The people of Isaiah seem to be on the cusp of a new dawning reality. It is so close now that they can almost grasp it– or rather, be grasped by it– and it all feels like very, very good news.
The text gives a strong sense of the “before” for the people of God. They were “those who were in anguish” (v. 1). The ones who “walked in darkness” and “lived in a land of deep darkness” (v. 2). They bore a “yoke of burden” with a “bar across their shoulders” and knew the “rod of their oppressor” (v. 4).
At this point in their history the people of God have split into two nations, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah is sent by God as a prophet to Judah, approximately 150 years before they would be hauled into exile. They’ve had a king ruling for a few centuries at this point, though always with varying degrees of faithfulness to God and geo-political safety.
The most recent king, King Ahaz, reigned for 16 years. Of his reign, 2 Chronicles 28:1-4 says, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD, as his ancestor David had done,” and “made cast images for the Baals” and participated in child sacrifices and other sacrifices to neighboring deities. During his reign thousands of people would be killed by neighboring nations, with many others taken as captives. Out of fear, King Ahaz asked for help from Assyria, but God allowed Assyria to overtake Judah because of King Ahaz’s idolatry. If that all wasn’t bad enough, he even closed up the temple. In the eyes of scripture, he was a trainwreck. His unfaithfulness to God and God’s way led to the anguish, darkness, and oppression of God’s people.
We see this most clearly in verse 2 which includes two different words that describe what people were experiencing. First, the people walked in darkness, חֹשֶׁךְ kho-shek, which has a dual meaning of literal darkness, as well as figurative darkness in the sense of misery and distress. These are also people who “lived in a land of deep darkness”, צַלְמָוֶת tsal-maw-veth, which usually translates “darkness” as the “shadow of death.” We are given clues about the distress faced in verse 4 that speaks of the “yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders” and “the rod of their oppressor” as they lived in areas annexed by Assyria.
It is not to some abstract or shallow pain that the light breaks in, but to a people whose backs are up against the wall, who know pain both inwardly and outwardly, who are oppressed. To these people, on these people, “light has shined.”
Originally, these verses served as a celebration for the coronation of a new king for Judah, most likely King Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. The new king gave hope and promise that there would be relief from the oppression they knew. How much fuller this hope and promise became through King Jesus.
In the context of the Church year we read these verses during Epiphany. In these weeks following Christmastide, the scriptures turn us to see how God reveals God’s light in Christ, and we see how this light has the power to save.
Isaiah 9:1-4 has a clear reality in mind in that it proclaims that God’s light shines on the oppressed. It is God’s will to save God’s people and to free them from the anguish of oppression and the way it places people in the shadow of death. It is the movement of God to break the rod of the oppressor, freeing both oppressed and oppressor.
In light of the God who acts to save and to free, God’s people respond with celebration. Verse 3 points toward the outlandish and raucous celebration of those who receive God’s saving light, “as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.”
For the people of God in Isaiah, the dawning of a new ruler cast such an image of the future that they could see it for its divine possibilities: God was saving and freeing them. Though they’d known darkness, light had dawned! The same is true for the world today: God’s light is revealed in Christ and God is still saving, still freeing today.
As we preach this text, sermons can echo the same movement as they paint with words the places of darkness and oppression witnessed in the world today. While those of us in the West may contextualize this to speak of spiritual darkness, perhaps this text might challenge us to consider the real and lived experience of the oppressed today, such as people caught by predatory lending practices or victims of war and political instability. Who are the oppressed whom God has a special eye for in your context today? How is God acting in our midst to shine God’s saving light upon them? They are often those who are not seen, so this sermon may be able to bring awareness for those whom God is calling the Church to care.
The challenge of Epiphany preaching is less that we are unfamiliar with places of oppression and darkness, but more that we struggle at times to see the saving light of God that has dawned. As a result, the sermon can spend less time articulating the realities of darkness, and draw upon stories that not only claim that God’s light has dawned in Christ, but give feeling, texture, and reality to just that.
Lord, let Your light shine upon me as I labor over this sermon. Show me the ones You love who know the rod of oppression and shadow of death. Warm me and my congregation with the heat of Your dawning light, that we might be saved from the slow death of apathy, and the swift death of indifference. Show me, O God, how You are acting today to save and to free! Amen.