Preview

In August 2005, I had one of the unique and most enjoyable and uplifting experiences of my life. It was aesthetic, and not spiritual. I attended a writer’s conference in Columbus, Ohio, to see whether I could jumpstart my fiction writing. That was not to be at that time, but I was privileged to be able to meet, to spend time with and to hear Ted Kooser. Ted was then ending his time as the Poet Laureate of the United States. He had actually spent almost his entire career in the insurance industry, and he had retired as an insurance executive. Yet he never forgot his dedication to poetry, and I found it extremely impressive how much effort  he put in over the years to learn and improve his poetry, and I was privileged to be able to spend some time simply talking with him and one evening to hear him recite his own poetry. Over the decades this tremendous care and effort put his poetry resulted in a unique achievement, a modern day poetry that reaches ordinary people and speaks to their experiences. His books of poetry sold at ten times the number that were usual for books of modern poetry, and it was because of this that he was honored with the Poet Laureate title.

In the Bible there are many poetic passages, and other than David, the prophet Isaiah could be known as a Poet Laureate of the Old Testament. Isaiah had a ministry in Jerusalem, in close contact with the kings, for at least 60 years. It may be that his actual seal has been recently found in Jerusalem; the name on it is actually Isaiah, and several letters from the Hebrew word for prophet follow. It was as if this seal would have read in English, “Isaiah the proph . . .”. His poetic prophecies came first of all for the guidance and comfort for Israel after the defeat of the Assyrian army on the doorstep of Jerusalem, in 701 B.C.E. Yet after this historically attested devastation of the immense army from the world empire of the time, God have Isaiah spiritual awareness of a different world power that would threaten the people of God in the future. Isaiah prophesied, in some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry of the Bible, about the survival of the remnant from the Babylonian exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. In this section of prophecy, the book of comfort from chapters 40-66, gives four Servant songs for the comfort and spiritual awareness of the people of God for what was then the future and for all the people of God for all time. In these songs he was speaking about someone special who would be coming, in the future, the virtual representative of the nation in one person. The first Servant Song established that this special Servant was the ruling Son promised to the house of David far earlier in the book and the ministry in 9:-17, and the one on whom the Spirit would dwell in 11:1 and following. All these Songs came together to provide pieces of a preview of what was to come, and the cumulative effect of the pieces of the previews was to give a picture of the Messiah to come. Among all the Servant Songs, the fourth Servant Song is and remains the most familiar and the most influential, among the most beautiful and well known.


Messianic prophecy is in a way like the previews and trailers for upcoming movies that we see in our day. In Messianic prophecy God gives a brief series of word images as a preview of what he would do through the Messiah who was to come to a prophet, and the prophet describes what God had shown him. In this fourth Servant Song telling the people of God for all time what was to come. His previews of the Messiah to come were not not a series of videos but word dramas, and previews, in most beautiful, highly crafted poetry, with metaphors, similes, verses, stanzas, rhythm and all the other aspects that distinguish what we call poetry from prose. Most often in the ancient world prophecy was expected to be poetic, and it fully met this expectation in the Old Testament and in the work of Isaiah, to convey God’s words strikingly and memorably. Ancient Hebrew poetry was not so much rhyme as in popular poetry and songs in English, but parallelism and rhythm. Though modern rap is somewhat lost on me, the parallelism and rhythm might have seemed somewhat like rap. In a way it seems like the fourth Servant Song was the masterpiece of the great prophet. It seems evident to me that he put great care and love put into fabrication of the prophecy of the Messiah as the suffering and exalted Servant – and if there’s anything that Ted Kooser taught me, it’s that quality poetry that speaks to people is very hard work and takes great loving care and concern. This, shows how precious the truth was to him, how much he wished to communicate it appropriately, and how much the Holy Spirit was working within him to bring it to us in his writing as the inspired Word of God. But we now live after the fulfillment of this prophecy, in the New Testament, and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the New Testament is like having in front of us the whole spoiler alert, of the whole drama as the whole fourth Servant Song was enacted before us now. What was then a prophecy is now a  reality for all of us now on the other side of the prophecy, for those of us who have already seen the preview for the entire drama of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we can now live with the realization that this was not a drama for our entertainment, enjoyment and distraction but for the fulfillment of our deepest needs now and forever.


