The Promise - Isaiah 9:1-7
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Back in the autumn of 1987 the BBC televised a series called Fortunes of War. It was a dramatisation of some of the books of the author Olivia Manning, and it starred Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. The stories are set around the outbreak of the Second World War, and Branagh plays a lecturer in English Literature called Guy Pringle. He is lecturing in different universities across Europe and eventually ends up in North Africa, as he tries to evade the growing menace of Hitler’s Germany. Guy Pringle is a self centred and absent minded man who is obsessed by his lecture courses, to the virtual exclusion in his mind of his pretty but rather bored and very English wife, Harriet, played by Emma Thompson. It was no great loss to him therefore, as the story went on, when his wife decided to return to England by ship. He was quite happy. He hardly noticed. Until the news came that the ship had been sunk, with the loss of all lives on board. But as it turned out the news was false, and Pringle discovers this for himself when his wife turns up again in North Africa sometime later as if nothing has happened. And their reunion is very emotional. Now Pringle does not say it, but the words are written all over his face: "Darling, it’ll all be different now. I’ll never treat you in that way again. Things will get better, I promise." But of course they didn’t. He treated her in exactly the same way as before, and life for Harriet returned to its normal, boring, hot, perspiring routine. And in the final shot of the last episode Guy and Harriet are sitting together on the top of a pyramid, bored and gazing into the distance. And Pringle turns to his wife and says: "Darling, you’ll never leave me like that again, will you?" And she replies to him in just six words: "Don’t know… Can’t promise… Probably not."
Change is often the greatest thing we long for but the hardest thing to do. Whether it be a change in our behaviour, a change in our situation, or perhaps a change on a bigger scale- a government, a nation’s stance to another nation, a reversal in fortunes for a battered and persecuted people. But sadly promises of change are often short lived and rarely implemented. You may remember back in 1997 that the Labour Party’s slogan for their election campaign was "Things can only get better!" Leaving aside all party political statements from the pulpit, how many of the country would agree that this is what has happened in the last ten years. Whatever good a government has achieved, can we say things are much better? With apologies to Winston Churchill, often in life so much is promised by so many with so little effect.
And that was certainly the feeling for the people of God in the in 8th century BC. The land was divided, with Israel in the north in serious danger of being overrun by the Assyrians, the super power of the day. And with Judah in the south in the same position. King Ahaz, the king of Judah, was more concerned to secure political treaties with surrounding nations which aimed at securing military stability, rather than trusting the Lord to take care of the nation, which is precisely what he had promised to do. But Ahaz refused to trust the promises of God, as we saw last week, and instead did things in his own strength. And Isaiah’s task is to confront the people of God with two possibilities. Either they can trust in the Word of God and his promises. Or they can trust in themselves which will only lead to disaster. And in these early chapters of Isaiah especially, God gives his people some amazing promises of better times to come. Things will certainly get better. And this time the promises are absolutely certain because it’s the Lord God who is promising. And the promises centre on a boy to be born. In chapter 7 this child was called Immanuel. He would be born of a virgin, and his name showed that he would be God with his people. In chapter 11, we find that the kingdom of this child Immanuel will be an everlasting kingdom which will be one of perfection and new life. But in our chapter, the promise given is again of a child who will bring about extraordinary change for the people of God. He will himself be an amazing figure, and his kingdom will be something out of this world. That was the comfort God was giving to his battered and despairing people in the 8th century. And for those with ears to hear it was a glorious comfort. But for people like Ahaz who refused to listen, well it was no comfort at all. In fact, it was a word of judgement, because they missed out on God’s blessing.
Now for us living the other side of the NT, then we know that these prophecies are only fulfilled in Jesus. No-one else comes close to fulfilling these extraordinary promises, either during the time of Ahaz or in the centuries following. So we can look back and learn wonderful things about the Lord Jesus Christ. And for us living in times which, let’s be honest, can be as despairing as 8th century Israel, these are great truths to encourage us this morning. To remind us that God is a God whose promises never fail, and that in Jesus we have the perfect Saviour and King. For unlike every other political manifesto and promise, these promises are kept. So let’s look at this remarkable passage under three headings:
1) The Manifesto is Published
1) The Manifesto is Published (Vv 1-5)
So first then, we see that the manifesto is published. Now the context for the promises of chapter 9, the backdrop for the manifesto God, is the grim warnings of chapter 8. There Isaiah prophesies that the great super power of the day Assyria will come and attack Israel as part of God’s judgement on a stubborn people. The northern kingdom will be totally destroyed and the southern kingdom will be completely surrounded. It will be like a river which floods the land and the water will come right up to the neck. It will be a devastating time. So what do the people of God do in their time of need? Call on the Lord? Sadly, not a bit of it! They call on mediums and spiritualists! See what Isaiah says in chapter 8 v 19. People are consulting the dead on behalf of the living. They should, according to verse 20 be consulting the word of the Lord. That is where the light is. But people don’t! They ignore God’s clear word and go to the destructive and satanic words of mediums. That was what was going on in Israel at this time. Not God but séances. That’s where the trust was. No wonder Isaiah says in the last verse of chapter 8 that people will find only distress and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. People are looking for light and find only darkness. Its sounds very contemporary doesn’t it? The Christian author C K Chesterton once said that when people give up believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Did you know that in France today there are more licensed mediums than clergy? Tells you a lot about a nation’s spiritual health doesn’t it? When people need the light of God most, where do they turn? The prince of darkness! And it only leads to despair. I remember I was going to do the funeral of a 15 year old girl some years ago, and as I entered the house of the parents, they informed me that they were encouraged because they had made contact with their daughter through a medium. It made me feel sick, and very angry. Though I could deeply sympathise with their longing for assurance, they were looking in the wrong place. They were deceived and in darkness. That’s a picture of what happens when you turn from the Lord. You desperately want light but you end up in darkness.
But wonderfully, into this gloom filled picture, the Lord speaks words of glorious light. So what is the content of God’s manifesto? Well there are four things he promises, four glorious changes that we discover God will bring about through this child that is to be born. And notice that every one of these changes is in the past tense. In other words these promises are so certain that God speaks of them as if they have already happened, even though they won’t be fulfilled fully for hundreds of years. That’s how good God is at keeping his promises. First there is the change from darkness to light. And we see that in verses 1-2: "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan- The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." Now when Isaiah talks about these places Zebulun and Naphtali, he is talking about areas in the very north of Israel. These were the parts of the land that were always invaded first by foreign armies. Invading armies often came from the north, whether it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Romans. When the Assyrians invaded in 722BC they came through Zebulun and Naphtali. And the people there were in gloom and despair. But what does God promise? There will be no more gloom. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. A light has dawned on those living in the shadow of death. God is promising great light in the place of darkness. Now wonderfully this was very literally fulfilled for these areas in the very north of the land. Because it was in those lands that Jesus was brought up. In Jesus’ time they were known as Galilee, and he came to those despised and despairing lands bring his light and joy. That is why Matthew in his gospel specifically quotes these verses with reference to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Through his preaching, Jesus brought light to the people who were living in darkness.
But there’s a second change in verse 3, and that is the change from poverty to plenty: "You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder." Harvest time for many society’s is the time when hunger becomes a thing of the past. The struggles of the past are laid aside as food becomes plenty once again. Isaiah promises the enlarging of the nation. As the nation was about to be decimated by the war with the Assyrians this would be a very relevant promise. God’s manifesto is about moving from poverty to plenty.
Thirdly in verse 4, there is the change from oppression to liberty. "For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor." Isaiah looks back to the OT story of Gideon in Judges 6 and 7 and compares what God will do in the future with what God did that day. The Midianites were a nation who oppressed Israel for many years, until God raised up the rescuer Gideon to save his people. If you remember the story, Gideon saved Israel with only three hundred men, and the Midianites were totally destroyed. It was a glorious day in Israel’s history. They yoke of their oppressor was thrown off and broken. But God is promising an even greater day than that! The people will be free and released from oppression. They will be given liberty.
And then the fourth element of this divine manifesto is the change from warfare to peace. Verse 5: "Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire." For a nation faced with the threat of imminent invasion by the world’s greatest power of the day, this was quite a promise. No more war- only peace.
Now if we take a step back, then we can see that this is quite a manifesto. From darkness to light. From poverty to plenty. From oppression to liberty. From warfare to peace. And the fact is that we human beings are naturally speaking in dire straights. We are in darkness. We are fumbling around desperately looking for light but finding only gloom and darkness. Some of us will openly admit it, but many will simply carry on life as if nothing is wrong. For the simple reason being that they are blind to the truth. They know no different. That’s the Bible’s verdict on us. Blind, in the dark. We’re spiritual paupers too, with nothing to bring to God except our sin and our rebellion. We’re oppressed by sin and death, slaves to our own desires and feelings. And we’re at war. At war with each other, at war with ourselves, at war with God. What a desperate situation we find ourselves in.
Now some people do understand this. I while ago I read Billy Graham’s autobiography and in it he tell the story of how he met Winston Churchill. Churchill had arranged the meeting and it was to be private. During the conversation, Churchill appeared sombre. They were talking about the world events, and at one point Churchill said to Graham, "I tell you I have no hope. I see no hope for the world." Later Graham wrote in his diary that Churchill had referred to hopelessness no fewer than nine times. Later on, Churchill said: "I am a man without hope. Do you have any real hope?" "Are you without hope for your own soul’s salvation?" asked Graham. "Frankly, I think about that a great deal," replied the Prime Minister. And to that Graham went on to explain the hope there is in Jesus. At precisely 12.30pm, there was a knock at the door, and the Prime Minister was informed that the Duke of Windsor was here for lunch. "Let him wait," growled Churchill. And Billy Graham was allowed to talk with Churchill for another 15 minutes. An honest appraisal of the world and our hearts shows that there is no hope. But the divine manifesto of God says there is hope. And it’s to be found in the child who was to be born, Jesus Christ. He is the one who came to give sight to the blind. He brings us from the gloomy darkness into the glorious sight of the knowledge of the living God. Jesus is the one who brings us from rank spiritual poverty to glorious wealth. The riches of knowing God personally, of being called a son of the King. In Jesus we are set free from oppression to sin and death. Through his death on the cross we are free! And he is the one who brings about peace and puts an end to war. We are given peace in our hearts and peace with God. We are called God’s friends. And all of those things are ours in Jesus Christ. It’s a glorious manifesto isn’t it?
But it does seem almost too good to be true doesn’t it? Can we really believe it? Is the candidate put forward to do all this really trustworthy? Well let’s find out as we move to see the candidate interviewed. And Isaiah puts forward the candidate in verse 6: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders." The candidate is a child, and on his shoulders is the government. He will be a ruler! But what kind of ruler. Well in the rest of verse 6 he is given four titles.
First he is called "wonderful counsellor". It’s almost a huge understatement isn’t it? But counsellor means someone who gives advice or wisdom. They are the sort of person you go to when you are in need of advice. And this person will be someone who is full of wisdom and wise council. This person will be a wonderful counsellor. Their advice will always be right and good. They will want the best for us and be willing to say some things that are hard. And as a ruler, he will be able to rule in with absolute care and wisdom and justice. And of course in Jesus Christ, we find someone who fits the bill. One of the first things that was said of Jesus was that he was a remarkable teacher. His wisdom was second to none. He knew how to answer his fiercest critics, but he also had the wisdom to comfort a bruised reed or flickering wick. Paul says in Colossians that in Jesus are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In 1 Corinthians Paul says that Jesus has become wisdom for us. In Jesus we find one who is the wisest of friends and counsellors. Isn’t that so often what we need? One who will give us wisdom and understanding. One who will show us the right way to go? It’s him we are to bring our worries and fears to. He will wisely answer according to his will. So we can sing with hymn writer: "What a friend we have in Jesus, all our griefs and sins to bear, what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer." With such a wonderful counsellor, where else would you want to go?
But he’s also the "mighty God". Now you can probably guess that many who read these words try and suggest that this phrase doesn’t really mean what it says. Perhaps Isaiah meant that this future king would have divine qualities. Or he would be godlike in his power, and so on. But at the end of the day, you cannot weasel out of it. The text says it clearly. This child is the mighty God. Previously in chapter 7 we saw that the child to be born would be "Immanuel, God with us" and now we discover why. Because he is God. Just because it’s mind stretching does not mean it is not true. And of course in Jesus we see this perfectly fulfilled. The NT consistently affirms that he didn’t just have certain godlike qualities. No he was God in the flesh. He was and is the mighty God. You see the wonderful thing about being a Christian and knowing Jesus personally is that not only do you have a very wise friend, but you also have someone who is able to do something about your issues and problems. It’s one thing to have a wise friend who is as weak as you. Such wisdom may be a comfort, but ultimately they cannot really help. Far better to have a wise friend and at the same time a friend who can do things to help your situation. In Jesus we have both. He is all wise, and all powerful. Because he is the mighty God.
But he’s also thirdly the "everlasting Father". It’s easy as Christians to leap straight to thinking that this description is about the Trinity. And then we get into difficulties. Is Isaiah saying that Jesus is the Father? Well no. Of course Jesus does do the Father’s will and he reveals the Father to us. But as the Son he is also the one who has fatherly compassion on his children. The one who knows his children deeply. It was said of Jesus that he wept tears of compassion. He wept at the grave of Lazarus, as he grieved over the carnage that death brings to the human race. And he wept with tears of compassion over the city of Jerusalem as she rejected her Messiah. You see it’s one thing to have a wise king, and even a powerful king. But you could conceivably have a wise powerful and uncaring king. In Jesus we have one who cares about us intimately. Who knows all about us. For every person here this morning there will be a thousand and one worries and concerns racing through our minds. Some big, some small. Our friends may give wise council and support us, but there are some things we perhaps would never share. But isn’t wonderful to know that in Jesus we have one who is the everlasting Father? The one who cares so passionately for us he was even willing to die for us. Someone who is our biggest fan. Someone who is always rooting for us and delights in us, even more intimately than the most intimate of human relationships. That’s the sort of king Jesus is.
