Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

The guarantor of this future is none other than God

December 24, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

A royal birth heralds liberation. This new beginning marks an end to domination and war. Justice takes the place of subjugation. Where shoulders once bowed low beneath the conqueror’s yoke, the shoulder now proudly bears the insignia of righteous rule.

These reversals are improbable. From the standpoint of the prophet Isaiah, the oppressor is the mighty empire of Assyria. In simple geopolitical terms, Judah had little hope of throwing off their yoke. Improbable odds are the meaning of “the day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4). 

The book of Judges tells the story of this day, said to have taken place in the era that preceded Israel’s monarchy. According to Judges, for a period of seven years, the Midianites invaded and harassed the people of Israel, destroying their harvests and laying waste to their land (Judges 6:1-5). 

In response to Israel’s prayers, God raised up Gideon as their deliverer (Judges 6:6-16). A host of Midianites too numerous to count spread like locusts across the valley (7:12). God promised Gideon victory over them, but wanted to ensure that the Israelites would not take credit for it, that it would instead redound to God’s glory (7:2). For this reason God instructed Gideon to approach the Midianite camp with only 300 warriors (7:6-8). The warriors did not even fight on that day: they blew trumpets, broke jars, and cried out, while their enemies set upon one another and fled (7:20-22). 

The cultural memory of this miraculous victory testified to God’s power to deliver God’s people no matter the circumstances. 

Centuries later, Isaiah described the condition of the people of Judah as darkness. In the book of Isaiah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, darkness can symbolize conditions of captivity and imprisonment (for example, Isaiah 42:7; 49:9). Prisoners are described as “sitting” or “dwelling” in darkness and shadow (Isaiah 42:7; Psalm 107:10, 14). To sit or dwell in darkness also may symbolize humiliation (Isaiah 47:5) and even death (Psalm 143:3; Lamentations 3:6; see also Luke 1:79). The people of Judah had been brought low. Cast down into darkness (see also Micah 7:8), they were as prisoners in their own land. Even if they possessed strength to stand and walk, still they would stumble, because they could not see. 

Threefold poetic parallelism further characterizes the people’s condition: they were subject to the yoke, the bar, and the rod (Isaiah 9:4). Their very bodies have been bent and beaten. For the people stumbling, battered, and on the edge of death, a light shines (Isaiah 9:2). The road forward, the path to freedom, and the way to God become clear. And against all odds, God shatters the yoke that oppressed them and the rod that beat them. 

Their hope for the future crystallizes in the form of a tiny child (Isaiah 9:6), a royal messiah, anointed king, from the line of David (9:7). And with his birth returns the expectation of justice (9:7). This birth enables the community to come together once more, to reap the fruit of their labors, to celebrate what they have accomplished, and to give thanks for what earth and God have provided for their sustenance (9:3). Harvest happens in peacetime, not in wartime. The boots of warriors had trampled their land. Wounds of battle left their garments stained in blood. As flames devour these accoutrements of war, the people welcome in an era of peace (9:5).

The poem thematizes this word “peace,” in Hebrew shālôm, by means of a repetition that marks it as a key feature of the kingdom this child will inaugurate (Isaiah 9:6, 7). It also holds an emphatic position in the child-king’s titles. He is Wonder, Counselor, God-Warrior, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Each of these titles highlights a different aspect of his royal role and rule. In each instance, the title of the king demonstrates the close relationship between king and deity; the king helps to make manifest the deity’s power and providence on earth.

Like the day of Midian, the king’s status as “Wonder” testifies to divine miraculous power and capacity for the unexpected and unprecedented (see also Isaiah 25:1; 29:14). God worked a wonder to enable Sarah to conceive her child, Isaac (Genesis 18:14). God worked signs and wonders to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt (for example, Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 4:34). These wonders made possible the people’s future.

The child’s title “Counselor” underscores the divine gift of wisdom that will guide his plans for nation and people (see also Isaiah 11:2). Earlier in the book of Isaiah, this role of counselor is critical for ensuring that Jerusalem is a city of justice and faithfulness (1:26).

“God-Warrior” or “Mighty God” calls attention to God’s own role in protecting God’s people, fighting on their behalf as on the day of Midian. Indeed, at Isaiah 10:21, it is God’s own title (see also Isaiah 42:13). While it seemingly elevates the king’s political and military authority to a divine level, it might better be viewed as a delegated or representative role, whereby the king functions as an agent of God’s deliverance and salvation on earth.

The child is also named “Everlasting Father.” “Father” is an odd thing to call a child. It likens the king’s leadership over the nation to leadership over a family and household (see also Isaiah 22:21). The eternal character of this relationship links the child across time to every king that has preceded him on the throne of David and to all who will follow him. An eternal father implies children in perpetuity. The title thus promises that the people will continue to flourish through the centuries.

The final, climactic title, “Prince of Peace,” does more than herald the cessation of war. “Peace,” or shālôm, also means wholeness, health, and well-being. This is the telos. The child’s rule is for the purpose of the people’s flourishing. Peace will be brought about not through conquest, but through just polity and the practices of righteousness.

The guarantor of this future is none other than God (Isaiah 9:7).