with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
A Time for Hope
Have you ever longed for the light? Most of us have never been lost in a cave with a dead flashlight, longing to find out way back into the sunshine. We may, however, have lost power for hours or days after a storm, longing for the lights to come on. Many have spent long nights in worry or sadness, waiting anxiously for the break of dawn and the hope that comes with a new day.
Our text speaks of people who lived in a dark time, when national oppression and personal depression clouded their vision and dimmed their spirits. What brought the darkness? Would they ever see the light? And does it matter to us?
A troubled time(v. 1)
To understand Isaiah’s message, we must take time to consider his historical context. We get a glimpse of that in 9:1, which follows directly on the final verse of the previous chapter (8:22). Indeed, in the Hebrew text, 9:1 is numbered as 8:23. There, Isaiah speaks of a people so defeated that, whether they look upward to the sky or downward to the earth, they see only darkness.
The political setting of Isaiah 7-11 appears to reflect the aftermath of a devastating invasion by the Assyrians, probably around 733 BCE. It speaks of “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish,” and the threat of “thick darkness” (8:22), all of which are likely metaphors of oppressive enemy action. These images carry over into 9:1, which surprisingly predicts better days to come: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish” was spoken to the northern tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the first to be overrun and deported by the Assyrian forces.
Despite the gloomy conditions of Assyrian oppression, Isaiah saw light ahead, a “latter time” when God would “make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” These may be names given to northern regions by the Assyrians.
“The way of the sea,” also the name of the main north/south highway, may describe a province along the Mediterranean coast. “The land beyond the Jordan” probably referred to Gilead, located east of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. “Galilee of the nations” likely describes the central area around Megiddo. Its very title reveals how much its population had been mixed: the Assyrians not only sent Israelites away from their homelands, but also brought in people from other lands to resettle the area.
The use of Assyrian terms for those areas speaks to the extent to which Israel had lost them, yet Isaiah spoke of a day when things would change: the pervasive darkness and gloom would give way to light and hope.
A vision of hope(vv. 2-5)
The poetic oracle of vv. 2-7 has been described in ways ranging from a psalm of thanksgiving to an accession hymn to a royal birth announcement. However we might classify the text, it clearly offers a hopeful outlook to Isaiah’s audience.
Verse 2 picks up on the contrast between darkness and light from v. 1, declaring that “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.”
The verbs imply past action, though the prophet wrote in a time of darkness and appears to be speaking of future events. In a fashion typical of Hebrew poetry, the second line advances and intensifies the thought of the first: “darkness” becomes “deep darkness.” But, the people “have seen a great light” because “light has shined on them.” As the opposite of darkness, light promises the hope of salvation.
With v. 3, the prophet shifts from a third person observation to a second person address, praising God for having “multiplied the nation” and “increased its joy.” The word translated as “multiplied” doesn’t necessarily refer to a growing population; it could also mean “you have made the nation great” or “you have enlarged the nation,” which may catch the meaning better.
Whether the “enlargement” is in people or in power, the result is rejoicing. Isaiah sees a nation walking out of darkness and into the light, celebrating newfound strength and confidence. Two metaphors call up joyful images: successful farmers beaming at the sight of a banner harvest, and victorious soldiers dividing the booty taken from their vanquished enemies (v. 3b).
The military metaphor morphs into reality with v. 4, as the prophet proclaims freedom from Israel’s foes, whose “yoke,” “bar,” and “rod” – all symbols of oppression – have been (or will be) broken in a victory as unexpected as Gideon’s unlikely triumph over the Midianites (Judges 6-7). In the heady aftermath of victory, Isaiah predicts celebratory bonfires built of bloody clothes and battle boots (v. 5) – but such happy times are not yet.
How could the prophet’s suffering hearers believe that such things would happen? What sign of hope might mark a turning point in the fortunes of Israel and Judah?
A child of promise(vv. 6-7)
As in 7:10-17, Isaiah finds hope in the birth of a child. Indeed, he speaks as if the child has already been born: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us . . .” (v. 6). Did Isaiah have in mind the birth of Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz who would later become one of Judah’s most fondly remembered kings?
Whether or not Isaiah was thinking of Hezekiah, there is no question that he had in mind a descendant of David who would lead with authority and preside over an era of unprecedented glory for the nation. Even so, how do we reconcile the thought of an earthly ruler with the expansive titles he attributed to the coming king?
“Wonderful Counselor” raises no flags, for it simply implies something like “Extraordinary Strategist” or “Wise Advisor,” an appropriate characteristic for a king in a time of war. But what are we to make of the name “Mighty God”? Although kings in Egypt and Mesopotamia sometimes claimed to be gods, this was not the case in Israel. Biblical coronation hymns suggest, however, a tradition that God “adopted” the king (see Ps. 2:7).
Many Hebrew names include God (el) or Yahweh (usually –iah or -jah) as an integral element. For example, “Isaiah” means “Salvation of Yahweh,” “Elijah” means “my God is Yahweh,” and Hezekiah means something like “Strengthened by Yahweh.”
The title “Mighty God” (’el gibbôr) is spelled as two words, however, and the same term is used in 10:21 with clear reference to God. This leads us to assume that the king in question, at the very least, bears a very close relationship with God.
The title “Everlasting Father” offers a conundrum for interpretation. It might be intended to express hope that the coming king, who would be in the Davidic line, would represent the everlasting dynasty promised to David in 2 Samuel.
Like “Wonderful Counselor,” the term “Prince of Peace” raises few questions. People would naturally admire a king who brought peace and security for his subjects.
With v. 7, the prophet clearly turns to the future. He sees the coming king’s authority and rule of peace growing continually, endlessly, a tangible fulfillment of the promise that David’s descendants would rule over an everlasting kingdom.
The new king would bring more than security, however: he would rule with the ideals of justice and righteousness “from this time onward and forevermore.”
Such promises sound too good to be true, don’t they? Isaiah knew that his hearers would be skeptical, too. Thus, he concludes with the assuring claim that “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
How do we interpret this text? We can see how it functioned as an exercise in hope for troubled Judahites in the eigth century BCE, but we are much more likely to remember it from quotations in the New Testament. Isaiah may have hoped that Hezekiah would prove to be a delivering king, but that did not happen. As time went by, later believers transposed his prophetic hope to a future messiah.
When Jesus made his home in Capernaum, Matthew interpreted it as a fulfillment of Isa. 9:1-2, that light would shine on the people of Zebulon and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13-16). Surprisingly, the Gospels do not attribute the titles in 9:6-7 to Jesus: perhaps they realized that the eternal reign of peace still awaits fulfillment.
This text challenges us to do more than celebrate Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope. Rather than simply spiritualizing Isaiah’s message, may we remember that many people of our world also face days of darkness and gloom. Forlorn immigrants from war-torn countries long for light and security, for justice and righteousness that are not just a future hope, but a present reality.
As children of God and followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to devote our best efforts toward bringing peace and justice – security and equality – to the world in which we live.
As we recall Isaiah’s promise that “the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this,” may we remember that we are counted among the hosts of those whom God has called to live as model citizens of the Kingdom, working for peace and justice throughout the earth. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 22, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 9:1-4
Light implies hope. If your student is in a dark spot offer them as much light as possible. The scientific community has proven that sunlight will help when someone feels gloomy or depressed. That’s one of those scientific studies that everyone knew was true before it was proofed by science. But we can offer a different kind of light to our students as well. We can offer them the light of Christ. Light that can be seen as hope, because of the hope that springs eternal. You don’t have to wait until your student is in a dark place to offer light. Help them find light in their daily life when their days are going well. This will help them begin to see God around them, and when life gets dark, they will look to know that the light is there because they have seen it so many times before.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“I See the Light” from Tangled via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 9:1-4