- In Luke, angels announce his birth to shepherds with the words “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14, from Midnight Mass Gospel).
- In Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, the great Sermon on the Mount (on the Plain in Luke) announces the beatitudes (blessings) which include peacemakers being called “children of God” (Mt 5:9 and Lk 6:27).
- In his great discourse to his disciples just before his death, Jesus promised his peace and advised: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (Jn 14:27). And he also told them, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
- Then, fulfilling his promise, and overcoming the world by rising from the dead, the risen Jesus’ first words to his disciples in John’s Gospel are “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). He repeats these words that night – and a third time, when he appears a week later in the same Upper Room. Jesus, the prince of peace, promises peace and then brings it – along with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The events of the Passion and resurrection took place in Jerusalem. It was the royal city, where the great kings, David and Solomon, had reigned. But Jerusalem had a longer history dating back not just the 1,000 years before Jesus to David, but even further: to 1,400 B.C., when the Israelites would have returned from Egypt. And the city may even have existed in the days of Abraham, around 400 to 600 years earlier.
Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim as it is called in Hebrew, means “city of peace.” We first hear about this city in Genesis, when Abraham (still called Abram) met its king, Melchizedek, the king of Salem (peace) and a priest of God the Most High (Gn 14:18-20).
Melchizedek, whose name means “king of justice” (or king of righteousness since the Hebrew word tzedek can mean both) has long been viewed as an early image of what Christ became. “Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, ‘priest of God Most High,’ as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique ‘high priest after the order of Melchizedek'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1544).
Finally, we need to understand that the word for “peace” in Hebrew is shalom. We know this word as one that means “peace.” But the Hebrew shalom — or the Aramaic shlom), or the Arabic salam or even the earlier Assyrian salamu — means more than just “peace” (or “hello” or “good-bye”.) Rather it means “to be whole, healthy, well, safe, in harmony and at rest,” as well as “being at peace.”
So when we hear Isaiah’s “prince of peace” paired with such royal titles as “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever” we can understand that being “prince of peace” placed a lot of expectations — beyond royal titles — on the expected Messiah. They were expectations that Jesus fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection.
Sources: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance at strongsnumbers.com; Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; The Collegeville Bible Commentary.