Isaiah (Part 11): The Dawning Light! (Ch 9a)
To understand Isaiah well, we must keep the flow of the book in mind. After the preface of the first five chapters, the book begins with God calling Isaiah to prophesy in chapter 6. In chapter 7 Isaiah begins his prophecy first with his son Shearjashub who’s name means “a remnant will return.” The prophecy is spoken to Judah’s king, Ahaz, who is concerned about the threatening advance of both Ephraim and Aram. Following the devastating attacks by both those nations (between verses 9 and 10 of Isaiah 7 and recorded in 2 Chronicles 28), Isaiah returns to King Ahaz to reassure that God did leave a remnant and would continue to be with his people. Ahaz rebuffs the prophet by feigning piety in not wanting to test God by asking for a sign. Ahaz had already sought help from another source—the king of Assyria. Outraged, Isaiah foretells a sign from God anyway. He says that a virgin (young woman of marriageable age) would have a child. Before that child was old enough to know right from wrong, Aram and Ephraim would be defeated by Assyria. But, Isaiah warns, Assyria would then turn against Judah. Isaiah says the child would be called Immanuel, which means God with us, indicating that through the sign of this child, God would care for his people. In chapter 8, God has Isaiah turn from the king, Judah’s leader, to Judah’s people. Isaiah writes down God’s prophecy for them in the form of a name—Mahershalalhashbaz, which means “speeding to the spoil.” The written prophecy is confirmed by the witness of God’s intermediaries, a prophet and the High Priest. In the immediate fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy, Isaiah takes a young prophetess to wife and has a son with her. The son is the immediate fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy, but God tells Isaiah to name him Mahershalalhashbaz in emphasis of God’s soon rescue using Assyria. All prophetic events are fulfilled according to God’s word. Assyria does conquer Aram and Ephraim, removing the threat from Judah. However, Assyria then ignores its supposed alliance with Judah and attacks them. But the middle portion of chapter 8 emphasizes that God still sees the prophecy as Immanuel. God is still with the remnant. God explains his connection by his personal words to Isaiah in verses 11-17. Here we find that those who do not trust in humankind, but recognize God’s care and trust/fear him will be protected by him. The other supposed “people of God” from both houses of Israel will stumble over their supposed connection with God. They will fall and be broken.
The end of chapter 8 begins a section that actually continues into chapter 9. Isaiah begins this section by pointing out that his two children, Shearjashub and Mahershalalhashbaz, are signs from God to show that God is with those who listen and follow the testimony and instruction. But for those who do not, verse 20 says, “there will be no dawn for them.” This picture of night and darkness to image the distress that they would endure is severely emphasized as chapter 8 closes.
Hebrew often uses literary form and device for emphasis. More than any other book in the Old Testament, Isaiah uses literary form to reinforce his points. In verse 22, for example, the repetition of the darkness using three separate Hebrew words are linked not only by meaning but in assonance (vowel sound) as well. This is a device in Hebrew to draw the reader’s attention. Isaiah first calls these people—those who have not trusted God—people who “wander through the land” (8:21) and look toward the earth (8:22). This is similar to the heaven-dwellers / earth-dwellers differentiation in Revelation (chapters 13, 11, etc.). These who have their focus on the earth are in distress and darkness (chashekah), gloom (ma’uwph), and thick darkness (aphelah).
Verse 1 of chapter 9 is actually verse 23 of chapter 8 in the Masoretic Hebrew text. And it does fit better there because it continues this theme of dark distress. The connection is in the gloom mentioned at the beginning of 9:1. The Hebrew there is muw’aph, which connects in assonance to the words of darkness in 8:22 and also to the similar sounds of the particular word ma’uwph in 8:22.
As we look at this first verse of chapter 9, we find that a contrast is recorded. The first clue of contrast is in the use of words that indicate a time before and a time after. The HCSB has “former times’ and “future” in its translation. The KJV has “at the first” and “afterward” in its. So we are looking to understand something going on previously as compared to something later.
But now notice another contrast. In the HCSB, in the former times, God humbled the land. But in the future, he would honor the land. This is quite different from what the KJV says. The KJV says that at the first, God lightly afflicted the land. But afterward he “did more grievously afflict her.” In other words, in the HCSB (and almost every modern English translation), the contrast is between a former time of affliction and a latter time of honor. But in the KJV, the contrast is in degree of affliction, not affliction versus its opposite. Which is correct?
Let’s look at some of the Hebrew words. The obvious controversy concerns the word translated “honor” in the HCSB and “more grievously afflict” in the KJV. Note first that the KJV’s “afflict” is not found in the Hebrew. So our English translations actually pit “honor” against “more grievous.”
The Hebrew word is kabad. This word can mean to be heavy, be weighty, be hard, be rich, be honorable, be glorious, be burdened. Heavy, hard, and burdened hardly bring up images of honor and glory. Why would one Hebrew word have such different meanings? And how do we decide which is correct? Let’s look at some translations of the word in other parts of the OT. The translation of kabad is highlighted in each verse.
Genesis 13:2 “Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold.”
Genesis 18:21 “Then the Lord said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious.’”
Exodus 8:32 “But Pharoah hardened his heart this time and did not let the people go.”
Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Again, the word translated seems to be all over the place, from “very rich” and “honor” to “extremely serious” and “hardened.” But if we concentrate on the first part of our definition, the fog begins to clear. The word kabad means to be heavy or to carry weight. In other words, it is not so much about what is heavy or what carries the weight as it is about the heaviness or preponderance. So you can talk about Abram being not just rich, but very rich. The sin of Sodom is not just serious, but extremely serious. Replacing the words in the verses above, we find Abram heavy in livestock, silver, and gold. We can understand from the context that that means he had a lot. Sodom’s sin was weighty, and we certainly can understand the serious danger there. And think of Pharoah’s heart being hardened. We don’t really think of his actual heart being hard. It is a figure of speech itself meaning to be unmoved. And again the heavy, weighty heart of stone is one that won’t be moved. Even in the commandment, the honor due to the father and mother by the child is a careful or weighty consideration.
Now let’s return to Isaiah 9:1. Reading through the verse again we find that the contrast is not the former times with the latter times. In other words, the times are not the subjects of their clauses. We find it is the gloom that is the subject. We can think of the action as follows:
The gloom will not be like situation A as in former times,
but rather the gloom will be like situation B in later times.
Now, the situations are the confusing part. In the HCSB, we have the gloom of former times being God’s humbling of the land. We find in latter times that God brings honor. Let’s try to fit that into our model
The gloom will not be the humility as in former times,
but rather the gloom will be the honor in later times.
Well, that doesn’t make sense—the gloom will be the honor?? Here’s where we look to the meaning we discovered of the word kabad. It means heavy. So…
The gloom will not be the humility as in former times,
but rather the gloom will be heavy in later times.
It is still not too clear, although gloom does correspond better with heaviness. Perhaps we need to review the Hebrew that is translated “humbled.” That Hebrew word is kalal, a word sounding fairly similar to the contrasting word of kabad. We also find that in the Hebrew, the words really do contrast. The word kalal means to be slight, be swift, be trifling, be of little account, be light. The HCSB translators saw the meaning to be of little account and concluded that God was teaching that Israel was to be of little account—teaching them to be humble. But that is really not the sense of the passage. In this verse, God is contrasting gloom. And his contrast is the former time when the gloom was kalal or light with the latter time when the gloom was kabad or heavy. Since the gloom and darkness is so strongly connected in 8:22 with their distress or affliction, we can place that into our formula.
The gloom will not be like the light affliction as in former times,
but rather the gloom will be heavy affliction in later times.
Based on this, then, the KJV has the right translation. The gloom or dimness would not be as “when at the first he lightly afflicted the land,” but God “afterward did more grievously afflict her.” It is a comparison of degrees or intensity of the gloom. It is not a comparison of gloom with honor or glory.
Why is this important? What is Isaiah trying to say? And why do modern translators consistently get this wrong?
Modern translators mess up with verse 1 because they already know what is coming up in verse 2. In verse 2 we begin a section that offers bright hope to the remnant—to those of faith. Since verse 1 talks about a “former time,” which is the misery from the Assyrian conquest, and a latter time, which definitely is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy in Jesus, they assume the fulfillment has to be a time of rejoicing and honor and glory. So they translate verse 1 in such a way.
But Isaiah’s intent is not just to relate the event of Christ’s coming, but rather to differentiate between the God-rejecters and the faithful. Verse 1 of chapter 9 is strongly tied to verses 21 and 22 of chapter 8. They are all describing the darkness for those looking to the earth and to humankind for relief. Remember the literary devices used in repetition of this darkness. And the gloom of the Assyrian attack in 9:1 is called light compared to the consequences of continuing in rejection of God, especially when God the Messiah comes in fulfillment of the prophecy. That rejection will be ultimate darkness and ultimate night. Isaiah wants this gloom to be all-pervasive in the imaginations of his readers.
And then, in this state of darkness and gloom, verse 2 is meant to explode with its burst of light. For those who have faith, God’ prophecy of Immanuel comes streaking in to light up the sky! That’s the explosive difference. That is why it is necessary to see verse 1 as entirely dark. Sure the meaning is ultimately the same, but knowledge is not the only thing that God is communicating to us here. God is communicating passion and emotion. He intends for us to read it that way.
Remember, back in 8:20 we learn that for the people who do not look toward God, “there will be no dawn for them.” But in 9:2 we learn: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.” Notice the contrasts. In 8:18-9:1 we found darkness, no dawn, and death (consulting the dead). In 9:2 we find darkness ended, dawn, and the living. This clear contrast introduces us to the Immanuel fulfillment.
Flipping over to Matthew 4, we see this verse quoted as Jesus begins his ministry. His ministry was the fulfillment, the dawn, the life-giving gospel. And just as the first fulfillment Mahershalalhashbaz “sped to the spoil,” so does the ultimate fulfillment begin his ministry in haste: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!’” (Matthew 4:17).
God goes on to describe this Immanuel fulfillment from verse 2 through verse 7. God has “enlarged the nation” 9:3. How? Here we see fulfillment of God’s back turned on both houses (the mere physical descendants) of Israel (8:14) in favor of all those of faith (Romans 2:28-29; 11:25-26; Galatians 3:27-29; 6:16). God’s people rejoice, 9:3 tells us, as people rejoice in harvest time and when dividing the spoils of war. Why? The rejoicing is in provision and security. Crops have come in, and the enemy is defeated. That is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy!
All of this is recognized in the same way the first fulfillment was recognized: “a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us” (9:6a). Notice the names of this Immanuel: Wonderful Counselor – the Hebrew for “wonderful” is based in miracles (wonders); Mighty God – this rescuer/savior is God himself; Eternal Father – the Father/Son designations are terms for relationship of the man Jesus to his Father; for us, Christ is as much father as brother and friend; and Prince of Peace – here is the haven and sanctuary that fulfills all “land” promises. Verse 7 goes on to emphasize the security/peace aspect of God’s care on the throne of David. Notice that Jesus is over “his” (David’s) kingdom. Is this only for physical Jews? Is this only over the land surrounding Jerusalem? No! David’s kingdom means the people of God—all those who by faith rely on him.
Finally, the passage ends with the triumphant proclamation: “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.” Two things to note here. First, the Lord of Hosts is translated from the Hebrew meaning “the Existent One of Might.” He is the great I AM who is all-powerful, surely accomplishing his purpose. Second, he accomplishes his purpose through zeal. This word in Hebrew has the dual connotation of passion and jealousy. This is not a pouty, “wanting what someone else has” kind of jealousy. This is a jealousy that will protect what belongs to him. He passionately will protect and bring about his will by his power.