It’s almost impossible to listen our morning’s passage without also hearing in our heads the music George Frideric Handel put it to in his magnificent Messiah—[Sing] “For unto us a child is born….” Such is the power of adding music to Scripture—music is able to make Scripture memorable! As to Handel’s work, according to an article on Smithsonian.com, one of the remarkable things about this composition is that “Handel composed Messiah in an astounding interlude, somewhere between three and four weeks in August and September 1741. ‘He would literally write from morning to night,’ says Sarah Bardwell of the Handel House Museum in London. The text was prepared in July by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens, and was intended for an Easter performance the following year.” So the Messiah
was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce. The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
What an extraordinary testimony this is to the power of God’s Word that it could cause a minister of that Word to offer pardon to a sinner—even to one involved a “scandalous divorce”—upon hearing her sing about the despised and rejected Christ, the Messiah, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief!
Well, as we turn to our text, we need to remind ourselves that Isaiah lived a good 700 years before the coming of Jesus the Messiah about whom he was prophesying. Further the first 39 chapters of his book are addressed to his contemporaries as a warning as he declares God’s judgment on them, due to their consistent disobedience, by means of the nation of Assyria. Chapter 8 provides a disturbing snapshot of the depth of Israel’s disobedience—and listen for the imagery of light and darkness as I read Isaiah’s words:
19 When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.
This small bit of context just prior to our passage is important for in the midst of these warnings from God; in the midst of these times when God’s people were consulting mediums and spiritists rather than God’s Word, Isaiah notes that consequently the people have “no light of dawn” (v. 20) but, again, “only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (v. 22). Yet in the midst of their spiritual darkness, Isaiah provided stunning glimpses and reassurances of hope, a promise of light the likes of which they had never before known.
So chapter 9 begins with a wonderful word, “Nevertheless.” For even when God’s people are faithless, God is ever faithful. So Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece and spokesman states, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan.” These regions of Zebulun and Naphtali had been the first to be subjected and suffered greatly when Assyria initially attacked Israel. Yet the reason Galilee would be honored, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, is that Galilee was the place where the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, would begin his ministry of preaching repentance proclaiming that in him, the King of the universe, God’s kingdom was at hand; in him the light of God’s kingdom had arrived to dispel earth’s darkness. So much so that, as one commentator notes, “The spiritual gloom of [Isaiah] 8:22 is dispelled forever by the light of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.” Can you see how astonishing this is? Can you appreciate how magnificent a change God promised to bring about by means of Messiah Jesus? So that:
those who were distressed and hungry, roaming through the land (8:21);
those who became enraged when they were famished and so looked upward to curse their God and king (8:21);
those who looked toward the earth and saw only distress—and darkness—and fearful gloom (8:22);
those who were thrust into utter darkness (8:22) by their choice to consult human mediums and spiritists rather than God’s instruction and heeding his testimony of warning (8:19–22);
These faithless, disillusioned, rebellious, desperate ones walking in darkness have seen a great light; upon those living in deep darkness, a light has dawned. Isaiah is so certain of the fulfillment of this prophecy that he speaks in the present tense; he speaks as though this great event had already come to fruition. Isaiah uses the image of darkness to symbolize those who had turned away from God. So that, again, those who had turned to other means for guidance, to mediums and spiritists rather than to God’s instruction, were in effect choosing human foolishness over God’s wisdom. And it is to these who were living in a self-chosen and self-imposed spiritual darkness that Isaiah gave a vision of a piercing great light, of a light dawning and penetrating even their deep darkness.
In verse 3 Isaiah addresses this light, that is, God, directly: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.” To know God; to choose God’s light and wisdom and instruction is to have our joy increased for we were made for him. Isaiah uses analogies from common occupations of his day to indicate just how joyous and, in the end, rewarding life with God is intended to be. It’s like farmers being able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, of their sowing, as they reap and rejoice over a bountiful harvest; it’s like warriors’ skill and training being rewarded upon defeating their enemies and dividing the plunder. So if we are able to rejoice over such earthly goods, how much more will we rejoice over the good of God and his provision, of God who seeks to give us his light and so increase our joy—and enjoyment—of and in him?
Isaiah next states how God’s light is able to break the oppression of Israel’s enemies in verse 4: “For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.” Isaiah’s audience would have recognized the mention of Midian’s defeat as a reference to Gideon breaking the domination of the Midianites in Israel’s history. So Isaiah likens this past working of God, to God’s future defeat of the Assyrians—again a defeat that is so certain that it’s spoken of as having already occurred. Though those living in Isaiah’s day may have been experiencing oppression from Assyria due to their rebellion and their having turned away from their Maker and God, one day, when God’s light would dawn on their deep darkness, all oppression—not just that of the Assyrians—would end. And in that day they would no longer need the battle garments listed in verse 5: “Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” For in the dawning of that marvelous day God would establish his peace on earth.
And the means of that peace is the climax of Isaiah’s prophecy. For those listening to him were no doubt wondering:
How will God’s great light break upon those walking in darkness?
How will his light dawn on those living in deep darkness?
How will God enlarge their nation and increase their joy?
How will he shatter the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor?
Will he do this by means of a heavenly army?
Or will he do so by way of a cataclysmic earthquake or some other great catastrophe?