“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”


“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?
He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”


“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”


“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Dale’s own translation; see here for other translations)


The salvation which God brings is the ultimate shock to this world. The salvation that God brings amazes to silence the greatest that the world has to offer; the high and mighty shrink to insignificance before the person who brings this salvation. The person who brings the salvation, the suffering servant, has brought it about in total contradiction to the conventional wisdom of this world. The salvation of God, despite all the expectations of this world, would come about through a servant who had experienced the ultimate suffering.


The exaltation of the suffering Messiah is the ultimate wonder of the world. All the world of mankind diminishes with nothing in itself beside the suffering and exaltation in triumph of the suffering Servant of God. The preview that the prophet gives, that he had seen, and then explained and celebrated, was about a shocking disfigurement and a shocking exaltation to power and authority.


Ancient poetry is divided into strophes (pronounced strof –ee). The word comes from Greek, and is a common term in the study of ancient Greek poetry as well. The first strophe – or stanza, or first verse of the fourth Servant Song – is in Isaiah 52: 12-15:

“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”

In accord with much literature, and in ancient literature particularly, Isaiah begins the fourth Servant Song at the conclusion. He describes the wise success and exaltation of the suffering Servant, after his suffering has taken place. Through the prophecy of the fourth Servant Song, then, God calls the world to behold the exaltation of his Servant. This song starts with the wonder of the world at the ultimate wonder of this world, the exaltation of the Servant after his suffering. Though he was upon the hill of Zion, behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem, the vision of the Suffering Servant in the fourth Servant Song goes far beyond the Jewish nation. What would happen with the Suffering Servant would astonish the world to speechlessness and it would be something spectacular about which the world had no clue. What would come about from him would even be a priestly work even to sprinkle the vast nations and hordes of Gentiles, which would be entirely the action of a High Priest to sanctify but entirely unprecedented in that no High Priest of the line of Aaron of the nation of Israel every came close to doing such a thing, let alone at the cost of severe personal suffering. And in the context of the previous prophecies about that Suffering Servant would be the ruling Son of the House of David, this tells that the path to the fulfillment of these promises of rule would be his severe suffering! Rather than taking up political rule, this establishes that suffering would be the path to the promises of the rule for the ruling Son of David. For a nation which had experienced severe setbacks and reduction from the past glories of political power in the ancient Middle East, the expectation would be that military and political power would be the path to triumph against the imperial war machines of that day. Yet this establishes that the shocking work of the wisdom of God, in the suffering of the royal Son of David, would follow after the return from the captivity in Babylon – which had just been mentioned in the previous context in the earlier verses of chapter 52 of Isaiah.


The preview of the coming attraction shows something that no one of this world would consider attractive from the start. The worldly wise who do not begin from the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7) would never have figured it out beforehand. The great reversals characteristic of how God works through the coming of Jesus into our world, to bring the rulers and authorities of this world to bow down before the pierced feet of the Messiah in wonder and outright astonishment that such a thing could happen, and how it would show them to be next to nothing besides him.


Even more, the life and times of the suffering Servant would not be what the world as a whole would ever find as a suitable beginning of God’s ruler of this world. The path of the Suffering Servant to supreme power and authority over the universe would never be the path of someone that they would ever consider for the person who would become vastly superior to all of them with all authority and power in heaven and earth. So this is what we find in the second verse – not the same as the first! The second stanza and the second strophe, in Isaiah 53:1-3, goes like this:

“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?

He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”

Again, the fourth Servant Song centers on the life of a single person. The previous astonishment of the entire world at the exaltation of the suffering Messiah gives way to the utter; astonishment of the Prophet at the few who believe and receive the news about the suffering Servant. The suffering Servant would be someone who would come from humble beginnings, yet he would be ultimately and exclusively ‘the arm of the Lord’. This world looked for the beautiful person with the aura of power and magnetism. But this world could not and would not realize the real power was in the life and ministry of the man who dealt with people who had griefs and sicknesses, and that very man who received the disdain and rejection of the high and mighty at the culmination of his ministry.


The people of this world seek often enough the attractive, dominating, attractive and magnetic persons to lead. From them often arise the false Messiahs of this world, the earthly figures of politics, entertainment and human religion. But God continues throughout history with the great reversals of value that come with Jesus, when he changes the price tags on so much that this world has held to be of value. In the ultimate reign of God over our world and over the course of time that we dare to call human history it all comes down at the end to be the history of the Son of Man, the Jesus of the scriptures. There is ultimately nothing compared with the Savior who came and lived among us already. This certainly gives us sufficient reason never to lift up any human being on a pedestal, to see another person as the Messiah for us when the true Messiah has often come. This was once brought home tragically to the frontier hero Kit Carson. He was part of the rescue mission for a woman named Annie White who had been captured by the Apaches, and she tragically did not survive. He later wrote, “In camp was found a book, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds … I have often thought that Mrs. White read the same … [and prayed] for my appearance that she might be saved.”


