From Darkness in Isaiah 8 …
The darkness of ch. 8 of Isaiah, especially the last few verses, is a lot of self-inflicted darkness. The Israelites had been looking for answers to their problems in all sorts of wrong places: they wanted to know the answers to questions about life, and they were looking for those answers among the dead. They were consulting mediums and spiritists, instead of looking to the living God. They had the words of the living God in the law and other works, but they acted contrary to it, because, Isaiah says, “they have no dawn.” They tell themselves they are looking for light but looking for light in the darkness. They are hungry, but instead of looking for a solution for their hunger, they are focusing on their hunger and getting mad because of their hunger. Since they are only looking for darkness, that’s what they find.
But God, in ch. 9, takes the initiative for solving their problems. They had no dawn, didn’t really want a dawn, wrapped the darkness around themselves like they were making things better, but that darkness is not going to last forever.
… to Light in Isaiah 9:1-7
v2 – The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. They aren’t looking for the light, they’re not heading for the light, it just shows up and there it is. Now, it’s possible they are looking for the light, but Isaiah doesn’t make it seem like they are, especially when we read ch. 9 right after ch. 8. It’s possible v2 is talking about two different groups of people, but it doesn’t matter too much if it’s two groups or one. There are people walking in darkness, and there are people living in darkness. Both of them get the light on them, beyond their control, beyond any expectation or hope. It just shows up and surrounds them and hope appears. God cares for his people, even when they are not looking for him.
v3 – Turns attention directly to God, and two things He does: multiply the nation and increase their joy. When we are focused on difficulties and problems, and forget who God is and what life is about, then we start asking questions like “do you really think you should have kids, considering how the world is today?” Our bad days in the 21st century are significantly better than the 12th century’s best days, for one thing. But this is a reminder that the light of God is meant to be shared and spread around. When we really get the light of God, rejoicing is the only proper response. The rejoicing is quite strong: it’s not relief, as if the problems have gotten a little better but are still around – it’s like the darkness and the problems are instantly forgotten.
Relief vs. Joy
If the people aren’t looking for the light, its sudden, unexpected appearance may be part of the reason why they respond with immediate joy. Do you make lists for Christmas presents or birthday presents? I do that, mainly because I love people and want to make gift-giving an easy thing for them. If I get presents on my list, things I was sort of expecting, sort of hoping for, I am very grateful, indeed, but it’s possible I feel more relief than joy: I was hoping for this, I got it, whew. If I get something really neat I had not heard of or asked for (or something I didn’t expect to get because it was so pricey, or what have you), my enjoyment is likely going to be higher – something very good came to me and I wasn’t looking for it. I wonder if that’s partly why the people rejoice so strongly, so quickly – it came upon them, when no hope for change or relief was in them.
This seems like a good place to bring in a literary allusion, since people expect me to do that, because of my job. Hester Prynne, from The Scarlet Letter, spends the entirety of the novel carrying the burden of her guilt, and despite her initial rebellion against society’s treatment of her, she makes no attempt to leave or escape the community who has effectively outcasted her. Her plight becomes a permanent, almost welcome … except for one brief moment toward the end of the story. She removes the scarlet letter from her cloak for the first time in almost a decade, and Hawthorne describes it with a great line: “she had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.” She had grown so used to the burden of her guilt, she convinced herself this was the only way to live. But when the symbol of her sin is removed, she finally experiences a new life, a life she had convinced herself couldn’t exist. Just like the Israelites, just like we do, when we focus on our problems and not on the solution, we convince ourselves this is the way things have always been, and will always be. (I’m not condoning Hester’s behavior, of course, just looking at the literary moment, in case you were wondering.)
3 Reasons for Rejoicing
Isaiah compares the response of rejoicing from the people to two very joyous occasions: harvest time and the end of war. These are very happy occasions, indeed. For Israel, back in the day, these are likely the happiest moments of one’s lifetime: we have food, we won’t starve this winter, and the battle is won, so we are safe. But Isaiah continues, because, while those experiences are truly joyous, they do not last. Maybe we have enough food for this winter, but what about next winter? It’s great that this war is over, but we all know war will come back again. So while these bring true joy, that joy is ephemeral. Usually…
v4 – In verses 4-6, Isaiah gives 3 reasons why the people are rejoicing, more specifically than the transition from darkness into light, whether expected or not.