It’s extremely rare nowadays to find a human king who cares personally for his subjects. Our modern world seems to have stripped us of such possibilities. But I did come across a story recently about a Moroccan man called Bouch. Bouch is a waiter in a bar in Chicago in the USA. There's nothing unusual about Bouch, except that he has an ongoing correspondence with the King of Morocco! The King, Mohammed VI, doesn't maintain a distance from his subjects, but interacts with them freely and frequently. He is also known for helping the poor, the disabled and those suffering injustice. Knowing this Bouch wrote off to his king at a time of need. And to his surprise King Mohammed VI personally wrote back! In fact he and Bouch have exchanged a number of letters. "Look at the letters," said Bouch to a reporter. "These are letters from the King. If I meet him, I'll be so happy." Well the reporter was a little sceptical, so he talked to the Moroccan deputy consul general in Chicago and discovered it wasn't at all unusual for the King to write personal letters to his subjects who were abroad. "It happens a lot," said the official. "You see he really loves his subjects." So too the everlasting Father- Jesus the king who cares for us.
But then fourthly he is the "prince of peace". This king is the one who brings about peace. And how did Jesus do that? Well at great cost, the cost of his life, his blood shed on the cross. The cross is the ultimate act of deliverance. What king would do that for his subjects? What king would lay their lives on the line to do that for people who rejected him and abused him? Only the King of kings. Only the one who is rightly called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting father. All wise, all powerful, all loving, and the one who gives us peace. And only a king with these credentials can go through with his promises to give us light over darkness, plenty over poverty, liberty over oppression, and peace over war.
But leads us finally to see the result declared. Because whilst the manifesto is terrific, and the candidate clearly ticks all the boxes, so to speak, then what will do with this candidate for government? How will we respond? Well the fact is that this king is already in government, and we must make up our minds about him. See what Isaiah says about him in verse 7: "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." No-one can vote this government out. Jesus is the King and he has already established his rule. And it’s not a dictatorial government. It’s a rule of justice and righteousness, doing what is good and right for ever. Now that leaves us with a choice. Either we can continue to rebel against this king, or we can submit to him. Either way he is the King, a loving, compassionate and humble king, but the king all the same. And he will eventually deal with any rebels with justice. So if you are not yet a Christian, then you need to see the king whose rule you are rebelling against. And whilst King Jesus is a king of almost inexhaustible patience, yet one day he will act in justice. So why rebel? His rule is what we designed for. It’s the right and best way to live! A life of peace with God and one another. A life of light instead of gloom and untold spiritual wealth, a life of joyous plenty and freedom to live the way God intended. That’s what happens when you submit to the king.
But I guess passages like this for those who love the king should challenge us in another way. You might say you love the Lord Jesus, but have you ever thought about it in this way. You see Jesus is if you like the Prime Minister. He is ultimately in charge. But he is a unique Prime Minister. Because as such he holds all the ministerial portfolios. So he’s also the Minister for Home Affairs. He is the one who should call the shots in your heart, at home so to speak. He should have the rule over your attitudes and actions. He’s the Minister for Defence. He will help you to wage war on the sinful attitudes that attack you and the spiritual enemies that come your way. He’s the Minister for Education. He should hold the rule over the things you read and watch on TV or the internet. His Word should be our diet. He is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is the one who holds your wallet and your finances. And so we could go on. When we submit to his loving rule, we submit everything. And the wonderful thing is that unlike many a government before, this one will not let us down. For this ruler will keep his promises. Because do you see how Isaiah ends? Verse 7: "The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this." This is God’s work and nothing can thwart his plans. So as we come to another Christmas this week, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to reassess where we stand with the one born King of kings. Have you submitted to his rule? If not, why not? What greater and more loving king could you possibly expect to meet? And for those of us who love him, how are we doing in allowing him to govern our lives? For Jesus alone is the wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
3) The Result is Declared (V 7)
2) The Candidate is Interviewed (V 6)
1) The Manifesto is Published (Vv 1-5)
2) The Candidate is Interviewed (V 6)
3) The Result is Declared (V 7)
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