12.6.2020 Advent – Week 2 – Peace – Isaiah 9:1-7
I have a book called The New Oxford Book of War Poetry. It’s a poetry anthology full of war poems from the ancient world to the modern period. War poetry as a genre became really popular during and after WWI, most poetry from WWI being written by common soldiers in the trenches. What is especially true of modern war poetry is that the lines are often full of cries for peace, lamenting the horrors of war.
Now, it’s almost Christmas time, and your mind probably doesn’t jump to thoughts about war. But as you start receiving Christmas cards in the mail, chances are you will likely receive at least one card with a quote from Isaiah “For unto us a child is born.” But what might not be immediately obvious is that those lines are lines from a war poem. The Bible has war poems. In fact, the Oxford book actually includes a couple.
This morning, the second Sunday of Advent, we are going to focus on the theme of Peace. Last week we looked at Hope; this week, we look at peace. Our passage this morning is Isaiah 9:1-7, and it is actually a war poem. Like modern war poems, it is a poem about peace. As I classify this as a war poem, I’m not trying to be creative. I’m trying to help us move past the myth and sentimentality behind our culture’s association with Christmas. I want us to move past sentimental hallmark sayings and see the reality that the season of Christmas points to.
The Bible is not just full of nice moralistic stories. The Bible is full of writings from people like you and me, who were in situations not unlike our own. The Bible is full of people who lived through real human suffering—the horror and violence of war, slavery, oppression, adultery, murder, sickness, disease. They were real people in real situations at real moments in time.
So this Advent, when we talk about hope, and peace, and love, and joy—we are not just talking about nice sentimental ideals—we are talking about real, concrete things. We are talking about real, concrete ways God has moved in human history and what that means for us—today.
Let me read our passage:
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.[b]
2 [c] 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.
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.
4 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.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon[d] his shoulder,
and his name shall be called[e]
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 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.
Let’s talk about the background of this poem and what exactly it is saying. What’s the historical situation? The poem begins in darkness. What is the darkness referring to? It’s likely referring to the Assyrian invasion and deportation of Israel in 733 BC. That’s the context—the war—impending Assyrian invasion.
The kingdom of Israel is split. Israel in the north. Judah in the South. Judah is surrounded by Israel and other smaller nations. And the big threat—the big military power of the day is Assyria—modern day Iraq. Israel and the surrounding nations fear the threat of invasion. So they form an anti-Assyrian alliance and they pressure Judah to join. But Judah, led by King Ahaz, refuses.
When he refused to join their anti-Assyrian alliance, the other nations turn on Judah and began to attack them. And when this happened it says, “Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” He was full of terror. And that’s where God promises him that if Judah trusted in the Lord, they would be saved.
God promised Judah that if they trusted in him, he would not let Jerusalem be destroyed. God warned them that the other nations who sought peace and security in their own military alliances would see destruction… for trusting in the world for protection rather than trusting in God. As Ahaz is being attacked by his neighbors, he disobeys God and sends a messenger to the king of Assyria pleading for Assyria to come and rescue them. You can read about this in 2 Kings 16.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Ahaz took money from the temple—and from the national treasury and gifted the king of Assyria with it. It’s a complete betrayal of the Lord as sovereign. Ahaz essentially steals money from God and begs for some other nation (and by extension its gods) to come and save them.
Assyria responds by invading the northern kingdom and deported them. Absolutely nothing was gained in this deal. Assyria ends up right at Judah’s doorstep with nothing to stop the threat of continued assault. You are going to trust in a measly little political alliance that means nothing? You think paying off the king of Assyria is going to prevent his continued conquest of the region?
All of this reveals a very pertinent question for us. Ahaz sought peace and security apart from God. One commentator says that alternative ways of salvation always end in destruction. Those who reject the way of wisdom, love death (Proverbs 8:6). Ahaz had skill, diplomatic experience. He trusted in his own resources, policies, and power. The Bible’s answer to this is total catastrophe.
Are we seeking peace and security apart from God? Are we seeking peace in the result of an election? Peace in national security, economic prosperity, personal finances, personal health, public health? Do we live our lives saying, “If those things are accomplished/squared away, then I will have peace?” If we find that we cannot have peace in the absence of those things, then we’ve just revealed that God is not on in his rightful place in our hearts.
We are sinful. And as sinful beings, we are prone to seek peace and security in things apart from God. But we can only have peace by trusting in God and in his provision.