The suffering of the Suffering Servant, though, is not at all suffering for the sake of suffering. It is by no means the infliction of suffering of a vengeful God upon an helpless and unwilling victim. Rather the suffering Servant suffers entirely and willingly for the ultimate good of his people. He came as the deliverer who delivers not by conquest of evildoers but by being delivered to the worst that the evil doers could do, and yet through that conquering the evil of this world by providing the path of peace and reconciliation for the entire world. This is what the prophet celebrates in the third verse, the third stanza or the third strophe (53:4-6):

“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”

The prophet now includes himself among the people of God. Here he is speaking of the reason for the suffering of the Servant before he describes the suffering. He describes the suffering of the servant as bearing sickness and sins, as one who takes it and bears it away. Certainly his affliction and torment came as divine punishment, but not for anything he had done wrong at all. In fact, the prophet emphasizes the innocence of the Servant here emphasized as he describes how he was pierced and pulverized. Again, all this was totally unprecedented and totally contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. In this fourth Servant Song the Suffering Servant then provided the satisfaction of justice to bring about peace and reconciliation between mankind and God – an amazing, unbelievable accomplishment in a world where all people were regarded as separated from each other by their national cultures, families and clans and national god and myths. Here is the image of mankind as sheep who were going astray, since like sheep we are all prone to wander off and get lost, and find ourselves in need of someone stronger and wiser to save us from where our ignorance, follies and transgressions have taken us. So many of us see it as justice for the fools that we see around us to suffer the consequences for their folly, but here the prophet tells us all that the penalty for the single-minded, hard headed wandering around which is the life of sin, which is the way of all of us, has been taken entirely by the Suffering Servant of the fourth Servant Song.

So then, this is what we find out here, and it should be terribly shocking and eye opening to each one of us: in a world where you don’t get what you deserve, someone else got what you deserved. In this world which is stuck on stupid, stuck on hardheaded, stuck on defiant, it ended up with someone else getting what everyone in this world deserved. But this not something that we find as meaning anything for us without a real personal connection to what it was all about. It falls to each one of us to be one of those who realizes what it’s all about and makes that personal reception of it for ourselves. For someone raised in church, or comes to church through marriage or family, this is often the step not taken in that person’s life, to take it for himself or herself. For with what the Messiah has done for each one of us, there is still that personal connection to him that is needed, that there is no secondhand faith that can save, but that each of us rather need to make one’s own peace with God, to receive the gift that came when that Suffering Servant took what you deserved and what he did not deserve.


This is something like my personal connection to several Marvel movies that were extremely popular. With the first Avengers movie that was filmed in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, I went downtown on a Saturday to watch and take some personal photographs of the filming. It gave me the chance to be close to the set, see the extras, even to be considered a part of the crew. Then I also was extremely surprised as I recognized a number of scenes in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie, since I had already photographed them and had the images of those locations in my personal albums. There was even a scene in the Spiderman III movie where I could point out the place where I had waited for the Regional Transit Authority bus on my commute to and from my suburban home. But with all that, I was a witness to the locations and some of the filming but not a part of the films; even when I was close to the Avengers set I didn’t have the Marvel name tag that meant I was a part of the production. Many who are part of our churches and with whom we rub shoulders every day are close to our churches and believers, and may even be mistaken for a genuine believer, but they have never received that name tag, to be tagged with the name of Jesus Christ because one has put his or her faith in him for one’s own eternal salvation. This is what it means to have saving faith, like the testimony of John Wesley, who describes that moment came to faith in Jesus. When he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate, someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans and then, about 8:45 p.m. ” . . . while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”


But then, the effect of the suffering of the Servant is described in the fourth Servant Song before the cause of the suffering of the Servant. The earthly machinery of injustice would bring about the suffering and death of the suffering Servant. The innocent but suffering Servant would be caught up in the suffering of the innocent in this world, and would be the ultimate example of the suffering of the innocent as he suffered to the uttermost. This is what the prophet told about in the fourth strophe (53:7-9). So here’s the fourth stanza, the fourth verse:

“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

So then, the prophet comes to the prophecy of the the earthly circumstances of the suffering of the Servant. He describes what was to come and gives the preview of the suffering and death of the Suffering Servant, through terrible miscarriages of human injustice. The Suffering Servant would be known for his meekness and patience throughout the oppressive, unjust judicial proceedings, and ultimately he would be led away after arrest and sentencing to execution. He would be treated as one of the criminals of this world, and yet he would not buried as a criminal but as a rich man. The mention of no posterity pointed to the young age of the Servant, that the worthless and futile miscarriage of justice in that day and age would deprive him of marriage and children; his would be a life short changed of what he deserved and cut short of a normal human existence, of the rewards of marriage, children and a ripe and pleasant old age. Instead, he took the blow, the plague, the curse upon himself, for the sin and transgressions of the people of God, and, though totally innocent himself, the innocent Servant would subjected to the ultimate injustice of this world, of the machinery of human justice gone insane and fatally dysfunctional.


This would ultimately be for the comfort for the people of God. In this world the innocent and the innocent among the people of God suffer, and this tells us that that their subjection to injusice and oppression is not in vain. Though the righteous people of God who suffer innocently, through no fault of their own, they have before them the  ultimate example in the Savior who already suffered the ultimate in oppression and injustice. But, though, the prophet didn’t end here with the suffering of the Servant; rather he concluded just as he began with the victory of the Servant.


The salvation which God brings comes as the victory of the Savior. The salvation of God is the the salvation which exalts and glorifies the Savior by the will of God, and it is the utter triumph of the suffering Servant of God. This is the happy ending of the song which is the happy ending of the Servant and and the happy ending for those for whom he suffered.


Finally, the ultimate prize for the universe goes to the suffering Servant of God. Though that is a contest that no one would want to enter, yet the one who endured such humiliation and suffering would receive as his reward more than anything that the high and mighty would ever manage to take for themselves by force or command. He would be the ultimate conqueror who conquered ultimately by allowing himself to be treated as if he was conquered completely. This is the triumph of the fifth strophe (53:10-12). So this is the conclusion, the fifth stanza and the fifth verse:

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

So the fourth Servant Song repeats the theme of unexpected exaltation and triumph as it returns back to the conclusion; in many songs we see this and call it the familiar A-B-C-B-A structure. And then here at the conclusion there is the return to the exaltation of the suffering Servant. The conclusion of the song is all about his victory, and it centers on his victory over sin and death more than his unexpected exaltation before the powers and authorities of this world. The Suffering Servant had  literally had become a guilt offering for this world, and what happened was the will of the God of Israel. In fact, the Suffering Servant provided way for sinful people to be accounted righteous by personal knowledge of him. Even more, he performed the High Priestly duty of making intercession for the wrongdoers, and even more he played the part of the priest who was himself the sacrifice. His suffering, then, preceded his ascension to the power and authority to deal with the mighty and powerful of this earth as he pleases, To him alone came the results of great victory, the spoils, the booty and the prize for which all the high and mighty of this earth were seeking and striving. The description sounds as if he were leading all his enemies in a victory parade – and that is a very New Testament depiction of the victory of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-12). And in this passage resurrection definitely implied if not indicated by the textual variant which was preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript of Isaiah (“he shall see light”). But even if the actual text of Isaiah was different, the whole description implies resurrection of the Suffering Servant, since his suffering was suffering to death and the victory means that he must be alive afterwards.


The conclusion is that the ultimate victory is that of Jesus, who suffered and died according to the will and predetermination of God. Understand that all the rivals, such as Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and Joseph Smith did not die for you; they are in their graves, they cannot save you, and they will not judge you at the end. Ultimately we will all face Jesus, and this will be the reversal for those who turn out at the end to have been on the wrong end of the machinery of injustice of this world. And with this comes the need for each one of us, the need to turn to Jesus, to be on the right side of the Son of God. For those who are not on the side of Jesus, they will find themselves in a worse predicament than the German soldiers in World War II who invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. They believed from the promises of the false Messiah Adolf Hitler that they would be in a victory parade in Moscow after the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they were; but as it happened, but they were there as the prisoners of the other side.


So the preview of the suffering of the ultimate Servant of God came to us as a carefully crafted song. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit it came not as a rant against injustice but a song of sadness and beauty which ended in the ultimate victory. It remains even if we are unaware of its poetic nature and beauty as one of the ultimate hit songs of all time, since it previews the ultimate happy ending for the people of God that came through the Suffering Servant. In our age, then the believer in Christ should definitely read and meditate on this song with the under stand that he or she knows exactly who the prophet was writing about. It may be that for us a modern song speaks to our hearts, but this one can and should speak to our hearts in a deeper way if we recognize who it is speaking about. This one came from the prophet through the Holy Spirit about the most precious realities that we can understand experience now and in the future. This song is the preview of what would happen through Jesus Christ in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. This song leads us to the ultimate, unshakeable hope in this world that has no hope in itself.

First of all, it should lead us all to recognize that all of us need a Savior, the Suffering Servant of this song. If you are reading this, your time is now to believe and receive eternal life through the Son of God. And just as much it should mean that we give no human being anything close to the worship and admiration that we give the Savior, since they will all fade to nothing, like the picture in an old television that shrinks to a dot and disappear, before the glory of the risen Savior, to whom all power and authority has been given in heaven and on earth. And finally this should mean that we also bow before the Savior in submission to him, for he has died and is risen again, and he is worthy!

The Promise of His Coming

Many years ago, in London, England, a man in despair went to drown himself in the River Thames. On the way to the river, though, he happened to see a copy of the painting, “Hope.” This was a painting of a blindfolded woman who was sitting on top of the world and playing on the one string left on her harp. The man turned and went back home, as he exclaimed, “Well, I have one string – I have a little boy at home.”

In a time of great difficulty and discouragement for many, that was the kind of hope that God held out for his people. The year was 732 BC. It was during the difficult years of the reign of the ungodly king Ahaz, in his capital city of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz had led a life of wickedness and idolatry, and even sacrificed his son to a pagan god (either Baal-Rimmon or Molech).  But now the worst consequences of his wickedness had begun to arrive: the northern kingdom of Israel and the pagan kingdom of Syria had allied together against Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah, and they planned to set up a puppet king in Jerusalem. This would have meant an end to the independence of their nation and its becoming the slave state of the northern alliance. But God had his man on the spot to give them the message of hope and encouragement when the very survival of their nation seemed to be at stake. God gave the prophet Isaiah a vision of the King that was to come, and this would be someone infinitely better than the ungodly and incompetent Ahaz. This vision was an expansion on the earlier prophecy which God had given through Isaiah of the greater King from the line of David who was to come, and who would be marked as the center of the promises of God and the hopes of the people of God by being born of a virgin. Though the people of God would experience more oppression in the centuries to come through the world powers that would appear temporarily on the scene, through the prophet God pointed ahead to a time hundreds of years later to show them the Light of Salvation, the Son to be born of a virgin, who would ironically be the direct descendant of the incompetent Ahaz himself, and would bring his people freedom from the ultimate oppression itself.

This prophecy that God gave through Isaiah remains as the encouragement of the people of God today, as a foundation stone for the faith and hope of the people of God of all ages, but even more so today, since we now live on the other side of the first installment of the fulfillment of the prophecy. We now live since the time that the promised King first came, Jesus Christ, who lived and ministered among us, who died and rose again, and who now reigns from heaven. But we also can draw encouragement that there is an installment of the prophecy which is yet to be fulfilled, and when it is completely fulfilled, the promised King, born of a virgin, will return in glory and will rule openly over all the earth. Though we often hear these words during the Christmas season, in the incomparable setting of Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their meaning as we together consider what they meant at the time when these words first came through the prophet Isaiah.

So here is what Isaiah said, to the people of his time and to the people of God of all ages:

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!
You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.
Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!
And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

(Isaiah 9:1-7).

When God’s people living in distressing times, God’s promise of the Light of salvation remains. The Light of salvation isn’t some mystical mist, feelings of exaltation or anything like that, but a Person, and the Light of salvation is Salvation in person. The deliverance of God, the Light of salvation, is in the person of his Son, the promised King, and he comes to those who are in hopeless situations, where there is suffering, to deliver those who trust in him.

The Light of God’s salvation came first to the land and the people where it seemed like the darkness had its headquarters. The joy of deliverance would come by the prophecy from the center of the land of the northern alliance, from the people who would seem to be under the most evil and incompetent rulers of that day. It would come to the land of Galilee, and that land was then under the sway of the pagans.

In verses 1-2, Isaiah directs his prophecy to the land of Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles.

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!”

