January 26, 2014
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
This Sunday’s Old Testament reading contains some real gems of biblical revelation, with important connections back to Israel’s history and forward to the New Testament fulfillments. Here are the seven key points:
1. Zebulun and Naphtali
Zebulun and Naphtali are two tribes of Israel, whose tribal lands were in the far north of Israel. They were “degraded” and “the people who dwelt in darkness,” because their land was the first to be permanently conquered by foreign powers. In 734-32 BC, Tiglath-Pilesar led a campaign against Syria and Israel, conquering Damascus and the northern reaches of Israel. From that time on, the two tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were under the darkness and gloom of foreign domination. Later, of course, all of Israel and Judah comes under the oppressive yokes of Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia.
2. The “Way of the Sea”
The “way of the sea” is a road. Scholars are divided over whether this term names a road that goes along the Mediterranean or the road that goes from Israel to Damascus. The more traditional view points to the road that leads to Damascus, which will be an important point for the New Testament fulfillment of this passage that I’ll discuss below.
3. God judges, but he also delivers
It is true that the Assyrians conquered Israel, but the prophet Isaiah explains that it was the Lord himself who “degraded” Zebulun and Naphtali. Just as it is explained in 2 Kings 17, here the Lord is the agent of judgment, merely using the foreign powers as tools for his purposes. The conquest of Israel came about “because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God” (2 Kings 17:7 NAB). The Lord punishes them for their unfaithfulness to his covenant with them (2 Kings 17:15), but he will also be the one to deliver them. Isaiah announces that no longer will Israel walk in darkness and gloom, but the light has dawned, bringing deliverance. In Isaiah 9:3, the last verse of our reading, Isaiah depicts the Lord as smashing the “rod of their taskmaster.” He will come to free his people from servitude.
4. The Day of Midian
The “day of Midian” is invoked in Isaiah 9:3 as an example of the Lord’s power to save. This “day” refers to Gideon’s battle with the Midianites in Judges 7–8, when the Lord helps Gideon and his 300 soldiers conquer a vast army. The victory came only by God’s power, not by human ingenuity. Isaiah forecasts that Israel’s ultimate deliverance will come about in the same way.
5. Handel’s Messiah
This passage immediately precedes a very famous passage that G. F. Handel uses in his famous Messiah oratorio: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6 KJV). You can listen to a great rendition of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS3vpAWW2Zc
The key point here is that while Israel had had the oppressive yoke and “pole” on his shoulder, the Messiah will come and rule. No longer will a “pole” be on Israel’s shoulder, but rather the power to reign will be on the shoulder of the Messiah.
6. Jesus fulfills this prophecy.
The Gospel of Matthew quotes this passage from Isaiah to explain why we find Jesus living in Galilee in the north, rather than in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. For Matthew, Jesus lives in this region “that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled” (Matt 4:14 NAB). The place where oppression and darkness began will be the place where the light of Christ will dawn. Out of the region of deepest spiritual darkness, the Lord will bring the greatest light of all. He will reverse the fortunes of his people through the coming of his Son. I think this shows us God’s power—and his “style” if I may. God can bring good out of evil, light out of darkness. In fact, he seems almost to prefer it that way so that we can see how great his power really is. As on the “day of Midian” when a small group of soldiers beat a whole army by God’s power, now through his Son, the brightest light will come out of the gloomiest darkness.
7. Paul fulfills this prophecy.
Lastly, and unexpectedly, St. Paul fulfills the prophecy too. If you recall his conversion story, you’ll remember that while he was riding to Damascus to persecute Christians, he encountered a great light and the Lord spoke to him (Acts 9:2). From that time on, he becomes the “apostle to the Gentiles.” The beauty of it is that he was riding on the “way of the sea” to get from Jerusalem to Damascus. He was in the place of deep darkness—Damascus was traditionally included in the borders of Naphtali (Josephus, Antiquities, V, 1.22). In that place of darkness, and in his spiritual blindness, the True Light appears to him and strikes him physically blind while giving him true spiritual sight. St. Paul, it seems, interprets his own experience on the Damascus road in terms of Isaiah. The “great light” seen by those who walk in darkness is the light that he encountered. God calls Paul to bring that light to the Gentiles and he responds enthusiastically as a messenger of the light.
I think we can take great courage from God’s power to judge, but more especially from his power to deliver. He can bring good out of evil on a cosmic scale, so why not on the more humble scale of our own lives? If St. Paul could do an about-face when he encountered the light and become the chief preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles, how can we respond generously to God’s call on our lives? That calling begins with an encounter and bears fruit in bringing the light to others.