Click here for a print-friendly version
Justice and Righteousness
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 19, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7
Key Scripture (NIV):
“Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Isaiah 9:7
- To understand God’s transformation of a darkened, searching world.
- To understand God’s grace in the gift of a Messiah.
- To understand the ministry and purpose of the Messiah.
- To recognize God’s Kingdom in Isaiah 9 as it exists in the world today.
Isaiah is considered one of the “major prophets.” This designation is certainly related to its length and the span of years the material covers. However, the prophetic message of the book is powerful. Though the book bears the 8th
century prophet Isaiah’s name, the material spans almost 200 years. Schools of prophets existed in Isaiah’s day, and it is most likely that his students continued the prophetic book beyond Isaiah’s time. One of the most fascinating sections of Isaiah is “The Servant Songs” included in Isaiah 42-53. These songs describe in moving detail the suffering Messiah to come. Prophets were not so much future tellers as they were cultural observers and critics. The prophet viewed the current Israelite culture through the eyes of the Mosaic Law and Covenant. The Mosaic Law served as the plumb line by which they measured Israel’s faithfulness. Thus, when the covenant was abused and violated the prophet called the people to account. However, the prophets always offered the hope of redemption in spite of Israel’s sins. Though not future tellers, there are obviously moments when the prophet is allowed to gaze into God’s future. I like to use the analogy of gazing at a mud puddle in front of me. As I stare at the muddy water I can still see a reflection on its surface. If the sun stands before me I can see the reflection of what is to come. Though the reflection itself is far from perfectly clear, I can still see the shadowy images of what is ahead. The prophet looked upon Israel’s sin and ensuing judgment. However, on occasion the prophet saw a reflection of redemption that awaited. Many of the Servant Songs are understood as futuristic, that is, referring to Jesus Christ. There are also passages from other sections of Isaiah that are messianic in nature. Isaiah 7, 9, 11, and 25 certainly fall into this category. Many churches read selected passages from these chapters during Advent. Isaiah did not perfectly see the exact identity of the Messiah. Some would later believe King Hezekiah or the Persian king Cyrus to be the coming messiah. However, it is only as the prophet John the Baptist, along with the disciples and others, points to Jesus that it becomes clear who this suffering servant truly is.
Today’s lesson is recognized by many as a messianic text, revealing the coming of God’s Kingdom through the Messiah. This passage is not concerned with the “details” of how, when and where the Messiah will appear. However, it is concerned with the purpose and ministry of the Messiah. The Messiah will usher in God’s Kingdom in all of its glory! All of God’s attributes will comprise the way of life under the Savior. The world will be at peace, live in righteousness, and experience utter joy. Love will be the air we breathe and justice will be our light.
Like much of the material in the Old Testament, Isaiah contains beautiful potent prose. There is a rhythm, rhyme and grace within its stern, yet redemptive message. Thus, many of the prophetic passages must be interpreted as one would interpret Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry uses parallelism and couplets. That is, a truth is stated in one line, and is repeated with different wording in the following line. Thus, it is one and the same truth being expressed in two different ways.
The Messianic Text
The poetic opening of the text reveals a stark contrast. The present state of Isaiah’s world as it was will stand in great contrast to what will be. Interpreting the prose as Hebrew poetry, we are presented a description of the world in two couplets, or four lines. In line one the people are walking in darkness. The second couplet amplifies that statement with the words, “Those living in the land of the deep darkness.” Notice the second descriptive line is darker and more disturbing than the first. The people were not only dwelling in darkness, the darkness permeating the land and was “deep.” In the original Hebrew, the phrase “deep darkness” implies a very dark shadow, much like the shadow of death. Shadows do not mean there is no sun. Quite the contrary, a shadow exists because there is a sun
. An entity blocks the full light of the sun from shining upon the land. Thus, it is not an absolute darkness. God’s light still shines. It is still present. The darkness can hinder, but cannot remove the light.