 

In ancient Israel, the land which was called Galilee then and now was always the first to suffer under the invasion of foreign powers. In a very short time after this prophecy was given, it would also be the first to suffer under the invasion of the Assyrian war machine, the terrifyingly brutal empire of that day. The prior context is a part of the rebuke of God through Isaiah to Ahaz, and it shows how God takes ungodly and incompetent rulers to task. And in the prior context God tells the godly and faithful in Israel to remain faithful and not to be terrified or intimidated by every scary rumor that they would hear. He also advises them to trust in God and his Word, and not to turn aside to the psychics and ghost whisperers of that day, since that path only leads to further darkness, dissatisfaction and despair that are the marks of oppression of a spiritual nature, as it does today as well. But then the prophecy through Isaiah turns to that land he called Galilee of the Gentiles, and that had been Israelite territory for about five hundred years, ever since God had given it to the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali during the time of Joshua, when the Israelites conquered the land after they had left Egypt during the time of Moses.

Isaiah had called the Galilee of the Gentiles a land of no joy, and that was certainly an understatement for the suffering of that time and the suffering to come.  Because it was on the northern borders, the Galilee was often the first piece of territory picked off by invaders and conquerors from the northern borders of Israel. These invaders were in earlier years from the Aramaean states that are a part of modern Syria, and later in the time of Isaiah, from the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire centered around the cities of Calah, Asshur and Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq. After the amazing ministry of Jonah in Nineveh some years earlier, the Assyrians seem to have been restrained in their drive for conquest of the whole Middle East, but they were soon to start back on that same path. And, as far as the land of Israel was concerned, the area of Galilee that Isaiah was speaking to would be the first to suffer. But, in the times to come, the first to suffer would be the first to experience something wonderful in the years to come. Centuries later, the fulfillment would come about, and it would not be a political liberation but something greater and deeper. The fulfillment would begin in the ministry of Jesus Christ in the land of Galilee, during the time of about 27-30 A.D., when he brought relief from spiritual and physical oppression in his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. The Light of salvation in person in those years came to an area despised for its religious and social impurity, and brought, and the apostle Matthew in fact pointed to the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matthew 4:12-17). And it seems that this prophecy did point forward to Jesus’s declaration in the gospel of John, “I am the Light of the world! Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!”

This shows the continuing modus operandi of God himself, that he brings the Light of salvation to the hopeless situations, and to the people who other people despise, bypass and exploit. He directs his greatest blessings to the most difficult situations and the most impossible people, and the freedom through his Son seems to come where the darkness may seem to be descending forever. The God of the Bible greatly desires to bring great joy and victory into places and lives marked by oppression and suffering. But he understands the real needs of the human heart and the human life more than any, and he knows that the real need of mankind is for more than political freedom from oppression and satisfaction of their physical needs, but rather, freedom from the power of sin over the human heart.

In so many circumstances we may forget this, and look to the satisfaction of the physical needs rather than the real needs of the human heart, but God provides for the need in ways in which we often would not do ourselves. For example, there was once a woman in Anchorage, Alaska many years ago who had been living in adultery with a married man, but who then became pregnant and was abandoned by him. After having been left alone, she threw herself on her bed and prayed, “O God, I haven’t talked with you for years, but if you are there, if you are real, please answer me. I have made a terrible mess of my life and I need your help. I need forgiveness. I want to live differently.”

God then directed her to go to the first church she saw, and there was a citywide conference on spiritual growth going on. She went in, paid the fee and came alone every night. The leader of the conference noticed her and her isolation in the midst of so many others, but he later found her coming to speak privately to him after the fourth night. He then shared with her the gospel of Jesus Christ, and she came to believe in the Savior that Isaiah had pointed to, and receive all the benefits of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Her problem, as she knew, wasn’t simply her circumstances, but the problem was with her heart and the way that she had been living, and she received what she needed to walk out of the darkness of her past into the light of the salvation which Jesus brought.

Ultimately, then, the Light of salvation which God promises means victory over our oppressions, since the conquering King is mightier than all the might of the oppressors. Before the power of the King who is to come all the equipment of the oppressor simply seems to melt away.

In verses 3-4, Isaiah went on to declare that the land of no joy, Galilee of the Gentiles, would become a land which would experience great joy as the mercy of God arrived there. He said,

“You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.”

The comparisons for this joy were as a time of great harvest or in dividing the spoils after a great military victory – perhaps the modern analogies would be a great stock market boom, a great victory like the Gulf War or World War II, or even a great victory for one’s favorite sports team. There would  be a miraculous victory over the oppressors, like that of Gideon over the vast army of Midian, which had taken place in about the same area about four hundred years earlier. During the lifetime of Isaiah there would have been a comparable miraculous victory over the Assyrians, in which no human would even have lifted a hand – and which, incidentally, is also attested by the secular Greek historian Herodotus. In the time of Jesus, the people would have also been looking for a political and military deliverance from the Romans, since the Roman oppression tended to be more visible in Galilee than in Jerusalem. But the promise of God’s miraculous deliverance would not be military and political, but rather the beginning of a peace that would never end, that would receive its final culmination at the return of Jesus Christ.

