FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN
by Bob Wheeler
One of the questions Jesus had to confront during His earthly ministry was whether or not He really was He claimed to be – the promised Messiah. For that matter we face the same question today: how do we know that He was the Son of God, the Messiah? And part of the answer to that question lies in the prophecies that were made centuries earlier concerning the Messiah. And some of the most important of these prophecies were made by Isaiah.
Isaiah’s prophecies came during a particularly difficult time in ancient Israel’s history. The nation at that time was divided between two competing states, the kingdom of Israel in the north (also called Ephraim or Samaria), and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Worried about the growing power of Assyria in the north, the northern kingdom Israel formed an alliance with neighboring Syria (Damascus), and together they threatened Judah which had refused to join the alliance. The newly crowned king of Judah, Ahaz, appealed to the Assyrians for help, and the Assyrians in 734 B.C. invaded Palestine. The northern and northeastern parts of Israel were annexed to the Assyrian Empire.
But the Jews were God’s chosen people. How could all of this have happened to them? Isaiah makes it clear that this was a judgment from God on a nation that had grown worldly and corrupt. While the external forms of worship had been maintained, idolatry was widespread, as well as political corruption. And God made it clear what He expected from them:
“Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor,
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.”
(Isa. 1:17; NKJV)
It was for their failure to live up to God’s standards of morality that war and devastation had come upon them, and eventually captivity.
It was in this context, then, that Isaiah’s remarkable prophecies came. Isaiah describes the deep gloom that would fall upon the country as it would be invaded by the Assyrians: “Then they will look to the earth, see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness” (Isa. 8:22). But in wrath God remembers mercy, and Israel is still God’s chosen people. And so, in the midst of this dire prophecy comes a remarkable promise: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed” (9:1) – or, as we might better understand it “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish” – NASV. And then, referring specifically to two tribes in the north of Israel, Zebulon and Naphtali, it says,
“The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.”
But how was this prophecy fulfilled? And when? The specific area mentioned (“Galilee of the Gentiles”) was part of the northern kingdom that was annexed to Assyria in approximately 733 B.C. The next several verses speak of God having broken the rod of the oppressor, “For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, / And garments rolled in blood,/ Will be used for burning and fuel of fire” (9:5). But war would continue to be a fact of life in that area for many centuries to come.
But the text goes on to explain:
“For unto a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder . . .”
In other words, the prophecy looks forward to nothing less than the birth of Christ. And remarkably, when the Messiah, Jesus, did come, He began His public ministry, not in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, but in the north, in Galilee. He grew up in Nazareth, located in the former territory of Zebulon, and His first miracle was performed in nearby Cana. And much of His subsequent ministry was centered in Capernaum, located on the Sea of Galilee in what had been the territory of Naphtali. It was a direct fulfillment of this prophecy.
But in what sense could it be said that “The people who walked in darkness / Have seen a great light” and “Upon them a light has shined” (9:2)? Jesus would say that “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12), and “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46). The darkness, then, is not just the gloom of war and turmoil, and it does not just affect the people of ancient Galilee. It is deeper and more pervasive than that. It is the spiritual darkness that has engulfed the entire human race. It is our self-centeredness, and our inability to see beyond our own immediate self-interest, that keeps us from acting as we ought. This is the underlying cause of the crime, corruption, poverty and war that afflicts human society. And into this sin-cursed world came the Son of God, bringing truth and salvation. He is the light of the world.
And how will this light come into the world?
“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given . . .”
The Messiah would come into the world in the form of human child. But, as we shall see, He was no ordinary human being.
The fact that the Messiah would come into the world and spend much of His ministry in Galilee is a remarkable testimony to the grace of God toward miserable sinners. Israel had brought its troubles upon itself. It fully deserved divine punishment. But in wrath God remembered mercy (Hab. 3:2) and sent His Son to that very part of the country that had born the brunt of His wrath.
But it is even more true of all of those of us who have been saved by grace. We were all lost sinners, all on our way to hell. We were in spiritual darkness, and cared not for the things of God. And yet in one way or another God brought us undeserving sinners to Christ to receive the forgiveness of our sins and changed lives. We are now heirs of heaven. Praise be to His holy name!