The darker the cloud, the brighter is the rainbow. This prophecy has for its historical background the calamitous reign of the weak and wicked Ahaz, during which the heart of the nation was bowed, like a forest before the blast, by the dread of foreign invasion and conquest. The prophet predicts a day of gloom and anguish, and then, out of the midst of his threatenings, bursts this glorious vision, sudden as sunrise. With consummate poetic art, the consequences of Messiah's rule are set forth before He Himself is brought into view.
I. Image is heaped on image to tell the blessedness of that reign (vs.2-5). Each trait of the glowing description is appropriate to the condition of Israel under Ahaz; but each has a meaning far beyond that limited application. Isaiah may, or may not, have been aware of 'what' or 'what time' his words portrayed in their deepest, that is, their true meaning, but if we believe in supernatural prediction which, though it may have found its point of attachment in the circumstances of the present, was none the less the voice of the Spirit of God, we shall not make, as is often done now, the prophet's construction of his words the rule for their interpretation. What the prophecy was discerned to point to by its utterer or his contemporaries, is one thing; quite another is what God meant by it.
First we have the picture of the nation groping in a darkness that might be felt, the emblem of ignorance, sin, and sorrow, and inhabiting a land over which, like a pall, death cast its shadow. On that dismal gloom shines all at once a 'great light,' the emblem of knowledge, purity, and joy. The daily mercy of the dawn has a gospel in it to a heart that believes in God; for it proclaims the divine will that all who sit in darkness shall be enlightened, and that every night but prepares the way for the freshness and stir of a new morning. The great prophecy of these verses in its indefiniteness goes far beyond its immediate occasion in the state of Judah under Ahaz. As surely as the dawn floods all lands, so surely shall all who walk in darkness see the great light; and wherever is a 'land of the shadow of death,' there shall the light shine. It is 'the light of the world.'
Verse 3 gives another phase of blessing. Israel is conceived of as dwindled in number by deportation and war. But the process of depopulation is arrested and reversed, and numerical increase, which is always a prominent feature in Messianic predictions, is predicted. That increase follows the dawning of the light, for men will flock to the 'brightness of its rising.' We know that the increase comes from the attractive power of the Cross, drawing men of many tongues to it; and we have a right to bring the interpretation, which the world's history gives, into our understanding of the prophecy. That enlarged nation is to have abounding joy.
Undoubtedly, the rendering 'To it thou hast increased the joy' is correct, as that of the Authorized Version (based upon the Hebrew text) is clearly one of several cases in which the partial similarity in spelling and identity in sound of the Hebrew words for 'not' and 'to it,' have led to a mistaken reading. The joy is described in words which dance and sing, like the gladness of which they tell. The mirth of the harvest-field, when labour is crowned with success, and the sterner joy of the victors as they part the booty, with which mingles the consciousness of foes overcome and dangers averted, are blended in this gladness. We have the joy of reaping a harvest of which we have not sowed the seed. Christ has done that; we have but to enjoy the results of His toil. We have to divide the spoil of a victory which we have not won. He has bound the strong man, and we share the benefits of His overcoming the world.
That last image of conquerors dividing the spoil leads naturally to the picture in verse 4 of emancipation from bondage, as the result of a victory like Gideon's with his handful. Who the Gideon of this new triumph is, the prophet will not yet say. The 'yoke of his burden' and 'the rod of his oppressor' recall Egypt and the taskmasters.
Verse 5 gives the reason for the deliverance of the slaves; namely, the utter destruction of the armour and weapons of their enemy. The Revised Version is right in its rendering, though it may be doubtful whether its margin is not better than its text, since not only are 'boot' and 'booted' as probable renderings of the doubtful words as 'armour' and 'armed man,' but the picture of the warrior striding into battle with his heavy boots is more graphic than the more generalised description in the Revised Version's text. In any case, the whole accoutrements of the oppressor are heaped into a pile and set on fire; and, as they blaze up, the freed slaves exult in their liberty. The blood-drenched cloaks have been stripped from the corpses and tossed on the heap, and, saturated as they are, they burn. So complete is the victory that even the weapons of the conquered are destroyed. Our conquering King has been manifested, that He might annihilate the powers by which evil holds us bound. His victory is not by halves. 'He taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted.'
II. Now we are ready to ask, And who is to do all this? The guarantee for its accomplishment is the person of the conquering Messiah. The hopes of Israel did not, and those of the world do not, rest on tendencies, principles, laws of progress, advance of civilisation, or the like abstractions or impersonalities, but on a living Person, in whom all principles which make for righteousness and blessedness for individuals and communities are incarnated, and whose vital action works perpetually in mankind.
In this prophecy the prophet is plainly speaking greater things than he knew. We do not get to the meaning if we only ask ourselves what did he understand by his words, or what did his hearers gather from them? They and he would gather the certainty of the coming of Messiah with wondrous attributes of power and divine gifts, by whose reign light, gladness, liberty would belong to the oppressed nation. But the depth of the prophecy needed the history of the Incarnation for its disclosure. If this is not a God-given prediction of the entrance into human form of the divine, it is something very like miraculous that, somehow or other, words should have been spoken, without any such reference, which fit so closely to the supernatural fact of Christ's incarnation.
The many attempts to translate verse 6 so as to get rid of the application of 'Mighty God,' 'Everlasting Father,' to Messiah, cannot here be enumerated or adequately discussed. I must be content with pointing out the significance of the august fourfold name of the victor King. It seems best to take the two first titles as a compound name, and so to recognise four such compounds.
There is a certain connection between the first and second of these which respectively lay stress on wisdom of plan and victorious energy of accomplishment, while the third and fourth are also connected, in that the former gathers into one great and tender name what Messiah is to His people, and the latter points to the character of His dominion throughout the whole earth. 'A wonder of a counsellor,' as the words may be rendered, not only suggests His giving wholesome direction to His people, but, still more, the mystery of the wisdom which guides His plans. Truly, Jesus purposes wonders in the depth of His redeeming design. He intends to do great things, and to reach them by a road which none would have imagined. The counsel to save a world, and that by dying for it, is the miracle of miracles. 'Who hath been His counsellor in that overwhelming wonder?' He needs no teacher; He is Himself the teacher of all truth. All may have His direction, and they who follow it will not walk in darkness.
'The mighty God.' Chapter x.21 absolutely forbids taking this as anything lower than the divine name. The prophet conceives of Messiah as the earthly representative of divinity, as having God with and in Him as no other man has. We are not to force upon the prophet the full new Testament doctrine of the oneness of the incarnate Word with the Father, which would be an anachronism. But we are not to fall into the opposite error, and refuse to see in these words, so startling from the lips of a rigid monotheist, a real prophecy of a divine Messiah, dimly as the utterer may have perceived the figure which he painted. Note, too, that the word 'mighty' implies victorious energy in battle. It is often applied to human heroes, and here carries warlike connotations, kindred with the previous picture of conflict and victory. Thus strength as of God, and, in some profound way, strength which is divine, will be the hand obeying the brain that counsels wonder, and all His plans shall be effected by it.
But these are not all His qualities. He is 'the Father of Eternity' -- a name in which tender care and immortal life are marvellously blended. This King will be in reality what, in old days, monarchs often called themselves and seldom were, -- the Father of His people, with all the attributes of that sacred name, such as guidance, love, providing for His children's wants. Nor can Christians forget that Jesus is the source of life to them, and that the name has thus a deeper meaning. Further, He is possessed of eternity. If He is so closely related to God as the former name implies, that predicate is not wonderful. Dying men need and have an undying Christ. He is 'the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.'
The whole series of names culminates in 'the Prince of Peace,' which He is by virtue of the characteristics expressed in the foregoing names. The name pierces to the heart of Christ's work. For the individual He brings peace with God, peace in the else discordant inner nature, peace amid storms of calamity -- the peace of submission, of fellowship with God, of self-control, of received forgiveness and sanctifying. For nations and civic communities He brings peace which will one day hush the tumult of war, and burn chariots and all warlike implements in the fire. The vision tarries, because Christ's followers have not been true to their Master's mission, but it comes, though its march is slow. We can hasten its arrival.
Verses 7 and 8 declare the perpetuity of Messiah's kingdom, His Davidic descent, and those characteristics of His reign, which guarantee its perpetuity. 'Judgment' which He exercises, and 'righteousness' which He both exercises and bestows, are the pillars on which His throne stands; and these are eternal, and it never will totter nor sink, as earthly thrones must do. The very life-blood of prophecy, as of religion, is the conviction that righteousness outlasts sin, and will survive 'the wreck of matter and the crash of worlds.'
The great guarantee for these glowing anticipations is that the 'zeal of the Lord of hosts' will accomplish them. Zeal, or rather jealousy, is love stirred to action by opposition. It tolerates no unfaithfulness in the object of its love, and flames up against all antagonism to the object. 'He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of Mine eye.' So the subjects of that Messiah may be sure that a wall of fire is round about them, which to foes without is terror and destruction, and to dwellers within its circuit glows with lambent light, and rays out beneficent warmth.