posted on Dec, 21 2014 @ 12:10 PM
One of the best-known portions of Handel’s Messiah is the aria based on “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah ch9
v2), immediately followed by “For unto us a child is born”.
And of course we associate those words with Christmas.
The same verse is quoted by Matthew, though not in connection with the birth of Jesus.
But I think we get a better understanding of the prophecy if we begin by placing it in its original context.
This verse can be seen as belonging to a group of prophecies linked by themes of hope and despair, light and darkness.
The section really goes back to the middle of the previous chapter.
The prophet declares “I will wait for the Lord…and I will hope in him”, even though the Lord is currently “hiding his face from” (not
showing open support for) the house of Jacob.
He’s already offered signs and portents of hope for Israel in his own preaching and in the names of his own children- ch8 vv16-18
Then he gives examples of the “darkness” which this hope is combatting.
One is the “darkness” of the kind of teaching which takes people away from God.
Specifically, “the wizards who chirp and mutter”, offering their clients the opportunity to consult the dead.
Can people not see the absurdity? Why should living people deal with the dead, when they have a Living God who can be consulted much
For this teaching, “there is no dawn”.
The deceived people will go into exile, cursing their rulers and their God.
Wherever they look, they will see nothing but “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish”. vv19-22
Next the prophet, or the collector of the prophecies, picks up the words “gloom” and “anguish” to introduce a promise of hope for the land
from which the recent exiles have been taken.
This applies to the tribal territories of Zebulon and Naphtali. It covers a swathe of land, stretching over “the way of the sea” (west of the sea
of Galilee) and “beyond the Jordan” (east of the sea of Galilee).
Thanks to the Assyrians and their shifting of the population, this has become (for the moment) “Galilee of the Gentiles”.
There will be a dawn for this land.
The gloom and anguish will cease, and it will be brought back to its former glories.
Then we come to “the people that walked in darkness”.
This verse is introducing a fresh element in this group of prophecies.
The prophet breaks out into verse again after the prose remarks about Galilee.
In fact the Hebrew text begins the new chapter at this point.
So the promise that “the light will shine” should really be taken with the words that follow.
In other words, the promise is not restricted to the land of Galilee, but belongs to God’s people as a whole.
So “Thou has multiplied the nation, thou hast increased its joy”.
God’s people is restored in numbers and prosperity.
God has “broken the rod” of the nation’s oppressor, and the yoke of his burden.
The enemies of God’s people have been overcome.
This victory is the victory of the child whose birth is proclaimed in v6, so Handel is quite right to link the two passages.
His kingdom will be upheld with justice and righteousness, and of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.
This is looking forward to the time of God’s final victory over what is wrong in the world.
Turning now to the New Testament use of this passage;
Matthew takes “The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light” as his prophecy.
He begins his quotation from the geographical references in the previous verse, describing “Galilee of the Gentiles”.
This means that he cannot connect the prophecy with the birth of Jesus, because the birth of Jesus has already been linked with Bethlehem in the
So he can’t anticipate Handel by bringing in the verse about “Unto us a child is born”, and putting these words into a Nativity context.
Instead, he attaches them to the moment when Jesus begins preaching, after the arrest of John the Baptist.
The “great light” which the people of Galilee have seen is not the birth of Jesus, but the teaching of Jesus. Matthew ch4 vv12-17
We will find the real essence of this prophecy by looking at what the two applications, in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, have got in
In the first place, the prophecy is God’s response to a state of darkness.
In Isaiah, the darkness is partly the people’s failure to accept the “light” of God’s guidance.
It is partly the oppression which the nation suffers, including, but not limited to, the exile of the tribes of Galilee.
It is also the state of despair which follows on from all this.
In Matthew, the people need the teaching of Jesus because they are still short of the light of God’s guidance.
For the New Testament, though, the focus is transferred from human oppression to the oppressive state of Sin, the whole complex of sin-and-death
introduced by the events of Eden.
This is the real reason why people might despair of themselves and of the world.
Secondly, the prophecy is a promise that God will bring his people out of the darkness.
In Isaiah, the oppressors are to be defeated, “as in the time of Midian”.
The lack of the light of God is to be replaced by justice and righteousness.
Consequently, the state of despair is to be replaced by rejoicing.
In the New Testament, the teaching mission of Jesus, which brings God’s light to the people of Galilee, begins a process which completes the
overcoming of Sin.
It ends in the establishment of a kingdom of justice and righteousness, filled with the joy of God’s presence.
Finally, in both cases, the promise is focussed upon one person, whose birth begins the fulfilment of the prophecy.
Matthew knows this man as Jesus.