Light is a common motif at Christmas, from flickering candles to elaborate lawn displays. Two of my favourite carols have poignant lines about light:
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. (O Holy Night)
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; and death’s dark shadows put to flight (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)
So it’s not surprising that this passage is so popular at Christmas:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish…The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…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. 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. (Isaiah 9:1a, 2, 6–7)
We love the image of light breaking through the darkness, of dawn after an endless night. We want to wake to a world of peace, goodness, and justice. But what kind of darkness is this passage talking about? Is it the darkness of suffering, or sickness, or hatred, or death?
Let’s look at the chapter just before this one to figure it out. A bit of context first: Judah was facing a threat from the combined forces of Israel and Syria. King Ahaz turned to Assyria for protection instead of relying on God who had promised to look after his people. The prophet Isaiah says:
I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Isaiah 8:17–22)
You’ll notice parallel language between these two passages. They both speak of gloom and anguish, darkness and light. So we should read them together to understand what is going on.
This looming military disaster made Judah fall into the darkness of despair. But the political situation had changed dramatically by the time Jesus was born five hundred years later—so clearly Jesus didn’t come to rescue them from this threat.
In this passage, Isaiah calls out Judah for putting their hope in the wrong place. God had hidden his face from Judah because they forgot him, preferring to take matters into their own hands by relying on Assyria. And because of this, they were facing something far worse than a military invasion: the wrath of God.
God’s people had been warned about the consequences of disobedience:
…if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you. (Joshua 23:16)
An invasion was God’s discipline against his people for their disobedience and idolatry. It was meant to bring them back to him in repentance and trust, but instead they turned even further away. The true darkness here is spiritual darkness, separation from God because of our sin.
As we read Isaiah 9, we must remember what we’ve been saved from: our own stubborn rebellion, which leads to death.
But there’s good news too: the Prince of Peace has come. The light dawned on that starry night when Jesus was born. One day, when he returns, he will bring complete and eternal peace to the world. But for now he has won the most important peace, between us and God. We were among those who had no dawn, but now we have the light of life.
Jesus overcame the darkness of sickness, as he healed people during his earthly ministry.
Jesus overcame the darkness of suffering, as he will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).
Jesus overcame the darkness of death, as it no longer has dominion over those who trust in him (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).
And most importantly of all, Jesus overcame the darkness of our estrangement from God. He has saved us from eternal torment and doom.
So at Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the light—for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Let us also fight against the remnants of darkness that still remain in our hearts: sin, discontentment, selfishness, unbelief. Instead of turning to food or festivities or family to complete us this Christmas, we need to turn to Jesus. He alone can dispel the darkness and bring us into glorious light.