Opening The Old Testament
The Prince of Peace: Reflections on Isaiah 9:1-4
Lectionary Reflections: Year A
Third Sunday after Epiphany: January 23
Though the lectionary text for this day ends the pericope at verse 4, the whole text must surely include verses 5-7. Verse 5 begins with an obvious connective word, "for," tying the verse to what precedes it. On this third Sunday after Epiphany, we Christians explore further what the Christ child's role in our world will be, and that role will be remarkable. At the same time, of course, we must ask what the prophet Isaiah had in mind for the "son who has been given to us" (9:6). To understand fully the former Christian concern will help us immeasurably to understand the latter Isaianic concern.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (9:2, although verse 1 in the Hebrew text). Isaiah has spent the better part of the preceding chapters of his prophecy describing just how dark the walk of Israel has become. Along with the usual talk of injustice -- empty of righteousness, devoid of justice (1:21), lovers of bribes who refuse to defend the orphan and the widow (1:23) -- Isaiah adds the astonishing charge at 8:19-21 that God's people are consulting "ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and mutter" for nothing less than "teaching and instruction," the latter word being the famous word "Torah."
Instead of seeking YHWH, the giver of Torah, these foolish ingrates have turned to magic and necromancy to conjure spirits whom they think will supply their needs for a Torah that can come only from YHWH. Little wonder that the prophet characterizes the way of this people as dark. "They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish" (8:21-22).
But now, he says, "they have seen a great light"; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined (9:2). And just what or who is this light? Verse 6 says that "a child has been born for us." Just as Handel's ubiquitous "Messiah" has fixed the earlier words, "the people who walked in darkness" (with a thundering solo bass), in our ears, so that same composer has given us the tune we remember for "A child has been born for us," with a light and frothy chorus. But before we hum those tunes, we must hear verses 4-5.
God has acted before the gift of this mysterious son. "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." It strikes me as hopeless to attempt to fix any one particular historical action of YHWH to illumine this reference, even though verse 4 will point us to "the day of Midian." But the poet wants us never to forget that YHWH's actions have occurred, and always occur, to offer joy and gladness for the chosen people.
More specificity is given in verse 4 concerning just what the people can always expect from their God. "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." God's actions with the people are ever like those that God effected "on the day of Midian." This is clearly referring to the lengthy story in Judges 6-7, a hilariously memorable story of the judge Gideon. Gideon is first called by YHWH's messenger while he, Gideon, is winnowing wheat in a winepress for fear of the Midianites who threaten Israel with their vast numbers, "tents as think as locusts," and uncountable numbers of camels" (Jdg. 6:5). Since the winnowing of wheat needed the breeze to separate wheat from chaff, the act of attempting to winnow wheat in a deep hole in the ground (a winepress) is difficult at best and foolish at worst. Though the messenger calls Gideon "mighty man of valor," one can easily imagine that his so-called valor is difficult to see, since he receives the messenger covered head to foot with dusty wheat chaff!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.