This reading is sometimes set in the Uniting Church version of the RCL as the reading for Christmas Eve, with the intention that it be used if a vigil or other service is held on that evening. It is suggested in the lectionary that it could also be the first alternative reading for Christmas Day. The reading has been chosen because of the reference to a child born ‘for us’ who will usher in justice and righteousness ‘from this time forward and for evermore’ (v. 7), and the theme of light shining in the darkness (v. 2). Verse 6 has echoes in the words of the angel in the Gospel which accompanies this reading, cf. Luke 2:11.
While the reading starts with words of joy and hope at v. 2 in our English Bibles, it lacks any real context if we neglect the material immediately before it, Isa. 8:16-9:1. Although the passages may not have been connected originally, the editors of Isaiah have placed them together and provided some thematic connections. The desolation of the land (8:21) prepares for the anguish in 9:1. The references to ‘no dawn’ and ‘darkness’ in 8:20 and 22, suggest the image of the dawning of a new day in 9:2. In making these connections, the editors have firmly linked 9:2-7 with the story of King Ahaz of Judah, whose political dilemma and debate with the prophet Isaiah are described in chapters 7-8.
The time was 734-732 BCE and Ahaz faced the threat of attack from his northern neighbours Israel and Syria. They were seeking to form a local alliance against the threat of Assyria to the north east. One option Ahaz contemplated was to call on the superpower Assyria itself to defend him against his neighbours. But that would mean making a political alliance that, in the end, could be as destructive for Ahaz and Judah (see Isa. 5:28-30 with further references to darkness and distress, v. 30). Some scholars have thought the mention of Zebulun and Naphtali in 9:1 could relate to an Assyrian campaign and conquest of the coastal regions of the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. 10:9). This incident, however, is not mentioned in any other source. Furthermore, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were fairly insignificant, so the events referred to in 9:1 remain obscure. The reference to the day of Midian (cf. Judg. 6:33ff) may provide a further northern connection. In the Judges story Gideon led the northern tribes of Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh, against the Midianites and Amalekites.
Ahaz’s other option was to throw his lot in with Israel and Syria in their efforts to cast off the Assyrian yoke. But that could also mean disaster for Judah especially if the local coalition proved ineffectual against the superpower.
In the face of Ahaz’s political dilemma Isaiah urged a third solution that required the bringing of religious belief into the world of real politics and national security. He urged Ahaz to stand firm in faith (Isa. 7:3-9). This is echoed in 8:17, where the prophet speaks of his own ‘waiting’ for the Lord. The Hebrew word for ‘wait’ is the same as the word for ‘hope’. Moreover, the assurance Ahaz had been given that God would indeed come to his aid, hardly seemed impressive. It consisted of the prophet, his word and the children whom the Lord had given the prophet, who bore names with prophetic import (8:18; cf. 7:3; 8:1 and possibly even the child with the name ‘Immanuel’, 7:14). A man’s word, and the names of a few children; that is all that is offered by way of a ‘sign’ for Ahaz, a king who was no doubt used to making decisions based on firm, accurate knowledge and intelligence.
The prophetic poem, which begins in Isa. 9:2, does not really go far toward alleviating Ahaz’s dilemma. If offers to replace the ‘gloom’ and ‘anguish’ experienced by the people with joy and exaltation, but it does not remove the need for faith and an engaged waiting. The ‘deep darkness’ that has spread over the land will be pierced by light, but a light which will start simply as the flicker of a small flame. The reason for the joy spoken about in vv. 2-4 is given in vv. 6-7: ‘For a child has been born to us, a son given to us’. While as Christians we easily associate this text with Jesus and read it with all the confidence two thousand years of Christianity encourages, in its original context the statement raises a number of questions.
One question relates to who is speaking in these verses. Another to whom is meant by the ‘child … born to us’. It could be that the people celebrate the birth of a king. If so the word ‘given’ is important. This one in whom the people’s hopes are centred is one who comes to them as a gift. There is a strong sense of the gift of liberation and salvation. Alternatively, the speaker could be God, and the occasion the coronation of a new king (cf. the language of Ps 2:7 which might also come from that context). In either case, the occasion is the advent of a new king in whom are centred hopes for a new future. The list of titles at the end of v. 6 could echo the list of throne names (usually five) given to the Egyptian Pharaohs (cf. also 2 Sam 23:1 for similar epithets for the king in Israel). All the trappings of royalty are present in the poem. They stand for the power and security of the nation, a comforting aspect given the dilemma Ahaz faces. But that power and security are laid on the shoulders of a child who ‘has been born to us’. The child may have all the authority of the kingdom and God ‘upon his shoulders’ but that authority, as well as the child, has yet to grow (v. 7a). While Christians have read these verses, especially v. 6, messianically in relation to Jesus, in the context of v. 7 and in their ancient setting they are messianic only in terms of the Davidic dynasty and expectations on the human kings of that line. Those expectations are great and bear the promise of God (see 2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16) but they are still vested in frail human beings. There is an element of human frailty attached to them. Ahaz himself is a prime example of that.
This aspect of these ancient words is still relevant for the message with which the Church has invested them. Attention to the context of the Isaiah reading relates to the Gospel reading (Lk. 2:1-14) in a couple of ways. First, in Isaiah there is a call to faith in a world where the signs of faith seem insignificant. So too the birth of the messiah as recorded in Luke is told in terms of an insignificant event given all that surrounds it: a child is born to a poor refugee family struggling for its very survival. Secondly, the expression of joy and hope fulfilled in Isa. 9:2-7 is to be seen in the very real and risky world of political alliances. The story of the birth of Jesus in Luke is set in the hard world of refugees and political oppression (Lk. 2:1-7). The messiah in Luke’s Gospel also comes into a real and risky world. It is into that world that the text calls for and proclaims joy and celebration (Lk. 2:14)
As we celebrate the joy of Christmas, we do so in the context of discussions over global warming, continuing war and struggle in many places, the promulgation of terror within our community both by those who create it by their actions and by those who gain political capital from it, debate over the government’s reaction to those who arrive on our shores seeking asylum, and the thought of bushfires or drought over the summer. We celebrate joyfully ‘a son given to us’ not in spite of all that is horrible, dangerous, or distressing about the world around us, but precisely because of it. In the birth of that one we hear again the call to faith that has always been there for God’s people. At the beginning of the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke we hear of insignificant shepherds being called to celebrate the gift of God’s peace in the very face of the power and oppression of the Roman Empire (Lk. 2:8-14). The prophet and the evangelist both point us to a reality that transcends all that is darkness about us; to a light that shines even in a world of deep darkness.
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