Isaiah 9, Part 1: The Promised Prince (verses 1-7)
Previously in chapter 8:
With his child's name as an omen, Isaiah responded to God's inspiration and preached a warning to "this people", the Jews in Israel and Judah. They would be inundated by an invasion from Assyria, shattering their idolatrous fear and superstition. Distress, darkness and gloom would bring the people anguish.
Overview of chapter 9:
Those without hope in the LORD would suffer the gloom of anguish, but for those once thought contemptible there will be no such gloom. A Child would come from Zebulun Naphtali, a Son Who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.
Yet the present circumstances are dire. God's anger brings Assyrians, Syrians and Philistines against Israel. The horrors of war and genocide become terrifying symbols of Israel's moral and spiritual wickedness against the LORD.
The Promised Prince of Peace (verses 1-7)
In the "former time" the LORD brought into contempt Zebulun and Naphtali (Isaiah 9:1).
A good example of "contempt" is seen early in the Old Testament, in Hagar's attitude toward Sarai:
Genesis 16:3-4 (ESV) So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.
Evidently, the people of Zebulun and Naphtali had previously been viewed with contempt by other Israelite tribes who felt themselves more numerous, more affluent, or more favored by God.
Scripture suggests a few reasons why the people of Zebulun and Naphtali were long considered to be light or trifling, and of little import. The tribe's founder, Zebulun, was a son of Leah, who was Jacob's first wife, but not his first love. Zebulun's borders allowed only a small bit of land, squeezed by Manasser to the south, Naphtali to the north, and Asher and Issachar on either side. When Moses and Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, Zebulun as a tribe failed to completely drive out their enemies (Judges 1:30).
The child Naphtali was technically a son of Rachel, Jacob's favored wife, but was actually born of Rachel's servant, Bilhah (Genesis 30:7-8). The Naphtali tribe also failed to drive out their appointed enemies in Canaan (Judges 1:33). During the years of civil war, Naphtali was conquered by Syria, the people taken captive and exiled to Assyria(1 kings 15:20). It could easily be that Zebulun and Naphtali would be seen as "foreign", ruined by the "dogs" of a Gentile nation.
But Isaiah promised glory for this contemptible region of Israel:
Isaiah 9:1-3 (ESV) But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 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. 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.
The ostracized peoples of Zebulun and Naphtali would experience something glorious and great, something that would give them reason to rejoice with joy and gladness.
Note: The KJV translation seems confusing:
Isaiah 9:3 (KJV) Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
"Not increased the joy" probably refers to the contrast between a contemptible past and a glorious future, as in "Whose joy thou hadst not increased" in the former time (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).
"Blithe" means a casual and cheerful indifference that could be considered callous or improper.
Isaiah foresaw a time of incredible joy for the little, trivial and contemptible tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali...joy that would make them seem indifferent and forgetful of their former days of darkness and anguish.
That future day would be ushered in by the triumph of a Child:
Isaiah 9:4-7 (ESV) 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. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 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 zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Oppression and war would cease under the government of the Son, the "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace". This Saviour would be a descendent of David the King and would reign for eternity.
And this Saviour would first appear in the formerly "dark" regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, a land filled with Jews made impure and contemptible with Gentile blood.
Matthew 4:12-17 (ESV) 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.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a city of the Jewish tribe of Judah. But shortly after his birth his parents fled Herod's persecution, escaping to Egypt. When it was safe, the family returned to Israel, settling in the district of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, the once-contemptible land. It was in Galilee that the light of the gospel first shone.
Isaiah's message of hope and joy would take centuries to bear fruit for the people who were then experiencing oppression, war, death and disease. But the promise would be fulfilled...eventually.