The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.
Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.
Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.
What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.
Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.
First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ. He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.
The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.
Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ. The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.
Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends. They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.
For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39. First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem. And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.
If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.
But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.
One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)
And punishment abounded.
As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:
“How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “
“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)
First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God. If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.
The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.
But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation. The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.
It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel. There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)
As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity. As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”
This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”
It is a place that was hopeless.
It was a place that desperately needed good news.
First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem. Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.
And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.
John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.
And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.
The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.
In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.
This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.
First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God. And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.
But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.
And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.
And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.
Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.
You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.
And that is because these words are alive.
These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.
We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.
But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.
As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.
As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.
As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.
Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.
Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.
First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.
And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…
Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that we may be taught God’s ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.
Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light.