A reflection in Isaiah 9:1-7 for Sunday, December 4, 2022 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, 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 onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 9:1-7 (NRSVA)
Clearly Isaiah is looking to the future. A prophet does not always foretell. Here, however, early in the books of Isaiah we find a vision of great significance. The seer looks to a ’latter time’. He also concludes with the attention grabbing phrase the ’zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.’
We are momentarily peering into a time yet to be.
The use of ’Zebulun’, ’Naphtali’, the ’Jordan’ and ’Galilee’ locate these events. We are situated in the far north of Israel: the ’land beyond ‘the Jordan’. These events will occur on the margins of Israel far from the power centre of Jerusalem.
Perhaps this prophecy is needed. After all, who would look for a ’great light’ in such a remote location?
Isaiah’s poem brims with hope and expectation. ’Light’ will dispel ’darkness’. Joy will reign again – as after ’harvest’ or the ’plunder’ of a major windfall. Yokes, bars, and rods will be ’broken’. The clothing of war and violence will become ash.
It all prompts the question: How? What will bring about this new era? What will be the sign that such a season has begun?
Isaiah’s prompt: ’a child’. Perhaps we are meant to imagine humility, vulnerability, and beauty.
Of course, there is more. This one is raw gift – a God-act of grace. This one is ’given to us’.
There is a lot in a name. Here we have four that prompt us to imagine well beyond the arrival of a child. ’Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ push us into the places of worship and wonder.
What might an ever increasing ’authority’ look like upon the ’shoulders’ of one who can be described in such terminology? Perhaps, as Isaiah suggests, ’endless peace’, true ’justice’, and ’righteousness’.
Isaiah’s vision is, at least, a spectacular passage for Advent. It inherently calls for hope and anticipates ’joy’.
In the Gospel of Matthew, however, the evangelist sees this as much more. After describing in some detail the events surrounding the birth of the ‘child’, Jesus, Matthew tells the stories of his baptism and temptation. They clearly link the mission of Jesus with the action of angels, the Spirit, and the voice of God. This one is also a threat to the forces of evil.
After this elaborate introduction, Matthew has Jesus ‘withdraw to Galilee’ (Matthew 4:12). There he makes his ‘home…by the lake’ in the region of ‘Zebulun and Naphtali’ (Matthew 4:13). From there the author points to the prophecy above by making reference to just the first two verses:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:15-16)
It is enough. To the well trained Jew, Isaiah’s entire vision would flood to mind linking the birth of the ’child’ Jesus, his royal line, and the location from which Jesus is about to launch his mission with the breathtaking – and now ancient – hope-filled vision of Isaiah.
Of course, this also raises questions: What will this shining of this ’light’ look like? How will this one fulfil these elaborate titles? In what way is this one a ’gift’? In what sense does Jesus bring ’endless peace’? Who is this removed ’oppressor’ that releases widespread ’rejoicing’? How is this one above ‘authority’?
So many questions. Some already answered. Many left hanging.
Isaiah’s vision is a dramatic way for Matthew to launch into his account of the mission of Jesus – which is immediately summarised by this child-now-adult as, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ (Matthew 4:17).
In Jesus ’…the kingdom of heaven has come near’. Surely it is is not hard to imagine this also as a summary of Isaiah’s vision.
Although we are tempted to hear ’repent’ in moral terms, I suspect there is a broader way to translate this term. In the greek the word metanoia is linked with the mind. The near kingdom asks for a change of mind.
It asks us to re-imagine.
And so Matthew’s re-imagining story commences – with Jesus, simply walking ’the way of the sea’ and calling humble fishermen to come and ’follow me’.
A big story with a disarming and humble beginning. Perhaps without Isaiah’s vision we could easily be caught looking the other way. With it we have our eyes fixed on Bethlehem’s child.
And it is through this one that we catch a glimpse of the ’…zeal of the Lord of hosts…’ In Jesus sea-commenced mission will be revealed the desire of the God of Armies.
It all adds up to a picture of all the power of heaven directed toward the establishment of ’peace’ between heaven and earth in Jesus, the most accurate expression of the very heart, desire, and ’zeal’ of God.
Understand the place of this prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew and you will be compelled to read on!
How do you see the titles Isaiah uses – ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – being fulfilled in the life of Jesus as recorded by Matthew?
How does reading ’repent’ as ’re-imagine’ help you see the life of Jesus in a fresh way?
How does the use of ’zeal’ in Isaiah’s prophecy invite you to reimagine God character as eternally humble and God’s desire as always seeking peace? In what ways do you struggle with this picture of God?