Of course, the darkness is the consequence of Israel’s corporate sin. The same sin repeatedly afflicts Israel. The neglect of God’s covenant, as expressed through the Mosaic Law, has plunged the nation into a darkened state. Often idolatry exists in such a state. Idolatry is the deadly mushroom that grows in the dark. Idolatry frequently finds a way to emerge and sometimes thrive in the dark shadow of human sin. Sadly, human nature can adjust to the darkness. People can grow contented simply navigating the world of shapes and shadows without seeing the radiant light and beauty of God’s creation and life. Plato, the Greek philosopher who spoke of darkness and shadows as they limited perception of the real world, lived years later. Plato happened to discover truth that existed from the beginning; it was truth Isaiah first witnessed and described. Later, the author of the New Testament book “Hebrews” also witnesses and describes the contrast of living in the shadows versus thriving in the light of God. What we experience in life has everything to do with whether we choose to live in the shadows or in the radiance of God’s world. The sin of the Hebrew people obfuscated the full radiance of God’s light, leaving them to grope in the darkness.
When visiting one of my new appointments I entered the sanctuary at night. The light switch was several feet inside the door. When the large heavy door slowly closed behind me it left me in what appeared to me as utter darkness. I could not see anything. I could not even find the light switch. I knew there were wires and steps in the chancel. After six back surgeries I feared falling. I knew nothing to do but sit down and wait. I decided to sit and try to gather my thoughts. Perhaps I could find a way to search for the light. Thankfully, after groping with my hands, I was able to touch an organ bench, and I sat down. Within minutes I began to see darkened shapes. The longer I sat the clearer the shapes became. It was just as dark as the moment I entered. However, my pupils enlarged, allowing me to see light that had always been present. Eventually I found the switch. God’s light always exists. Our behaviors, attitudes and their consequences may bring the appearance of darkness. We can choose to navigate through the land of shadows and shapes, groping and often falling. However, should we wait upon the Lord, allowing our spiritual pupils to enlarge, our vision will grow in clarity.
God’s light was ever-present in Israel. However, they were stumbling through the darkness created through their own sin. However, the prophet is calling for their attention. God refuses to let them grasp in darkness without the call to listen. If they listen they can see. A light is present, and that light will grow in intensity and scope! In the second lines of the couplets, we read those in darkness “have seen a great light.” The line in the second couplet adds to and amplifies the message, “a light has dawned.” The opportunity to see the light is coming. It isn’t just a single ray or a few particles of spiritual light, it is a “great light.” Even a flicker of light has the power to illuminate the darkest room. Such is the nature of God’s light in the Messiah. That light would dawn upon the darkened, groping world in Christ. As the sunrise chases the night away, the light of God’s Messiah would drive away the spiritual darkness!
Though this ninth chapter opens with the painful reality of darkness, it quickly moves to the blessed hope made possible through the love and grace of God. This light isn’t just for an individual or a few. It is for all in the “land of darkness.” This light is for the entire darkened world!
Can you recall a time in your life when you felt enveloped by utter darkness? How did you feel? What were your limitations? How were you rescued? Do you recognize God’s grace in your rescue? Can you relate to Isaiah’s reference to spiritual darkness? How do you understand and recognize this darkness in the world today and in your own life? Can you recognize the spiritual darkness related to the world’s corporate sin? What does this text have to say to the world? How do you understand Jesus statement that he is the “light of the world” in lieu of Isaiah 9:2?
The Power of the Light
Isaiah continues, “You have enlarged the nation and increased our joy.” The limitations imposed on humanity by the darkness of sin shall be forever pushed farther and farther away. Our perception is being enlarged! Our understanding of God, truth and each other is continuing to grow! Our possibilities and potential are expanded! It is true that we can only travel as far as the boundaries imposed upon us. There are emotional and spiritual boundaries as well as the physical. The darkness of sin and its consequences, along with past unresolved pain and conflict, can greatly limit the emotional life of an individual. While earning my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, I watched a film of a counseling session. The film consisted of three attempts to reach a troubled young female teen. The first two therapists failed. The young woman kept her head down, staring at the floor while drumming her fingers on the table between them. The session with both therapists were different in methodology, yet identical in outcome. However, the third therapist reached across the table and touched the drumming fingers. Immediately the drumming stopped. She raised her head and looked into the eyes of the therapist. The single touch of the hand was liberating! The therapist had moved into her pain by acknowledging she was there. She wasn’t just a client sitting across the table! Many who experience pain from past experiences live within the boundaries of their painful experiences and memories. Their mind seeks to protect them and leads them to isolate themselves for further pain. However, the touch of the hand was akin to light in the darkness. She couldn’t reach beyond her pain, but compassion reached into her hurt. Her entire world was enlarged through that single touch!
