This blog continues my commentary on Isaiah
(2) The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those living in the land that lies
in the shadow of death, light has dawned.
2 (3) You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice in your presence
as if rejoicing at harvest time,
the way men rejoice
when dividing up the spoil.
3 (4) For the yoke that weighed them down,
the bar across their shoulders,
and their driver’s goad
you have broken as on the day of Midyan[’s defeat].
4 (5) For all the boots of soldiers marching
and every cloak rolled in blood
is destined for burning,
fuel for the fire.
5 (6) For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us;
dominion will rest on his shoulders,
and he will be given the name
Wonder of a Counselor, Mighty God,
Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace
6 (7) in order to extend the dominion
and perpetuate the peace
of the throne and kingdom of David,
to secure it and sustain it
through justice and righteousness
henceforth and forever.
The zeal of The Lord of Armies
will accomplish this.
The prophecy distances the people of Judah. The prophet does not address them but refers to them in the third person, which gives his words a strange objectivity, as if he was seeing this whole people in his vision. The darkness is particularly their lack of trust and hope in their God, made worse by the oppressive power of Assyria. The condition of being a vassal state of Assyria is sharply characterised as a heavy yoke, including a painful bar across the shoulders, and as the sharp pointed stick of the ploughman.
Other citizens may have welcomed the “alliance” with Assyria, but the prophet refuses to gloss over its injustice and indignity. He harks back to the old story of how the larger army of Midyan was defeated by the Israelis with God’s help. But the prophecy also envisages the end of violence; boots and battle gear will become fuel for the fire.
Then he reveals that this transformation will be brought about by the birth of a royal child. Clearly the birth has taken place, but not long before, and the child’s role as ruler lies in the future, his titles describe what he will become. The titles are similar to those of Egyptian or Assyrian god-kings, although they have special prophetic flavour. The king’s great task is to counsel his people wisely, that is, to make policies which are for the real good of the people. He will be granted the power of God, his reign will last over time, and will bring peace. The modern reader may feel that these words point to the Messiah, the one in whom God is present to rescue the people. This may be so, particularly if we align this passage with the immanuel prophecy of chapter 7.
The courts of kings were always engaged in celebrating royal births, especially that of an heir to the throne. Isaiah sees God’s goodness working through the Davidic dynasty, even if many of its kings have ignored the wisdom of God. It’s hard for modern readers to share his passionate confidence in God’s faithfulness to the successors of David. And where we see such messianic confidence in modern politics we tend to view it with suspicion. Many of Donald Trump’s supporters exhibit this kind of confidence in him, but it’s also evident in the great saviours of South American politics, almost all of whom have been proven to have feet of clay. And in fact, whatever temporary respite may have been gained by for example, King Hezekiah, it looks as if Isaiah’s confidence was misplaced.
It appears that the prophet’s disciples kept his prophecies and made them available after his death, so that they might still give hope,in God’s good time, of fulfillment. The early Christian churches found in these passages a prophecy of Jesus Messiah, the son whom God has given to humanity. Their interpretation rescued powerful words from the past, which could help express the meaning of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, always maintaining his political significance. God’s reign in Jesus offers political justice as well as personal salvation, liberation from oppression as well as from sin. In this way, the faith of a Jewish man from the 8th century BCE has enriched the faith of the Christian church.