On November 13, Davide Martello sat in a German pub watching the France-Germany soccer game when the terror attacks in Paris began. Minutes later, Davide loaded his grand piano on a trailer and drove 400 miles through the night to Paris. He parked outside the Bataclan concert hall—the site of the deadliest attack—and played a beautiful rendition of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” When interviewed later, he said, “I wanted to be there to try and comfort, and offer a sign of hope.”
Nearly 3,000 years earlier, the prophet Isaiah wrote a similar song, a song for people who had just been attacked, a song sung to a terrorized people. It was meant to be a balm, a picture of a peaceful future. While Isaiah’s song has a very different message than “Imagine,” the goal is the same: to restore hope in a community that has just lived through a nightmare.
Isaiah 9:1–7 contains the now-familiar promise that we celebrate at Christmas: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (ESV, used throughout). But this promise wasn’t given in a vacuum. It was made to people living in the shadow of death—specifically, death at the hands of terrorists.
What Happens After Terror?
The Israelites were in the midst of one of the most frightening seasons in their history. The Assyrian empire stood at their borders and attacked frequently. Within about a decade, it would conquer the ten Northern tribes of Israel. Assyria was among the most brutal regimes in ancient Mesopotamia. It was a war machine. Some historians have called Assyrian forces the world’s first great army. Assyria had trained troops, iron weapons, and advanced engineering. Even more terrifying was their ruthless violence. They employed sheer terror to intimidate their enemies.
For example, the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal wrote about how he executed leaders of the city of Suru:
I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar.
This kind of inhumanity was common. The Assyrians dismembered and beheaded their captives; they lead their prisoners of war away by putting hooks in their noses. They employed psychological warfare and inspired panic wherever they went.
In the face this terrorist threat, Isaiah gave a message of hope for the people who would survive Assyria’s attack. It started with a promise that distress wouldn’t last forever.
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. (v. 1)
Zebulun and Naphtali were in the region hardest hit by Assyria in 733 B.C. The Assyrians conquered these lands and divided them it into three districts, all of which are included in Isaiah’s list: the way of the sea (in the Assyrian Du’ru province), the land beyond the Jordan (in the Gal’aza province), and Galilee of the nations (in the Magiddu province). Isaiah was speaking hope to those who had suffered most. Isaiah’s song is beautiful, but how is it not just another optimistic daydream like John Lennon’s? As Isaiah’s message unfolds, we discover the nature of true hope.
Hope from the Outside
Isaiah immediately describes a future when everything has changed. Even though he’s writing about the future, Isaiah talks about it in the past tense, as if it has already happened. Why? If God has decided and determined to do this, it’s as good as done.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (v. 2)
The key to this different future is that something concrete is going to happen. Isaiah says a light has dawned. It’s not just that all terrorized people decide to work together toward a better future. No, something happens to them. Light, of some sort, shines on them—from the outside.
They have been living in a land of “deep darkness.” This Hebrew word can also be translated “the shadow of death” (as it is in Psalm 23:4). Isaiah’s listeners have been living under a cloud of death. It’s as if every time they send their children off to have lunch with friends, or can’t reach their spouses, they get nervous. Death is a shadow over them. And then they see a great light.
The “light” seems to be a picture of the nation’s transition from decimation to flourishing.
You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. (v. 3)
Instead of exile and a withering population, the nation is growing and thriving. Instead of hiding in fear, the people are partying—full of over-the-top joy, the kind you have when everything has gone way better than you expected. Imagine watching the news and seeing groups of Syrian refugees having lavish parties—feasts with music and dancing and an abundance of food. This is the kind of radical turnaround Isaiah describes.
Notice that the people rejoice before God. He is the reason for this drastic change in their situation. But how does he make this happen?
The End of Terror
God has overcome the oppressors:
For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. (v. 4)
God has taken those wooden instruments of torture and shattered them. And the defeat was so unlikely, so against-the-odds, that it was like the time God used Gideon and 300 men to defeat thousands of Midianite troops. God himself has ended the terror.
Unlike Lennon’s song, which suggests that there might be peace if we could imagine there’s no heaven, Isaiah says there will be peace only because there is a heaven, and the God of heaven is on the move.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. (v. 5)
The Hebrew at the beginning of this verse is difficult to translate. It literally means “every boot, booting with shaking.” The picture seems to be of boots stamping in rhythm, shaking the ground. Think of the footage of Nazi armies marching in formation. Imagine that terrifying sound. Isaiah says that every military march that makes the ground shake will be history when God acts. This war—and, we learn elsewhere in Isaiah, all war (Is. 2:4)—will come to an end. The soldiers’ footwear, which was expensive and highly prized plunder, will not be taken off dead feet and used for the next battle, but will be burned in the fire. There will be no more need for it.
Yet we still don’t know exactly how thriving has occurred where there was once only terror and death, or how oppression has been shattered against all odds. The answer Isaiah gives is unexpected.
