Weekly Meditation: 26th January 2017
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
We almost never read Isaiah chapter 8, and it is not in today’s readings. However, it is worth looking at this chapter before reading the lectionary passage from Isaiah 9, in order to understand the context of what the writer is saying.
By the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, the nation of Israel had been divided into a northern kingdom, still called Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. Assyria had already conquered the northern kingdom, so Isaiah’s prophecy concerned only Judah. The people of Judah had wandered far from the Lord and his ways. They had trusted in political alliances, they had neglected the Law and had turned to idolatry. They were living in spiritual darkness. In chapter 8, Isaiah writes of the way in which Judah has rejected the counsel of the Lord (8:5), and of the threat of Assyrian invaders (8:4,9). He warns the people against consulting spirit mediums, for those who trust in such things will ‘have no dawn... they will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish’ (8:22).
In contrast, chapter 9 gives a message of hope for those who will hear it. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (9:1). Isaiah’s words provide comfort and encouragement, but not only for the people of his time. This passage forms the introduction to the well-known words that foretell the birth of the Messiah (9:6-7). It was this same passage (Isaiah 9:1-2/Matthew 4:14-16) that the gospel-writer Matthew quoted as fulfilled prophecy when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was not well thought-of (John 1:46); it was Bethlehem in Judea, after all, that had been foretold as the place from where the Messiah would come (Micah 5:2), so the appearance of the Messiah in Galilee was a surprise to many (John 7:40-42). However, writing for Jews, Matthew wanted to demonstrate that even the apparently incidental details of Jesus’ life had been planned and foretold by God.
When Jesus commissioned his first disciples, their prompt response might look like gullibility. Matthew’s account simply states that he called them to follow him and they ‘at once’ (4:20) and ‘immediately’ (4:22) left their nets and fishing boats and went with him. This was not their first encounter with Jesus, though. Some of them had spent time with Jesus in the house where he was staying (John 1:35-42), and Simon Peter had possibly already heard Jesus’ teaching and witnessed a miracle (Luke 5:1-10).
These first four disciples bore witness to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, come in fulfilment of the scriptures. They recognised him as the Light of the World, the One whose coming had been long foretold. They may well have had Isaiah’s words in mind, though probably no one realised then that Jesus was far more than God’s anointed servant. Coming as the Light (see John 1:9) he was demonstrating that he was God himself – the one whom the Psalmist described as ‘my light and my salvation’ (Psalm 27:1).