The Dawn of Triumphant Grace
Have you ever stayed up all night, literally all night, through the dark hours and then finally into the light of dawn? Some of you know what it feels like to see that first hint of light on the eastern horizon.
You know that at certain points in the night, the darkness feels like it’s all that there is. Dawn feels so far away. And there’s nothing you can do to make it come any sooner.
But there it comes. And before you know it, the light of day has replaced the dark of night.
I remember as a 20 year old - on a missions trip in Burkina Faso. We’d done a few hour hike into a remote village in the northern part of the country. We’d already waded through a 1/4 mile chest deep swamp, and at the village been given the most strange food I’d ever eaten, so I’m already feeling quite uncomfortable and out of my element. And then I find out we’re sleeping outside overnight under the stars. Lying on the ground on these little mats, trying to sleep with a mosquito net over my face without letting it just sit right on my skin, being afraid of getting malaria, that something wild was going to get me, waking up and falling asleep and waking up over and over again — and wondering if that night was ever going to end. If I slept more than an hour or two that night I’d be surprised. Let me tell you, I was never so thankful as to see the first cracks of pink and yellow hues on the horizon that morning, knowing we’d be heading back to more moderate civilization that day. Something hopeful was coming!
If you’ll remember, last week’s passage left us off in a fairly dark place. After speaking three messages of hope to the faithful remnant, Isaiah turned his attention to those who were still refusing to listen to God, and he said: “To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (Isaiah 8:20–22).
That’s quite a bleak picture. When people refuse to listen to God they will find themselves in a place of thick darkness, of gloom and anguish, with no dawn.
But that’s not where the story ends. Our passage today takes us from that backdrop of darkness into a right picture of hope that begins here in chapter 9, verse 1: “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.” The darkness of chapter 8 is not going to last. The darkness is not going to win. God’s grace is going to triumph and light is going to come.
Yes, it’s true that, as verse 1 goes on to say, “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” These two northern tribes were the first to fall to the king of Assyria. Those tribes, and the land where they lived, knew what spiritual darkness was like. They were the first to taste the “contempt” of God’s judgement.
But that judgement would not be the final word, as verse 1 goes on to say: “But in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” Isaiah looks forward to the day when judgment is in the rear-view mirror, and in place of it, God has brought light to these northern territories. Galilee, though trampled on by the nations, and passed around from one kingdom to the next, will be made glorious by God’s triumphant grace.
Here’s how verse 2 describes this: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).
Light has shone in the darkness, and this light is grace. It’s grace because the people didn’t and couldn’t have done anything themselves to make the light shine—any more than you can make the sun rise in the middle of the night. They were in darkness, and light, light from an outside source, shone on them. God graciously chose to send a light to those who were in darkness.
And the result of this light was joy, as we see in verse 3: “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” (Isaiah 9:3). What a change from the gloom seen earlier. Now they are celebrating like when a big harvest comes in or when they’ve scored a victory over their enemies and get to divide up the plunder. Light has come, and with that light, joy.
So what’s going on here? What has changed? What is this light and why is there so much joy?
Verses 4-6 explain what’s going on here. Each of these three verses begins with the word “for” and together they give us a three-fold explanation of what this light is, and why it has brought so much joy to God’s people.
Liberty and Peace
The first explanation, in verse 4, is that God’s people have experienced liberation from their enemies. That’s what’s behind this light and joy:
“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” (Isaiah 9:4).
In Isaiah’s day, Israel and Judah were slowly falling under the oppression of Assyria, a foreign empire who would tax them and push them around and make life miserable for them. After Assyria it would be Babylon, and after Babylon it would be Persia, and after Persia it would be the Greeks, and after the Greeks it would be the Romans. But verse 4 looks forward to the day when the burden of the oppressor will be lifted, and God’s people will be free, just like back in the day when Gideon helped set the people free from the Midianites.
Verse 5 takes us a step further in helping us understand this light and joy that is coming. Not only will Israel and Judah be set free from oppressing empires, but war itself is going to come to an end and peace is going to reign. “For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). The gear of war is going to be used as firewood, which suggests that war itself will be over. Peace will reign and God’s people will have no more enemies to fight.
The Child, the King
And why is that? What is going to happen that will bring about this liberty and final, lasting peace? The answer to that question comes in verses 6-9. This is the ultimate hope waiting for God’s people. This is the dawning light that everybody has been waiting for.
Verse 9: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
This is not the first time that we’ve heard Isaiah speak about a son being born. Chapter 7 told us about a child who would be born to a virgin who would be named Immanuel, “God is with us.” And we got hints throughout that chapter and into chapter 8 that this would not be just any ordinary child. Now in chapter 9 we find out that this child is not just a sign for that generation; He is the hope for the people of God. His birth is going to bring about the longed-for deliverance and peace for God’s people.