Though the power of oppression and evil may seem great, the power of God’s deliverance will always be greater still. Often, throughout the ages, the people of God, the people of the Bible, have been the oppressed and conquered rather than the conquerors and the oppressors. But all the might of a human war machine is nothing before the almighty Savior. Evil empires may arise, but they will all unravel and fall before the God who rules and governs the nations. This has been the comfort of the people of God in all ages, and it will certainly be so for the last generation that will face the ultimate evil empire and the ultimate evil emperor himself, the Antichrist. But ultimately, the joy of triumph will not be that of the false messiahs that precede the ultimate false messiah, and the ultimate false messiah, but all the vast, world dominating machinery of evil will simply melt away before the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Therefore, our hope in our own dark circumstances is the light of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the hope that gives us strength to endure even if the darkness seems to be gathering and asserting itself. By his mere presence, the coming of the Light of salvation will dispel the darkness, so believers in Jesus Christ need not despair of any situation as hopeless, even if the whole world around them seems to be covered with darkness. There is especially no need for hopelessness, despair, self pity and anger even if we seem to think that the circumstances of our lives are hopeless, because they are not!

The deliverance, then, that the Light of salvation in person wants to bring into our lives, then is first of all within our hearts, to bring us his joy even in the midst of our difficult circumstances in this life. Too often this is something that we may think is the least when often it is the most important thing that we need. There was once that a social worker verbally flogged David Wilkerson for giving people false hopes, but then a young woman named Rosa gave him inestimable encouragement. She told how she laughed when he had said that Jesus could live in her heart, and how she was drawn to the Word of God when she was told he could give her power over sin. She said that night when she had asked Jesus to change her heart, that the horrible block on which she lived changed. There were still piles of stinking garbage around and roaches in the apartment, and she still had many problems, but, “Jesus has changed the biggest problem of all. he has shown me how to live with myself.”

So then, God’s Light of salvation in Jesus Christ remains when his people face distressing times, but even more, God’s promise of salvation points forward to the King who was to come. The Son that he promised would be the source of salvation for the despised and downtrodden people of God, and what a Son would be that King who was to come! His anointed King, the Messiah, would be the fulfillment of all the promises of God, and the glory of the ruling Messiah would be the source of salvation for his people.

The King who was to come as the fulfillment of salvation would be certainly more than an mere human being and more than any earthly ruler before or since. The prophecy says that he would be born a human male, but the amazing titles which he is given sows that he would be more than an ordinary man. The prophecy speaks about someone who is born and yet is eternal, man and yet more than man.

The prophet Isaiah then ex[ands upon an earlier promise that he had made to Ahaz in verse 6:

“Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!”

It was certainly in the same time period, and may have even been on the same occasion he spoke to Ahaz face to face in 7:14, about the ruling Son from the house of David who was to be born of  a virgin. In this passage Isaiah explains more about what the prophetic name “Emmanuel” would mean, “God with us.” He would be “Wonderful,” which was the name of the angel of the Lord who had appeared to Manoah, the father of Samson, and who himself turned out to be God and accepted sacrifice as God himself. He would be “Counselor,” the great Teacher, and Jesus himself accepted this title fully of himself during his earthly ministry. Moreover, he would be “Mighty God,” the God of Israel himself in person, and he would be called, “The Everlasting Father,” as eternal as God himself and the “Prince of Peace,” the ultimate peacemaker as God himself. The ruling Son from the house of David, the King who was to come, would certainly be born human, but he would also be someone who would also have the attributes of God himself, and this is something that would be possible only if he were both God and man.

This also shows something remarkable about the way that the God of the Bible works things out as he intervenes in our lives and in the history of our world. His promises and his course of action may not really be comprehensible to us until it happens. This is the way that the promises of God and the prophecies of the Messiah happened in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But as he did with Jesus, he most certainly will do the unprecedented and unexpected for his people, as he did when he became man in the person of his Son. We often cannot know how he will act to fulfill his promises beforehand, but we can rely on him to fulfill his promises; we may find him doing things that we do not and cannot anticipate, but we will certainly find him acting powerfully, compassionately and lovingly for his glory in the person of his Son for his people. And in Jesus, God has come himself and has not remained distant. It is like a legend of a Shah of Iran some centuries ago. He disguised himself as a poor man, and came and sat with the man who tended the fire for the furnace to heat the water for the public baths. He proceeded to visit with him day after day, until one day when the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The poor man looked into the Shah’s face with love and wonder and said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happens to me. On others you may bestow rich gifts, but to me you have given yourself!”

