But there will be no gloom for her who was 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 has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV
As we continue to approach Christmas, we keep moving through the overall narrative of Scripture, centering upon the themes of light and darkness. Having seen that God is the Author of light and the controller of darkness, we now study one of the most pointed promises of Christ’s coming. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah prophesied that Christ’s coming would be like a light shining in the darkness, a light that would defeat the chaos of sin with the peace of God’s rule and reign. These verses are some of Isaiah’s most well-known. Verse 6, at least, is a classic Christmas Scripture reading. And why wouldn’t they be? God piercing the darkness with His own Son! As we traverse these powerful promises, may God give us a renewed joy at His mighty hand of salvation.
THE STORY CONTINUED
Having previously studied one of the plagues brought upon the Egyptians during the Exodus story, we will need once again to briefly explain the history leading up to our present text.
The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart was not broken until God slew the firstborns of Egypt in the tenth plague. Yet again God distinguished His people by having them paint their doorframes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb in order to be spared from the death which God brought. The Israelites were then released from Egypt to return to Canaan, the land promised to their patriarch Abraham.
After forty years of wandering in the wilderness because of their disobedience, Israel prepared to conquer the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man. The conquest served both to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, while also bringing God’s judgment upon the peoples of Canaan (after all, God told Abraham that the sins of those peoples did not yet fully warrant judgment in his day).
Having settled in Canaan, the Israelites were led by a series of judges who acted as governmental representatives of God their king. Unfortunately, the people repeatedly rebelled against God’s sovereign rule. They rejected God, choosing instead to worship idols. God, therefore, brought another nation upon them as judgment. The Israelites then repented of their sin, and God graciously sent a new judge to rescue them. And so the process repeated.
Soon Israel began to compare themselves to the rest of the nations, demanding that God give them a king. God consented to this request. First, He provided them with Saul, a large and imposing man who seemed to be the perfect candidate. But Saul proved to be terrible king, so God instead placed a small-statured shepherd boy upon the throne, David.
Despite David’s all-too-human wrestle with sin, he repeatedly sought God’s face and repented of his sin. God, thus, called David a man after His own heart and gave him the glorious promise that his throne would last forever. God pledged that one of David’s descendants would reign everlastingly over all the earth.
But David’s son, Solomon, failed to be that king. Nor was Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. In fact, under Rehoboam’s folly, Israel was divided into two nations, Judah (composed of the two tribes that remained loyal to David’s blood, Judah and Benjamin) and Israel (the remaining ten tribes that rebelled and made Jeroboam their king).
Generally, the next several hundred years for Judah and Israel resembled the time of the judges: sin, judgment, repent, rescue, repeat. However, God would soon disturb that well-worn cycle. The LORD began sending prophets who warned that a judgment was coming that would no longer simply oppress the Israelites but destroy them. Isaiah was one such prophet. Although he was primarily a prophet to Judah, our text comes on the heels of his prophesy of Israel’s annihilation under the hand of Assyria, a judgment Isaiah would live to see. Into this context, we see the following promises.
THE PROMISE OF LIGHT // VERSES 1-5
Our text begins with a sharp contrast to the judgment promised in chapter eight. The word “but” gently urges us to read what came immediately before. Having pledged to bring the Assyrians upon the Israelites, God ends chapter eight with this bit of encouragement: “And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (v. 22).
Side note: despite what many people think, the Bible is not a very Instagram-friendly book.
Yet after promising darkness and gloom, God immediately foretells hope upon the horizon. After a time of anguish, God would show grace again. He would make a glorious way (a path to salvation and hope) in the land of Galilee. There, among the Gentiles, God would shine a light into the darkness.
Let us consider just two major points from these first several of verses.
First, we must keep in mind that, in the immediate context, God brought the darkness upon the Israelites. Their darkness was the judgment of God upon them. In many ways, this emphasizes the seriousness of Israel’s sin. Although their darkness was metaphorical for the invasion of the Assyrians, it symbolically reveals that Israel was becoming Egypt. As they continued to reject God, they were becoming the very people that God rescued them from.