Because this child is going to be the king. “The government shall be upon his shoulder,” verse 6 goes on to say. Instead of the oppressor’s rod on his shoulder, like we saw in verse 4, he carries the government on his shoulder. This is a poetic way of saying that he is going to “shoulder the weight” of ruling over God’s people. It’s just like how Isaiah 22:22 says, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David.”
This child will be the king.
And in the remainder of verse 6 we discover what this child is going to be like as we hear about his name. Back in chapter 7 we heard that his name was Immanuel, “God is with us.” Here, we discover four more names by which he will be called, and each of these names helps us understand just what kind of a person he will be.
“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor.” “Counsellor” is one who gives counsel and instruction to others. This child will be a truth-speaker. But he won’t just be any counsellor. He will be a wonderful counsellor. “Wonderful,” in the Hebrew Bible, is a word only ever used to describe what only God can do. This child will be one who teaches and instructs in God’s wisdom, and who does so in a way only God can do.
His next name is “Mighty God.” Whoever this child will be, he will not be an ordinary child. He will not just be named “God with us”, He really will be God with us because He will be the mighty God, God in the flesh.
Next, He will be known as the “Everlasting Father.” Again, this name points beyond a mere human to a king who is both man and God. The Old Testament Scripture point repeatedly to God’s father love for His people, and also to His everlasting, eternal nature. This child will share that nature and that father-like love for His people.
Finally, He will be known as the Prince of Peace. “Prince” is a word that points to his humanity, as this is a word only ever used of humans in the Bible. As the Prince of Peace, this king is the one who brings well-being and rest and fulfillment and the end of conflict wherever he goes.
That’s who this king will be. Both God and man, mighty and father-like, powerful and tender, a speaker of truth, and a bringer of peace.
And verse 7 tells us about His kingdom when we read, “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 to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
The reign of this king is going to grow and grow and grow and never stop growing. Abraham had been promised an offspring who would bless the whole earth (Genesis 12:3, 22:18) and the Psalms looked forward to a son of David who would reign from sea to sea (Psalm 72:8). Those promises are realized in this king, whose kingdom will never stop expanding.
And the kingdom over which He reigns is the kingdom of David. God promised David an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16), and on the brink of exile, God’s people were wondering what would come of those promises. Isaiah 9 tells them that, though there would be a season of darkness, the light would dawn, a son of David would be born, and He would rule forever. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:7). This will happen. God’s grace will triumph, and nothing is going to stop it.
Hope in the Darkness
It’s no surprise that these promises became a vital life-line for God’s people in the dark season that soon came on them. All throughout the exile, and down into the years of Roman occupation, God’s people hoped for this son to be born—the Messiah, the anointed king, who would establish David’s throne and bring peace to His people once and for all.
But it didn’t happen right away. Centuries passed. How many people gave up hope all together that God’s promises would be kept?
But can you imagine what it would have been like, over 700 years later, for a young woman from Galilee to see an angel before her and hear him say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” (Luke 1:30–33).
Is it any surprise than when Zechariah’s tongue was loosed after long months of silence, he said “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,’ (Luke 1:68-72)?
And that he went on to praise “the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–79).
It’s not hard to hear Isaiah 9 in all of these words. This was the hope they had been holding on to, and here was this hope finally coming to pass.
And it’s not hard at all to hear Isaiah 9 in these words from Matthew chapter 4, which happened about 33 or so years later: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And 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.’ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:12–17).
The Son had been born. The Child had been given. The light had dawned. Soon this Wonderful Counsellor would sit down on a mountain to speak God’s truth to His people in a way that only God could. Soon the Mighty God would cast out demons and quiet storms and walk across water to prove His divine power over nature. Soon the Everlasting Father would touch and heal people with compassion, leading His disciples with loving authority. Soon the prince of peace would walk into Jerusalem and bring peace to His people by laying down His life as their sacrifice, taking the Father’s judgement in their place and “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). The king died to pay for our treason.
And soon that King would walk out of His own tomb, trampling death underfoot, and send out his disciples to proclaim His authority from one end of the planet to another. And then would ascend to rule at the right hand of His father with the world at his command.
And He has promised to return. And so now we wait, and we pray “thy kingdom come,” and we make disciples of our king and together we learn to live as citizens of His heavenly kingdom.
Recognizing the Kingship of Jesus
At this point in the message we want to step back and make sure we notice something that hopefully is obvious by now. Do you notice that one of the main ways that the Bible promises and then describes Jesus is as a king? That’s how the prophets looked forward to Him, and that’s how He’s described in the four gospels repeatedly.
Think of how many times he was called “Son of David,” which was a royal title acknowledging Him as the promised king. Over and over, that’s how the gospels portray Jesus.
And it doesn’t change when we get to the rest of the New Testament. Think of how Colossians 1:13-14 sums up our Christian experience, when it says that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13–14).
Jesus is the king.
And what our passage does today is invite us to enjoy and celebrate the loving rule of Christ over our lives. Jesus is our king, but He is not an angry tyrant or a bored official who spends His days inventing regulations to make our lives more painful.
Jesus is a king who brings light to people walking in darkness, like verse 2 tells us. Some of you know what it’s like to live in the darkness, to not know the truth or even the way to find the truth. Jesus is the king who brings light into the darkness.
Jesus is a king who brings joy to those who are waiting for Him says verse 3. Following Jesus is not a boring business. Following Jesus is where joy, real eternal joy, is found.
Jesus is a king who breaks the power of the oppressor and sets His people free, as verse 4 says. Before Jesus, all of us felt the oppression of Satan and his forces of darkness. Many of us have known human oppressors. Jesus is the enemy to every oppressor, wherever they may be found.
Jesus is the king who will bring lasting peace, verse 5, because He is the Prince of Peace, verse 6. We all long to see peace on earth, and we all long for peace in our own hearts. All true peace starts with peace with God, which Jesus died and rose again to purchase for us. Everything can be okay between us and God, not because we’ve done everything right, but because Jesus did everything right for us and already took the punishment for everything we didn’t do right.
Jesus is the king who came in the meekness of a baby’s birth, verse 6. He knows weakness and hunger and vulnerability. There is no experience we’ve had that he can’t sympathize with.
Jesus is the wonderful counsellor, the king who speaks the truth to His people. He can be trusted. You can read His words, and the words of His commissioned apostles, and trust them. You can build your life on those words, obeying them without hesitation. In the word of God you can receive the wisdom of Jesus without any filtering required.
Jesus is the mighty God. Jesus is boundless in power over Satan and his legions. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18) and has power beyond anything we could imagine. There is no obstacle in our lives that He can’t move. And so we know, when He doesn’t move an obstacle, that He has wise and loving purposes for whatever suffering He brings into our lives. Nothing bad ever happens to us just because Jesus isn’t strong enough to deal with it.
Jesus is the everlasting Father. That is not saying that He is God the Father, but that He loves His people with the tender authority of a father. Some of you had awesome relationships with your dads. If that’s you, then know that your father is just a faint shadow of Jesus.
Some of you had really difficult relationships with your father. If so, you can know that Jesus is the one with whom you will always be safe—eternally safe.
Jesus has a kingdom that will never end, verse 7. We’ve all been let down throughout our lives by leaders who have quit or failed or burnt out. Jesus won’t do that. He won’t resign early or get voted out of office.
Jesus’ kingdom is one of justice and righteousness, verse 7. While human leaders may be wolves in sheep’s clothing, there will never be any scandals to plague heaven’s court. Jesus has never and will never make a mistake or a miscalculation. And when Jesus comes to reign on the earth we will finally see what true justice looks like.
Responding to the Kingship of Jesus
What that means is that we can trust Jesus and can give up our life to surrender to his kind kingship.
Maybe you’re listening today and you’re not someone who knows Jesus. Today, the king invites you to lay down your resistance to him and surrender to His rule. You don’t have to be afraid—He’s a good king! You will be safe in His kingdom. Give up on the fight and rest in His love.
Maybe you’re listening today and you know who Jesus is, but you know there’s an area in your life where you’re fighting him. You’re still trying to be your own king over at least some little part of your own kingdom.
Or maybe you just like the idea of Jesus being a saviour but you’re not so sure about this “king” business. And if there’s a chance these descriptions apply to you at all, the call today is that you, too, would surrender to the loving lordship of Jesus.
He is the king. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of Jesus we accept and which ones we reject. And today’s passage reminds us that we can’t win in a contest with Jesus. His kingdom is expanding, and sooner or later the border of that kingdom is going to reach your life, or that part of your life that you’re trying to hold back from him.
You can’t win against Jesus. And why would you want to? Why would you want to rule yourself when you can come and bow down to a king like this? So I invite you to give up on the fight and let Jesus reign over you—all of you.
Maybe you’re listening today and you’re someone who, as far as you can tell, has bent your knee to Jesus. You know you’re in His kingdom. You know He’s saved you. For you, may today be a celebration of everything that you have in Christ. Rejoice to be found by such a king. Don’t ever be tempted to go looking for something better anywhere else. There is no safer place to be.
And ask the Lord, by His Holy Spirit, to keep helping you live as a citizen of His kingdom. To keep surrendering your desires, your plans, your struggles, to His loving authority. To centre your entire life around His kingdom, His purposes, His power, and His glory.
Why wouldn’t we want to do that?
I hope you can hear this morning that, while there’s definitely a summons and a challenge in these words for us today, we don’t want to miss the chance to celebrate what a good and faithful king Jesus is. It should bring us so much joy to see Jesus, and to know how God kept these ancient promises. We know so much more than Isaiah did and have so much more reason to rejoice in Jesus than He did.
So let’s honour Him together. With this final song, and with lives that gladly honour our king with all of our words and thoughts and actions.