God’s provision of peace is found in the Christ child. This war poem about peace points to Jesus.
The poem begins in darkness, but verse 2 says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus the Galilean has come bringing joy to all nations.
In verses 4-5, We move from war imagery to liberation and peace. The point being that Jesus is the one who will liberate all people from slavery to sin and death. Verse 4 alludes to previous military victories led by God. Liberation from the yoke and burden of slavery in Egypt and God’s victory over Midian in the book of Judges. The same God who worked these mighty acts in the past is working to bring peace through the Messiah.
Verse 5 has some interesting imagery. Soldiers boots, blood-soaked uniforms, and gear being burned in the fire. Christ is ushering in this era of peace—when war is over and there is no need for garments of war.
Verse 6, we come to the Christmas card. Or Handel’s “Messiah”—whichever association your brain goes to first. “For unto us a child is born.” … “and the government shall be upon his shoulder.” Here, we should contrast the burden of foreign government oppression being on their shoulders, with the burden of government being on Jesus’ shoulders. One is the image of pressing down, the other of raising up. There is no more burden of oppression on our backs.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus offers this wonderful invitation to all those who are burdened. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus has shattered the burden of oppression and slavery to sin and death. In his peaceable kingdom, he has laid on us his easy yoke. A yoke of rest.
Verse 6 speaks of the great fourfold name of Jesus. Isaiah previously has called Jesus Immanuel, meaning God with us… and here, he gives a series of four names that also describe the Savior. “and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
These names remind us of who God is.
Wonderful Counselor. Some translations break this into two separate thoughts, as in “he is wonderful” and he is also a counselor. But that’s not quite right. It is a single idea. The word literally means “wonder-counselor.” The word wonder that is used here is used in the Old Testament in other places to refer to supernatural acts of God… think in particular of events like the exodus-acts. Parting the red sea, etc. Works of wonder. When the word is attached to counselor, as it is here, it means supernatural counselor—or one giving supernatural counsel.
And if you’re like me, my mind has always jumped to the “therapeutic” when I hear the word counselor. But the primary image is not therapeutic here. The image of counsel here is more like that of a wise king. His plans and purposes.
Jesus’ wisdom is supernatural, surpassing human wisdom and knowledge. God is the world’s true sovereign. The world’s true expert.
We might think of White House advisors, or the National Economic council, or the domestic policy council. God, in his perfection, does not need a table of advisors. He works all things according to the counsel of his will. And though he doesn’t need counselors, he offers to us his wise counsel.
Romans 11:33-4 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (and Paul quotes Isaiah) For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
This helps reorient us to reality when we feel ourselves being drawn to expert worship. I don’t mean to discredit expertise. I want to help us ask ourselves, am I trusting in policy advisors and experts, or is my trust anchored in the depths and riches and wisdom and knowledge of God?
Mighty God. This is a military reference. It is a guarantee of preservation of his people. Not only is God wise, but he is powerful enough to liberate his people from his enemies. Jesus would decisively defeat the power of sin and death on the cross by trampling over death in his resurrection.
Everlasting Father. The Old Testament does not often refer to God as father. When it does, it refers to God’s covenant relationship with his people. He provides them with loving care and discipline of a father. One of Jesus’ favorite names for God is Father. What’s interesting here is that Jesus addresses God as father but is also called Everlasting Father. The point is that Jesus shares in the Divine identity. He and the father are one.
Prince of Peace. Prince here means ruler, official, sometimes it refers to a military leader. Jesus is the prince of peace. The empire will not expand through conquest and violent bloodshed and war but through peace. The only bloodshed spilled in his conquest will be his own.
This is the kind of ruler Jesus is—wise, strong, loving, and he produces peace and all that goes with it.
Verse 7. “And of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” As Jesus reigns, his spread of peace increases. As he rules, his peace slowly permeates all of reality.
This is very different from earthly rulers. Imagine, “of the increase of Biden’s administration there will be no end.” You might think that’s cause for celebration or despair… Human authority is prone to corruption or ineffectiveness the longer one is in power—hence one of the reasons our system of government implemented term limits on executive power. Or, even think of the Queen of England, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, who has ruled for 68 years… her rule will come to an end.
Not so with Jesus. He sits on David’s throne forever. The king eternal. But unlike the kingdoms of this world, his is not prone to maladaptation or corruption. His kingdom of peace will be established forever and upheld in righteousness and justice (vs 7).
