The book of Isaiah is a minefield for biblical studies, mainly because of the development it seems its contents went through to get to its final form. It appears to be a strange stitching together of many writings, perhaps by many people, for several different purposes. But in all of its complexity and mystery, there is one theme that it consistently holds throughout its contents: politics. The political movements of the nation of Israel and the nations around it–and God’s movement in and through all of it–occupy most every chapter of the book.
Interestingly, this is also where many of the most dramatic and explicit messianic prophecies are found–specifically Advent prophecies. When telling the Christmas story, the gospels quote Isaiah (I believe) more than any other Old Testament book. Images of virgins, Emmanuel, Davidic lineage, “roots of Jesse”, and John’s “voice crying in the wilderness” all find their source here.
There seems to be an intimate connection between politics and Advent.
Isaiah opens up with a statement of the sin of God’s people, God’s anger over it, and God’s promise of redemption. The next large section of the book mainly stresses the judgment and anger of God (don’t worry, the tone softens around Chapter 40). But in the midst of the doom and gloom, there is a very random and unexpected section of brightness in Chapter 9:
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. (v.2)
We’ll get to what this light looks like in a little bit. Let’s first jump a few verses ahead and ask what brings this light about?
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. (v.6)
In Advent, the coming of our Lord in infant human form, God is not simply asserting his pre-existent spiritual Authority and Rulership over all things–he has exercised this since eternity past. He is instead, it seems, taking a different sort of “government” upon his shoulders: political, earthly authority. (There are good, linguistic reasons to take this word “government” as exactly that.)
Yes, the original author is talking about the government of one particular nation, but it was a nation that, according to the promises of God, was expected to fill the whole earth, and whose rule was to be a blessing to the whole world. In other words: the political endeavors of God’s people were to have a characteristic “shape” to them that would have implications for the whole world. What would it look like for these implications to manifest themselves?
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.
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. (vv.3-5)
When it says “multiplied the nation”, it’s not referring to conquest and military might. Verse 1 of this chapter describes the land to which this is referring, and the author calls it “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations“. The world in which God’s people live–Galilee–belongs to all the nations. This Galilee is of and for the other nations of the world. Christians are to see the world as their country and, in fact, their future inheritance in the World to come.
Looking at these verses, it seems that when Christians move politically, it should be for the joy of this “Galilee of the nations” and it should be multiplied and overflow into the nations of the world. When this nation is blessed agriculturally and materially, they joyfully divide these spoils for the sake of lessening oppression and burdens in the world. This nation that is multiplied in and for the world is a nation marked by the rejection of military might, “tramping warriors”, and “battle tumult”.
So, beyond these verses happening to be next to an Advent prophecy, what does Advent and Christmas necessarily have to do with all of this?
As said above, in God’s Incarnation at Advent, he did not just take on a human form, but he also took on the culture and systems in which that human form existed–even the political ones.
It’s interesting that this song doesn’t say that the government is under the feet of this child being born; but rather, it’s on his shoulders. The political authority and presence exerted by this child and his People is not one exerted upon others but rather inhabited within and lifted up.
Both conservatives and liberals should take note of this.
Conservatives should see that the political priorities of God’s people should be peace and the joy of all peoples–but remember, it’s a joy not imposed upon, but inhabited within and lifted up. It’s service from a seeming place of weakness: after all, this government is on the shoulders of a child in this song.
Further, these words are not some call to a “Christian nation”. It is a declaration that the political movements of God’s people are beyond, and almost irrelevant of, the geographic place or the political system in which those people live. These should be the political machinations and priorities of God’s people, in both “freedom” and tyranny alike. It’s not about molding a nation and it’s laws to fit some shape, but molding God’s people and their political actions to fit a shape and to move towards a particular end.
If you’re a Christian, your allegiance should never be to a flag, a country, or a leader–the government you live within is that which is on Christ’s shoulders, not the one under your feet. It’s telling that the most explicit reference to this verse in the New Testament is one that assigns to Jesus the political title of “lord”, which had previously been offered only to Caesar.
In Advent, a new administration is heralded.
That’s why I will rant and rave against the injustices perpetuated by this nation and its leaders, but I can’t imagine a situation where I would ever take up arms against it. As a Christian, the Beauty of the Gospel is that it gives us the ability and responsibility to flourish and live as Christians no matter the political system around us.
Liberals should hear a similar warning in these words. These words certainly give legitimacy to trying to bring about global and domestic social justice through political means (and, in fact, global poverty is close to being eradicated because of the movements of governments, not necessarily individuals or the church).
But still, there is a spiritual and salvific aspect to this that should not be missed. It is not all about governments trying to lift up the poor, but it’s about those that have walked in darkness now seeing “light”. Throughout Isaiah, those images are used for spiritual blindness and darkness, not “merely” social ills.
And so, there is an individual, spiritual aspect to the political movements of God’s people; it’s not just about getting the government to do all the work for Christians. Legislating justice isn’t necessarily that much more effective at bringing it about than legislating morality can bring that about.
Lastly, the most frequent conservative patronization of liberals and progressives is their seeming naiveté and “over-realized eschatology”–the idea that an ideal world can be achieved here and now. Liberals would respond that they know all the work can’t be done now, but they can certainly try and get as close as possible.
This bright part of the song ends with words that speak both peace and hope to both sides of that discussion.
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. (v.7)
This kingdom of this child, the Adventing Christ, is that which will be “established and upheld”. In the Hebrew, these words carry the connotation of a slow growth and spreading (and through joy and freedom, I might add–not legislation and military might). This Kingdom has been established by God in his Advent, and it is spreading–“progressing”, even–towards a definite future. This future world will (ala the conservatives) fully be realized only at the end of all things, and not a second sooner.
But, it is a future world that we can participate in ushering into the present even now, because we have a hope and an assurance that we have Emmanuel–God with us–and that the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
And so, this Christmas, may we re-evaluate our political priorities in our particular political system, and wonder how we might let our politicking have a “Christmas shape” to it, all year-round.
[image credit: “Triumph of Christianity” by Tommaso Laureti]