A new king will be born, Isaiah says.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (v. 6)
The picture here is of the royal robe—that represents governing—resting on his shoulders. Isaiah describes this child with four titles:
Wonderful Counselor. Most kings surround themselves with counselors—to strategize, advise, and make plans. This ruler doesn’t need anyone to advise him. He himself is a counselor and he makes the plans.
Mighty God. This child is somehow identified with God. And he’s a strong God. He’s valiant. He fights for his people. Not only does he strategize and make plans—like a good counselor—but he is strong enough to carry them out himself.
Everlasting Father. The text says that this ruler is everlasting. But the Hebrew phrase might suggest even more. It could be translated “Father of Eternity.” This suggests that he is more than everlasting: he stands over time, with authority over it.
While other ancient Near Eastern cultures often referred to their kings as “father,” Israel did not. In Israel’s kingdom, the title “father” was reserved for God. God was Father, and the king was called his son (see 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2).But in Isaiah 9, we have a king who is also called Father. This title would likely have puzzled the Hebrews. How can you have a king who is also God? The Trinitarian mysteries hinted at would, of course, become clearer with the Incarnation and passion of Jesus. But we catch a glimpse of them here.
Prince of Peace. Isaiah uses the Assyrian term sar (“prince”) rather than the Hebrew term melek (“king”). This new leader is being described in specific, direct contrast to the current reign of terror. He will be a peaceful prince, not a malicious overlord.
When it came to God’s great rescue, the work of his Messiah, God did not deliver his people from violence and oppression by being more violent or more oppressive than their enemies. Just the opposite. He had the power to destroy his enemies instantaneously, but didn’t choose to do it that way. Here we see him delivering his people through humility and gentleness. As John Oswalt puts it, “[A]gain and again, when the prophet [Isaiah] comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us.”
God is going to overcome his enemies, says Isaiah, by sending a peaceful prince. It is this prince who will tell his followers to put down their swords; who will put the dismembered ear back on an enemy soldier; who will tell his judge, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over. … But my kingdom is not from the world”; who will choose to rescue his people, not by resisting arrest and death, but by submitting to it for the sake of overcoming death. This is the kind of prince who will walk into the shadow of death to bring life to his people.
Kingdom Come and Coming
What will the future of this prince be?
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (v. 7)
The kingdom of this unusual child will keep growing—forever. It will be full of justice, not oppression. We live in the time when this prince has begun his reign, but it is not yet complete. And Christians, both past and present, have not always submitted to his rule of peace. At times we have resorted to using worldly power and violence. But his kingdom is of another sort, and it is not yet here in its fullness. It is still increasing.
Often we find ourselves asking, as many other Christians in history have, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps. 13:1) If God has promised to end evil in all its forms—violence, terror, oppression, and more—why does he allow it to continue for so long? While the answers remain mysterious, the apostle Peter suggests that what looks like God’s slowness in keeping promises is actually patience. God—who is even more eager to wipe out evil than we are for him to do it—is being patient so that more people might have the chance to turn to him, and not perish (2 Pet. 3:4-9).
We know that this picture of peace will one day be fully realized because, according to Isaiah, the “zeal” of the Lord of hosts will accomplish it (v. 7). We could also translate this word as “jealousy” or “ardent love.” Passionate emotion will move God to ensure that this happens. This isn’t something he just decides to do. It’s something he is desperate to do. We can therefore rest knowing that this future, peaceful kingdom is as good as done. God is the only one who can bring peace. We humans cannot accomplish it. And he is fully committed to doing it.
I was reminded of all this last month, when I was in Atlanta for a conference. While there, I heard news of a possible ISIS threat against the city. The FBI, I was told, was taking the threat seriously, and we were to remain alert. While the credibility of the threat was unclear, I have to admit I felt anxious as I went to bed that night. I was far from my family. My young children were counting down the days until they would see me again. Warding off fear, I turned to read Isaiah 9.
I was comforted by this reminder that God hates terror more than we do. He’s not satisfied with people living in the constant shadow of death. He has a plan for permanently eradicating the things that terrify us—the sound of stamping boots, scary news reports, red alert levels at the airport, horrifying Internet videos. Brutal regimes will make their plans, but God can out-strategize them all. His plan for his children is over-the-top joy. No more oppression. No more spilled blood. And while we have seen this plan put into action in the giving of Jesus, it is not yet complete. It’s still expanding, and it has a long way to go. But we know this: God is passionately committed to rescuing us from the specter of death. And while some of this plan has yet to be accomplished, it is as good as done.
This Christmas, let’s rest our news-weary souls in this promise of peace. Let’s teach it to our children. And let’s pray for people throughout the world who are living in the shadow of death right now, every moment of every day. Pray that light would shine on them, that they would turn to this incredible child, to the Prince of Peace. For he has come and will come again.
Sarah Lebhar Hall, adjunct professor of biblical studies at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Trinity School for Ministry, is author of Conquering Character: The Characterization of Joshua in Joshua 1–11.