Translation by Josh, Beni, Amos, Peter, and Nate Wilson.
Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church Manhattan KS on Christmas Eve 2017
Let me start with a riddle: What do a Broken Bond, a Burnt Boot, and a Born Baby have in common?
ANSWER: They are the means by which God gives Hope, Greatness, and Happiness!
In Isaiah chapter 9, three great things are prophecied in vs. 1-3, followed by three causes in vs. 4-6.
The three great things prophecied are:
1) a great light in Galilee,
2) a great increase of the people of God, and
3) a great happiness in the presence of God.
These are all things we associate
with Christmas: 1) Christmas lights/Christmas candles,
2) Big Christmas pageants/big Christmas gift sales, and 3) Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noël/ Happy Holidays. Light, Greatness, and Happiness: we all want these things – especially at Christmas. How do we get them?
The three great causes of these three great things are each introduced with the Hebrew word כּי, which means “because” – and most English versions carry it through by beginning verses 4, 5, and 6 with the word “for” (except for the NIV which dropped it out of v.5 entirely).
1) Because the yoke of oppression has been dropped to the ground, totally come apart, and the oppressors will be afraid to ever use it again. (That’s the picture painted by the verb הַחִתּׂתׇ in v.4.)
2) Because the war will be over: army boots and bloodied clothes will be burned because they are useless. (That’s the picture painted in v.5.)
3) Because of the birth of a child, given as a gift to shoulder the burden of government and to reign as king in peace for the rest of eternity. (That’s the picture presented in vs. 6-7.)
Now, I hear and read this passage from Isaiah every Christmas and it has become “old hat” to me. I could probably recite it in my sleep. But it is such a rich passage with such a staggering message that it deserves better treatment – slow meditation to let what it says about Jesus and what He’s up to really sink in, so that’s what I want to do in this sermon – take this passage apart piece by piece and think about what it all means. Actually, I think it will take me two sermons to do this, first to unpack the three great promises – which were not only for Isaiah’s people some three thousand years ago, but they also apply to us today, and then perhaps next Lord’s Day I can unpack the three causes which are the engines behind the three great promises. For now, let’s start with verses 1-2 – the first great thing prophecied:
GREAT PROMISE #1: “A GREAT LIGHT”
Isa. 9:1. For there will be no gloom for her who was in distress.
In the former time He caused to be lightly afflicted
the land of Zebulon
and the land of Naphtali,
but later He has caused to be glorious
the Way of the Sea 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 death’s shadow, light has shined upon them.
a) LOCATE THESE PLACES ON MAP OF ISRAEL
1) Land of Zebulon (Nazareth was a town in that region)
2) Land of Naphtali (Capernaum was a town in that region)
3) Jordan River & Sea of Galilee
4) Via Maris (Road along the Sea of Galilee that looped East off the main North-South Highway through Palestine between Syria and Egypt)
5) Galilee (Where Jesus did His first recorded miracle and His first public preaching.)
b) v.1 says that historically this region had been under “distress/anguish/vexed” and “afflicted/humbled/brought under contempt.” What is he referring to here?
1) “[Galilee] had been sorely smitten by Ben-hadad of Syria, two hundred years before (1 Kings 15:20)” So Ben-Hadad… sent the captains of his armies against the cities of Israel. He attacked.. all the land of Naphtali. (NKJV).
2) “…[then there] was the recent deportation by Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:29)” In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took … Galilee [and] all the land of Naphtali; and he carried them captive to Assyria. (NKJV),
3) “…after the Assyrian deportation [it was] colonized with heathens, by Esar-haddon (2 Kings 17:24)” Then the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities. (NKJV)
4) “[But] the same region which was so darkened once, [would] be among the first to receive Messiah’s light (Matt. 4:13-16)” And after leaving Nazareth, Jesus came to reside in Capernaum in the seaside areas of Zebulon and Naphtali. In order that the word through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled saying, “Land of Zebulon and land of Naphtali, way of the sea, alongside the Jordan, Galilee of the ethnicities, the people sitting in darkness saw a great light, and for those who are sitting in the boondocks of the shadow of death, light rose for them. (NAW)
c) “The people” in v.2 would naturally be the people of God – in Isaiah’s time that would be the Jews. They are described as “walking in darkness” and “living in a land of deep darkness/death’s shadow.”
1) They’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, terrified by the rods and the staffs of their oppressors beating down on them because they had rebelled against God. If they walked with God - with God’s rod and staff helping them - they could have said with David in Psalm 23:4 “Even when I shall walk in a ravine of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid of evil because You are with me. Your rod and Your staff will comfort me – they will!” ~NAW
2) But they had left the paths of righteousness, and Proverbs 2:13 says that when you leave the paths of righteousness, you walk in darkness. That’s what the Jews of Isaiah’s day were doing.
3) At the end of Isaiah chapter 8, just before chapter 9, Isaiah had said, “If they will not speak according to [the law and the testimony], then that one has no dawn. And he shall pass through, hard-pressed and hungry; … he will be frustrated and curse… and he will look to the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; thrust into thick darkness.”
4) Later in chapter 59, Isaiah described “walking in darkness” more fully: 7. “Their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity... The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ruts. Their paths they have made crooked for themselves; all who tread in it have not known peace. 9. Therefore justice has been far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We wait for the light, and, look, there is darkness – for brightness in the gloom we walk. 10. We grope along the wall like the blind – we grope as though we had no eyes. We have stumbled in midday like the twilight, with the stout men like the dying men... We wait for the justice, but there is none – for the salvation – it is far from us. 12. For our rebellions have become many before you, and our sins have testified against us; for our rebellions are with us, and, as for our iniquities, we know them: 13. rebellion and being untrue with Jehovah, and turning back from following our God, speaking injury and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood.” (NAW) You know, that sounds a lot like the land we live in today, doesn’t it?
5) God punished Judah for their rebellion by allowing the Babylonian army to conquer them and carry them away captive.
a. In Lamentations 3:2, the prophet Jeremiah described the time of the exile of the Jews to Babylon as “walking in darkness,”
b. and Psalm 107:14 also describes that time of exile as “death’s shadow.”
6) Then for 400 years God was silent. No word from God, no prophet, no revelation for four centuries while the Jews languished under Persian, then Greek, and Roman oppression.
d) But this is not something limited to the Jews of Isaiah’s day; it applies to all of us because the Bible equates the shadow of death (that “deep darkness”) with death itself, and death is something every human being faces.
1) Death is the result of transgressing God’s law (Rom 6:23); and we have all transgressed God’s law. (Rom. 3:23)
2) Sinners must live in the shadow of death, knowing they must die and face God’s judgment. There is no future hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.
3) The reality of the hopelessness and darkness of our human condition in our abandonment of God and His ways is what makes this prophecy so startling and wonderful:
e) “There will be no more gloom… [instead there will be] glory… great light… shining light!”
1) Psalm 136:7 (the only other passage in the Bible that mentions “great light”) equates the “great lights” to suns and moons.
2) Ever since the time change, my morning prayer walks have been swathed in darkness. A couple of weeks ago, when the moon was not visible, I walked past some of my teenaged neighbors standing on the streetcorner in the early morning darkness, waiting for the school bus. They were really cool and had their earbuds in, so they didn’t hear me coming, but when my figure suddenly loomed out of the mist before their eyes, they kinda lost their cool! On mornings when the moon is full, however, I can see pretty well – things can even cast shadows, but then when the sun rises in all its glory of nuclear fusion, I can see everything sharply in brilliant color.
3) Furthermore, we need light that “shines down on us” from above:
§ The mercury vapor lights were broken at the end of the reception hall last weekend where we gathered after Brian and Grace’s wedding. All I could find to light that back area was a halogen shop-light and a gas lantern, so I mounted one on each side of the area, but it stayed gloomy and shadowy back there because, for light to have its full effect, it needs to be high enough to shine down “upon” us – and that’s what God’s light does.
§ The last place we saw this Hebrew word for light “shining” was in Psalm 18:28, which tells us where this light comes from: “You Yourself cause my lamp to beam; Yahweh my God causes my darkness to shine.” (NAW)
§ This is a development of Job’s negative corollary: “The light of the wicked indeed goes out, And the flame of his fire does not shine.” (Job 18:5, NKJV) Light doesn’t come from us; it comes from God!
§ “But to you who fear My name The Sun [that’s S-U-N] of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings…” (Malachi 4:2, NKJV)
§ Jesus… [said], "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." (John 8:12, NKJV)
§ John testified to that saying, “He was the true Light which, upon coming into the world, gives light to every man.” (John 1:9, NAW, cf. Ps. 119:130a)
f) The replacement of darkness with great light – the first great promise – is itself a breaking of bondage and a winning of the war, and its fulfillment was inaugurated by the birth of Jesus. Now let’s move on to the…
GREAT PROMISE #2: GREAT INCREASE - v3a. “You have caused the nation to multiply…”
a) About a millennium before Isaiah wrote his book, God spoke to a man and his wife who were sterile and on the verge of dying and passing out of memory – about to hand over their wealth to their slaves because they had no children. The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-3).
b) Throughout history – even to the present, the Jews have constantly seemed to be on the verge of becoming extinct, threatened by one genocide after another – from Haman to Hitler to Ahmadinejad.
1) The Jews of Isaiah’s day watched the Assyrians wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel and attempt to wipe Judah off the face of the earth too. The population was dwindling.
2) Isaiah, in chapter 4, prophecied of a time when there would be so few men that women would gladly pursue polygamy just so they could experience marriage.
3) When Jesus came to Nazareth, it was also to a small and threatened Jewish population. It was “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Nazareth was a Jewish outpost struggling to exist in the midst of a Gentile population.
4) So, a great increase in the nation’s population was a big deal! (A country’s greatest resource is its people; never forget that!) But how would a vast increase come about with such a tiny nation?
c) By grafting in Gentiles to the people of God (Rom. 11:17-24), Jesus caused the people of God to have a population explosion!
1) Isaiah used the word “goy” to describe the “nation/people” of God – a word that applies to Gentile nations too!
2) Jesus told His disciples in Matt. 12:18 that He had come to fulfill the prophecy in Isa. 42 that, “He will announce justice to the Gentiles… 21 And in His name Gentiles will hope.” (NAW)
3) The Apostle Paul understood this and summed it up as he preached the Gospel throughout the world that Jesus “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27, NKJV). The population floodgate for God’s people was thrown open by Jesus!
4) By 100 AD, there were Christians in every province of the Roman Empire, and it is estimated that by the 300’s AD, 20% of the world’s population were identifying themselves as Christian – and it has stayed around that percentage ever since! That’s like two billion people today! (Now, that number is inflated with a lot of individuals who are Christian in name only, but still it is mind-boggling growth of the people of God!)
5) A great light… a great increase…
GREAT PROMISE #3: GREAT JOY!
v3. … You have caused its joy to increase. They rejoice before Your face as with joy at harvest, like those who are happy when they divide spoil.
a) The first thing to get out of the way is the King James reading which says, “not increased the joy,” whereas all the other English versions (including the American Jewish Translation and the New King James) read, “You shall/have/do increase their joy/gladness.”
1) The explanation is that in Hebrew, “lo” can mean “not” or it can mean “to it” – depending usually on how it is spelled,
2) but the spelling of the Masoretic text of Isaiah (which the King James translators used) is irregular here, and they decided to go with the Roman Vulgate interpretation rather than with the Greek Septuagint interpretation.
3) Modern translators, however, have had the benefit of also looking at the spelling in the 1Q Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, which is about a thousand years older than the oldest Masoretic Hebrew manuscript, and its spelling (לוא) supports the Septuagint and rules out the meaning of “not,” leaving us with the meaning “increase the gladness [belonging] to it (the nation).”
4) Now, this is no reason to throw away the Vulgate or the King James versions, because it’s still true that there were times when God did not cause the joy of His people to increase, but, it appears from further research that Isaiah is speaking of a time when God was increasing the joy of His people, and this underlines the value in looking at more than one translation (or even learning Hebrew) in order to get a fuller understanding of God’s word.
b) So these people are transformed from an experience of gloom to an experience of increasing happiness. This happiness is described by Isaiah using two similes:
1) Like the joy of harvest-time:
i) When harvesting is going on, people can see an entire year’s supply of grain (or fruit or whatever), and it looks like a lot of food, so there is abundance and feasting. You know you’re never going to be hungry at harvest-time.
ii) In the fall, when the fruits are ripe on all the apple and pear trees in our neighborhood, my family gets permission to harvest our neighbors’ trees. We come home with bushels and bushels of apples (or pears) – usually more than we can even process before it goes bad. We eat fresh-picked apples and make apple pies and fried apples, and we press apple cider and freeze more apples for cooking later. And if you come by our house at that time of year, you’ll probably get your share of goodies made from apples, and even be offered apples to take home with you!
iii) That kind of joy stems from seeing abundant provision which ends the fear of suffering want. Oppression, war, and unstable government create situations where people’s economic abundance is squashed. Extortion, theft, inflation, and high taxes remove a nation’s happiness and replace it with anxiety.
iv) God promises to bring an end to such uncertainties and injustices through broken bonds, burnt boots, and a born baby. That’s good news!
2) The second simile is “like those who are happy when they divide spoil.”
i) It’s a picture of military victory, but we don’t see much of that nowadays in our country.
ii) Perhaps the closest we get is the feeling of being in a football stadium or a basketball coliseum and your team has just taken the lead at the end of the game, and everybody is up on their feet, cheering at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down, and then the buzzer goes off, and you have beat your long-standing rival, and the celebration goes on for hours as people rehearse the exciting conclusion to the game over tailgate parties and over coffee breaks in the days that follow.
iii) This kind of joy, I think, stems from the defeat of an enemy. God says that He brings happiness to match what we feel when we are free from threats and are living in abundance.
iv) In addition, one of the experiences people had when they “divided spoil” was that they recovered lost valuables which had been stolen during enemy raids. “Hey look, there’s grandma’s silver spoon set! That’s been in the family for 200 years – I’m glad we got that back!” There’s a special joy and triumph in recovering from an enemy what had been stolen.
v) I dare say that our enemy, the Devil, has stolen a great deal of happiness from us by luring Eve into eating the forbidden fruit – and luring each one of us away from walking with God. The joy we will experience when Jesus’ victory over Satan is consummated and Jesus hands back to us all that innocence and intimacy and intrepidness that we lost – that is going to be sweet!
c) How do we get that kind of happiness?
1) Notice where they are in order to experience that level of happiness: they are “rejoicing in God’s presence” – literally “before His face.” You want to experience happiness? Get into God’s presence. He is the source of happiness.
2) How do you get into God’s presence? That’s the thing; you can’t – as long as you have any disobedience to His laws on record. Sin causes us to “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We can’t enter God’s presence b/c God doesn’t tolerate sin (Psa. 101:5; Isa. 1:13; Hab. 1:13).
3) The only way we can get into the presence of God to experience His happiness is through Jesus. The Apostle Paul explained it this way: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:13-15, NKJV) Talk about the happiness of divvying up that spoil!
Well, I will have to stop here and save for next week the three things that will bring this prophecy to fulfillment: a Broken Bondage, Burnt Boots, and A Born Baby, but I haven’t been able to help hinting at these things already in my exposition of the three great promises, and I hope you are already seeing how important it was for Jesus to be born as a baby in order to give us the light of hope, the greatness of being His people, and the happiness of being in God'.
Eleven years ago, I was reading a passage from the end of Isaiah to my family during devotions, and I asked them, “So where is our hope?” A little voice piped up from Paula’s lap, “Here!” I looked over to see my youngest daughter, whose name is Hope, raising her hand because she had heard her name called!
Actually our hope is in Jesus Christ. Will you focus your attention upon this Jesus this Christmas? Will you put all your hope in Him? As Robert Southwell put it in the conclusion of his famous Christmas poem, “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy!”
This year, instead of quoting Robert Southwell’s poem at length, as I have done on previous Christmas Sundays, I’d like to finish by sharing a new Christmas poem that I find equally moving. It’s called… “The Babe and Bride,” by Amos Wilson:
Connection of the saints and me:
Who Abraham, too, longed to see,
His birth in time – Eternity,
The finite in infinity.
The Word – ineffable to say,
This inexplicable display,
The past and future dawn this day,
Here, born in filth and bloody hay.
All-innocence all guilt to take,
His birth and dying hell to shake,
All bonds, but bonds of love, to break,
This Maker-babe all earth remakes!
The infant kings would kill – defame,
The world's whole sins to Him were blamed:
This Helpless is the help I claim,
Immortal mortal – Christ! The same.
This child's crooning, curled hand,
Would be disjointed for the damned.
These kicking feet, untaught to stand,
Were shattered – splinted, iron slammed!
The Astral King – here laid in straw,
Cursed to a cross in raging raw.
Yes! At His form the devils claw,
But at His cry they shrink in awe.
His natal bed He trades for stone,
His dying breath for sin atones,
His crying breaths are trumpets blown!
And heaven's hosts for Him have shone.
O Precious Babe! Your weeping side,
Would wounds of woe and spears divide.
Yet hell is damned, and death has died,
Washed in the blood, I'm born Your bride!
 The English verses are all shifted up one from the Hebrew (i.e. Hebrew 8:23 = English 9:1, and Hebrew 9:1=English 9:2), but I will use the English verse references since this sermon is for an English-speaking audience.
 These four quotations are from A.R. Fausset’s excellent commentary on Isaiah 9. He also cited Deut. 33:18-19 and Psalm 68:27-28 as hinting of these same great things prophecied.
 Although the Hebrew word for “rod” is the same, the Hebrew words for “staff” are different מִשְׁעֶנֶת vs. מַטֶּה
 Job 38:17 “Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death?” NKJV
 זרח, a synonym to Isaiah 9:2’s נגהּ (shone/dawned)
 I am indebted to Kenneth Bailey’s explanation of this in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes