The Lord’s Day Morning
The Third Lesson:
A Light for Those in Darkness
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Dr. Derek Thomas:
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.” Let us worship God.
We are reading through the book of Psalms on Sunday mornings. We are coming now to the Ascent Psalms, the fifteen Psalms beginning in Psalm 120-134, all of them bearing a title “Song of Degrees” or “A Song of Ascents.” It’s often thought that these Psalms were collected together as a group of Psalms that pilgrims would have sung perhaps as they went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to one of the great feasts of Passover or Pentecost, and as they ascended up to Mount Zion that they would sing these Psalms.
Psalm 124 is a wonderful Psalm that speaks of God’s deliverance, God’s intervention in time of trouble and difficulty. The Lord’s people, especially Presbyterians, have fallen in love with this particular Psalm. The closing verse of the Psalm is the verse that I cited just at the beginning of the service this morning as a call to worship. I’ve done that for over twenty years. John Calvin in his liturgy at Strasbourg and Geneva utilized this particular verse, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth,” as a call to worship.
Now let’s give our attention to the word of God:
“A SONG OF ASCENTS. OF DAVID.
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
Let Israel now say—
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us,
Then they would have swallowed us up alive,
When their anger was kindled against us;
Then the flood would have swept us away,
The torrent would have gone over us;
Then over us would have gone the raging waters.
“Blessed be the Lord,
Who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
The snare is broken and we have escaped!
“Our help is in the name of the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.”
Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Dr. Duncan: Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Isaiah 9, as we continue to work our way through the “Nine Lessons and Carols” of the King’s College Carol Service that has been done for almost a hundred years now. We have done a modified form of it in our own congregation, “Seven Lessons and Carols,” for at least thirty years…maybe close to forty years now. Bill Wymond was just mentioning to me earlier this morning that this year, because we’re doing it in one service instead of two, we’ll do all Nine Lessons and Carols, and that excites me greatly! So, the texts of those Lessons and Carols give you a beautiful overview of God’s redeeming work from Genesis to the Gospel of John, and so we’re working our way through those texts.
Last Lord’s Day we were in the book of Genesis in two important passages: in Genesis 3 and in Genesis 22. Today it’s “Isaiah day.” Or as Derek would say, “I-si-ah!” We’ll be in Isaiah 9 this morning and Isaiah 11 this evening as we continue to work our way through these texts, which point to the coming of the Messiah and culminate in the coming of the Word made flesh into this world. It’s a wonderful way to overview redemptive history, to be reminded of the gospel, and to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the coming of our Lord into this world.
In the Service of Lessons and Carols, the Third Lesson is entitled “The Prophet Foretells the Coming of the Savior.” And that is, as you will see later today, a very appropriate title for this passage. But it is perhaps not what you would have expected if you were simply looking at the original context of this passage. The passage that we’re about to read…and we’ll read all of Isaiah 9:1-7, whereas the Lessons and Carols text has us read Isaiah 9:2, and then skip to Isaiah 9:6, 7 (themselves beautiful passages pointing forward to the Savior)…but I believe if you understand the context you’ll appreciate something very rich about the passage indeed.
This passage is occurring in about 733 B.C. Now, for you Bible scholars, you will know one thing that that means is that the Northern Kingdom of Israel has not yet fallen. That will happen around 722, eleven years later. And so the kingdom of Israel has been divided into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). And Isaiah in this passage is speaking about the fate of part of that Northern Kingdom – in fact, the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the tribes that made up the territory occupied by the nation-state of Israel, as distinct from the nation-state of Judah. And he is talking about the fact that they are already experiencing the oppression of an alien invader: the Assyrians who are eventually going to overthrow the whole Northern Kingdom have already begun to make their presence and power felt in this area, Galilee of the Gentiles. And Isaiah is the only Old Testament writer to use that term. It’s very significant. We’ll see it come up again when we turn to the New Testament at one point today. But Isaiah is giving us a prophecy about the coming invasion and the ultimate fall of the Northern Kingdom, an event which has not yet happened; and then, he is giving us a prophecy about the Lord’s rescue and salvation of that people. And so it’s not a passage that at first glance you’d expect to contain a clear foreshadowing and prophecy of the Lord Jesus Christ, but of course the New Testament tells us that that is precisely what it does. And we’ll see why as we work through it today.
Before we read the passage, let me ask you to look for four things.
First of all, look at the image, the picture that Isaiah uses to depict the plight of Israel. He uses the picture or the image of darkness to characterize the dire situation that they are in. Look for that, especially in verses 1 and 2.
Then in verses 3-5, especially look for the way that he describes joy. He compares it to two different things. He compares their joy to the joy of an expectant farmer who has had a very good crop, and he is rejoicing at harvest time that despite rain coming when it shouldn’t have come, and rain not coming when it needed to come, and various sorts of pests and all sorts of other problems, he’s had a great crop. And so he’s rejoicing, and there’s in fact a harvest festival. So that’s one picture of joy. Then he changes the image and gives the picture of rejoicing over a great military victory, where you’re plundering through all the treasures of the one that was attacking you, but that you had had the victory over. And he uses these as images of joy in verses 3-5.
Then in verses 6-7, notice now he will pin the hope of this joy that he’s described in verses 3 and 5; he’ll pin the hope of this joy on the names, the attributes, of a prince who is yet to be born, and he describes that prince, what he’s like, through a series of beautiful names or epithets or attributes, or characteristics.
And then finally at the very end, notice how he attributes all the hope and all the joy of Israel to God’s own zeal. We’ll consider each of those things as we work through the passage, but you be on the lookout for them as the word of God is read.
Let’s pray before we read God’s holy word.
Lord, this is Your word, and it is a word that we need because it is a word from You, and You do not speak falling words; You do not speak words that fail; You do not speak words that are unnecessary;You do not speak words that are unprofitable. And so even when You speak through Your prophet about an event that occurred 2700 years ago, You speak for our everlasting well-being – to reveal to us the way of salvation which is through faith in Jesus Christ, and to instruct us in every good work. So grant, O God, by Your Holy Spirit, that we will hear and respond to Your word in reverent belief. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word:
“But then there will be no gloom for her who was 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 has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy;
They rejoice before You as with joy at the harvest,
As they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor, You have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
And every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
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 withhold it with justice and with righteousness
From this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Isaiah, in this great prophecy, is showing us the nature of Israel’s distress, and describing it graphically in terms of darkness. But he’s also showing us the prospect of their joy, and the person of their Savior, and the fervency of their God. And I’d like to look at all four of those things with you this morning: The nature of their distress, and ours; The prospect of their joy, and ours; The person of their Savior, and ours; and the zeal of their God, and ours. Those four things as we work through this great passage.
I. Isaiah, in this great prophecy, is showing us the nature of Israel’s distress.
The first thing we need to note is that almost all of this prophecy is written in the past tense. That is a typical pattern for Hebrew prophets. They oftentimes gave foretellings of the future as if (using language) they had already occurred. This was one way they could emphasize the certainty of God’s prophecy to the people of God. To say that what is going to happen in the future has already happened is a way of emphasizing the sureness, the certainty of God’s word. And from verse 1 all the way to the end of verse 7, this prophecy is given in the past tense. And so, for instance, in verse 2 we read:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….”
Well, as a matter of fact, Isaiah is letting us know in this prophecy that the fullness of their darkness hasn’t even come yet; that it’s dark now already in Zebulun and Naphtali, but eleven years from now it’s going to be darker yet. And their light which is going to shine isn’t going to shine for 700 years. But he will speak as if they’ve already walked through their darkness, and as if they’ve already seen their great light, because the word of God’s promise is yea and amen. It is certain and sure. And so he speaks this prophecy in the past tense. That’s how you need to note as we read through the passage.
But notice even here, in verse 2 especially, as Isaiah prophesies a lifting of the darkness, the context is one of military invasion and national oppression. The Assyrians are coming down on the Northern Kingdom, and they are going to take it over. And of course there’s a reason why this is happening. Isaiah has made it clear in this book (and will make it clear again) that it is because of the sinfulness of the Northern Kingdom.
From the very beginning, when Jeroboam broke the Northern Kingdom off from the Southern Kingdom after the reign of Solomon, and he became the king of Israel (to the north) and Rehoboam became the king of Judah (to the south), all of the kings – all of the kings of the Northern Kingdom – had followed after false gods. It was under the reign of the kings in the Northern Kingdom that Baal worship came to be practiced by the people of the Northern Kingdom, and Isaiah is announcing God’s judgment through the Assyrian invaders because of the sin of idolatry in the Northern Kingdom.
And so what is being painted here is a picture of the darkness not simply of a national oppression by an alien invader, but a darkness which had been brought about by sin. In other words, the misery that is being experienced by the Northern Kingdom and which will be experienced by the Northern Kingdom is God’s judgment on them for their worshiping other gods. So their distress is a distress which has been brought about by sin. The darkness of death which is upon them is in fact God’s judgment for their idolatry, and there is no distress which is deeper than the misery which is brought by sin.
This is so vital for us to understand. In the midst of Christmas season, people love to sing carols without knowing why Jesus had to come into the world. Very often we hear people say that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Now it’s trite, but it is true. We have to ask the question before we ask who the reason for the season is, and that question is “What’s the reason for the reason?” It’s not just that Jesus is the reason why we celebrate the advent; it is that there is a reason why Jesus had to come into this world, and that reason is the darkness of sin and the misery that comes with it.
Matthew beautifully shows how this passage points to exactly that truth in Matthew 4. Let me ask you to turn with me there. Matthew tells us that this passage is fulfilled over 700 years later, when Jesus, having come out of the wilderness – where who was tempting Him? Satan was tempting Jesus, in the first verses of chapter four. And He comes into the city of Nazareth, and He departs from it into Capernaum – where? Into Galilee of the Gentiles, into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, and He preaches the gospel.
And listen to what Matthew says in Matthew 4:13:
“Leaving Nazareth He went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
The way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,
And for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
On them a light has dawned.’”
And then Matthew says:
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
And so the person and preaching of Jesus in Galilee of the Gentiles, Matthew says, fulfills the passage we have just read today. Now you know why that Anglican canon all those years ago chose this as one of the Old Testament passages that would be read in the course of the Service of Lessons and Carols, celebrating the redemptive history of God in this world.
But notice also how the other New Testament writers catch on to this theme, so that for instance when Zechariah is praying over his son John, he announces in Luke 1:72 that it will be his job to be the forerunner of the one who is going to come and be “a light to the Gentiles.” This is reiterated in Simeon’s prayer over Jesus in the next chapter, in Luke 2:32. And of course in
John 1:4-9 (turn with me there), Jesus is celebrated as “the light” who has come into this dark world. Listen to how John puts it – John 1:4:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
Well, the New Testament writers all understood that it was Jesus who fulfilled this prophecy. He was the light that came to the people who were walking in darkness.
Now one thing that that tells you is that their deepest distress was not the fact that they were being oppressed and occupied by an alien invader, because when Jesus was born into this world, guess who was occupying the land of Palestine. The Romans. And when Jesus died, guess who was occupying the land of Palestine. The Romans. And forty years after Jesus died, guess who burned the temple down. The Romans. So what Jesus came to do was not ultimately to liberate Israel from a physical national oppression: He came to give them deliverance from something far more serious and significant. He came to give them deliverance from sin, to make them the children of God, to prepare them for the life of eternal fellowship with the living God…to preach the kingdom of heaven, Matthew reminds us.
Jesus is the light of the world. He is the one who answers the nature of the distress of Israel in 733 B.C. and of the people of God in Palestine, in Galilee of the Gentiles, at the very beginning of the first century, and of you and me today. So there we see the darkness of death.
II. Increase of Joy.
Then, in Isaiah 9:3-5, secondly we see this increase of joy, which is prophesied by Isaiah. “You have multiplied the nation….”
Now Isaiah turns and begins speaking to God himself directly, though this is a word from God to the children of Israel. What’s going on here? Isaiah is telling them what they will say to God after God has revealed His marvelous salvation: “You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy….” In other words, Isaiah is saying that God’s salvation always brings with it an extension of His people’s joy. The result of this mighty act of God of unburdening them from their deepest distress and the darkness in which they are walking is that they will have an increase of joy – joy in God, joy in the salvation that He has given to them and others.
Now there are at least two lessons in this for us today, and those two lessons are this. First of all, Isaiah is reminding us that the salvation of sinners always produces joy in the hearts of God’s people, because we ourselves are sinners who have been saved, and those who are sinners who have been saved rejoice when we realize our own salvation, and we take joy in the salvation of others.
It is precisely this that is such an indictment on Israel in Jesus’ day. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is up there in Galilee of the Gentiles and He’s proclaiming the kingdom of God, He’s preaching repentance. And many are coming to Him in faith, including that Syro-Phoenician woman, that Canaanite woman. But His own people are not rejoicing in the salvation of the Gentiles, and that in and of itself is a sign that they themselves had not experienced the joy of salvation, because they haven’t trusted on Him. Had they experienced the joy of salvation, had they realized the mercy of God to them in the forgiveness of their sins, and thus experienced that joy which inexorably flows from it, they would have been rejoicing when both Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female, came to Christ. And the fact that they are not rejoicing in the Gentiles coming to Him was a sign that they had not known salvation themselves.
And, my friends, that is an important thing for us to realize today. What’s the greatest joy that we have in this world? Is it joy in things? Is it joy in position or status? Is it joy in the esteem of others, and social connections?
You know in this time of the year, this whole celebration of the coming of Christ into this world has been turned into a commercial jackpot. It’s the ultimate opportunity to be wrapped up in the material aspect of reality. And I want to ask you: What do you take most joy in? Well, Isaiah’s reminding you that those who have been shown mercy take the greatest joy in God as they see Him work salvation in sinners, as sinners are converted to Him. Do we take joy in that? Is our deepest joy in God, and in the salvation of sinners? And if so, how does that show itself in our living? How will it show itself as we celebrate this holiday season? Will we celebrate this season of the year in sharing the gospel with others…friends and family who don’t know Jesus Christ? Will we share the gospel with neighbors and fellow workers? Will we have a deep joy and concern when we see those who were lost found by Jesus Christ, and enfolded into His family and pardoned for their sins? Will we celebrate our own redemption, whether it was this year or last year, or fifty years ago, with joy in our hearts? Do you remember when you first knew the forgiveness of your sins? Do you remember the joy that dawned in your heart when you realized that you would stand before God acquitted and accepted, not because of anything in you, but because of what the Lord Jesus Christ had done for you? Do you remember that joy? Do you experience that kind of joy in seeing others come to Christ? And thus, do you invest your life and your resources so that they might?
Isaiah is reminding us that the salvation of sinners produces exultation in the hearts of God’s people, but he’s also reminding us here that that joy that we experience is not a mere side effect, and it’s not a mere consequence of God’s salvation. It is in fact the direct gift of God himself. Listen to the language that’s used in verse 3:
“You [speaking to God]…You have increased its joy” [the joy of Your people].
Notice how God is directly credited for giving to us the joy of salvation. It’s not a side issue. When we Presbyterians say that our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, we really mean it—although we don’t act like it sometimes—and sometimes our faces don’t look like it when we worship. Sometimes we look like we just smelled a sardine! But God is serious about our joy in Him and in salvation, so much so that He says He is the one who gives us joy. And so Isaiah is teaching us both that believers exult (they take joy in the salvation of others) and he is teaching us that God deeply cares about our joy in Him, and He in fact is the one who gives that joy. You can’t just manufacture that joy. You can’t produce that joy. There’s no technique, there’s no method, there’s no set of steps, there’s no way that you can generate this humanly. That joy has to be given, and if you don’t have that joy the only way to get it is to repent and to believe on Jesus Christ. And God promises to grant all who trust in Him the joy of His salvation, because the Lord Jesus himself said that He came that you might have joy to its fullest.
III. The Savior.
Well, there’s a third thing that we learn in this great passage today, and it’s about the Savior himself. The promised Messiah is described for us in verses 6-7, and He is said by Isaiah to the children of Israel…He is said to be their light and their reason for joy and hope. And it is this promised Messiah who is the Lord Jesus Christ. And you see five ways that Isaiah describes Him in this passage. We don’t have time to do justice to it, but let’s just walk quickly through the five things that Isaiah says about Him.
