Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4
Epiphany is a season that celebrates God’s manifestation in the world through the person of Jesus Christ. When the divine becomes manifest in the world, then strange and marvelous things happen.
In the Old Testament, the people of God experience these divine in-breakings in many ways. In some cases, the divine is described as a natural disturbance or a violent storm. The stories about Mount Sinai, for example, depict the Lord making a covenant with Israel in the midst of thunder and lightning (Exodus 20:18). However, in another biblical tradition, God comes to Elijah in the presence of a profound silence (1 Kings 19:12). In whatever form, these experiences of the divine usually represent a disruption of the present order, as God’s purpose becomes revealed in the created realm. In Isaiah 9:1–4, God’s manifestation is experienced as a radical reversal. The prophet uses images of light and darkness to characterize a contrast–a dramatic change in the fortunes of the people of God. A light has shined upon a people who once dwelled in darkness.
Isaiah 9:1–4 is part of a larger unit that extends to 9:7. Verses 6–7, which are excluded from today’s lectionary passage, include the birth proclamation of a great king who will establish justice in the land. These final verses provide the climax to the prophetic oracle and emphasize the hope of the people in this coming leader. Without the concluding lines, Isaiah 9:1–4 emphasizes the radical reversal that Israel will experience. Thus, the passage focuses our attention not on the promised child in vv. 6–7 but on the Lord’s deliverance and how that deliverance produces a changed condition for the people of God. In its present form, the structure of this text has two parts. Verses 1–2 describe the radical shift for the people’s situation through the contrast of darkness and light. Verses 3–4 emphasize how the Lord’s work has produced joy for the people since the Lord has delivered them from the hands of their oppressor.
The first section of this passage, vv. 1–2, summarizes the radical reversal that the people experience. The historical setting of Isaiah 9 is Assyrian occupation. By the last third of the eighth century B.C.E., the empire of Assyria subdued much of the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet Isaiah recognizes this reality, describing the people’s initial situation as one of “anguish,” when the Lord “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” Both of these tribes are associated with the northern region of Galilee as the last part of this verse suggests. The prophet declares, however, that this oppressive situation for the north will be transformed as the Lord makes this “way of the sea” glorious. The harsh realities of a life lived under an oppressive regime will be broken as the Lord intervenes.
In v. 2, the drastic change summarized in the previous verse finds expression through the images of light and darkness. Light is a metaphor that is often used in the Old Testament and the ancient Near East to describe the rule of a righteous king. Justice and divine protection are characteristics of such a reign. The prophet declares that this people who were once in darkness will see a great light. (The oppressive rule of Assyria will be Isaiah 9:7). The idea of light overcoming darkness was a prominent theme in the previous weeks of Advent. In that season and in this text, this radical transformation signals the in-breaking of God’s reign, a divine rule that signals both the end of an oppressive rule and deliverance for the people of God.
Verses 3–4 describe the effects of the Lord’s reversal upon the people. The Lord causes them to multiply and flourish, increasing their joy. The prophet uses two images of abundance at the end of verse 3 to describe the people’s response to the Lord’s work of deliverance. The first image likens the people’s reaction to the joy experienced at the end of the harvest. The second evokes images of victory at the end of war as the people rejoice in the collecting of spoils from the battle. Both images reflect abundance and joy, which are contrasted with the descriptions of their initial state of darkness and anguish under Assyrian rule.
The prophet extends the theme of battle in v. 4, evoking ideas of holy war. Isaiah brings the tradition of Midian to the mind of his audience. In this story, found in Judges 6–8, Gideon defeats the Midianites with only a small band of men. In holy war ideology, the Lord is portrayed as a divine warrior who fights on behalf of Israel. The people are not responsible on their own to accomplish the victory, but the battle belongs to the Lord. Thus, the Lord breaks the yoke of bondage that is upon Israel, overturning the social order. The tyranny of oppressor is defeated as God delivers God’s people from their humiliated state. In these last two verses, the people experience the Lord’s reversal as an inversion of the present order. This is great news for those who live in oppression but bad news for the empire.
The images of holy war are thick in this passage and may cause some to shy away from preaching on this text. However, one must remember the context of Israel’s political life. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were small vassal states within Assyria’s vast empire. In this context, the theology of holy war represents the idea that God sides with the underprivileged and oppressed–the proverbial underdog. When tyranny is present in the existing order, the Lord’s in-breaking presence becomes manifest in the overturning of unjust social structures. Those who once dwelled in anguish will experience the joy of God’s abundance. Darkness gives way to light.