The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). Some ancient cultures had the idea of circular history, where the same events would play over again and again. Perhaps they were inspired by the regularity of the seasons. The Whiggish idea of history is that there was inevitable progress which led to the development of Western culture. This was a popular idea in England. Francis Fukuyama famously and foolishly said that history ended after the Berlin Wall came down. He was very premature. More recently, philosopher John Gray has written that “men are the playthings of a blind and amoral fate, which decrees that the same mistakes will be made over and over again”. The aphorism “those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it” comes to mind here.
The ancient Israelites understood their history as blessing and curse from a God not just of their nation but all nations, a God of history. The people walked in a great darkness, and in Isaiah 9 that darkness was Assyria, an agent of judgement for Israel’s national sins. Hence Isaiah wrote:
“How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! 22 Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 23 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 does not come before them.” (1:21-23)
And, as a result of this:
“Assyria, the rod of my anger—the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him.” (10:5-6)
Assyria were a warlike people known to torture, maim and kill in grizzly ways soldiers and nobility, and burned children alive. Little wonder Isaiah also writes “But this is not what he [Assyria] intends, nor does he have this in mind; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”
So while a judgment was intended by God, he did not intend such savagery.
So it is almost surprising in the face of this risk that Isaiah could also write:
“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.” (8:17)
For … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A light of freedom from war. In Isaiah 9 he describes the burning boots and uniforms of war. Elsewhere he speaks of swords being turned into plough shares. Perhaps we might say the turning of tanks into tractors. This light is also a light of freedom from oppression; the rod and yoke would be broken.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light of a golden age where a child will lead the people into everlasting shalom. Shalom is more than absence of war, but a peace which included wholeness, completeness, the “good life”.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light is a child is who bears the very character of God himself –Mighty God, Everlasting Father.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and so certain was Isaiah, that this future hope is expressed in the past tense of “walked” and “have seen”.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. After the threat of Assyria came the Babylonian exile, and then the release under Persia where Israel was still a vassal state. Then came Alexander the Great, and after the Selucids as Alexander’s empire broke up. Finally came Rome. The census recorded in Luke 2 reminds us of the part that economic control played in the maintaining of empire, as such censuses were associated with taxation.
Yet … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for we read that:
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
The glory of the Lord, the great light, shone on them (Luke 2:9). The Pharisees considered shepherds to be ritually unclean because of their association with animals, and hence they were those walking in the darkness of religious bigotry.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the saviour, the anointed king (Christ, Messiah; Luke 2:10-11). He is the one who would rule over Israel and all nations. He was a fragile, vulnerable child (v12) because God’s power is made manifest in weakness and small things.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We walk in the darkness of violence as many recent events attest: 140 people, mostly school children, killed in Pakistan; two innocent lives killed in the Sydney siege; drone attacks on the so-called war on terror killing innocent civilians; persecuted people fleeing violence only to be inhumanely returned or locked up in detention.
We walk in the darkness of personal suffering and loss, of depression and grief – when we feel as if God is hiding his face. Yet Jesus did away with any simple connection between sin and suffering. Think of the man born blind in John 10. Those who pronounce God’s judgment for sin in natural disasters (Boxing Day Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina, Black Saturday) speak Satan’s words, not God’s. We can never assume people suffer because they “deserve it”.
Here I follow Bono in his proclaiming of grace over karma. “I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.” I, like Bono, am holding out for grace.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for the child in the manger grew up to be a man who shook the halls of power, tipped upside down all ideas of power and greatness, and how to be reconciled to God.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the cross shines into our history and tells us that God himself has suffered, God himself identifies with us in our darkness, and that God himself “will ride with us”.
Again, Bono puts it well when he says “I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of the resurrection shines down through 20 centuries of history and points towards the great light of the future resurrection where as John says “God himself will be with us; he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Though we walk in darkness, we have seen a great light.