There are also spiritual boundaries. When our sin allows us to judge some as having worth and others as worthless, when we refuse to engage with others because of their ethnicity, religious background, or gender, we are living within boundaries imposed by our own sin. Israel was birthed to bring light to the entire world. However, in their sin they turned inward, thus neglecting the world about them. Israelites defined themselves by the geographical boundaries of their kingdom. However, they would also define themselves by the boundaries they set regarding other bloodlines and tribes. These boundaries were stifling, suffocating and were drawing the life out of Israel.
The prophet uses the terms “yoke”, and “bar” across the shoulders to describe the heavy burden of Israel’s limitations. However, as in the day of Midian, God would use the unexpected to break that yoke. The poetic reference to “warrior’s boots” and garments “rolled in blood” are to proclaim Israel’s days of battle to be over. These soiled images of war would be consumed by the fire of God’s righteous judgement. In Isaiah 11:6-9, the prophet writes that the “wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” and “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
The light will enlarge the nation and increase joy! A great harvest of people awaits Israel through the Messiah. Paul would later describe the harvest in Galatians with the words, “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no male or female.” The Jewish person expecting a militant Messiah who would simply overthrow their enemies and grant them power to rule over others would prove disappointed. The Messiah would act in opposition to those expectations. Enemies would be transformed into brothers and sisters and all would dwell in harmony beneath the loving rule of God.
Can you identify the limitations that can be imposed upon a church through apathy? Can you identify the limitations imposed upon you through a painful past? Through unresolved conflict? Through your own sin? Can a church experience limitations from a painful past? Through unresolved conflicts? What sinful limitations can we recognize in our current culture and world regarding the way we treat one another? How do you envision the Christ removing those boundaries? Can you share biblical accounts of Jesus eradicating boundaries? Of Jesus enlarging the world of the suffering? Can you envision a world in which all harmful boundaries are being eradicated? What role does the church accept in transforming the world of limitations and harmful boundaries? What role do we play as followers of Jesus in eradicating those destructive boundaries?
A Messiah is Given
“Unto us a son is given!” I quickly noticed the prophet’s use of the pronoun “us.” We can easily become tempted to think of God’s love and redemption as solely personal. How easily we forget it is the entire world that God loves. The Kingdom of God is about the great “us” living under the reign of God! In the Old Testament patriarchal world, the birth of a son meant everything to a Jewish household. Only a son could receive the inheritance of the family and carry on the family name. Into this patriarchal world Jesus was born. Jesus was born into our sinful world, with all of its sinful, suffocating and binding structures and institutions.
The Messiah will be the great interruption in a world of repetitious sin. Everyone associated with the nativity was interrupted. The Magi and the shepherds were interrupted in their routines. Most powerfully, the lives of Mary and Joseph were turned upside down! The normal world was interrupted through the gift of the Christ, and life would never be the same. A new government would rest upon the shoulders of Messiah. Governments in the Old and New Testament era were unstable and often oppressive. Instead of liberating those bound by hate and prejudice these sins were perpetuated. On occasion a new king rose to the throne and filled the people with excited expectation and even periodic reprieve from their difficulties. However, good, faithful kings were few. All had feet of clay and people continued to live in the shadows and grope in the darkness.
However, a new government would arrive on the shoulders of the Messiah. This kingdom would not be of this world. In John 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The new king would enter the world of pain and struggle for the purpose of transforming it with righteousness and love. Through the life of the Messiah, darkness would begin its retreat until its utter eradication in the end. The kingdom of the Messiah would not only prove stable, it would be eternal in nature. “And of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end!”
The Kingdom of God through the Messiah does not mean we ignore, neglect or fail to participate in this world. In John 17 Jesus prayed that we might not be taken from the world, but rather that the world has no power of us while we live. The Kingdom of God is present in the Messiah, Jesus Christ in the here and now. This kingdom is transforming the world in which we live and will continue to do so until the Kingdom of God is established in all of its glory. Thus, we are residents in two worlds. We are active, loving, faithful members of the world community while always remaining true to the Kingdom of God.
What does the reality of a spiritual kingdom mean to this ever-changing world? Can you recognize the reality of this kingdom in the here and now? Where do you see darkness retreating? How does the kingdom of the Messiah bring you hope? What do you think it means to say the Messiah is the hope of the world? How are we to live in this world and yet be faithful to an eternal hope? What do you think the biblical teaching (from John 17) that we are “in this world, but not of it?”
God’s New Future Awaits
The powerful majestic titles ascribed to the Messiah in our text attest to the beauty of God’s future. In Old Testament understanding, as the king goes so goes the nation. Wicked kings usually gave rise to a sinful nation. The opposite is thankfully true. Under the reign of the Messiah, the world will be as he is. The titles used by the inspired Isaiah are not exhaustive. They are a sampling of who Messiah is and how Messiah shall reign. However, this sampling is awe-inspiring.
Counselor implies one with wisdom. The Messiah will rule with perfect wisdom and judgement. Injustice cannot exist in the presence of perfect wisdom. The two are antithetical. Men and women of great intellect and judgement still possess feet of clay. No person, apart from Christ, can eradicate egocentrism. The self is one of the most powerful realities we confront. Keeping the self subject to Christ is the call of every Christian. However, when the Messiah will reign as one with such love and compassion for all, that selfishness is non-existent. The teacher’s guide reminds us that the word “wonderful” is so overused it has lost much of its potency. It means far more than just “good.” Messiah’s loving character is so wise and loving it inspires a degree of wonder we have yet to experience in this life. Christ is the wonderful counselor!
Thus, the government of Messiah is equitable and perfectly just. Under the reign of Christ we treat each other as justly as we are treated.
The title “Mighty God” is one ascribed to a warrior king. A mighty king was most often a powerful warrior who led his people in victories over their enemies. However, this title is couched in other titles that clearly reveal who the enemies are. The Messiah is the mighty warrior over all that dehumanizes and is destructive. These are the dark powers lurking beneath and birthing all other destructive realities. Hatred is conquered by love, injustice by righteous justice, sorrow by joy, and war by peace. The head of the coming government will lead the world we have only tasted. We have only caught of glimpse of what can and shall be. Paul understood this truth beautifully, writing in I Corinthians 13, “Now we see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” In the face of Messiah we will gaze into the face of all that is holy and righteous.
The “Prince of Peace” is a kingdom title. Usually a person is prince over a geographical area or nation. We are all acquainted with titles today like the Prince of Wales, or the Princess of Monaco. However, this title declares Messiah is prince of an attribute, the attribute of perfect peace. He reigns over all peace, and wherever there is peace, he reigns. The Christ could also be titled the Prince of Love, the Prince of Compassion, the Prince of Joy, or the Prince of Justice. No one in our world possesses such a title. Such a title over attributes of the heart belong solely to the Messiah, for only the Lord can perfectly embody and exercise them.
Finally, Isaiah envisions Messiah as “Everlasting Father.” This is the only place in the entire Old Testament where this title is employed. What a powerful revelation: God is parental! God is our divine parent! The title of “father” implies familiarity and intimacy. We address someone with the title father because we recognize a unique and close relationship with that person. The disciples must have been initially amazed when Jesus addressed God as father. When teaching them to pray he began the prayer with “Our father, who art in heaven.” We will share an emotional and close spiritual bond with the Messiah. The Christ will be Lord over all, and Lord of “me.” One of the major complaints constituents hurl at their governmental leaders is the disconnect they feel. They sense their leaders are disconnected from the lives they live and therefore do not understand the circumstances ongoing in their lives. However, the Messiah of Isaiah knows us and allows us to know him. We share a personal relationship with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
When you read Isaiah’s messianic titles, what images come to your mind? What does each title say to you and your perspective of life? When have you witnessed these descriptive aspects of the Messiah present in your life? In the life of your church? In the life of the world? How do these titles bring hope to our present life and circumstances? What is the message of hope Christians possess that the world desperately needs to hear? How can we, as imperfect men and women, embody the powerful and beautiful Messiah described by Isaiah? Can people witness God’s wisdom, peace, and deliverance through us in a personal manner? How can our church make the presence of Messiah in the world real and personal for our communities?
Almighty God, conqueror of all that dehumanizes, belittles and destroys, King over all that is holy and good, hear our earnest prayer. Help us to grow still and quiet, that we might hear the promise of Jesus Christ for the world. Grant us vision to see the Light of the World, grant us ears to hear the divine Word, grant us tongues to speak the liberating truth, and grant us the courage we need to be faithful when life is difficult. Through the name of Jesus the Messiah we pray, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.