Reason 1: Freedom Forever
First is the fact God breaks the yoke of their burden, the staff of misleading, and the rod of their oppressor. In stark contrast to God’s comforting rod and staff David speaks of in Psalm 23, and Jesus’s easy yoke, Israel has pursued a heavy burden or oppression. But God frees them from it, even if they didn’t think they wanted it. God gives us what we need more than what we think we want. God breaks these symbols of oppression, highlighting the permanence of the situation. The yoke is not laid aside until it’s needed again … it’s gone for good. So Isaiah is clarifying the images of v3 are more than what they first seemed.
Reason 2: Peace and Plunder
v5 – Another reason for their joy is that the battle has been won. Only God can win this battle, in part because Israel may have forgotten they were in a battle. And we have forgotten that we are in a battle – a spiritual battle, but still a battle. Even though the language here is of physical plunder for a physical battle, our battle is spiritual, and God is the one who does the fighting, just as God does the liberating fighting for Israel here in v5. I suspect these cloaks and boots being burned are Israeli cloaks and boots, which would make the blood on them the blood of their enemies. They survived this battle and now they don’t need their war gear anymore, so they might as well burn them. The end of battle is certainly a reason for rejoicing, not only because there is plunder but because we can retire from battle.
Reason 3: Thanksgiving Presents
The things God does in v3-5 are not just mentioned as fact; they are recited as praise items – this is a song of Thanksgiving. We tend to look at this passage as a Christmas passage, mainly because of v6-7, but this whole section of chapter 9 is a Thanksgiving passage. Be thankful, because this is who God is and what He has done.
v6 – The final reason for rejoicing, and thanksgiving, is the gift of a Son. These verses, 6-7, are pretty familiar to us, so there’s not much need to discuss them today, which is unfortunate, since that’s what this sermon is supposed to be about. This final reason is the most important, since not only is it the reason for the light in v1-2, since he is the light itself, but this child is the reason for joy in v3, the reason for the release from oppression in v4, and the reason for the victory in v5. He is the reason behind the reasons for joy.
The Gift of a Child King
This is especially remarkable, since this child is described with 2 things: a government on his shoulders and four names. For the students of history out there, a child ruler rarely bodes well for a country. Israel did have good success under good king Josiah, but this hadn’t happened yet when Isaiah is giving this prophecy. No one seems to think this passage is about Josiah, though, in part since no one ascribed the four names of v6 to him.
Since Israel has had no experience with a good young king, the fact Isaiah is declaring this a reason for joy is especially remarkable. His audience has certainly been familiar with lousy kings, all grownups who should have known better, but to hear the government will rest on the shoulders of a boy as a word of comfort and joy is odd, yet Isaiah presses on as if there’s no reason to doubt this is good news.
The annunciation of a Child recalls Isaiah 7:14 – “behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Immanuel.” There’s no real dispute whether these verses refer to the same boy, so we can just be confident the boy Immanuel of ch. 7 is the same son given in ch. 9.
While it was not uncommon for parents to name their sons Immanuel, even today, only 1 child gets these four names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Most agree it is only 4 names, despite the way Handel’s Messiah makes them sound.
4 Names for the Child King
Wonderful Counselor – the “wonderful” is not just a generic “really good.” The word for “wonderful” is the same used in Genesis 18, when Sarah doubts she can give birth. God responds, “Is anything too wonderful for Yahweh?” – effectively, “wonderful” is an aspect of divinity. Only God can do the impossible for Sarah, and this promised boy king will have the same supernatural abilities, functioning as a Counselor. Be of good cheer, that finally the kingdom will be in hands of the counselor, the person who usually makes the good decisions but is often thwarted by the bad rulers – the ruler is the counselor, now, and a counselor with divine abilities.
Mighty God – not only is this child God with Us, but he is a Mighty God. The boy king will be a wise, supernatural decision maker, and He will be powerful, with the might and authority to enforce His rule.
Aside on Heroism in the Classical World
But it’s not just the child’s divinity in view, here. Some aspects of the word translate to “hero.” This reflects the joy from the spoils of war idea in v3. One of the essential characteristics of great heroes in the classical world was their generosity in diving out the spoils of war. Beowulf, though he does most of the fighting in his poem, does not get all the plunder. Instead, he generously shares the treasure he wins with his colleagues, even though he shouldered the biggest burden.
Similarly, Achilles, in the Iliad, as I’m sure you know, is reminded throughout his poem of the importance of being a real hero, which means generously sharing the spoils of war with others who did less work. The inciting conflict of the poem is Agamemnon taking Achilles’ plunder away from him, unjustly, shaming Achilles in front of his peers (and shaming himself by acting in such an unheroic way). Through many situations, Achilles grows as a hero, especially in understanding what it means to be a hero in an unfair world, run by temperamental gods. By the end he demonstrates his understanding of the essential aspect of generosity in heroism when he presides over the athletic games honoring their fallen comrades. Not only does Achilles give away his own plunder to the winners, he gives more away to those who should have won but didn’t because of ill luck or foul play.
