With Tim Harmon
Each decade of the twentieth century could be marked by some major event or series of events that typified those years. We will probably not all agree on what was most significant, but if I just describe those decades of which I was consciously aware, I would describe the sixties as marked by protest and social upheaval; the seventies as marked by political turmoil and economic malaise; the eighties by the heightening of the cold war and eventually the beginning of the end of the cold war; the nineties by war (Gulf war) and massacres (Rwanda and Yugoslavia). Looking back to the time of Isaiah, the 720’s BC would have been marked by war, economic oppression, and destruction. Right before the beginning of the decade, Damascus, Israel’s main ally against the Assyrians, was defeated, destroyed, and captured, and the Syrian kingdom dissolved– made a province of Assyria. The kingdom of Israel was made a vassal and was forced to pay a high yearly tribute to Assyria. The exact historical backdrop for the prophecies of Isa. 9:1-7 is impossible to determine, but it had to be after the 730’s since that is the background for Isaiah chapters 7 and 8.
Three reasons for joy
Despite the context, the Isaiah passage is actually very upbeat. I wonder if people were skeptical when they first heard this message. How would the French people have reacted if a clergy member had given them a message of joy and hope right after the fall of France to the Nazis? How incongruous would such a message have been on the 14th of December 1941, in the United States? And yet, that is the kind of message we find in Isaiah 9:1-7. Isaiah announces that whereas there is presently gloom and distress, there will come a time when there will be happiness, joy and salvation. He gives three reasons for this joy:
First, The Rod of the Oppressor Will Be Broken. Having experienced the heavy taxes imposed by the Assyrians, freedom from oppression would have sounded great, and yet, a lot more calamity would wash over the people of Israel before this would happen. Samaria would be destroyed, the people would go in to exile, and even the southern kingdom of Judah would be assaulted up to the point of extension, but saved at the last moment by the Lord.
Second, Warfare Will Be Eliminated. Even the very elements of warfare will be done away with. I wonder if some people in Isaiah’s time would have shrugged their shoulders and blown Isaiah off as just another false prophet, as one who promises pie in sky without accounting for the reality that they are encountering every day.
Third, The Promise of a Child – a Future King. This last reason might have even aroused more critics of Isaiah: what could a child do against this mighty foe. Good kings had been part of Judah and yet they all eventually had to yield to the mighty power of the Assyrians. And yet, that is exactly what God had promised to Adam: the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). This is exactly what He had promised to Abraham: through his offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). This is also what the Lord had promised through the prophecy of Jacob given to Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”
Joy in a child?
Our Christmas season is often filled with music that proclaims joy to the world. Joy to the world because of the coming of a child. Why? It is not joy because the baby was so cute, or so innocent, or so beautiful. Isaiah tells us it is because of who that child, that baby, is, as seen in the names given to it: it is (my translation) a miraculous Counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father and a Prince of Peace. These are bewildering titles to give a child: how can the child be a mighty counselor if he cannot yet speak? How can he be mighty God, a term only given to the God of Israel (Deut. 10:17; Isa. 10:21; Jer. 32:18; Neh. 9:32) in the Hebrew Scriptures? How can he be an everlasting father, if he is soon to be born? The fourth title, the prince of peace is at least explained: he will be the Prince of Peace because His kingdom will be marked by peace, and the Prince of Peace will establish that kingdom with Justice and righteousness forever.
Today, as inhabitants of a country where justice is established and one can expect a just judicial system, it might not give us the excitement that one would experience living in a corrupt, unstable and oppressive regime. So, the last title describes what he will do with his life: he will finally establish a rule where justice and righteousness are the norm, and this is not to be a temporary thing, but it will be forever; it will have no end. And he will be able to do this, because this has been the design of God, the zeal of the Lord, from moment one, from the Fall until that time. This text announces that although things might have been bleak and bad at that time, the birth is announced of a Child who will change everything. Isaiah had already given a hint of this in Chapter 7:14. This child would be named Immanuel: God with us.
I am sure Isaiah’s audience might have scratched their heads after hearing these words. When will this be? How will this all come to pass? But for us, living on this side of the coming of Christ, as He came to die for us, and as He rose from the dead on the third day, we can be joyful. We can be joyful, not because our lives are perfect, not because we live a sinless life, but because we, as sinners, can know and experience that He is our righteousness; we can be joyful because He has made reconciliation for us with God and now we are at peace with God; we can be joyful because we know that while we cannot expect complete justice on this earth, He is in control and He reigns with justice. Remember what Isaiah said: “For to us a child is born.” Jesus was born for us. He came to be our Redeemer. He came to set us free from the slavery and the burden of sin, shortcomings, and meanness. He came to take the oppressor away from our shoulder. He came to bring a solution for my, for our sins. He carried those sins on the cross. He wants to be our miraculous Counselor, our mighty God, our everlasting Father, and our Prince of Peace. Let us invite Him, embrace Him and adore Him this Christmas season.
About Jan Verbruggen
Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.