Isaiah In Context
We quote Jeremiah 33:3 as our life verse but we don’t know beans about the context.Dr. Bob Woodard, Biblical Interpretation Class at Welch College, Fall 2000
It may be a more quoted verse than just about any in the New Testament around Christmastime every year, especially if you take out Matthew 1 and Luke 2. And justifiably so. Isaiah 9:6 perfectly captures the heart of the birth of Jesus–the birth of God himself. His nature, his purpose, his titles. All of these things matter to our salvation. Which is why Christmas matters at all.
But no passage of Scripture was ever meant to be understood without context. Context changes things. If I told you the Chic-fil-A drive-thru took 10 minutes and the McDonald’s one took 7 minutes, you would think McDonald’s is faster. But what if I told you CFA had 22 cars in the drive-thru while McDonald’s had four? That would change your perception of drive-true speed.
And biblically there are layers of context to consider: the immediate context (surrounding verses), the genre of the book (we shouldn’t interpret poetry and narrative the exact same way), the context of the whole Bible (Romans and Leviticus will never contradict each other), the historical and cultural setting (What is the Babylonian Captivity?), etc. The first one of those is the one I want to consider and meditate on from Isaiah 9:6 today.
Because even though it makes a great meme or quote in a children’s play, the Bible doesn’t just prophecy Jesus’s birth and his attributes in Isaiah 9. It gives us the circumstances into which that prophecy was made. And I submit the Gospel is magnified a thousand times we understand and contemplate the verses that surround Isaiah 9:6.
First, the verses just before Isaiah 9:6 are an essential part of understanding it, because Isaiah 9:2 is clearly attributed to Christ in the New Testament. This is how Matthew 4 quotes Isaiah 9:1-2:
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Matthew 4:12-17
A few things worthy to note: First, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy down to the very geography mentioned in Isaiah 9, and to the Gentiles!1. Secondly, he was clearly the “great light” that had “dawned” on “people living in darkness” and “those living in the land of the shadow of death”. This title for Christ is repeated numerous times in the New Testament (Luke 2:32; John 1:4-9, 3:19-21, 8:12, 9:5, 12:35-46; Acts 9:3-9; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 1 John 1:5-7)2. Light only has value if vanquishes darkness.
Thirdly, people come out of darkness and to the light by repenting. Even though that word is not used, that is the idea behind Matthew 5:13-16 saying that we should let our light shine before men, so they will see our good works and glorify God in Heaven. But Christ’s light is ultimately what leads dark men to repent.
Isaiah 9:3-5 explains that the nation, Israel, will flourish and be filled with joy. This is what happens because of the light of Isaiah 9:2 coming; because the child of Isaiah 9:6 was born. This happens, in short, because of Jesus3. And the people’s repentance in response to him.
Specifically, this happens because the Light and Prophesied Child annihilates their foes, utterly and finally. The way Gideon and his army of 300 took out the Midianite army of 100,000. By God’s power and wisdom instead of human power and wisdom.
The darkness of our corrupted, evil world is conquered because of the light in this very real sense. When I read the descriptions of the child in Isaiah 9:6 and even those in Isaiah 9:7 I am thoroughly convinced that sin, death, and Hell are all in view, as to what this light/child will destroy. And this is not only a future hope for things like eternal life with God after death, but a present assurance that God’s people can live with victory over these things right now.
And that’s why the people can rejoice in Isaiah 9:3. As people who have waited for a harvest rejoice. As people who have won a battle and get the spoils of victory rejoice. God’s people waited thousands of years for the Messiah to be born. Thousands of years in the darkness.
And just that much would be enough context to Isaiah 9:6 to give the prophecy a special, deeper meaning. But I want to go back even further, to the last half of Isaiah 8, and the first phrase of Isaiah 9:1, because studying those as they relate to Isaiah 9:6 blows me away even more.
Isaiah 8:11 commands God’s people not to think like those who are afraid of and believe everything other than God. As such they rejected God’s tender care and they would receive his wrath. This is God’s Word and his people were to remember it and wait on Him. By contrast, because those who did not follow God (by repentance) were just the opposite, God tells Isaiah:
Someone may say to you, “Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.” But shouldn’t people ask God for guidance? Should the living seek guidance from the dead?
Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark. They will go from one place to another, weary and hungry. And because they are hungry, they will rage and curse their king and their God. They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness.
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…Isaiah 8:19-9:1
Marvel at the context into which the Light of the Christ child was born!
Jesus wasn’t born for the picture-perfect people, singing Christmas hymns dressed up on Sunday, or hearing Isaiah 9:6 quoted at a Christmas play. Though those things are good. He was born for people “completely in the dark”. Those confused, angry, bitter people, who look up to curse God and their government. People who then look to Hollywood, social media, and wealth only to find more distress, fear, and gloom. People consumed by trouble, anguish, and dark despair. Those who find themselves thrust into complete darkness.
Does any biblical description sound more accurate for America in 2023?
And here’s the part that blows me away: the promise of Isaiah 9:1 to those who know only the darkness of Isaiah 8:20-22 is this: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress“. Because of Isaiah 9:2-7! Do the “people living in darkness” in Isaiah 9:2 mean something different now? Does the rejoicing of Isaiah 9:3 seem richer? The light has come and the child is born to save the worst and darkest of lost humanity.
Amazing! What a promise! What a light! What a child! What a God!
This is the Gospel. And it’s all illuminated magnificently by the context of Isaiah 9:6.
I feel like I must add that the church is described by Peter as those called out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light. This is why I think Matthew in 4:17 was quick to add in response to Isaiah 9:2 that Jesus from that time on began to preach repentance. The light of that first Christmas with a baby in a manger does not help if people do not respond to that call. Those in oppressive darkness must repent to know the victory of Isaiah 9:3-5. To know both eternal life in Heaven and abundant life on earth. The “light and life” only Christ can give (John 1:4, Psalm 27:1).
I imagine when we think of Isaiah 9:6 in the American Church, it often conjures up images of the Nativity: baby in the manger, animals everywhere, with Mary and Joseph and shepherds surrounding, snow falling, and “Silent Night” playing in the background.
This is not bad. At all. It’s a healthy image of Christmas in a corrupt, chaotic world.
But I advocate this Christmas for Isaiah 9:6 to make us think of Matthew 4. Of repentance. Of Gideon and Judges 6. Of those in our culture who experience outrage at everything and seem a million miles from God. Of those who don’t know their right hand from their left. Of what darkness—real, spiritual darkness—looks like. Because only then can THE LIght truly be understood. And we can understand our purpose from Matthew 5:13-16. Which, by the way, follows teachings on persecution.
My 4-year-old son Liam has noticed that his flashlight isn’t very effective if the lights are on, or during the daytime. He wants it to be as dark as possible to see it work. Is it possible that the light of American Christianity isn’t effective because we avoid those angry, confused people who live in complete darkness? Jesus did not. And Isaiah 9:6 predicted he wouldn’t.
So you may need the peace and serenity of the nativity image of the first Chistmas. But I dare say many of us need less time with other mature Christians and more with Isaiah 8:20-22 people. Because Jesus was born for those people. And our light cannot matter unless it vanquishes darkness.
- This matters deeply because it proves God cares about the whole world and this Jewish Messiah wasn’t just for the Jews. This is why our Christmas hymns reference nations (a word interchangeable with “Gentiles”) so frequently: “Joyful all ye nations rise,” “And makes the nations prove,” “Desire of Nations” (mentioned in two hymns), etc. Jesus coming for Gentiles was so offensive that Jews tried to kill him in Luke 4 because he pointed out two Old Testament stories where God favored Gentiles. And Jesus exalted Gentiles, as with the Roman Centurian’s faith, and there are numerous prophecies about Jesus coming for Gentiles. Not only with Isaiah 9:2 in Matthew 4, but Isaiah 42:1-4 in Matthew 12. There is no way to understand the Gospel, or the New Testament, without understanding how significant it is that Jesus came for the whole world, and not just his ethnic people. See Romans 14-15 for Paul’s poignant explanation as to why he was a missionary to the Gentiles and what that meant for his Jewish brothers. ↩
- This is also why our Christmas hymns constantly connect Christ’s birth with light: “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2, see Psalm 84:11), “Dayspring” (KJV of Luke 1:78), “And to the earth, it gave great light,” “love’s pure light,” “light and life to all he brings,” etc. This is Isaiah 9:2 connected to Isaiah 9:6. The birth of the child and The Light dawning are the same thing. ↩
- Note how masterfully “O Come O Come Emmanuel” communicates this. It goes straight from mourning in exile to rejoicing, with one mere phrase between: “until the Son of God appears”. ↩
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