The Boy King of Isaiah will be powerful, wise, and generous. He gives the benefits of salvation to all of us, even though He does all the work.
Everlasting Father – from the political and powerful to the familial, the son is also a father. Isaiah is not confusing Jesus with his Father, but it is a somewhat confusing expression, though, to be sure. Many commentators say this title emphasizes Jesus’s love and compassion, not so much in contrast to his strength and leadership earlier but as a complementary idea: Jesus is many things. He fights with prowess like a hero; he defends with compassion, like a father. Jesus, in his ministry, emphasizes he is not the father, but he also emphasizes their unity: “whoever has seen me has seen the father,” for example. “I and the Father are one,” for another. So Jesus certainly has father-like attributes, though in a real way he is distinct from the Father.
Another aspect here is the expression allows for a translation of “father of eternity.” Jesus is a promised Son but he is also the creator and possessor of eternity itself. That gives him great credentials for what comes next.
Prince of Peace – this epithet is undeniably about Jesus. The “peace” mentioned here is more than the cathartic cessation of military hostilities. The division of spoils of war referred to throughout this passage is actual a final celebration of the end of war. Chapter 2 of Isaiah first mentions beating swords into ploughshares, an idea of the millennial kingdom peace taken up by Joel and Micah. This genuine, lasting peace is mentioned throughout Isaiah, and it aligns with v5 – no need for swords, boots, or war cloaks anymore. This peace will last. Better still, it’s not just the end of military hostilities: this peace is an internal tranquility, a thorough and complete well-being all will feel deep down in their souls, a “harmonious well-being,” as Guffin says in The Gospel in Isaiah.
A Kingdom We Knew Was Coming
v7 – By now, with these four names and qualities firmly established, there’s no need to be concerned about this boy king upon whose shoulders the government will rest, nor any need to fear that the verb switches to future tense – sure, we’ll have to wait for all this, but it will be worth the wait. Now that we know he has these qualities, the good news continues: this kingdom will last much longer than the 40 years of relative peace during Solomon’s day. This government will never stop growing and never stop being peaceful.
Isaiah quickly points out this is nothing actually new: this is the fulfillment of prophecy Israel has been expecting for some time: the coming boy king is in the line of King David. This isn’t a revolution; this is a restoration.
Justice and righteousness will begin this kingdom, but unlike non-wonderful kingdoms that begin with such high hopes and quickly fizzle out, this kingdom will be sustained by justice and righteousness throughout its existence, which is permanent. That is good news indeed.
But Wait, There’s More!
That would seem to be a great way to end this prophetic song, with a final reminder that this kingdom, when it finally comes, will never end. But Isaiah gives us one final detail that may seem anti-climactic from an emotional perspective, a detail that frames the need to wait for this joy-filled kingdom in a new way: this wonderful kingdom, with a ruler who has such qualities, may seem too good to be true, especially to Isaiah’s original audience (and us today) … but it’s not. This kingdom will happen, and it won’t be an accident.
Isaiah solidifies the certainty of this coming kingdom and this coming king by informing us of the ultimate source of this good news: the zeal of the Lord of armies will accomplish this. This isn’t something the love of God will eventually get around to, when he has run out of other things to do. This isn’t something God feels obligated to do just because he was in a promise-making mood when hanging out with his buddies Abraham and David. This kingdom will come about and be ruled by such a king because God wants it to happen. Not only does he want it to happen, he is zealous for it to come about. God is not patient because he doesn’t want to fulfill his promises. He zealously, eagerly, divinely-anxiously (a hyphenated double adverb I made up for this message) wants to bring about this kingdom … but even God has to wait for his perfect timing. Keep that in mind the next time you get impatient about the return of Jesus, as if God is not paying attention to current events. I’m talking to myself here, but you are welcome to hearken to it as well. This kingdom will happen. The zeal of God will make it happen.
A Boy for All Holidays
So even though we think of this as a great prophecy of Christmas, that’s only part of the story. It’s a reminder of a future kingdom, with a king as eager to inaugurate this kingdom as you are to be a part of it. It’s a prophecy of a son born in a manger, yes, but also a song of thanksgiving, and a promise of an everlasting peace.