God’s promise of salvation through his King, then, shows his utter trustworthiness. Through Jesus Christ he has fulfilled his promises to the royal dynasty of David, the royal house of Israel, and to all the people of God in all ages. The dynasty that reached its fullest dominion in Jesus Christ shows the utter faithfulness of God to his promises to all ages.

Isaiah went on to declare that all this would be accomplished not by anything that they would do but by the zealous determination of  God to fulfill his own promises to the house of David:

“And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

The fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ stand as a witness forever to the utter trustworthiness of the God of the Bible and his utter dedication to the fulfillment of his own Word. God had already given promises to David years earlier, but through Isaiah, those promises were expanded even more to that someone else who would be greater than Solomon, the immediate heir of David. The King who would reign forever on the throne of David would be the final recipient of the promises of God through Isaiah to the people of God, and that Forever King would have no adversary ever that could resist his power and authority. The final application of this prophecy, then, is to the glory of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus, who has all power in heaven and on earth, and who is returning to rule this world directly, up close and in person.

Because of the precise and trustworthy fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, there is the certainty for the child of God through faith in Jesus Christ that the God of the Bible remembers and fulfills his own promises. There is the assurance that the God of the Bible has a meticulous faithfulness to all that he says he will do. And the basis of our faith in him and our faith in his Word is not anything in ourselves and the strength of our convictions, confidence or feelings, but the faithfulness which God has shown throughout the centuries to do exactly what he has promised. The faith of the believer in Christ is not the presumption of and our expectations of what we want, but rather the trust in and reception of what God has already said and promised. So a strong faith is only the humble confidence in what God has said, and daring to take him at his Word, rather than trusting to our own ideas and our own estimation of the circumstances, no matter how promising nor how dark they may seem. And this is the kind of confidence which is found in the words of ‘Chester,’ which was one of the runners-up to be the national anthem of the United States of America:

“Let our tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slavery clank her galling chains,
We fear them not,
We trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.”

The God of the Bible will always fulfill his Word, but in his own way and in his own time. To his glory he will often go beyond our own ideas and expectations to do much more than we had thought, but in our difficulties he will above all give us himself. This is the reason for us to trust him, to receive his companionship through Jesus Christ, to follow his Word, and to live with the sense of adventure and wonder that comes when God’s surprises arrive and fulfill our deepest desires.

The message of the prophet of God, then, is, “Wait for the King! Everything is moving forward to the time that he arrives here, and everything will be all right when  he gets here!” So, we now live on the other side of the first coming of the King, after his birth at Bethlehem. We live on the other side of the testimony to what God has done for us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection. If we have repented of our sins and put our faith in him, his Light of salvation, the pardon for our sins and acceptance with God that means eternal life, has already shone into our lives. And yet we wait for him also, for his return in glory, when he will openly and directly exercise his authority over the earth as the King and Master of all. Because of him we know that God cares when people are in suffering and oppression. Because of him we know that God is faithful, that he fulfills his Word even if great stretches of time take place between the promise and the fulfillment. Because of him we know that God’s purpose for our world from all eternity has been that all power and authority, all the glory of Deity, and all wisdom and salvation, would center in and be embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus has come, then, and is yet to return, there is opportunity to receive the eternal life which he died and rose again to provide. He comes as the Light and joy of salvation to those who repent of their sins and put their trust in him. So the question comes to you: have you trusted in the King? Have you received the gift of eternal life which he died to provide for you, and which you could not have earned by yourself? Have you declared your allegiance, that the King is your Lord and Master, by the public declaration of your faith in him?

If you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ, and you have received eternal life, does your life show genuine loyalty to him? Are you loyal to him in your daily obedience to him in following his Word daily, since any day could the the day that you would meet him? Are you demonstrating your loyalty to the other people of his family and kingdom, your brothers and sisters in Christ, by dealing honestly with them and with self sacrificial love? Do you show the glory of the kingdom through lives of purity, holiness and love, so that others see a family resemblance to the King in your life? Finally, do you seek to enlist others to loyalty to the King by your witness to him?