This is the positive effect of Biblical peace. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, which means wholeness, being complete. Biblically, peace/shalom is not just the absence of war, but it includes the positive presence of something else. Here—Jesus’ peaceful rule is upheld in righteousness and justice. Jesus brings restoration and wholeness.
Biblically, there are different dimensions of peace.
There is future peace—future fulfillment when Jesus’ peace permeates the whole of reality. The fulness of the kingdom. This will happen at Jesus’ second advent. His first advent inaugurated the kingdom—and we live in the already not-yet kingdom, waiting this peaceful rule to reach consummation. One theologian ends his two-volume systematic theology by saying “the end is music.” That is the future of the kingdom.
We can experience the peace of the kingdom now, but we wait and long for its fulness. As Rodney said last week, our waiting isn’t “boring” waiting… It is active anticipation. As we wait the fulness of the kingdom of peace, we ourselves are peacemakers living in God’s kingdom.
The Bible also speaks of peace in interpersonal relationships. Peace with others. Colossians 3:15 says “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body.” Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This year has certainly given us an opportunity to practice that. Racial tension, intense political polarization, the virus… It is just not worth it to lose relationship over these things- divisiveness within our own families. As the people of God, we are called to be one body, united in love. We need to be people who extend peace and grace to one another.
As for family or people at work who are difficult to deal with—Paul didn’t guarantee living at peace, but he said if it’s possible as long as it depends on you—so long as it’s in your power—do what you can to live at peace with others.
I once had a really difficult work relationship. God had done a work in my heart leading me to a place of not being bitter from the fallout—and God prompted me to approach this individual and extend an olive branch. And when I did that, he squashed it. But God freed me at that moment. I could go on serving the Lord with a clear conscience. I had done what was in my power to live at peace with everybody. Wisdom requires discernment. Proverbs says answer a fool according to his folly and don’t answer a fool according to his folly. At that moment, wisdom said “don’t answer. Drop it. You’ve done your part.” I was free.
So we have future peace. Interpersonal peace, peace with others. And a third dimsension of peace is peace with God. Objective peace – being made right—called justification.
Ephesians 2:14 says Jesus is our peace. “For he himself is our peace.” He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility and reconciled us to God through his blood on the cross. This passage illustrates who Jesus is and the conditions he brings about.
Not only does he give and create peace—he himself is our peace. Peace is not just a benefit we receive, but it is a part of who God is.
For those who belong to God, to experience his presence is to experience his peace.
If you are not right with God, then to experience his presence is a very frightening thing. We see that over and over again in Scripture—the presence of sinners trembling before the presence of the Holy One. This is also true of a troubled and guilty conscience. If you have sin that hasn’t been dealt with in your heart, then you cannot have peace with God until that is settled.
Yet, when we have surrendered ourselves to God and have been reconciled to him through faith, to experience his presence is to experience his peace. His presence becomes a comforting reality.
In John 16:33, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Jesus does not promise the absence of trouble, but he offers peace in the midst of trouble. And the peace that he offers is found in himself. Peace is found in his own presence.
Those are three dimensions of peace. Future peace. Peace with others. And Peace with God. All of these are related to the basic meaning of shalom as wholeness/being complete.
Let’s return to a question we’ve already asked this morning. It’s a question of contentment: are we seeking peace/wholeness apart from God or are we seeking peace in Christ?
What does the difference actually look like in reality? How do you know if you are actually seeking peace in Christ or peace form things in the world?
The answer is that both can look pretty similar above the surface, but underneath the surface, it’s a different story.
Jesus said in Matthew 6, “do not be anxious saying what shall we eat or what shall we drink or what shall we wear. Your heavenly father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Seeking God’s peace is not opposed to material goods- food, clothing, shelter. He’s not saying you shouldn’t be concerned in any way with those things. Jesus said, God knows you need these things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to want them. But he is raising a question of ultimate value. Ultimately, where is your trust?
Jesus later compares a house built on sand with one built on rock. Above the surface, the houses may look the same, but beneath the surface tells a different story. And a time of testing will expose the foundation. As stress has compounded this year, the foundations of our hearts are being exposed. As these foundations are exposed, that can create a sense of alarm and stress or it can create a sense of peace. My prayer for us is that we would experience peace.
And if it does cause a sense of alarm, then the starting point is to get right with God. To repent and confess your sin of misplaced trust and security. As you draw near to him, he will draw near to you. And the gift of God’s presence provides the greatest sense of peace.