ISAIAH 7:1 – 9:1. THE CONTEXT
Chapters 7 and 8 tell the story of Isaiah’s dealings with King Ahaz at a time when King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel joined together to attack Jerusalem (7:1). “It was told the house of David, saying, ‘Syria is allied with Ephraim.’ His heart trembled, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest tremble with the wind” (7:2).
Isaiah counseled Ahaz not to fear Rezin and Pekah (7:3 ff.), because the Lord would deliver Jerusalem. Ahaz had only to trust Yahweh. But Ahaz couldn’t bring himself to trust Yahweh, so he sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria swearing loyalty to Assyria and asking Tiglath-pileser to save Jerusalem from Rezin and Pekah (2 Kings 16:7). To encourage Tiglath-pileser further, Ahaz took gold and silver vessels from the temple—vessels dedicated to Yahweh’s service—and sent them to Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 16:8). He also adopted the worship of Assyrian gods (2 Kings 16:10 ff).
Tiglath-pileser did as Ahaz asked in 733-732 B.C., defeating Israel and carrying its people into captivity, but the price was that Jerusalem became a vassal of Assyria, a relationship that would impoverish Jerusalem and would lead, ultimately, to its enslavement.
This was the “former time” that is mentioned in 9:1 —the time of “darkness” that is mentioned in 9:2—the time prior to the exile and the time of the exile itself. It was darkness brought about by the faulty leadership of Ahaz—by his failure to trust Yahweh—by his unfortunate alliance with Tiglath-pileser.
But Yahweh has not given up on Jerusalem. There will be better days ahead—the latter time mentioned in 9:1—a time when Yahweh “has made it glorious, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (9:1).
In chapter 7, Isaiah told Ahaz of a sign of hope given by Yahweh: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). We will see the promise of a child again in 9:6.
“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” (9:1). The darkness that they have experienced will not be the end, because Yahweh will redeem the future.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel and occupied land near the Sea of Galilee—land that would in Jesus’ day be part of the Galilee that would be so central to his ministry. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali, because of their location on the northern edge of Israel, were the first or among the first to come under the boot of Assyria, but they will also be among the first to see the work of the messiah.
“Galilee of the nations” (9:1). This can also be translated “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The northern part of Israel always had a significant Gentile population, in part because it sits astride trade routes and in part because of its proximity to Gentile nations (Phoenicia and Aramea in its earlier years and Syria and the Decapolis in its later years). While Isaiah is living in Jerusalem and advising a Judean king, this verse shows Yahweh’s ongoing concern for Israel as well as Judah—Israel which effectively ceased to exist as a nation due to Tiglath-Pileser’s victories there.
Passages such as this often had one meaning for their original audience but have been reinterpreted to have a different meaning by later audiences. “After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (this) passage became a nucleus for the Jewish expectation of the reestablishment of Davidic kingship” (Holladay, 59). Still later, the Christian church has reinterpreted it again as having to do with the coming of the Christ child.
In the New Testament, we read that Jesus “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, to those who sat in the region and shadow of death, to them light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15-16).
Those provinces, then, which first suffered the reign of darkness that came with Tiglath-Pileser’s victories, would become the first to see the great light of the messiah.
ISAIAH 9:2-3. THE PEOPLE WHO WALKED IN DARKNESS
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death,
on them the light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation.
You have increased their joy.
They rejoice before you according to the joy in harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined” (v. 2). The gloom of the last verse will be dispelled by the light of this verse. Even a small light can dispel the darkness, but this will not be a small light but a great light—the kind of light that could be expected from a great God (see 60:1-5).
Darkness is associated with a number of unpleasant things. In the dark, a person tends to move slowly or to wander aimlessly. We tend to be more fearful when it is dark, in part because we can’t see the dangers that would be apparent if it were light but also because there is something about darkness that gives rise to our fears. Even in the security of our own bed—with windows and doors securely locked and no apparent danger—we often awake with pulse racing because of anxiety that seems to dissipate with the light of dawn.