First of all, notice that he tells us that the child is born for us, on our behalf, and the government is laid on His shoulders. In other words, Isaiah first says that a ruler will be born who will govern us in the best interests of His people. In contrast to the wicked kings of the Northern Kingdom, this ruler will govern for the well-being of His people.
Secondly, He will be a Wonderful Counselor; or, a wonder of a counselor; or, a miraculous supernatural counselor. Again, in contrast to rulers like Ahaz, who were crafty, who were deceitful, who were tricky, who were shrewd—but who were not godly, who were not wise, and who did not care for God’s people as they should have—this ruler will be wonderfully, miraculously wise. Jeremiah puts it this way in Jeremiah 23:5:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.”
And so what is being told here is that this king will be wonderful and wise. He will have heavenly wisdom in the way that He rules His people.
Thirdly, we’re told that He will be called Mighty God…that He will be God Almighty, that He will be God the warrior, that He will be the Almighty God in the flesh. And the New Testament is all over this particular prophecy of Isaiah, so that John can remind us that
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.”
And the Apostle Paul in Romans 9:5 can say that
“Christ, according to the flesh, is over all, God blessed forever.”
And then Paul again, in Titus 2:13 can speak of “our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The New Testament understands precisely what Isaiah is saying here. This Messiah King, this son of David, is going to be more than human. He is going to be the mighty God in the flesh.
And then he says something interesting. He says He is going to be called Everlasting and Eternal Father. Now some of our friends right here in Mississippi who don’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and who say that God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are simply different modes or manifestations of the one God, that there are not three persons in the eternal Godhead; that there is not one God eternally existing in three persons, but there is one God who manifests himself differently in different eras…sometimes He manifests himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. And therefore they would appeal to this passage and say, ‘See, Jesus being called the Eternal Father is a sign that those terms are just ways that God manifests himself, not representative of eternal persons inherent in the one Godhead.’ Well, that’s an incorrect interpretation of the passage. The passage is speaking about a ruler. And what is one of the metaphors for rulers in the Old Testament? Fathers. Spiritual fathers. They’re to father their people. And so this is yet another description of how this ruler will have a concern for the spiritual well-being of His flock. It’s not an assertion that Jesus is the same person as God the Father; it is an assertion that Jesus will rule in a paternal way, in a fatherly way, for the well-being of His people.
And finally, He’s called a Prince of Peace. That is, He is the one who will accomplish peace and give peace, and reign in peace. And so in this description Isaiah tells us about the light who will dispel the darkness, and that light is Jesus the Messiah.
IV. God will do all this.
And of course, finally in verse 7, at the very end of this passage, Isaiah will stress one more thing: It is the zeal of the Lord that will accomplish this for all Israel. God is the sovereign personal cause behind this hope and joy. “The zeal of the Lord,” he says, “will do this.”
Do you remember how we started the service today with Psalm 124? And we came to the final stanza, and Derek reminded us about the significance of that phrase in the calls to worship that Calvin used in Geneva, and many Christians after him:
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
And that is exactly what Isaiah is saying to Israel. The hope that they have is sure not because of anything that they will do, but because of who is behind that hope. And who is behind that hope? The Lord. And what does Psalm 124 say? That if it weren’t for the Lord, the anger of our enemies would have undone us. And here is Isaiah saying the anger of your enemies is no match for the zeal, the fire, the fervency, the fervor, the ardor of your sovereign God who has said, “I will do this.”
And by the way, do you notice something interesting about this statement? It’s the only statement in the whole passage that’s not in the past tense: “I will do this.” That’s so helpful and encouraging, isn’t it? Because some of us are here today and we haven’t finished our walk in the darkness yet. Oh, yes, the light of Christ dawned in our heart, and we rest and we trust in Him, but we find ourselves in a fallen world still facing the miseries of sin and its effects. And here’s a word for you: “The zeal of the Lord will do this.”
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this prophecy by this great evangelical prophet. We ask that we would believe it to the saving and comforting of our souls, and we pray this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.