Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4
For all of the complexities and uncertainties surrounding these verses, the message is quite clear: trust that God’s work is liberating always, even in the midst of trouble and difficult circumstances.
The Book of Isaiah is infamously a complex and composite text, meaning scholarship generally agrees that the complete book is the work of at least three—and likely more—authors and editors. Determining the primary historical context for any given portion is a challenge. At the same time, such multivalency lends itself to a reader or proclaimer today: Isaiah speaks of an enduring light that liberates us from the “dark” in all times and spaces.
Regarding the complexities, the boundaries of the text require attention. Isaiah 9:1 (8:23 in the Hebrew Masoretic Text) is decidedly problematic, with scholars debating whether the verse belongs in chapter 8 or as the start of chapter 9. The Hebrew terms of “darkness” (Hebrew ḥashekhah), “gloom” (me‘uph), and “anguish” (tsuqah) in 8:20-22 are repeated in Isaiah 9:1, indicating that the verse concludes chapter 8. On the other hand, the shift in verb conjugation from imperfective (in other words, consecutive forms) to perfective in 9:1 may suggest that the verse is a prose introduction to the more poetic verses in chapter 9 (verses 2–7).
Adding complexity is this passage’s connection to the New Testament. The author of Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1–2a, associating it with Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee in 4:15–16. From this, we can assume that at least some early Christian interpreters associated 9:1 with the rest of chapter 9, rather than as a conclusion to chapter 8.
As a sort of middle ground in the debate, many scholars regard Isaiah 9:1 as a later gloss, where it serves as a transition between chapters 8 and 9. The place names in 9:1 may be further evidence that the verse is a gloss, as they refer to annexed territories that Judah later sought to incorporate.1 In any case, chapters 8 and 9 likely relate to one another in more ways than one, and both chapters mark the end of a larger section of text that began in chapter 6.
In its earliest historical context, Isaiah 1-12 is a distinct unit addressing the rise and fall of Assyrian imperial power. Chapters 6-9 specifically highlight the Syro-Ephraimite War and the anti-Assyrian coalition, formed by King Pekah of Israel (Ephraim) and King Resin of Syria (Aram). Thinking that they stood a better chance against Assyria with Judah’s alliance, Pekah and Resin sought to strong-arm Ahaz into joining their coalition. The conflict between these three sparks the Syro-Ephraimite conflict, and ultimately sets in motion the downfall of Israel by Assyria.
In the midst of this political conflict, Isaiah of Jerusalem brings his theological perspective: Ahaz need not choose merely between the anti-Assyrian coalition and Assyria itself, but should put his hope in God who promises a sign. The sign is a child who shall be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). For Ahaz and the earliest recipients of Isaiah’s words, the birth announcement of another Judean king (likely Hezekiah) gave reason for hope.
Multiple references to the “house of David” (Isaiah 7:2, 13; 9:7) in the larger context of chapters 6–9 highlight that one of the primary concerns for Judah in the 8th century and later (considering the re-situation of this passage for later audiences under threat from Babylon) was the Davidic dynasty. The concern for a successor was therefore paramount; the emphasis on a “child” would be picked up by these later editors and given the eschatological or messianic undertone that accompanies references to this passage at Advent in the Christian calendar.
Considering this passage (and even its larger context) during Epiphany, however, calls us to focus not on any specific child, but on what the child signifies. In the midst of political instability, shaky alliances, uncertain futures, Isaiah reminds Ahaz (and all those who encounter the text), Immanuel—God is with us. What is more, God’s presence is a shining light, piercing whatever darkness we encounter.
Isaiah 9:1–4 does not refer to Immanuel specifically; rather, the text gives evidence of God’s presence and the repetition of Hebrew khi (“for”) offers reasons that the people should have hope. As noted earlier, the use of perfective verbal forms in verses 2–4 also provide an enduring quality to the statements. The reversal of darkness in 9:2 has connections to 5:30, with darkness in that case signifying the Assyrian invasion.
Verses 3 and 4 dip into the recesses of biblical imagery to connect hope and liberation with the enduring heritage of Israel. References to the multiplication of the “nation” (Hebrew goy) in verse 3 hearkens back to the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:2; 15:5; 22:17; 26:4), and Deuteronomy 12 (verses 7, 12, 18) prescribes rejoicing during the harvest. Rejoicing “when dividing plunder” in verse 3 was a practice following victory in battle (Judges 5:30; 1 Samuel 30:16; see also Psalm 119:162). The “day of Midian” in verse 4 recalls Judges 6-7—the encounter with Gideon, the Israelites, and the Midianites—in which the angel of the LORD appears to Gideon, saying, “the LORD is with you” (6:12). For Isaiah, these references to Israel’s past serves as a hermeneutical key for their current troubles: God is—and always has been—with us.
In the end, whether we read this as advice to a king, as a word of hope to survivors of Babylonian exile, as a call for inclusion of Gentiles in a specific region (per Matthew’s gospel) or some combination, Isaiah’s message of hope rings out. During the season of Epiphany, the message from Isaiah is this: a Light is piercing the darkness and always has been, that Light liberates us from oppressors in many times and places. Finally, in the context of Isaiah, and as a Epiphanic message, that Light is not only a foretold child—that Light is Immanuel. The message of Isaiah 9:1-4, for all of its complexity, is a reminder that God is with us always.
- These territories were part of Tiglath-pileser’s annexation of Israel following the invasion in 722 BCE: Duru or Dor (“the way of the sea”), Gal’azu or Gilead (“land beyond the Jordan”), and Magidu or Megiddo (“Galilee of the nations”).
January 22, 2023