An Explosion of Light
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9.1-2)
Isaiah uttered his prophecy in a day of deep, unrelenting darkness. When I was first reading through the Old Testament as a relatively new believer, I found that large sections of this Isaiah’s prophecy, and most of the prophets for that matter, depressed me. These prophecies contain large segments of oracles of God’s judgement on an unfaithful wife, Israel. They use graphic imagery to describe her flagrant unfaithfulness. She has become, according to Ezekiel, worse than a prostitute, because at least prostitutes receive monetary compensation for what they do. (Ezekiel 16.30-35) It is a mental image that twists the stomach in knots, but it is an image that the Word of the living God brings us face-to-face with. Isaiah compares Israel to someone who is sick with wickedness from head to toe, he compares this nation to Sodom and Gomorrah in their rebellion. (Isaiah 1) Because of this spiritual darkness, the Lord God will send terror upon them. “For behold, the Lord God of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water.” (Isaiah 3.1) Spiritual darkness is met in judgment with the dark powerful forces of Assyria and Babylon, coming to consume the land through besiegement and captivity. This is a bleak picture that would have thrown its original hearers into a panic, had they believed it.
Throughout this prophecy of Isaiah, there are beams of Gospel-light that God shines that pierce the darkness. Isaiah 2 and the promise of the future Mountain of the Lord that replaces this temple Mount is one of those rays of light. Isaiah 7.14 and God’s Word to Ahaz that He will give a sign in the form of a virgin bearing a son and calling his name Immanuel is another. As the book of Isaiah goes on and the judgement becomes darker and darker, widening out from focusing on the nations of Israel and Judah to swallow the whole earth, the light of God’s promises also gets brighter and brighter. In the passage above, we have a picture of the light of the Messiah’s coming swallowing the darkness whole.
Being the northernmost tribes settled in the land of Israel, which at this time was divided as the northern Kingdom of Israel, these lands were the first to suffer the darkness of Assyrian invasion. Assyria descended on these lands with unrelenting violence and barbarism, all consequences of God’s sever judgment upon His faithless bride. The King of Assyria and his sword are pictured as the Euphrates river overflowing its banks and consuming the lands around it. This judgement will totally consume the northern Kingdom of Israel, starting with Zebulun and Naphtali, and it will even sweep into Judah and threaten the Southern Kingdom as well. “Therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah..” (Isaiah 8.7-8) The darkness is thick.
In the midst of darkness, the words of promise come: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea.. Galilee of the nations.” The lands sitting in spiritual darkness because of their idolatry, brought under the darkness of God’s judgement because of it, are the first to have the light of the Messiah shine on them. When Jesus gained victory over Satan in the wilderness, the first place He went to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, call His disciples, heal the sick, and cast out demons was Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles. (Matthew 4.12-25)
You may wonder why we are looking at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry in a series on the Advent. The answer is because these words, quoted by Matthew at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, are the first words of perhaps one of the most famous Christmas prophecies! In order to savor all of the goodness in this prophecy, we need to understand the context of judgement in Isaiah’s day, and why the hope of the Messiah dawning on these lands would have been comforting to the original audience. These listeners were about to have everything that they knew and loved torn from them. Many of them were about to be brutally killed or forced into slavery by a pagan King. This could lead them to the question: Isn’t Yahweh King in Israel? Why would He allow this to happen to us? Will He leave us in this state forever? The answer is no. God will answer them with the brilliant light of His coming Messiah. He will dawn on them, cleanse them from their sins and diseases, trample Satan in their land, and preach the good news of His coming Kingdom to them. The King of Assyria may be coming, but the Messiah is also coming, and He brings an unconquerable Kingdom. In the next installments of this series we will look at the various ways this Messiah is described, meditating on the Names given to Him as we worship Him.