1st Reading - Isaiah 8:23 - 9:3
Today we hear from a portion of Isaiah called the “Book of Emmanuel.” This book encompasses chapters 7 through 12. The portion we read from today is titled “The Prince of Peace.” The events described in Chapters 7 through 12 took place between 735 and 733 B.C. It is the Syro-Ephramitic war which is concisely described in 2 Kings 16:5-9
5 Then Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to Jerusalem to attack it. Although they besieged Ahaz, they were unable to conquer him. 6 At the same time the king of Edom recovered Elath for Edom, driving the Judeans out of it. The Edomites then entered Elath, which they have occupied until the present. 7 Meanwhile, Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, with the plea: “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the clutches of the king of Aram and the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8 Ahaz took the silver and gold that were in the temple of the LORD and in the palace treasuries and sent them as a present to the king of Assyria, 9 who listened to him and moved against Damascus, which he captured. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death.
Isaiah’s task was to guide Judah through one of the most critical periods in her history. With the death of Uzziah in 742 B.C., Judah’s time of prosperity and national glory had come to an end. The shadow of Assyria lay menacingly over the land. In his lifetime Isaiah saw the northern kingdom of Israel swept away in the tide of conquest and his own land of Judah invaded by the mighty Assyrian armies. But the spiritual crisis of Judah was even more serious than the threat of physical destruction. Greed, hypocrisy and injustice were sapping the spiritual integrity of Judah. There was also the national loss of nerve that led its rulers to seek an accommodation with Assyria and her gods, thus undermining the very foundation of Judah’s existence as a covenanted people. Judah’s king was the descendant of David to whom an eternal dynasty had been promised (2 Samuel 17).
With Assyria sweeping all before her, many of the Judeans began to doubt the power of Yahweh to preserve the dynasty of David in accordance with His promises. Others took an opposite but equally unspiritual position; interpreting the covenant with David as a guarantee of absolute invincibility no matter what crimes were committed against Yahweh. When religion becomes a blank check for national wrongdoing, the end is not far off; no one saw this better than Isaiah.
King Uzziah had been succeeded by Jotham (ruled 742 - 735 B.C.) who was succeeded by Ahaz (ruled 735 - 715 B.C.). Isaiah looked for a successor to Ahaz in whom the promise of the dynasty would be realized; the passage describes the new era of liberty and joy, which the future Messiah will usher in. Galilee, the northeastern corner of Palestine, had been populated for the most part by pagan Assyrian settlers, who had been brought in there after the fall of the northern kingdom (Israel) in 722. Paganism had control, and the few Chosen People, thinly scattered in the region, found it difficult to retain their faith in the true God, and more difficult still, to practice it. All that will be changed, the prophet says.
Here is the 1st Reading as we will hear it this Sunday:
First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali;
but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan,
the District of the Gentiles.
Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.