From this reality, we can remind ourselves of the great problem of sin: God’s wrath and judgment. While death (the fruit of sin) is an enemy, we must always remember that God brought death into the world in judgment upon our sin. And it was just of Him to do so. God’s character would not be perfect if He did not judge sin. He would not be entirely good if He allowed even one act of evil to go unpunished; to do so would be tantamount to saying that some sin really isn’t that bad. Either God is good and will judge all evil, or God is not good and tolerates some evil on a whim.
Fortunately, God is good, but unfortunately, that means that each sin deserves His eternal wrath. Even the smallest of sins is a cosmic treason against the Creator, a claim that we know better than the One who made us. God’s judgment, therefore, is the great problem of sin. Our transgressions turn us into enemies of God. Israel, God’s people, were in reality no better than the Egyptians or the Assyrians. Like all of humanity, they were sinners, rebels against the King of kings. The darkness of God’s judgment was justified. It was earned in full, and if we had any question for God, it should only be, “Why not sooner?”
Second, we must note that God is promising to bring light into the darkness of their judgment. What a gracious word from the offended God! Even though by their sin, Israel chose the darkness rather than the light; God stood ready to rescue them again. Just as, through Moses, God pulled the Hebrews out of their bondage to the Egyptians, He was preparing to liberate them once more. Verses 3-5 give three descriptions of God’s rescue.
First, God promises to increase the joy of the nation. God’s people, the holy nation set aside for Himself, will rejoice before Him like the rejoicing that comes when it’s time to harvest the crops, which were grown through sweat and toil. Such joy is the exact opposite of the anguish that God’s judgment would cause.
Second, God promises to break the rod of their oppressor. Drawing back upon God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their oppression under the Midianites, God pledges to set His people free once again. Yet the scope of this deliverance will be much greater, as described in verse 5.
Third, all equipment for warfare will be burned. Of course, this means that battle gear is no longer required. Peace will be permanent. God’s people will no longer need to defend themselves. God will have defeated their enemies once and for all.
These are glorious promises. God’s light would bring to them joy and peace, following the anguish and pain of God’s judgment upon them. Israel could cling to these words in the midst of their suffering as hope that God would one day turn their sorrow into joy.
THE PRINCE OF PEACE // VERSES 6-7
While the first five verses presented God’s overall promise, these two verses give a bit more detail as to how that promise would be fulfilled. Verses 1-2 revealed that God would make a way of light in Galilee of all places, but what would that way look like? How exactly was God intending to pierce the darkness?
God’s promise of salvation was found in a person. The light in the darkness would be a child, a son, a ruler and mighty king. He would be the descendant that God promised to David. This Savior would sit upon David’s throne, ruling over all the earth with an eternal kingdom. Isaiah has already given us one other name for this king, Immanuel (meaning God with us), but now he gives us four more names. Although we do not have the time to discuss in length each name, we must remember that, to the Hebrews, names reflect a person’s character. These, therefore, are not just honorific titles. They describe the very essence of the coming Savior.
First, He is called Wonderful Counselor. A counselor is someone who gives wise advice, someone who is worth listening to. The adjective wonderful literally means something that inspires wonder. The Savior, therefore, would be a majestic sage who perfectly embodied the wisdom of God.
Second, He is called Mighty God. While some have attempted to argue that Isaiah was using hyperbole to describe a person so great that they needed to be described in divine language, that line of thought is a stretch at best. As previously noted, Isaiah has already called the Savior’s name, Immanuel. Isaiah is clearly invoking the imagery of a God-King, which Israel had always rightfully rejected. Yet this Savior would be different. He would be the actual God-King, a man and yet also God.
Third, He is called Everlasting Father. The Savior, who is a son given by God, would also be named the Father Without End. Once again, this is obviously divine language. God alone is the Father of all things without end. How then can the son that He gives also be called Everlasting Father? As Jesus, the Son and Savior, would later explain, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). As the Word who was eternally with the Father, Jesus is the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3); it is proper, therefore, to give Jesus the name Everlasting Father.
Fourth, He is called Prince of Peace. For the Hebrews, peace encompassed more than just the absence of war. Peace was the state of perfect existence, the world as it was meant to be. Peace is what we were made for, the nagging feeling in our gut that longs for something better than all of this. Peace is Eden, the garden of God. Peace is paradise, a cosmos uncorrupted by sin. The Savior’s reign as king would not only be marked by this peace; He is the Prince of Peace. Peace pours forth from the very essence of His being.
Each name reveals the character of the coming Savior. Of course, we recognize this Savior as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. After all, Jesus made quite similar claims about Himself, and He even performed most of His ministry in Galilee. So why didn’t the people of Israel whole-heartedly embrace Him as their long-awaited Redeemer?
Consider what would happen after Isaiah’s prophesy. The prophet probably lived to see his predicted judgment come to pass: Assyria obliterated Israel. Yet the kingdom of Judah continued for many more years, only to be crushed by the armies of Babylon. After the Persians replaced the Babylonians, a remnant rebuilt Jerusalem, but soon Alexander the Great conquered the known world, including Persia and Jerusalem. Alexander’s empire was divided into four kingdoms after his death, kingdoms that were soon swallowed up by the Roman behemoth. Thus, when Jesus was born, the Jews were still living under the yoke of their oppressors, which meant that they were looking for this conquering king who would bring peace to the earth. They gladly longed for the day when their Savior would bring all nations under His dominion.
But Jesus was different. He didn’t usurp the king, and He certainly didn’t depose Caesar. Jesus did not place the government upon His shoulders, nor did He usher in world peace. Instead, Jesus died a criminal’s death on a cross. To say that He didn’t exactly meet everyone’s expectations is kind of an understatement.
Why then do we believe that Jesus is the Savior prophesied of in this passage? As we learned in Genesis 1, God works through processes, and the work of Jesus is the greatest of all of God’s processes.
First, Jesus did break the yoke of the oppressor and bring joyful peace… just not how everyone was expecting. The Jews thought that the Savior would rescue them physically from the Roman Empire (like Moses did when they were in Egypt), but Jesus had an even greater exodus to accomplish. He targeted an enemy far deadlier than any one nation on earth. Jesus came to repair humanity’s fundamental problem: sin. He went for the root instead of focusing on limbs and branches. He treated the ailment, not just the symptoms. Jesus, as God made man, sacrificed Himself for the sins of humanity, taking the wrath of God for sin upon Himself. By His death, He broke the yoke and slavery of sin, and in Him, we can have endless joy and peace with God. And even now, Jesus is building His kingdom. Jesus’ church is a nation that runs throughout all the nations of the earth, and more are being added each day. It is multiplying, and there will be no end.
However, it is also important to remember that Jesus will one day return to complete this process physically. Soon, Jesus will come down from the heavens to make the earth His dwelling place. On that day, He will defeat eternally His enemies and complete the expansion of His kingdom. His government will be without end, and the earth’s peace will be plainly seen. Can you imagine it, a world where every single person loves and serves Jesus Christ as their physical King and Savior?
But we’re not there yet. Even as the gospel and the kingdom expand, wars and rumors of wars abound. Terrorist organizations continue to strike. Mad men continue to command nations with massive armaments. Tensions continue to rise. Pacts and treaties continue to deteriorate. Life is fragile, and people are sinful. Catastrophe will always be the result.
What hope then can we have? Pay attention to the final sentence of this prophesy: The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. God Himself will ensure that all of this will be realized. Interestingly, the promises of verses 2-5 also show this security. While verses 6-7 clearly present the fulfillment as occurring in the future, Isaiah writes verses 2-5 in the past tense, which is a subtle way of saying that these promises are so certain that we might as well think of them as history. Just as God was faithful to send Jesus, so He will be faithful to come again. We must simply wait. We must trust in Him who will one day redeem us and the cosmos entirely. Until that day, we both pray and enact the expansion of Christ’s kingdom here and now.
By the Holy Spirit, we continue Jesus’ earthly ministry.
To those lost in the foolishness of sin, we present Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor.
To those whose life is chaos and ruin, we present Jesus, the Mighty God.
To those broken by the curse of sin, we present Jesus, the Everlasting Father.
To those with no hope, we present Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Immanuel is still with us, even while we wait for Him to come again.