1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
A frog went to see a fortune teller one day. He wanted to know what the future had in store for him, in particular for his love life. The fortune teller, gazing deep into a crystal ball, told the frog “You are going to meet the most beautiful girl, who is going to be very interested in you and will want to know everything about you. She will want you to open up for her and you will give her your heart.”
“That’s great news!” said the frog. “Where will we meet each other? At a party?”
“No,” said the fortune teller. “In her biology class.”
When it comes to prophecy, it’s good to remember that time, place, and context are just as important as whatever it is we think we want to hear. We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, which is often read in churches this time of year in the lead-up to Christmas…and we are especially guilty of hearing only what we want to hear in the words of Isaiah, while ignoring the time, place and context in which the words were originally spoken.
In fact, if you look at most Advent and Christmas readings or sermons from Isaiah 9 (today’s passage), you’ll notice they almost always start at verse 2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” And of course we assume ourselves to be those people who have walked in great darkness. Or perhaps, if we’re in a more historical mood, we assume that the people who have walked in great darkness are the people living just before the birth of Jesus.
But you can’t do that if you actually include and read verse 1, which tells you exactly who Isaiah is directing this prophecy toward:
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
Zebulun and Naphtali are lands to the North of Judah, the lands in between the Jordan river and the sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea (hence the way that leads to the sea). And in the time of Isaiah, they are the part of Israel that has been conquered by the Assyrian Empire.
Isaiah is writing all this from the relative safety of the Southern Kingdom of Judah — you’ll remember that last week we talked about how Judah’s alliance with Assyria protected it from invasion and ushered in an age of peace and prosperity for the people of its capital city, Jerusalem.
But no such luck for Israel, in the North. But why does Isaiah (or by extension, God) care about what’s happening in this country that just a few chapters earlier, was Judah’s enemy, threatening to invade it before ultimately being invaded itself?
Israel and Judah are siblings who often fight, but ultimately belong to the same family. They share a common language, a common history and culture, common religious practices and beliefs. They’re kind of like Texas and Oklahoma — for all the jokes they make about each other and all the passionate rivalries, anyone from the East or West coast would have a hard time telling the difference between a Texan and an Oklahoman. And the only reason I can even make that statement without ducking tomatoes is because we’re in El Paso–or as my dad referred to it, the largest city in New Mexico.
You get the idea. The fall of Israel is nothing for the people of Judah to rejoice over. It’s their cousins, their neighbors, their ancestors. So Isaiah offers them words of hope and comfort. But there’s something else at work here, too. When the Assyrians were taking over Israel, the people of Israel didn’t just lay down and die. Many of them fled. South, to their cousins. Refugees from Israel poured into Judah and into the safety of Jerusalem. And that was seen as blessing to Judah. They knew what some countries today have forgotten–more people meant more prosperity, more labor, a bigger army, more prestige. Listen again to verses 2 and 3 in this light:
“The people who walked (literally–across the miles from Israel to Judah) in darkness have seen a great light (that would be Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill); those who lived in a land of deep darkness (Israel) — on them light (of Jerusalem) has shined. 3 You (Israel) have multiplied the nation (of Judah), you have increased its joy (and its population); they (the people of Judah) rejoice before you (the refugees from Israel) as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.”
In other words, you’re bringing a lot to the table. We welcome you to our country. Prior to this time, Judah was the smaller, lesser, illiterate, backwoods, younger sibling to a far more culturally and technologically advanced Israel. But now all those skilled craftsmen, artisans, and tradesmen were bringing their talents and expertise to Judah, and this–as much as the peace Judah enjoyed–ushered in the golden age of Jerusalem and its greatest cultural achievements. This is the period of time in which most of the Psalms were written. This is the time when the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, emerges in recognizable form.
To these refugees, Isaiah offers more promises, more words of hope (verses 4-5):
“For the yoke of their burden (Israel), and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor (Assyria), you have broken as on the day of Midian (a famous battle in the history of both nations). For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”
In other words, your fighting days are behind you, welcome to a land of peace.
So the refugees (as refugees always historically have done) bring a lot to the table. But what does the receiving kingdom, Judah, have to offer them, aside from the relative safety of flying under the radar of the Assyrian Empire because of its small and (up to this point) insignificant status?
To understand that, you have to understand the most important stabilizing factor in any ancient middle-eastern factor: The monarchy. The King. If the prophet was considered to be God’s spokesperson, then the King was considered to be God’s anointed leader. And the time when a country would be most vulnerable to attack would be when there was a weak or aging king, and no clear path of succession to the throne. This has generally been true for monarchies in all times and places, but especially so in Judah in the 8th century. And at this point, Judah has an aging king, Ahaz, whom we learned about last week. But there’s good news–and Isaiah is quick to point it out in verse 6 and 7:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
To the people of Israel and Judah in the time of Isaiah, there would be no doubt at all that he was referring to young Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, and the heir apparent to the throne of Judah. Isaiah is saying to the refugees, you can settle here with confidence of everlasting peace, because we have a new king on the throne.
