Summary: The coming of Jesus is foretold by the prophet Isaiah
For to us a Son is Given
Since the very earliest days of sea travel, sailors have recognised the danger they are in when travelling close to a rocky shore or sand bar – especially at night. Over the centuries many thousands of sailors have lost their lives when their ships struck rock or wedged on a sand bar. Not only do such accidents cause loss of life but also loss of precious cargo and loss of expensive ships.
To reduce these losses, from the days of the ancient Greeks, lighthouses have been built to warn sailors of the dangers of a rocky shore.
You can imagine the difference it would make to a sailor when on a dark night his way was suddenly illumined by a brilliant light – that helped him steer a safer course.
Well, our reading from Isaiah 9 speaks of a people walking in darkness who suddenly see a great light. From a situation of despair and hopelessness, suddenly a message and sign of hope comes - which totally transforms the picture for them.
I imagine the reading from Isaiah 9 is a familiar one to you. It is a popular reading in the lead up to Christmas because – rightly – we see in this prophecy an anticipation of the coming of the infant Jesus. He is the great light who is coming to shine into the darkness.
However, I wonder how often we view this reading in its original context in the prophecy of Isaiah? Very often it is just one of several Christmas readings that we string together in the lead up to the familiar nativity sections of Matthew and Luke. But when we do that we fail to appreciate the true significance of the coming of the one who referred to himself as the ‘Light of the World’.
So let’s set some context.
The Darkness of Unbelief: a King Who Failed
The immediate context for the reading in Isaiah 9 is found at the end of the previous chapter, chapter 8, where we read:
Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upwards, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.
The people referred to here are the people of Judah. The time is around 720 BC, around 20 years before time we have been thinking of in our earlier series on Isaiah 40 and 41.
It sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it? And it was. Here was a nation that had been given all the privileges of being God’s chosen people, of being rescued from slavery, of being given God’s law, of being given God’s temple, of being delivered time and again from their enemies, and yet who had turned their back on God and could only curse him.
The king is King Ahaz, who we heard about in our first reading. Ahaz reigned for 16 years between around 732 and 716 BC. And as we read in 2 Kings, his reign was marked by a significant deterioration in the spiritual and political state of Judah because he ‘walked in the ways of the kings of Israel’.
In particular he abandoned the worship of the Lord, the true God of Judah and replaced it with the worship of pagan gods and with it various pagan practices including
• The ritual sacrifice of his son in a fire
• The offering of pagan sacrifice in the high places and under trees, rather than in God’s temple
• The replacement of the altar in the Temple with one copied from a pagan temple in Damascus,
And not only did he introduce all these pagan practices, rather than turn to God when his land was threatened with invasion he turned to the king of Assyria to help him. As we read in 2 Kings 16:
2 Kings 16.7-8: Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, ‘I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.’ 8 And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria.
So to the sin of false religious practice was added the sin of unbelief, of a failure to look to God for his salvation and for the salvation of the nation.
In Isaiah 7 we have a record of an occasion when Isaiah went to speak to Ahaz. He went to tell him to trust God and not the king of Assyria; but Ahaz refuses to turn to God for help. The result is Isaiah tells him that the same Assyrians he is looking to for help will in fact invade Judah itself: