Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4 Commentary
In the northern hemisphere this time of year is characterized, in part, by darkness. While daylight is already beginning to push that darkness farther and farther back, people sometimes think of January as one of the darkest and, as a result, bleakest seasons of the year.
That’s part of what makes Isaiah 9 an appropriate text for this Sunday. It too, after all, begins in darkness. It’s not just that the prophet speaks of the people who are “walking in darkness” (2). It’s also that God promises to plunge the Israelites into at least figurative darkness as a response to their spiritual adultery (8:19-20). In fact, the prophet speaks of darkness not once but four times in just four short verses (8:21-9:2).
When Isaiah speaks these words, it’s probably about the 9th century B.C. It’s a dark time for Judah. The gluttonous Assyrian Empire has already devoured the ten tribes of Israel and scattered its people. The surviving two tribes in Judah constantly fret that they’re the next course on Assyria’s menu. As a colleague notes, in the context of such a threat, even the daylight can feel like darkness.
Isaiah 9’s images of life in that darkness are chilling. They describe threat, oppression and violence. After all, the prophet speaks of life in darkness as “living in the land of the shadow of death” (2). He also refers to “the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (4). What’s more, Isaiah mentions a “warrior’s boot used in battle [and a] … garment rolled in blood” (5).
This gives those who preach or teach Isaiah 9 an opportunity to explore how such images also characterize life in the 21st century. They might describe some of the tyrants and oppressive governments that make so many people so miserable. This text’s teachers and preachers might refer to the violence that plagued North American cities like Chicago in 2016.
Yet as Craig Barnes notes, darkness plagues even the middle and upper class people whom we teach and preach to. Darkness, he says, “Is what our newspapers describe. It is what the lab report depicts when it finds a disease in our body. Darkness is what many young adults feel about their economic prospects, and it is what remains in our hearts after we have been hurt.”
We do what we can to try to chase the darkness away. We elect new politicians and send soldiers to chase despots off their thrones. We hire more policemen and build larger prisons to try control the violence that stalks our neighborhood. But, to riff on a cliché, we have seen the darkness … and it is ours. We do what we can to scatter it. Yet many of us have a growing sense that only someone or something outside of ourselves will finally be able to chase away the gloom in which we live.
Thankfully, then, Isaiah speaks a word of dazzling light into Israel’s and every other darkness that has plagued our world. That word is largely a song of praise addressed to God by the prophet on behalf of God’s Israelite people. It thanks God for God’s gracious actions.
However, modern translators believe the prophet uses a curious combination of verb tenses to describe those actions. After all, some are in the past tense. For example, the prophet says, in verse 3, “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy” (italics added). “You have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (4).
In other cases, however, translators believe Isaiah speaks in the present tense. For example: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given” (italics added – v.5). In still other cases the prophet seems to speak in the future tense, as in, “The government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor” (6).
Those who preach and teach Isaiah 9 should at least acknowledge this unusual mixture of verb tenses. Yet perhaps we need to say little more than biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim’s, Isaiah’s “confidence related to the future is grounded in the divine action of the past.”
The prophet introduces the agent of this change with a threefold use of the word “for” (vv. 4, 5 & 6 – although the NIV doesn’t translate that in v.4). God, he promises, will break the bonds that enslave people and transform the weaponry used in such oppression.
We might expect God to use a great warrior or mighty politician to effect this dramatic reversal. Yet the prophet makes no such claim. Instead he insists, “To us child is born.” Isaiah gives this young transformer a number of striking names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (6).
So this Child is both a dispenser of wisdom about the best way to live in God’s world and someone who’s mighty enough to push away the darkness that engulfs so much of our world. This Child also both goes with us wherever we go and ushers in the peace for which we long but now seems so scarce.
But, as with Isaiah’s suffering servant, the exact identity of Isaiah 49’s child is not completely clear to the prophet’s 21st century audience. Many scholars point to the prophet’s extensive use of royal motifs. So they wonder if Isaiah 9 is some kind of ritual for the enthronement of Davidic kings.
Of course, prompted in no small part by George Frederic Handel’s brilliance, the organizers of the Lectionary seem to see Isaiah 9 as pointing to the birth and work of David’s descendant, Jesus. Neither they nor we seem deterred by the fact that the New Testament makes no use of Isaiah 9’s images, to say nothing of linking them to Jesus.
Perhaps our text’s preachers and teachers can land in this debate somewhere near Terrence Fretheim lands. He suggests that in light of the ongoing failure of David’s descendants to rule Israel well, Isaiah is probably speaking of a coming king.
Hezekiah, whom some scholars think of Isaiah’s primary referent, provides an appetizer of this coming king in ways none of David’s other royal descendants did. However, Jesus Christ most fully fills the roles the prophet assigns in verses 4-9.
Yet perhaps, as with the debate about the suffering servant’s identity, Isaiah 9’s preachers and teachers are wisest when we focus on what God does and promises to do through this unidentified child instead of trying to identify him. Certainly there’s enough beauty and hope portrayed in this text to last those who present it for a very long time.
After all, Isaiah speaks of God bringing light into the varied darkness that plagues and haunts God’s whole creation. He describes the kind of joy that is part of the most appropriate response to God’s might work and works, yet sometimes is in such short supply even in God’s people.
The prophet describes the freedom from oppression that God promises to give through God’s mighty son. He also lays out a vision of peace for a world that’s so often soaked in blood. Isaiah even speaks of God’s instituting the kind of justice and righteousness that seems like an endangered specie in the 21st century.
That’s a vision that all of God’s adopted sons and daughters can get on board with. Yet it’s not just a promise of what God is determined to do in and for our world. It’s not just something the zeal of the Lord will carry out. It’s also a kind of job description for those whom the Spirit empowers to follow the Child who grew up to be not just our Savior, but also our Lord.
In Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark’s meetings with the chiefs of many Indian tribes. They always included in their presentations to the Indians a plea for peace among the various tribes. That idea that came from President Jefferson was that the Western territories would be far more appealing to white settlers and travelers if the Indians weren’t warring.
But there were problems in talking to Indians about peace. In what’s present-day North Dakota, the Hidatsa tribe, for example, apparently couldn’t grasp the concepts of “war” and “peace.” Their experience for years had been pretty straightforward. Periodically, their young braves would get restless. They were “spurred by their desire for glory and honor, which could be won only on raids, which always brought on revenge raids, in a regular cycle.”
So the white explorers who encouraged the Indians to pursue peace might as well have told them to stop the spring rain. After all, as one young brave asked, if they quit hostilities, what would the tribe do for chiefs? Since chiefs died every so often and needed to be replaced, they assumed the only way of selecting new chiefs was to see who were the bravest warriors.
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