14 December 2015

Isaiah 9:2-7

"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 onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." (v. 7)

Psalm: Psalm 145:1-7


These verses from Isaiah are most commonly understood by Christians as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. Its original context however is the Syro-Ephraimite war and the depression of the Israelites as a result of foreign domination - in this instance by Assyria.

The writer is attempting to speak a word of light and hope into what seems like a deathly dark and hopeless situation. Three distinct images, the yoke, the rod and the staff, are used as a way of stressing the extent of the suffering of the people. The only hope of salvation is clearly linked to victory over the oppressor through the rise of a powerful leader in much the same way that Gideon was raised up by God to save the Israelites from the Medianites (Judges 7).

The sound of the marching army, amplified by special sandals and the use of garments, rolled in blood from past battles, were deliberate scare tactics used by Assyrians to intimidate their enemies. Peace will therefore only be assured after battle has been won and the sandals and uniforms of the enemy are burned to prevent them ever being used again.

The seeming contradiction between the expectations of the Israelites and of the Christians concerning the nature and purpose of God's Messiah is partially resolved in the final verse of this section. The writer knows only too well that the end of all suffering and the peace, which Israel so longs for, even if it is envisaged in the language of victory in battle, will nonetheless only come about by the miraculous intervention of God. It is God who will provide the son that will be given.

The challenge for Christians who simply want to read the text as prophetic of Christ's birth is the absence of the promised peace for the kingdom of David. There is, as yet, no sign of the justice and righteousness that are to be the hallmark of the reign of the prince of peace. Ultimately therefore, both interpretations must be held together in the "Amen" of the final verse. "The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this."

To Ponder

  • Can peace ever be achieved without people fighting for it? What other options are there?
  • What would convince you that the reign of God really is at hand?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Angela Shier-Jones

The late Angela Shier-Jones was a Methodist minister in the Kingston Upon Thames Circuit and a member of the World Methodist Council Executive..