The power of great songs
A favorite memory of my high school years was when, as the highlight of our annual winter concert, every musical group we had was combined: the regular chorus, the special chorus, our high school band and orchestra together. And then if that was not enough, all alumni in the audience were invited to come forward to join the chorus, and with the strike of the conductor’s baton, the audience stood and we raised our voices in loudly singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
The 1700s turned out to be an amazing time for Christmas music:
· Handel’s Messiah was written in 1741
· O Come All Ye Faithful was written in 1744
· Hark, the Herald Angels Sing dates back to 1739
· And Joy to the World was penned in 1719
Well-written songs carry power, don’t they? Music has amazing power to move us, to make you feel dramatically different than you did just a moment ago. It was in light of music’s power that Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher, who lived in the 17th century, noted:
“Let me write the songs of a nation. I do not care who writes its laws.”
Even as a politician, he recognized that musicians carry greater weight and influence.
You can look up “songs that changed the world” and find song after song that challenged and changed popular views—because of the power of well-written songs.
And that is what we find in this week’s Advent Scripture as well. We are taking a break from our walk with Jesus in the gospel of John, to take advantage of Advent, building a holy anticipation toward Christmas. Today brings us to the poetic prophecy of Isaiah chapter 9. If you have a Bible or Bible app, please open it to Isaiah chapter 9.
While you’re turning there, Isaiah doesn’t read like a letter, as does the book of Romans, for example, or Philippians or 1 Peter.
Isaiah doesn’t sound like a story as you find in the gospels, especially in Jesus’ parables.
Isaiah doesn’t convey many visions like you find in the apocalyptic books of Ezekiel and Revelation.
Rather, much of Isaiah’s prophecy is presented in the form of poetry—because of how poetry and music can break through and change your mindset when you hear it.
From Isaiah 9:1-7 we read…
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Finding hope in uncertain times
This is Scripture that has inspired and encouraged generations of believers to well up with hope despite hard circumstances. And that is exactly why his prophecy was given. This message that was given more than 2,500 years ago is just as pertinent today as it was then—giving voice to some hard realities, and bringing hope whatever the circumstances. Let’s jump right in.
Isaiah is given this prophecy amidst a time of fear and uncertainty. The nation to Israel’s north, Assyria, was oppressing them and wanted them dead and gone. Their present was brutally difficult, and their future was completely unclear.
And in that tough spot, they were faced with a decision: would they cry out to the Lord, and renew their faith in him? Or would they slog along in their own wisdom and strength for the battles ahead? And when I say battles, I mean literal battles. For the backdrop to Isaiah chapter nine’s promise of hope, we need to see the conditions that set the stage for this promise. Look with me at Isaiah 8:19-22. It describes the darkness in which the Israelites were walking, and their desperate need for light.
“When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”
That’s intense, isn’t it? But it’s the all-important backdrop to why they and we need the hope that Isaiah chapter nine holds out. If you like to take notes, the first thing these passages reveal—not just about people long ago and far away, but also about people like you and me today, is that…
1. Although God blesses us with light, we often choose darkness.
Isaiah was sent to people who had God’s Word, and who knew the Lord’s great acts, but they still turned to other spiritual sources when they were in trouble—as some do still today, looking to astrology or psychics on television, online, listening to those who claim to converse with the dead. It’s a scam, and it is an open door to the demonic.
Through Isaiah, the Lord calls out to those who should know better. He shines light their way. Yet in the midst of their confusion about the future, instead of turning to God, they become enraged against him! Verse 21: “Looking upward, [they] curse their king and their God.”
And then because they are rejecting the light of God’s Word for spiritual darkness, their hope dissolves into pessimism and cynicism. Verse 22: They “look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom…”
Maybe you know someone who has gone that route, and slipped into bitterness and being jaded. these verses at the end of chapter 8 are like the test results that a good physician has to show a patient before they’ll accept the treatment that they so desperately need. It’s unpleasant. It’s hard to hear. But it’s truth. And the hard truth is that none of us is beyond the in times of discouragement of falling for spiritual darkness. This is one of the most sobering takeaways from studying world history: every one of is has been created with the potential for stunning good and beauty and encouragement, and each of us has equal potential to slip into horrific acts of evil.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Christian during the Soviet Union’s regime. He suffered in their gulag harsh labor camps, always thinking about what he was seeing in human nature both for good and evil. It was Solzhenitsyn who cautioned…
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008
He’s saying the same thing that Isaiah did: Although God blesses us with light, we often choose darkness. The potential for great good and for frightening evil runs through the heart of every one of us without exception. This is the timeless backdrop for why we so desperately need Jesus daily.
