The prophet Isaiah was speaking and writing during a period of great darkness for the people of God. The kingdom had been divided between Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Both Judah and Israel had been ruled by successions of wicked kings with only very few exceptions. Together the people had been led into idolatry and immorality of the nations. The triumphant and unifying reign of King David seemed long past. Many had no doubt concluded that God’s promise to establish an everlasting throne through the line of David had failed.
The northern and southern kingdoms warred with one another and sought out alliances with pagan nations to bolster their advantage. Israel made a treaty with Syria while Judah, ruled by wicked Ahaz, allied with dreaded Assyria. Already the northernmost tribes of Israel were under attack from Assyria. Eventually, the ten northern tribes would be swept away.
The national darkness which had descended upon God’s people serves as a picture of the spiritual darkness of unbelief. Outside of Christ, there is ultimately only gloom and darkness. This is why God’s people are repeatedly warned to not walk in the way of unbelievers. “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:17-18). “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). This was the condition of God’s people in the centuries following David’s blessed reign.
But in the midst of all their self-imposed spiritual darkness and the terrifying threats from mighty pagan nations, the prophet Isaiah sees a light in the distance. Indeed, the light is so great that there will be a massive reversal in the condition of God’s people. In past tense – as though it has already happened – the prophet speaks of the people’s gloom being replaced by glory, their darkness replaced by light, and their oppression replaced by joy.
And what is the rationale for this radical transformation of the people’s fate? What could possibly happen to save the people from their sin and darkness? Isaiah provides the answer: “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” (vs. 6).