Now imagine the people of God, having dwelled in darkness for a very long time, suddenly blinking at the brightness of God’s light.
“You have multiplied the nation. You have increased their joy. They rejoice before you according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil” (v. 3). The people are enjoying a new prosperity that is like the celebration of a harvest after a tough summer—like the celebration of a victory after a battle.
But the prosperity is secondary to the fact that it is Yahweh who has provided it. It is Yahweh who has multiplied the nation and Yahweh who has increased its joy. It is Yahweh who is the focal point of their celebration, just as it is God to whom we give thanks on Thanksgiving Day. The fact that it is Yahweh who has given these people cause for celebration means that they can expect a good future as well as a good present. Yahweh will provide for them tomorrow as he is providing for them today.
ISAIAH 9:4-5. FOR THE YOKE OF HIS BURDEN, YOU HAVE BROKEN
4For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as in the day of Midian. 5For all the armor of the armed man in the noisy battle, and the garments rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.
“For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as in the day of Midian” (v. 4). A yoke, of course, is a wooden device laid across the shoulders of a pair of oxen to allow them to pull as a team. They might pull a plow or a wagon or any other kind of heavy burden. A yoked pair of oxen could accomplish a great deal of work in a day, and a good farmer would treat his oxen well to keep them healthy. A bad farmer, however, might work a team nearly to death. The life of an ox would be burdensome at best and terrible at worst. It would be a difficult thing to be an ox and to see the farmer approaching in the morning to install the yoke. It would mean another hard day ahead. Israel, under the Assyrians, is like that ox.
A yoke is a common Biblical metaphor for the servitude that an oppressed people experience at the hands of their oppressors (see Genesis 27:40; 1 Kings 12:4-14; Isaiah 47:6; Jeremiah 27:2-12; 28:10-14). The breaking of a yoke is a metaphor for the lifting of such servitude (Leviticus 26:13; Isaiah 58:6; Ezekiel 34:27). In this instance, Isaiah is looking toward the day when Yahweh will free Israel from the oppressor’s yoke.
The “staff of his shoulder” and the “rod of his oppressor” refer to instruments with which Assyrians would beat Israelites. These phrases are an example of parallelism—the repetition of an idea in slightly different language—in biblical poetry. Parallelism is quite common in the Psalms.
“as in the day of Midian” (v. 4). This is a reference to the story of Gideon and his little army of three hundred soldiers that is told in Judges 6-7. Because of Israel’s sin, Yahweh allowed the Midianites to oppress Israel for seven years. When the Israelites repented and called on Yahweh for help, Yahweh called Gideon, an ordinary farmer, to lead Israel against the Midianites. The Lord ordered Gideon to tear down the altar of Baal, and he did so. Then, after asking the Lord for confirmation, Gideon assembled an army of 22,000 soldiers to fight the Midianites. However, it is somewhat an exaggeration to call such men soldiers. They were ordinary men with no military training or experience.
But Yahweh told Gideon that he had too many men and ordered Gideon to send home all who were afraid. Gideon did so, and was left with 10,000 men. The Lord then ordered him to take his soldiers to a pool of water and to keep those who lapped water like a dog and to send home the ones who knelt to drink. The objective was to pare down the large army to a small army so that they could not help but understand that their victory was due to Yahweh and not to their own strength. When Gideon completed this sorting, he was left with 300 soldiers.
Gideon equipped each of his soldiers with a trumpet and a jar with a torch inside. At Gideon’s direction, each soldier blew his trumpet and broke his jar to reveal his torch. The Midianites, thinking that each trumpet and torch was at the head of a company of soldiers, became fearful and disoriented. And “the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army; and the army fled.” Gideon and his soldiers pursued and won a great victory, freeing Israel from their Midianite oppressors—lifting the yoke with which they had been burdened.
“For all the armor of the armed man in the noisy battle, and the garments rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire” (v. 5). The victory will be a bloody affair in which the boots and bloodied garments of the enemy are burned by the Israelites.
In a world where most people wear sandals or go barefoot, boots are part of a warrior’s equipment and a symbol of a warrior’s power. When Yahweh gives Israel the victory over their oppressors, the Israelites will burn the boots and garments of their fallen enemies as a way of celebrating their victory.
Cloth is expensive, so we would expect the victors to strip the clothing from their fallen enemies and to use it for their own purposes. However, the clothing of the fallen enemy will be not only blood-spattered but “rolled in blood”—the blood of the fallen soldiers. Such garments would not only be blood-soaked, but would be pierced by spears and slashed by swords so that it would have value only as fuel for a celebratory bonfire. That is how the Israelites will use it.
ISAIAH 9:6-7. FOR TO US A CHILD IS BORN
6For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from that time on, even forever. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will perform this.
“For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government (Hebrew: misrah) will be on his shoulders” (v. 6a). Isaiah earlier mentioned a child who would be born and who would be named Immanuel (7:14). Now he mentions a child again—a very special child who will enjoy great authority and wisdom and who will establish endless peace.
Misrah (translated “authority” in the NRSV) can also be translated “government.” “Government was regarded as a burden, to be borne on the back or shoulders” of the people (Rawlinson, 166). However, this “son” shall bear the burden on his shoulders.
It is surprising that Yahweh would raise up a child—a newborn, no less—to deliver his people and to establish peace, justice, and righteousness. We would expect him to raise up a mighty warrior like King David rather than a child. But then we must remember that David wasn’t a mighty warrior when God chose him. He was only a shepherd boy—the youngest son of Jesse—such an unlikely candidate that Jesse didn’t even think to bring David in from the fields when Samuel came looking for the one who would become king (1 Samuel 16).
Later, when Goliath threatened the Israelites, David was the unlikely boy who went against the giant armed only with a slingshot and a stone (1 Samuel 17). And then there was Gideon and his little army. So why wouldn’t Yahweh choose a baby to deliver his people. It is Yahweh’s usual practice to use as his instrument someone who has nothing to offer except Yahweh’s blessing. A child, then, would be an obvious choice—a newborn infant an even more obvious choice.
“His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (v. 6b). These four titles express the essential character of this new king:
• WONDERFUL COUNSELOR: The child will be a wise counselor, which contrasts wonderfully with King Ahaz, whose foolish policies have been so destructive.
• MIGHTY GOD: Filled with Godly power to lead faithfully. “This king will have God’s true might about him, power so great that it can absorb all the evil which can be hurled at it until none is left to hurl” (Oswalt, 247).
• EVERLASTING FATHER: Our earthly fathers (including father-figures such as kings) live/reign for only a period of time and then they are gone. This child will become a father whose reign will last forever.
• PRINCE OF PEACE: The establishment and maintenance of peace is no small achievement. The peaceful reign of this child will contrast nicely with the chaotic reign of Ahaz.
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from that time on, even forever” (v. 7a). The characteristics of the child-king’s reign will be:
• Growing authority.
• Endless peace.
• Justice: Fair treatment for all, regardless of position, power, or wealth.
• Righteousness: Protection of those who are weak.
• “from that time on, even forever.” This kind of everlasting rule cannot be achieved by mere power or wealth. It requires God’s help, and that in turn requires that the ruler rule in justice and righteousness.
“The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will perform this” (v. 7b; see also 2 Kings 19:31; Isaiah 37:32). Yahweh is no dispassionate God. He is zealous and determined to establish peace, justice, and righteousness. He has shown his zealousness over a period of centuries as he has patiently shaped and molded his people. It has been a rocky road, because the people have often been rebellious. Nevertheless, in his zeal, Yahweh has continued to rebuke, reshape, woo, and love his people.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan