Day Twenty-Three of “Through Advent with Isaiah”
Here is the reading from Isaiah that is appointed for the first Eucharist of Christmas, and which will be used in millions of churches on Christmas Eve at the “Midnight Mass”.
1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 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.
3 You 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.
4 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.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9.1-7
In its original context this might have referred to Hezekiah, or perhaps Josiah. Centuries later it was being read messianically, and was thus applied to Jesus, especially when verse 1, which is prose, is read as referring to the following poetry.
Jesus came from the area around Galilee, a village called Nazareth. According to Joshua the twelve tribes of Israel invaded Canaan and took the lands, killing off the previous inhabitants. The book of Judges suggests that the previous local inhabitants were not actually killed off. The archaeological record does not suggest any large scale invasion in the era before the kings – no destroyed cities, mass graves, evidence of depopulation. The reality behind the confused traditions of Joshua and Judges is that there probably was a Hebrew speaking population that escaped from some form of slavery in Egypt and came to settle in Canaan, but they were probably many thousands, not the 610,000 suggested by Numbers. These people lived side by side with the Canaanites, intermarried, worshipped with them, and over time some kind of twelve member confederation developed which acknowledged Yahweh as their god. Eventually the united kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon emerged out of these groups. Around 920 BCE these separated into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel fell to the Assyrians and its people were deported from about 740 BCE to 722 BCE. Although the peoples in the north ceased to be Israelites (or, perhaps, the peoples left behind, who were not deported, became the Samaritans), the Judahites continued to know them by their old tribal names. 9.1 seems to look towards the time when it would be restored.
The ten tribes of Israel never did return. However, in the two centuries before the time of Jesus Jews began to migrate north from Judea and settle in the areas around Galilee. Thus the lands of Galilee – including Zebulon and Naphtali – actually had followers of the Lord God there after many years of there being none. Reading the poetic passage that follows either gave the early Christians a proof text that the Messiah would come from Galilee, or perhaps created the expectation among some people prior to the time of Jesus that the anointed one would be from the old area of the Kingdom of Israel.
Handel’s Messiah uses Isaiah extensively, including this passage. Here is an extremely unusual staged version of 9.2:
A more conventional performance of 9.6 is this one done by The London Symphony Orchestra: