This study of Isaiah 9:1-7 is a continuation of a series of studies on preaching from the Old Testament. These studies are derived from a series of Advent sermons preached at Trinity Baptist Church of Chicago, the church where I have served as pastor since 1989.
1 But there will be no gloom for those who were 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 will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 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. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, 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 onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
In 734 B.C. Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom and conquered several cities in Israel (2 Kings 15:29). As a result, many people were deported to Assyria and Israel became a vassal state.
The deportation of the Northern tribes produced a crisis of faith in which the people were confronted with the possibilities that God might have abandoned them. This was the worst of times and the best of times. However, the worst of times, a time of “gloom,” of “anguish,” and of “contempt” became the best of times, a time of joy and rejoicing.
During this crisis in their lives, many Israelites doubted God’s goodness and God’s power to save. Some wondered if God’s people would ever again find peace and unity, while others believed that some day God would bring the restoration of the nation under the leadership of a new ruler, a ruler who would be a descendant of David.
The words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-7) are a confession of faith in God and in the future of God’s people. According to the prophet, God would fulfill his promise to David and raise another leader who would bring redemption to Israel. This new king would bring salvation to a hopeless people and liberate them from their enemies and Israel would forever live in peace under the leadership of this new David.
V. 1. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali who lived in the region of Galilee were the first ones to suffer the oppression of the enemy and they would be the first ones to experience the salvation of God.
Galilee of the nations. This region was called “Galilee of the nations” because of the many non-Jews who lived in the area. The prophet uses the words gloom, anguish, and contempt to describe the feelings of the people. These were the people who needed the good news the prophet was proclaiming. These same words also reflect the needs of people today who need the good news of Christ’s birth. He was born and died to save people who face this kind of despondency in their lives.
V. 2. The people’s oppressive experience produced a “darkness of the soul.” The people are pictured as walking in darkness because they were deprived of the worship God in their native country. God is light and those who live without him are in darkness (1 John 1:5-6). Some people were forced to worship Assyrian gods; others were influenced by the non-Jews who lived among them. The expression “deep darkness” is the same word used in Psalm 23:4: the valley of the shadow of death (ESV). The experience of the people in Galilee could be compared to a person who faces the anguish of death.
The people who lived in the time of Christ had nothing good to say about this region: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46; see also Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:70). However, it was in this area where Jesus lived and grew up. Jesus was born among people who were despised and who had no hope. Jesus is the hope of the hopeless.
The light that was shining upon the people was a symbol of life, salvation, and joy. Something happened in those days that produced hope in the lives of people, and that hope was reflected in their great joy (v.3). The light that was shining upon them was the presence of God among his people.
V. 3. The first part of the verse probably speaks of the increased Gentile population in Galilee. All of them rejoiced in what God was doing. You have increased its joy. The reading of the King James Version should be rejected here: not increased the joy. The reading of the KJV is based on a secondary reading of the text.
God is the one doing the work: The word You appears three times in the text. The salvation of men and women is not accomplished by human work, but by the direct intervention of God.
V. 4. After the Assyrian conquest, the people of Israel were placed under the burden of tribute and forced labor. The word oppressor refers to the economic oppression and the servitude imposed upon the people. All these burdens will be removed in the same way burdens were removed in the days of Gideon (Judges 6:1-8:35).
V. 5. God’s intervention will eliminate the threat of war. In one great battle the enemies of God’s people will be conquered and the soldier’s equipment used in war will be destroyed or made irrelevant.
V. 6. The reason for the great joy among the people was the birth of a child. The reference to the son that was born is a reference to the enthronement of a new king, probably Hezekiah. The day of the ascension of David’s descendant upon the throne was the day the king became the son of God by adoption (see Psalm 2:7).
The titles given to the new king are the ideals to be achieved by any son of David. However, no human king ever attained these ideals. So, these ideals were taken from the human king and transferred to a future king of Israel, God’s anointed, Jesus Christ.
Wonderful Counselor. This title expresses the wisdom required of the king to guide and direct his people.
Mighty God (or “Mighty Warrior”). This title refers to the power and the fullness of God the king needed to defend and protect his people.
Everlasting Father. This title refers to the king as the one who guided his people with fatherly love in the same way God loves and cares for his people.
Prince of Peace. This title reflects the king as the one who brought wholeness to everyone, leading them to find their destiny in the fullness of God.
V. 7. The new king would be a good king like David and rule his people as the ideal king (see Psalm 72).
In preparing a sermon from this passage, the text should be coupled with either John 1:1-5 or John 8:12-20 or both.
In preparing a sermon from this text, the following titles are possible:
Advent: The Worst of Times and the Best of Times
Advent: Deep Darkness and Wonderful Light
Introduce the text by familiarizing the congregation with the Assyrian invasion and the aftermath of the war: deportation to Assyria, death of thousands, destruction of property. Explain the consequences of exile and deportation.
The first section of the sermon should introduce both the worst of times and the best of times for Israel. The worst of times (or deep darkness): the experience of gloom, anguish, and contempt people feel when they are suffering, when they are rejected. Speak about the oppression people faced then and now: spiritual, economic, and physical oppression. Describe what it means to live without hope.
Israel’s “best of times” was the arrival of the new king. Discuss the hopes people had for a good king. Explain his titles and what was expected of the king according to Psalm 72. Although Hezekiah was a good king, he was only human, unable to rule in justice and righteousness. The light people saw was only a prelude to a great eclipse. Soon darkness was over the land again until the true light that enlightens every person came into the world (John 1:9).
The second section of the sermon should introduce both the worst of times and the best of times for people today. Speak of the anguish, the loneliness, the gloom, the oppression of people today. Compare this with walking in darkness, with living without hope, with being alone. Then introduce the best of times: Jesus Christ, the light of the world that came to provide light to those who live in darkness. Here you should emphasize walking in darkness in Isaiah 9:1 and Jesus’ promise in John 8:12. Jesus said: “I am the light of the world- whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Also, use the play on light and darkness in John 1:1-5. Tell the congregation what happens when Jesus becomes the light of our lives. Paul said: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).
The third section or the conclusion of the sermon should be an invitation for people to come and enjoy the best of times: life in Christ. Or the conclusion could be an invitation for people to abandon darkness, anguish, gloom, and despair and walk in the light and enjoy the fulness of life in Christ.
Jesus came to dispel darkness. Whatever problems might be casting deep darkness in the hearts and minds of the people in your congregation, the true light that enlightens every person can transform their darkness into light.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Other studies in this series: