Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4
These first few verses of Isaiah 9 contrast sharply the previous states of subjection with God’s current, mighty acts of deliverance.
The back story
The back story is the long-standing domination of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali by foreign states. Because of their locations, both tribes were especially vulnerable to attack. As the northern and southern kingdoms played out their power struggles, both Zebulun and Naphtali had been more or less vassal states to a series of Assyrian kings. Both were eventually taken into captivity during the end of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, leaving them “in anguish” and “contempt.” As pawns of powerful states, their histories were ones of vulnerability, subjection, and oppression.
The land of deep darkness
The land of deep darkness for these conquered people is a land of brutality, a land of poverty and hunger, a land without hope. A conquered people, subject to the whims and demands of overlords, are powerless. Security and safety are stripped away. Every asset will be usurped by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken by the more powerful into slavery. Every field planted with crops can be harvested by the mighty. Every hope for the future is stolen by masters who have the final say. This is the land of deep darkness.
God is deliverer
In the midst of this world of foreign powers and foreign ways comes a shining light. This light does not come from these foreign powers, or even from the people’s efforts. Not the powerful imposters, but God alone is the deliverer here, the ultimate agent at work in the world. Verse 1 makes clear that even their subjection was by God’s agency that “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.” So, too, only God “will make glorious the way to the sea.” The experiences of these tribes are set within the framework of God’s power to bind and to release. In verse 2 they “see a great light” only because, through divine agency, “on them light has shined.” The claim of who has the power is reinforced in verses 3 and 4: “You have multiplied the nation,” “You have increased its joy.” The people have not multiplied themselves or increased their own joy.
The decisive victory that only God can deliver against the enemy is invoked through the image of “the day of Midian.” This refers to the defeat of the Midian army by Gideon. In the well-known account (Judges 6), the people of Israel cried out for deliverance from Midian domination. God sends Gideon, who, with clearly inferior military forces, defeats the Midian army. The victory can only be attributed to the intervention of this mighty God.
The active presence of God, then, is recalled for a people who have been reduced by terror to consulting “ghosts and familiar spirits” (Isaiah 8:19). The verses at the end of chapter 8 warn that such people will see only distress, darkness, and gloom. Instead of placing confidence in superstitious idol-making, the people must turn to God, “the great light.” Our text puts God again at center stage as the one, and the only one, who can bring the people from darkness to light, from oppression to freedom.
In a social context in which kings and rulers wielded almost unlimited power over the lands, lives, and livelihoods of conquered peoples, this insistence on God as the ultimate power re-frames political relationships. No longer do political rulers have the final say. God’s sovereignty trumps theirs.
Epiphany: God’s inbreaking
Epiphany is a time of the inbreaking of God once again in human history. The apparent powers of the world are unmasked, revealed to be a sham for all their bluster and posturing. During Epiphany, we recognize God’s inbreaking in Jesus Christ, setting in stark relief the false, worldly powers that claim so much authority in our lives: success, productivity, dominance, self-reliance. They do not have the last word.
Darkness and light provide images of the pattern of God’s inbreaking and our recognition of it. The image of light is central throughout Advent, as we await the coming of the Light, the Christ Child, while days continue to shorten in the long winter darkness until the solstice. We light Advent candles in anticipation of God’s inbreaking through light. And now, in Epiphany, we celebrate the wise ones who followed the light of a star to the manger, and thereby, recognized the Christ Child.
Darkness and light describe human recognition of the inbreaking of God in Hebrew Scripture well before we get to the prophet Isaiah. Beginning with the inbreaking of God into the formless void, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is evidence of God’s creative work. We see it again in the rainbow that reveals the entire spectrum of light as a sign of God’s covenant (Genesis 9:13), in the burning bush that confronts Moses (Exodus 3:2), and in the pillar of fire that accompanies the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21).
More than sight
This particular representation of God’s presence–light–is powerful because it appeals to an almost universal human experience: being in the dark. In the dark, we can’t see where to step, we can’t see the way. Notice, though, that the light in Isaiah is more than being able to see. It is one thing for God to act. It is another for God’s people to recognize it. When the people are in “the land of deep darkness,” they can’t see how the God who has delivered them in the past is at work in the present, and so they seek protection from other gods. When God acts “to break the rod of the oppressor,” the light shines to make it plain. The people recognize God’s saving presence and rejoice.
Recognition is more than seeing. The people don’t just see a light. They recognize who is acting on their behalf. They rejoice in relief and thanksgiving, as they would at harvest time when survival is ensured. They get it. They know God is with them, here and now. Epiphany.