To whom does the Servant come? The light begins in
of the nations.
As the Sundays of Epiphany move on, the preparation for the mission to the nations is complete and the work begins. The prophetic reading identifies the geography of the people to whom the Servant brings good news.
In the Isaiah passage the nature of the good news is clearer than the geography, so we will start with that message.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.
You [O God] have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
This is a message of release from occupation by foreign troops.
“The yoke of their [the subject people’s] burden” has been removed. “The rod of their oppressor [slave-driver]” has been broken. The population has increased, they are joyful, exulting as in a time of bountiful harvest or a day of great victory. (The “Day of Midian” [verse 4] refers to Gideon’s overthrow of the Midianites who had occupied and terrified Manasseh in old frontier days –
Judges 7:15-25.) The people who lived in the dark gloom of
occupation and oppression have been freed, have been enlarged and restored to
Who are the people to whom this message was addressed?
The verse giving the geographical references (9:1 [Heb. ]) has some complications in it, as different translations show. However, the place names are relatively clear. What they show is that we have references to lands of the northern kingdom of
that were conquered and occupied by the Assyrians in 733 BCE. Israel
The Assyrians defeated
and turned much of its land into Assyrian provinces named Dor, Israel ,
and Megiddo Gilead.
was left in the hill country farther south as the capital of a now rump kingdom
of Samaria ,
vassal of Israel Assyria.
The geographical references in Isaiah 9:1
– Zebulun, Naphtali, “the way of the sea,” “the land beyond the ,”
and “ Jordan Galilee of the nations” – these places made up the three
new Assyrian provinces that replaced much of the old northern kingdom of . These were the lands occupied and exploited
by the Assyrian conquerors in the earlier years of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Israel
The language about the child born and the son given (verses 6-7) is thought by many interpreters to have referred originally to the birth or accession of Hezekiah, the son of that king (Ahaz) to whom the Emmanuel prophecy was given (Isaiah 7:11-17).
The language imitates the oratorical and declamatory style of the court and corresponds to aspiration rather than political and military reality.... Though full of vivid imagery, the language is unspecific enough to have permitted the poem to be recycled on successive occasions.
(Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, The Anchor Bible, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 249 and 248.)
There is one historical occasion when the “child” part of our passage could have been “recycled” and included in an announcement of joy to the subject peoples of those occupied Assyrian provinces. In 705 BCE the Assyrian emperor Sargon II (who had destroyed
the northern capital) died and rebellions broke out throughout the empire. King Hezekiah of Jerusalem also rebelled, and
for at least three years he enjoyed an independent hand in Judah before the new
Assyrian king, Sennacherib, came down on him (in the year 701). Samaria
Our passage could have been uttered in that period of freedom and independence, anticipating a new age of prosperity and stable rule under a divinely blessed ruler (a “wonderful counselor…prince of peace,” verse 6). The old northern kingdom, including “
of the nations,” could be freed from Assyrian rule and reunited with
in a new age of Solomon, whom King Hezekiah emulated (see Judah Proverbs
With such a vision, the prophet sent forth a word of hope to the people who had been living for thirty years in the gloom and darkness of occupation and subjection.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9.
The prophecy of the light to shine out of darkness for
Galilee of the
nations includes the expectation of a divinely guided leader from the house of
David (Isaiah 9:7). In the Psalm reading
we hear such a leader expressing his total trust in the Lord.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (verse 1, NRSV)
There will be times of threat and doubt, times when the servant will appear to be lost, but the psalmist is confident of God’s deliverance and will seek God only.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me;
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation. (verses 7-9)
The speaker seems aware that the servant of the Lord may appear to be abandoned, even despised and God-forsaken. Such a destiny was anticipated for the Servant who was sent as a light to the nations (see
I Corinthians 1:10-18.
The second reading from First Corinthians in the current season speaks to a group of Jesus followers who have recently come out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge of their Lord.
Paul has spoken of “the church” that was gathered in the metropolitan city of
(I Corinthians 1:2), but that community of faith is now a few years old and
contains several subgroups with varied backgrounds and experiences. The problem of factions and divided
loyalties has appeared. Different groups
identify themselves by different leaders of the new Christian movement. “I am Paul’s,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I
belong to Cephas,” and “I am Christ’s” – such are the various claims Paul has
heard (verse 12). Corinth
Paul was the first missionary preacher in
and could claim to be the founder of the church there. Apollos was a popular preacher (described in Corinth Acts
served the Corinthian community for some time after Paul had gone on to
for his three years of work there.
“Cephas” is the Aramaic name of Peter, who was probably not himself at Ephesus ,
but who was famous for his leadership at Corinth
and who was probably a symbol of continuity from Jesus to the Greek-speaking
Jewish world in Antioch Asia and . (Those claiming that they belong to Christ
may have gotten the message right – from Paul’s viewpoint.) Greece
Paul’s most telling comment in this passage may be his statement that “I thank God that I baptized none of you … so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (verse 14, NRSV). Baptized in the name of Paul! Hardly. The relationships must be kept straight. Leaders, however popular or symbolic, must be appreciated only as servants, servants of that one message about the cross, which is “the power of God” for those who are being saved (verse 18).
The Gospel reading presents Jesus advancing into the land where the people dwell in darkness but are about to see a great light.
The Gospel of Mark, which Matthew is following in broad outline, mentioned only that Jesus went to
Galilee and began preaching. Matthew elaborates by adding that Jesus left
and made his home in “ Nazareth by
the sea in the Capernaum
and Naphtali” (verse 13, NRSV). territory of Zebulun
Using these tribal terms is old fashioned, a little like referring to upstate
as Iroquois country. Politically, this area hadn’t had such names
in eight hundred years. (The romance of Tobit,
written around the third or second century BCE, sets its hero in Naphtali in
the days of the Assyrian conquest, Tobit 1:1-9.
The story emphasizes, following the viewpoint of the book of Kings, that
Naphtali in that era was a land of apostasy and unfaithfulness.) New
Matthew presents this place where Jesus’ ministry began as fulfilling the prophesy that some Jesus followers had found as they searched the scriptures for signs of Jesus. They found the Isaiah passage about
Galilee of the nations, and this
prophecy became part of their message of salvation addressed to
and the nations. Israel
In this land of darkness Matthew has Jesus declare his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (verse 17). This summary statement of Jesus’ message will shortly be expanded enormously in the Sermon on the Mount.
But first Jesus will call some disciples as the nucleus of the new people to be gathered at the mountain. Matthew repeats Mark’s version of calling the two sets of brothers who worked in the fishing industry (verses 18-22). He promises to teach them to fish for people!
Then Matthew provides a summary of all Jesus’ work in
(verse 23), the work that attracted the attention of so many people, and caused
the huge turnout at the Sermon on the Mount.
(In the Gospel reading next Sunday we will hear the Beatitudes, that
astonishing opening of the Sermon delivered to the new people of God at the
But for Matthew, the key point is that Jesus brings a renewed word of God to a renewed people of God – spoken from a mountain in
of the nations.