It is really the fault of Georg Frederic Handel.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

November 17, 2013

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Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-7

It is really the fault of Georg Frederic Handel.

He made this passage too familiar. The problem with this text is that people often think they know what it says, so they shift to autopilot and cease to listen.

The first word is “the people.” The writer begins with the identity, the people. The people are then defined by a series of participles, walking and dwelling. The people are described as walking in darkness and dwelling in shadows. The writer does not have to tell the reader that this is not what anyone would want as their identification.

This identity problem is solved in this salvation oracle. The verbs are offset. Darkness gives way to great light. Walking is transformed by seeing. The land of shadows is terra — formed through the revealed light given to them. Verse 3 uses the second person. The passage uses two synonyms of empowerment: “increase” and “make great.” The objects of this increase are both the nation and their gladness.

They rejoice — the verb form connected with the gladness — before God. The use of the second person gives a prayer-like quality to the speech here. In order to convey the nature of the glad speech, the poet utilizes two similes. The first simile is bucolic and pastoral. It recalls the glad expressions of the harvest. The second simile is drawn from military and hunting. It pictures the rejoicing in the division of booty or prey.

The poetry changes in verse 4. It is as if we have shifted from Handel’s Messiah to Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Howe may have had Revelation 19 as her background, but her words also describe the tumultuous era in Isaiah 9 aptly. Verses 4-6 form a series of three result clauses introduced by the Hebrew ki, which is often translated “for.”

The first result clause (verse 4) moves from a two-part parallelism in verses 2-3 and uses a tripartite metaphor: yoke of burden, the staff on the shoulder, and the rod of oppression (constriction). The tripartite structure accents the thorough subjugation. The writer attests that God has broken all three. The destruction will be comparable to the day of Midian. The day of Midian is likely a reference to the Gideon tradition, which describes how God used Gideon to deliver the Hebrews form the hands of the Midianites (Judges 6:11-25).

The second result clause presents a strong image that raises the drama. The NRSV paints the scene as, “For all the boots of the tramping warriors.” The Hebrew grafts the noun and the participle together to emphasize the pulse of the marching troops. The poet wants us to hear the sounds of boots on the ground and to visualize the dust they kick up. The accompanying metaphor is the garments drenched in blood. Once again the poet brings to the vision of the reader a gory, horrific picture so it can be burned away.

The first two result clauses move from repelling metaphors to some divine redemption. The third result clause has no hint of adversity. Not surprisingly, Handel picks up the passage again here. The verse begins with a doublet: child born, son given. The constant in this doublet is “to us.” The people in verse 2 are now made clear in verse 6; the people are us. The great light is now established as the revelation of the child.

Authority — instead of a staff (see verse 4) — on his shoulders is an interesting contrast to the staff for the shoulder in verse 4. The child will bear four titles, including the child who is also the everlasting father. The writer uses catchwords to connect verses 6 and 7. The authority that rests on the child’s shoulders in verse 6 continually grows in verse 7. The title “prince of peace” in verse 6 brings peace in verse 7. Verse 7 summarizes what goes before by affirming that the child establishes justice and righteousness. The assurance of this salvation oracle comes to the final affirmation that the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In what context was this salvation oracle heard? Three times in the book of Isaiah a child is a sign of a new era of prosperity, the “God with us” pronouncement of Isaiah 7:10-17. The child is used as a symbol three times in Isaiah 11:1-10. The shoot of Jesse begins and ends the unit. The same chapter paints a picture of peaceable kingdom, where a child shall lead them. Isaiah 9 likewise announces a new era, the sign of this new era will be a child. The references in Isaiah 7:10-17 point pretty clearly to the Syro-Ephraimite war of 734 B.C.E. The canonical proximity and thematic similarity would make a similar historical context for Isaiah 9 and 11 plausible.

Israel and its capital Samaria and Aram (the Syro of the war) and its capital Damascus are often sought to prevail over one another. However, the Assyrian threat made them “frenemies” for a time. A coalition of kings rebuffed the Assyrian invasion at the battle of Qarqar on the Orontes in 853 B.C.E. The kings of Israel and Damascus sought to use a similar tactic as Tiglath-Pileser III, and the Assyrians were moving south again. Rezin of Aram/Damascus and Pekah of Israel invited Ahaz the king of Judah to join the coalition. One might surmise that the invitation contained a veiled threat if he did not join the coalition. But Ahaz of Judah seems to have not listened to the salvation oracles of Isaiah but rather sent work to Tiglath Pileser pledging his loyalty as a vassal (see 2 Kings 16:5-9).

According to King Ahaz, he would rather walk in darkness than face the danger of seeing a great light.



God of light,
There can be overwhelming darkness in this world. But you shine your light and increase joy, and for your brilliance we are grateful. Amen.


Immortal, invisible, God only wise   ELW 834
Creator of the stars of night   ELW 245, H82 60, UMH 692, NCH 111
When twilight comes   ELW 566


True Light, Keith Hampton