No, this overcoming of darkness—and sorrow—and oppression would come in the most unlikely way that they—or we—could have ever imagined:
By means of a child;
Of a helpless, vulnerable baby crying in a manger;
By a child who even at the time of his birth was at one and the same time son of Mary—and son of God: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”
Do you hear what Isaiah is saying? This child was born for us. This child is given to us. He is fully human, born of Mary—and he is fully God, given by God. In these verses we are presented with God’s entire reason and purpose in coming to earth in human form: to rescue—to save—his creation from the devastating effects of the Fall that has ever caused his image-bearers to turn away from—and rebel against—and disregard their God and Maker. But our loving triune God, before the creation of the world, determined not to treat us in kind. Rather than turn away and disregard us, he came as a child to deliver us from all suffering and evil and injustice. For “the government will be on his shoulders.” Because the child to be born is not merely human but also the God who made all the world, this child will govern that world, from the galaxies in the heavens to the smallest creatures on earth; he will care for those who know and love him and he will care for those who don’t; he will sustain and provide for those who follow him and he will sustain and provide those who don’t. For he is God who has come to reclaim and redeem those who are rightfully his. So who is this child to be born for us? Who is this child to be given to us?
[Sing] “And his name shall be called”—and here I pause to note that Handel—and his influence is such that even our call to worship reflected his reading rather than Isaiah’s!—has led us slightly astray in this first title for all who are familiar with his Messiah know what follows: [Sing] “Wonderful!”—“Counselor.” Though Handel has served us well in creating an arrangement that allows us to memorize and proclaim this portion of Isaiah’s prophecy, in doing so he has also separated one of the titles of that should have been kept together. Though this child will indeed be wonderful and a counselor, what Isaiah states is that he will be a Wonderful Counselor. For Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, God who has come in the flesh, is a Wonderful Counselor. Because he is God who made all things; because he is God who sustains all things; because he is God who knows all things and is all wisdom, he calls us to turn to him, to seek his wonderful counsel—his wonderful wisdom. For who better for us to turn than the One who made all things? Who better for us to seek than the One who made us and thereby knows us better than ourselves?
Isaiah further tells us that this Messiah, this Christ who has entered history in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, is Mighty God. And this title points to his power, to his ability to carry out his wonderful counsel and wisdom. And not only that but he is also the Everlasting Father in that he takes care of those who are his and does for them what is best for them. And as one who carries the government on his shoulders, who sustains and governs the world he created and to which he came, he is the Prince of Peace who has come to restore and redeem the creation order; to rescue and make right all that is wrong with it; to return the world to how he designed and intended it to be. For when God in Christ first came to earth in human form in the person of Jesus, that baby, that child in a manger born to us and given for us, he came as King to bring his heavenly Kingdom values and order to bear on the earthly mess we had made of things. He came to bring:
love to a world too often marred by hate;
peace to a world too often marred by war;
joy to a world too often marred by sadness;
light to a world too often marred by darkness;
hope to a world too often marred by despair;
faith to a world too often marred by doubt;
forgiveness to a world too often marred by sin;
healing to a world too often marred by pain.
Again, Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to bring God’s peace, his shalom, to make things as they ought to be—to make things as we long them to be—to make things as they one day will be when he returns again to complete his rule once and for all.
And when Christ Jesus does return to complete his Kingdom work, as Isaiah foretells in verse 7, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Brothers and sisters, what a wonderful word of hope this is for there is no stopping God. We can trust in the truth of his prophecies and promises. Though we have chosen our chaotic ways over his order; though we have chosen our foolishness over his wisdom; though we have chosen our selfish ways over his selfless ways, he will bring about peace in the end and of this peace there will be no end. For Christ Jesus will rule with justice and righteousness forevermore and those who know him will be the beneficiaries of his good and kind and merciful and just and compassionate rule.
That this is the reason for which Christ Jesus, Messiah Jesus, came as a child is testified to by him when he first honored Galilee by beginning his ministry there. Listen to Matthew’s account of the beginnings of the now adult Jesus’ ministry:
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Matthew recognized that the one about whom the prophet Isaiah had prophesied 700 years earlier was none other than Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who had come to deliver people from earthly darkness to God, their heavenly light.
But not only did ancient prophets point to Jesus but even Simeon, a prophet living at the time of Jesus’ birth, acknowledged this. As Luke tells us:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Simeon recognized that in this baby Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise hundreds of years earlier: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
This Christmas Eve morning, let us embrace the light of Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Mary’s child born to us; God’s Son given to us.
Let us turn to our Wonderful Counselor and seek his wisdom and will in all things and at all times;
Let us trust in our Mighty God to bring justice and righteousness to a world that so desperately needs it;
Let us embrace our Everlasting Father, who ever loves and cares for his children;
Let us seek to bring the peace exemplified by the Prince of Peace into the lives of those around us.
As Paul reminds us, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Let us pray.
 Article by Jonathan Kandell, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/, December 2009. Emphases added in second portion.
 2 Timothy 2:13: if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
 Reformation ESV Study Bible: “These regions in Galilee were the first to suffer from the Assyrian invasion of 732 B.C. (2 Kin. 15:29).” Zondervan NIV Study Bible: “This tribe in northern Israel suffered greatly when the Assyrian Tiglath-Pileser III attacked in 734 and 732 BC (2 Ki 15:29).”
 Matthew 4:12–17: 12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
 Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Isaiah 9:1–7.
 Reformation ESV Study Bible: “A reference to Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites (10:26, 27; Judg. 6:7; 7:22–25).” Zondervan NIV Study Bible: “Gideon defeated the hordes of Midian and broke their domination over Israel”
 Zondervan NIV Study Bible: In 10:26–27 Isaiah predicts that God will destroy the Assyrian army and their oppressive yoke. This was fulfilled in 701 B.C.”
 Matthew 4:12–17.
 Luke 2:25–32.
 2 Corinthians 4:6.