So taken in its proper context, the prophecy, or rather the promise of Isaiah to the refugees from Israel who have walked in darkness, makes perfect sense. And they are words of hope and truth…to a point.
The problem is the promise of “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” and that this peace would last “from this time onward and forevermore.” King Hezekiah manages to defend the people of Judah from invasion during his lifetime, and the line of David continues for a few more generations (although not exactly in peace) but then is cut short when the Babylonian Empire sacks Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. There has never been a Davidic King in Jerusalem since then.
The natural thing to do at this point would have been to declare the promise, the prophecy as a false one. A failed one. The defeat of a king and a nation also implied the defeat of that kingdom’s God…in this case, Yahweh. The natural thing to do would be to convert to belief in the stronger God, the God of Babylon who had been successful, and in Babylon’s king. But something surprising happened among the people of Judah and Israel while in captivity in Babylon. They refused to abandon their God, their faith in Yawheh…even to the point where they were willing to place blame upon themselves rather than upon God. They were willing to do something else pretty amazing, too. They decided to change their interpretation of the prophecy. Perhaps the child Isaiah spoke of wasn’t Hezekiah, but some future king of Davidic lineage, who would rise up to lead them again and restore Israel and Judah to their former glory. Thus was born the hope of the Messiah.
Through the years, several promising candidates arose. There was Judas Maccabeus, who led a successful revolt against the occupation of Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship in the temple in the 2nd century BCE. But Maccabeus refused to declare himself a king, and was eventually defeated and killed at the Battle of Elasa. The hope for a Messiah continued.
In the 1st century, several would-be-messiahs appeared, and one of them, Jesus of Nazareth, attracted a large following. But this hope was shattered too, when Jesus was executed on a Roman Cross, before even having an opportunity to restore the throne of David and the independence of Israel.
Here again, his followers made an interesting decision. So convinced were they that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, that they felt a need to revise again their interpretation of the prophecy–Jesus had died, but perhaps he would come again, and THEN he would wipe out his enemies and restore the monarchy in Israel. So they waited. And waited.
And then they revised the prophecy again in the early decades of the Christian church: Perhaps the Messiah was never intended to be an earthly ruler at all, but a heavenly one. Not just over Israel, but over all the world.
And still we wait. And still we walk in darkness. Still we yearn for the time when the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. Still we wonder what happened to that justice and righteousness that was supposed to be established “from this day on and forevermore.”
I think it’s time to pivot again, to reinterpret the prophecy again. In fact, I think this is one of the greatest, most amazing things about the Judeo-Christian faith–it’s ability to evolve and adapt to new contexts and new situations, without completely losing sight of the old ones.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
Notice that the light doesn’t necessarily make the darkness go away. It just shines IN the darkness. In every generation, every age, there is darkness of some kind or another. And in every age, every generation, if you look for it, you can also find the light.
In the Christmas story, it’s the light of one star, shining over the town of Bethlehem, a little brighter than the other ones. Of the hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East at that time, we read that only a handful (some shepherds, some wise men) saw the light and understood its significance.
In our own time, too, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to see (or even look for) the light that shines in our present darkness. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”
In our own time, this is clearly not King Hezekiah. For some today, the “child” in this passage will always be none other than baby Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem, and that’s okay. But since this passage didn’t originally refer to Jesus, I don’t know that it always has to. One way to look at this verse with renewed hope is that there is always a child being born somewhere in the world, a son or a daughter with the potential to grow into a strong, wise, and good leader–politically, spiritually, ideologically–a reminder that authority and leadership will not always rest upon our shoulders, but will someday pass to our children.
We have a role and a responsibility in that promised future, too. Hezekiah was a good king, and he benefited from the wisdom of his father Ahaz, and from Isaiah the prophet. Jesus benefited from the love and guidance of Mary and Joseph, and the mentorship of John the Baptist.
There’s one more message, one more promise in this passage that I think is especially relevant to our context today:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
Maybe in this scenario, we are like the nation of Judah–a land of peace and prosperity. And those who live in lands of darkness see our light…they walk for miles in the darkness to find a new home in this land. We could choose to see them as an invading army…or we could choose to see them as our brothers and sisters, our cousins whom we welcome as we say:
“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; [we] rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest.”
I truly believe that if we could do that much, we would be a lot closer to that elusive, endless peace, that justice and righteousness that God is calling each of us, and every nation towards.