Faith In Real Life Blog
“Counsel and Power that Brings Hope and Peace”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyteriuan Church
Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series
2 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. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
First, take four minutes and revel in Handel’s treatment of this text. For Unto Us a Child Is Born, from Messiah | The Tabernacle Choir
To understand the text in the setting in which it was written we need a short history lesson. The writing of Isaiah spanned at least 200 years and included multiple authors and referred to the pre-exilic period, the exile and finally the return of the exiled. Isaiah was addressing a desperate political time. Israel had been defeated and Judah was holding on by a thread. The king (Ahaz) was considering allying with the Assyrians (the Evil Empire of the day) to try to assure Judah’s survival from threats from Egypt and Babylon. Isaiah counseled ‘trust in the Lord’ instead of relying upon political alliances to ensure safety. Ahaz failed to listen to Isaiah and worse, he declared religious fealty to the Assyrian gods. Though he did buy time, his failure to trust in the Lord had resulted in his reputation as a disobedient and wicked king.
In contrast, Hezekiah—the son of Ahaz, is described as one of Judah’s most faithful kings. He is credited with trusting in the Lord and with finding God’s favor. His trust is rewarded when the Assyrian army is miraculously decimated, and Judah is spared. Our scripture almost certainly refers to Hezekiah. Isaiah saw him as the hope for the future and the agent of the restoration of Judah.
There is a desire to hear the Messiah and this passage as words about Jesus. That is both true and untrue. The historical Isaiah did imagine a Messiah who would come as an infant and who would be the Prince of Peace. This vision of the Messiah is actually in the distinct minority of Old Testament Prophecies concerning the anointed one. It is much more common to read visions of the Messiah as the restoration of the Davidic line, the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked.
Even when they have been so beautifully memorialized in Handel’s Messiah, I would argue that it is dangerous and bad scholarship to cherry pick verses in the Old Testament that we then use to ‘prove’ the validity of Jesus. FYI, I have learned a bit more about the writing of the Messiah and discovered that the libretto (text) of the piece was written by Charles Jennings. Jennings had a theological desire to ‘prove’ prophecy’ by choosing texts that later became true. He was so good at it, that we rarely examined the historical context of the words of the Messiah. Unfortunately, the Bible is so full of internal contradictions that almost any point of view can claim biblical support. (The biblical arguments supporting slavery being one particularly egregious example.) Isaiah was imagining the restoration of the nation and the Davidic line—he was not pointing to a Jesus who would save in an entirely different way.
This history lesson, however, in no way reduces the majesty of the text. In fact, it is a testimony to the presence of God long before Jesus. Much as we cannot predict the future of a child at its birth but can see God’s hand in retrospect, so too we realize that this unique vision of the Messiah was the vision that Jesus was to manifest. But we see it looking backwards not forward. Verses 2-4 describe God’s mighty acts. The Hebrew people had walked many years in great darkness—beginning with their enslavement in Egypt. It was impossible at the time to imagine that this group of nobodies would become God’s chosen people. In all of their trials and hardships, the Old Testament consistently reports that God is with us. They often sought to measure that presence by outcomes they preferred—freedom from Egypt, the acquisition of territory in the promised land (the reference to the Day of Midian is to the unlikely victory of Gideon over the Midianites in the confederacy period), to the rise of King David. But even in times of great travail and suffering, they held onto the faith that God was with them.
Verses 6 and 7 refer to Hezekiah, the new anointed one, who would restore Israel. As Christians we have appropriated these words to describe Jesus—even though his peace was far different than anything Isaiah would have imagined. But even with that disparity, the promise that God is with us continues through the centuries. The Christ we believe in did not save as expected. His presence is amid life. It was not a fix for discontent. It did not lead to the ascension of a Christian nation, much less a Christian world. He did offer a way to experience God whom we did not know we needed. He did offer a light in our darkness. He did offer us life on terms we never imagined.
We know all this looking backwards and looking through the lens of God manifested in human form. If you want to know who God is and what God is like, look to Jesus. Look to Jesus as Emanuel—God with us. With that knowledge we can look back and see the fingerprints of God in all generations. This is actually an ordinary real-life process. All of us realize the importance of events in our lives more in retrospect than at the time.The same is true as we look back at the biblical record.There are many violent warrior images of God that Jesus eschewed. His peace, his redemption and his salvation never relied on force or coercion. Our way does not work. Violence only begets violence. Jesus’ way leads to reconciliation, connection, peace and love; Jesus’ way takes the pain of the world and shares it. He does not eliminate it. His way is not our way, but his way is a light in our darkness.
When we realize who Jesus is. When we see how different he is from our way. We can sing “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Let it be so.
If you haven’t already, this would be a good time to listen—. For Unto Us a Child Is Born, from Messiah | The Tabernacle Choir