We live in an age when ‘prophets’ of all kinds are addressing our world, whether from a Christian viewpoint, or that of another faith, whether from the world of business, the media, or commerce. Sports journalists and commentators ‘prophesy’ over games and competitions, teachers predict grades, and, based on highly accurate meteorological data, weather forecasters confidently tell us what to expect from the skies more or less minute by minute.
Looked at that way, you could say that a whole raft of people are ‘prophesying’ over us one way and another almost every day; and whilst we can trust many of them, there are some ‘prophetic’ words we would do better to reject. Think of the endless speculations in the media about who is going to say what, and how, and who might react, and what might happen next . . . to say nothing of horoscopes and the such like, as multitudes seek to find out what sort of a day they are going to have.
When it comes to genuine prophetic words, whether in the Scriptures or given contemporaneously, some provide a long-range view of far-distant events. We have commented before on how they can, as it were, ‘telescope’ time and events. Where we live in Malvern, the Malvern Hills dominate the western horizon. Heading home toward them from any distance away, they rise up out of the flat plain of the Severn valley as a magnificent silhouette against the sky. As you can get closer, of course, the details emerge, and you can see that there are foothills, quarries, a tree-line, even cattle, sheep and walkers galore.
There are prophecies that likewise point out the mountains ahead (or at least hint at their existence) but which provide few if any specific details, and then there are others which are quite specific about people, places, times and seasons. When Moses turned aside from his shepherding duties, he met with a God whose name he did not know, but who revealed Himself as “I AM WHO I AM,” who was sending Moses back to his people, who were actually God’s people. (Ex. 3:14)
By the time Isaiah picked up his prophetic brush, Yahweh had introduced Himself to Israel by a number of names. In chapter 9 of his scroll, at a time of great national difficulty, he paints with broad strokes a view of the sun rising over the silhouette of dark mountains.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. The government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Is. 9:2, 6-7)
In this great prophecy, Isaiah foretells the birth of the Messiah (another name by which they came to know Him), and reveals names that speak of His desire to be in intimate relationship with His people: He is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace and the Everlasting Father.
A couple of chapters later, Isaiah focuses in with more detail on how the Messiah’s discernment operates on entirely different levels from those around Him:
Then a shoot will spring up from the stump of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what His eyes see, and decide by what His ears hear, but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and with equity He will decide for the lowly of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of His lips . . . and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the sea is full of water. (Is. 11:1-9)
Isaiah saw so much in his spirit but, as with most such prophecies, how much he understood is another matter altogether – prophets are often called upon to share things they cannot fully understand at the time. There was great anguish in the land of Zebulun in the days of Isaiah, for this was where the scourge of Tiglath Pilneser and his Assyrian forces descended. (2 Kings 15:29; 17:5-6) How utterly impossible it must have seemed when Isaiah glimpsed the light and glory that would come to this obscure and wracked area of Israel! How could he have known it would one day be graced by the glorious birth and presence of God’s own Son?
The most exquisite detail of all – and the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words of course – comes when the angel Gabriel is sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. He came to Mary and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born] will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Lk. 1:26-38 ESV)
The humble faith with which Mary received Gabriel, and the word he brought her, is deeply moving – and utterly crucial for the salvation of the world. May we own and appropriate the words that God sends our way, and the acts of power and beauty that He God works in our own lives, so that He may be glorified, and we may receive all the benefit from them that He intends. (John 12:28-30)
It is only true to reality to point out that although Jesus was sent to His own people, the great majority did not receive Him because they preferred the darkness they were used to the light that He was showing them; so much so that Jesus actually rejoices that the Father has ‘hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’ (John 1:4, 3:19; Matt. 11:25) I often think of those verses when I read commentaries by very ‘learned’ theologians on passages such as Isaiah 53, which never even contemplate the possibility that the the theme is all about the Lord Jesus.
A hope and a future despite the darkness
Utterly steadfast in His love and purposes for the world, God sent His Son to give hope to people right across the world, knowing full well that He would one day fully restore it to what He had always intended it to be. When so many hearts have been brought to the edge of despair as a result of the rising tide of difficulties, perhaps more so here in the UK than in many developed countries, how precious it is to know that the Lord comes with light to those who dwell in darkness – just as He did for the people of Zebulun.
As the latest World Cup, in Qatar, has roared on to its conclusion, there have been some really good games – and some huge and inevitable heartaches, we have been focusing in our prayer groups on the fact that domestic violence is said to go up by 24% when the England football team win a game – and by a staggering 37% when they lose. Police forces become highly overstretched at such times, working long extra hours and dealing with matters that prove a great burden to many of them.
England’s exit from the World Cup came as a crushing disappointment to many, who were desperately wanting to throw off the yoke of past disappointments and to savour a feel-good boost. The daily struggle with the soaring price of energy, the huge rise in the rate of inflation, and the fiercely cold weather all contribute toward a growing sense of relentless battering. Still worse, the housing agency Shelter are suggesting that nigh on one million people in England and Wales are now at imminent risk of being made homeless as the result of increased cost of living expenses, rising rents and the diminishing number of properties available for rent on the market.
This is a time like none other in our recent past. It reminds me of a striking observation that the American intellectual Daniel Moynihan made, claiming that, ‘The median period of survival for a government without violence is eleven years.’ By that reckoning, we are already experiencing a period of civil unrest, given the current strikes amongst key workers. As Moyniham implicated, disorder and violence is all but inevitable in the face of so much increased hardship. All the more reason therefore to pray the Lord’s great restraining mercy, and for His special strength and protection to the police, the Samaritans and every agency that is involved in any way with mental health and people’s all-round well-being.
Father, we pray for each person and family affected and ask for a lifting of spirits, for many acts of interventions and mercy, and a restoration of hope for those in despair. We ask too for Your divine restraint for those inclined to express their disappointment in violent or self-harming ways.
We pray that disappointment may not turn to outright anger and abuse – especially of a drug and alcohol related kind. We, ask You, Father, to protect the children and the other members of the families with protection and surround them and be their comfort. We ask You too to touch the heart of many landlords not to evict anyone lightly.
We extend this prayer to the countless millions who are exposed to constant injustice: whether by a deliberate blocking of their prospects, harassment and intimidation, and assaults on their mind, property, and even body. Come by Your Spirit we pray in the short-term to provide ways and measures to bring matters back into safety zones, and in the longer-term to find to move by Your Spirit to point people straight to You.
Lord Jesus, as we extemnd our gaze now and skim around the world now in prayer, from what we know of child labour, indented workers, political and religious prisoners, and many such categories in one country after another, we pray for victims everywhere to bring their case to You, who are our Advocate, and before the Lord God of Heaven’s highest court.
It is such a miracle when someone comes to you, Lord – and we are praying today for many to look to find the God who came in human form in Jesus and who longs to dwell within our souls.
Even this day we pray that there may be many like Charles Wesley, who, almost as soon as he was converted and experienced the saving touch of the Lord Jesus, declared that he ‘rose went forth and followed Thee.’
Yes, Lord, may many discover Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, in the secret of their heart and embark on a life of both inner devotion and outward service.
Praise God that He is indeed the Lifter of heads and the Rescuer from darkness.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.
The white hot zeal (the passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies) will make this happen! (Is. 9:1,2,6-7 NLT)