Comfort and Joy in the Old Testament 3.

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

The prophet foretells the coming of the Saviour

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

When we read the bible looking for universal truths, applicable to our own lives, our own times, we sometimes forget that the texts we are reading were written in particular places at particular times, far away and long ago. The book of the prophet Isaiah is named after a man who lived in the eighth century BC (‘before Christ’) Isaiah ben (son of) Amoz. At that time, the people of the bible (our Old Testament) were divided between two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah – centred on Jerusalem – in the south. Not only were the kingdoms divided, at times they were also at war with each other. In Isaiah’s day, the expanding world power was the Assyrian Empire. When the Assyrians planned to conquer both Israel and Judah, amongst others, the king of Israel and the king of Syria tried to enlist Ahaz the king of Judah in an alliance against Assyria. That failed, and Israel and Syria joined forces against Judah in an attempt to replace Ahaz with a king who was more amenable. Ahaz turned to Assyria for help against Israel and Syria, and Judah (the southern kingdom) became a vassal to Assyria.

The Assyrian Empire invaded Syria, and then Israel, which fell in 722 BC. When the Assyrian ruler was killed in battle, Ahaz’s son, king Hezekiah, rebelled against Assyria trying to take advantage of the power struggle going on. Hezekiah made an alliance with the Babylonian empire against the Assyrians, and tried to get Egypt to step in and help him. The king of Assyria conquered Judah, but left Jerusalem alone on the condition that Hezekiah paid tribute.

In the following century, the Assyrian empire weakened, and it was the Babylonians who were in the ascendant. The Babylonians destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and took on Egypt, with poor old Judah stuck in the middle. In the year 605 BC, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptian pharaoh, Neco, and Babylon became top dog.

The king of Judah was now Zedekiah. He rebelled against Babylon, and as a result, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, and took much of its population into exile in Babylon.

Fast forward to the C6th BC. Another great empire arises, the Persians, under king Cyrus. The Persians defeated Babylon, and Cyrus was declared king. One of the things that Cyrus did was to allow exiled peoples to return to their homes, including the Jews who would rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple.

Now, this is not a history lesson – there won’t be a test at the end – and you’ll understand that I don’t carry this stuff around in my head all the time; I’ve had to look it up! But the historical events described form the background to the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah ben Amoz himself lived through the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah, but the book takes on a life of its own under subsequent prophets, interpreters, and editors, reflecting on his wisdom and insights in the light of their historical experience – of exile and restoration.

In chapter 7 of the book of Isaiah, we read that king Ahaz was so afraid of the Impending attack from the kings of Israel and Syria that “his heart shook like the trees of the forest” on a windy day (Isaiah 7.2).

So, the LORD said to Isaiah, Go out and meet Ahaz, and tell him not to be afraid of “these two smouldering stumps of firebrands”, and to warn him, that if he does not “stand firm in faith”, he “shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7.9) He tells Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies (the Assyrians).

To encourage him, Isaiah says Ahaz should ask God for a sign. Ahaz, being a pious chap, refuses because he “will not put the LORD to the test”. Which is a good answer, but if God is the one offering the sign, maybe you should agree?

Isaiah says, like it or not, God will give Ahaz a sign:

the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel

Isaiah 7.14

So now you know where that comes from. Matthew quotes it (from the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, which uses the word ‘virgin’ rather than ‘young woman’) in his telling of the nativity story (Matthew 1.23). Immanuel means “God is with us”. Its an encouraging sign for Ahaz, if he has the courage to receive it. He doesn’t. And the prophet foresees a time of gloom and darkness until Ahaz is replaced by a new king in the line of King David.

What does Isaiah see after the gloom and darkness?

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this

Isaiah 9.2,6,7

So, in Isaiah, we see a message of hope, of comfort and joy, but not yet. First, there will be darkness, deep darkness. But beyond that, if you can just hold on, there is light. It may be at the end of a tunnel, but there is light.

It would be nice to think that Christmas would mean an end to the darkness that we have all experienced this year. But that doesn’t look likely. The message of Christmas is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. So, hold on. Hold on!

Most of my research for this piece comes from Marvin A Sweeney’s introduction to and commentary on Isaiah in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fifth Edition Copyright (c) 2018 by Oxford University Press USA. And then there’s always Wikipedia, of course.

You can see the video of this reflection here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.