Comment (23rd January 2011)
A prophecy in the Bible is a message from God. It might not be about the future; it could as well be an explanation about why things are as they are – what God is doing in this situation. Most of the prophecies were messages for the people in the prophet’s own time. Some, however, had an additional layer of meaning, and looked forward to a future fulfilment. Others were messages which could only be relevant years – or centuries – ahead.
The prophecy in our Old Testament reading was a message of hope to the northern part of Israel, the tribal territories of Naphtali and Zebulun. Galilee was really the southern end of the mountains of Lebanon, an upland spur between the rift valley (with Jordan and Lake Galilee) and the Mediterranean coastal plain, with the plain of Esdraelon to the south, through which a major international trade route ran. Galilee included most of Zebulun and Naphtali, and was a bit of a backwater as far as the rest of Israel and Judah were concerned. The trade routes brought them into a lot of contact with Gentiles, and at one point, when Palestine was under Greek rule, the Jewish population withdrew south and later had to resettle the area. By the time of Jesus Galileans were looked down upon by other Jews, though the area was prosperous and well populated. (Nazareth would have been in Zebulun, Capernaum in Naphtali.)
Isaiah saw that Zebulun and Naphtali would be the first territories to be over-run by the cruel, all-conquering, Assyrians coming from the north along the trade routes. They would indeed be living in darkness and the shadow of death (‘deep darkness’). However, Isaiah could look at the situation with new eyes, as he foresaw a new day dawning. His imagery was very militaristic, the language of conquest (enlarging the nation), plunder and victory (Midian’s defeat looks back to the defeat of 135,000 Midianites by Gideon and 300 men, see Judges 7 & 8). Nevertheless, it is a prophecy of salvation and great joy. Those who lived in darkness could look forward to the sure coming of a great light.
This prophecy was not fulfilled for hundreds of years. When the time came, its fulfilment was not in military terms, but spiritual, as a humble carpenter moved house from Nazareth to Capernaum. Was that the dawning of a great light? We, with hindsight, can answer, ‘Yes, a greater light than the people of his day could have imagined.’ But in his day the people did not recognise him, and did not see that this prophecy was being fulfilled.
Jesus is the Light of the World. We live in days both of progress and increasing darkness, as life gets harder for many people around the world. Yet we say that Jesus is Lord, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We sing that God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. We read that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and that he will reign until every enemy is under his feet.
There may be darkness; but the Light has come, and a joyful future is certain. Let’s live in that hope!
1) What can we learn about God from this prophecy and its fulfilment?
2) How might our faith help us when we feel in deep darkness?