Matt Woodley tells a more down-to-earth story that reinforces this truth. When he was about ten years old, his dad received the gift of a beautiful globe. It globe turned on its base as it played one of his dad’s favorite songs.
Matt’s dad proudly demonstrated how it worked: he held it by its base, slowly wound it counter-clockwise, and then released it, letting it spin clockwise while playing beautiful music. Matt’s dad cautioned him, “You can touch it, but don’t wind it, because you might break it.”
A week later, while Matt’s dad was at work, Matt found the globe and took it to his room. Although he heard his dad say, “Don’t wind it up,” Matt did precisely that. He gave it a little twist and let it play. Then he gave it another twist and another twist and five more twists and then—snap! The globe separated from the base.
He desperately tried to fix it. He tried forcing the two pieces together. He tried gluing it. He tried taping it. Finally, as he stared hopelessly at the globe in two pieces, he realized it was broken beyond repair.
So he went into his closet, shut the door, and hid. It was Genesis chapter 3 acted out all over again.
Our world, Matt says, is like that broken globe, and we can’t seem to put it all back together again. Our relationships break, our sexual integrity breaks, the place of money in our hearts breaks, our hearts break, nations break, our health breaks, and more. And all the glue and tape and positive thinking can’t make it all right again. The hard truth is that God blesses us all with light, but we often choose darkness.
But then comes the promise of Isaiah chapter 9. It couldn’t sound more different than chapter 8. Hear it again:
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
Thank God, here’s the second timeless truth from today’s passage:
2. Although we often choose darkness, God refused to abandon us to it.
The great turning point comes right at the start of chapter nine: “Nevertheless.” Nevertheless. That’s the great hinge and the source of the believer’s hope.
Nevertheless, meaning nonetheless, despite our crummy choices, even though all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, despite all that, God has refused to abandon us to our sin. Good news!
Look at verse 1 again: more than 700 years in advance of Jesus’ birth we hear of Galilee being honored. “Galilee of the nations,” Isaiah calls it. Galilee can be translated to mean “revolution,” and sure enough it was the one who grew up in Galilee who would revolutionize our destiny, from darkness to light.
Hear how Matthew tells it, from chapter four of his gospel, quoting this prophecy: once John the Baptist was imprisoned, Matthew recalls,
“Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.’” Matthew 4:13-15
It was only after Jesus died and rose that Matthew connected the dots from Isaiah’s prophecy to why Jesus grew up in far away Galilee: because this was God’s wise plan. Praise God, he hasn’t abandoned us to darkness.
Look back with me at Isaiah chapter 9. Verses 3-5 prophetically portray farmers rejoicing at a great harvest, and others rejoicing at a great battle that has been won. That’s us! For those who find themselves weary from conflict and antagonism, in the coming of Jesus God promises joy and peace. Our greatest battle has been won.
And this is why Jesus has come: to bring light where you face darkness, to bring honor where you feel shame, to bring joy that drives back despair, to bring peace even when others are at enmity. As someone has put it, we trust in a God who injects hope into impossible situations.
And how does he do that? The true story is told of someone speaking with a parent whose child was having lots of behavioral problems. They asked “So, what do you do? I mean, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?” The parent replied, “I get close to this little boy. I pull him close, and I say to him, ‘I love you too much to let you do this to yourself.’”
“I love you too much to let you do this to yourself.” That’s the heart of God that we hear coarsing through Isaiah’s prophecy: “I constantly give you light. Yet time and again you run to darkness. But I love you too much to let you do this to yourself. So a great light is coming. Keep your eyes on Galilee. On those who live in great darkness, a light will dawn.”
If you trust in Jesus Christ, that light has dawned for you. And again, how would God send that great light? Isaiah 9:6 tells us. It’s what Handel set to music so beautifully:
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Follow the flow of this prophecy, all the way from the end of Isaiah chapter 8 through to this promise of a son.
· God blesses us with light—the light of his Word, his great acts, and his promises—yet we often choose darkness.
· Yet even though we often choose darkness, God refused to abandon us to it.
· And then the great flip of the switch to drive back the darkness: the light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
That’s the third and greatest timeless truth conveyed in today’s Scripture:
3. The light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
Just look with me at these titles for the one who would come from Galilee, stacked up against one another like an increasing cascade of hope:
Wonderful Counselor: To promise Jesus as a Wonderful Counselor means he knows how to lead and is well able to do so. You don’t have to know the future; it’s above our pay grade. He knows. He’s got it. He’s got you. He’s a Wonderful Counselor. The light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
Mighty God: To tell us well in advance that the one who would come from Galilee is the Mighty God is meant to strengthen those who are facing battles and feeling like you’re going to lose. Almighty God is with you in the battles you face, and he is for you in those battles—just as surely as he was for ancient Israelites whom he beckoned to return to him. The light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
Everlasting Father: We get confused hearing Jesus referred to as Everlasting Father—but don’t miss the obvious. This isn’t about the Trinity. It’s about the difference having the light of Jesus can make in your life. Whether your own Dad was great, lousy, in-between, absentee, or has since died, in Jesus you have access to One who can be for you the never-leave-you, always for you Father that we all so deeply need. My Dad is gone. My Everlasting Father is with me and for me—as he is for you, if your trust is in Jesus. The light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
And Isaiah’s final title for Messiah: Prince of Peace. There has always been a great need for peace. There are countless experts, books, podcasts, and more advocating for where to find greater peace. The ancient promise given to Isaiah reveals the greatest peace is found in the greatest Person, he who came from Galilee. The light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
Let your soul feel its worth
There’s another Christmas song that drives home the point of this week’s Scripture. It’s one of the most-loved Christmas hymns, yet you’ve probably never heard its backstory. It was 1847 when the priest of a small town in France asked a local poet to write a new song for that Christmas.
Despite the poet being an atheist he agreed, and penned the lyrics. The music was then provided by a composer who likewise wasn’t a Christian. The original title of the hymn was “Midnight, Christians,” reminding us of Isaiah’s description of the darkness that has befallen the world.
The song premiered in that small town on Christmas Eve and quickly traveled to Paris and beyond. But when church leaders learned that the song had been written by non-Christians, they outlawed it. In today’s language, it was cancelled, cancel culture back in the 1840s.
But fast forward to 1906. A young music professor is given the opportunity to play the first song to ever be heard on national radio. On Christmas Eve, he reads the birth narrative of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. Then, he reads the lyrics to that banned song, and plays the music on his violin. The lyrics he read echo Isaiah’s prophecy, singing:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…
You know what comes next: Fall on your knees! You’ve likely never heard the second chorus. But again, it echoes the hope of Isaiah’s prophecy, singing:
He knows our need, To our weakness no stranger!
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King! your King! before him bend!
So how is it that a Christmas song suggested by an anonymous small town priest, then written by an atheist poet, and outlawed by the church, became the first song ever to be heard on national radio, along with the New Testament’s good news of Jesus’ birth? Because God has a way of bringing light into dark places.
· Even though he blesses us with light yet we often choose darkness…
· Nevertheless, God refused to abandon us to darkness.
· But instead, through the prophecy given Isaiah and fulfilled some 700 years later, the light of Jesus shows how stunningly God is for us.
This Advent, friend, as you revisit the miraculous coming of Jesus, fall on your knees—and let your soul feel its worth.
Pray with me.
Lord God, who knows all, sees all, and will judge all, what gift can we bring for the gift which you both promised and gave, your only Son?
For the times and ways we turn from light to darkness, we ask your forgiveness.
For your utter refusal to abandon us to our wayward ways, we fall on our knees.
Through the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace whom your Son proves to be for us, our soul feels its worth.
We praise you.
We worship you.
We commit ourselves to you.