The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. The people will rejoice. For the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulder and the rod of their oppressor thou hast 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. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-6)
This mighty vision of the prophet is founded on the liberation of oppressed men and women through the disarming birth of the divine child. Its goal is the turn from bloody war to the peace that endures and is unbroken. And in order to portray this hope for liberation and peace, the prophet falls back on a picture that is positively expressionist in style. The images jostle and tumble over one another, distorted beyond any possible reality into what is impossible for human beings — possible only to God.
Realistically, though the prophet talks about hunger, slavery, and occupying troops, he ends messianically. He lets his vision of the birth of the child and the appearance of the peace of God shine like a light into the conflicts and experiences of real life.
It is not easy to keep these dimensions together when one is used to splitting up faith and politics, God and experience, and when one is accustomed to celebrate Christmas only in the heart and in the bosom of one’s own family. But the message of the prophet is a realistic vision, and what it talks about is a visionary reality. It is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understand what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him — and for us.
Anyone who belongs to the people who dwell in the land of darkness, or anyone who has ever belonged to it, will find this message about the disarming birth of the child as alluring as it is unbelievable. The people in deep darkness: whom does this mean? In the prophet’s time it was that section of Israel that has fallen under Assyrian dictatorship. Every imprisoned Israelite knew the tramp of the invading boots, the bloody coats, and the rods of the slave-drivers. Today we can still see Assyrian warriors and overseers like this in the frescoes, with their iron shoes, their cloaks, and their sticks. But for the prophet, Assyria is more than just Assyria. She is the representative of the power that is hostile to God, and this makes her at the same time the very quintessence of all inhuman oppression. The prophet looks at the specific plight of his people, but talks about a misery experienced by people everywhere. That is why his words and images are so wide open that prisoners in every age have been able to find in them their own fate and their own hope.
A people in darkness — Isaiah 8 tells us what this means: “They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and they will stare up to the sky and look down to the Earth, and will find only distress and darkness; for they are in the darkness of fear and wander lost in the darkness.” God has hidden his face from them. But instead of waiting for his light, they run to fortune-tellers and mediums, and become more and more confused.
A people in darkness: let me add a personal word here. This phrase touched me directly when in 1945 we were driven in endless and desolate columns into the prisoner-of-war camps, the sticks of the guards at our sides, with hungry stomachs and empty hearts and curses on our lips. But many of us then, and I was one, glimpsed the light that radiates from the divine child. This light did not allow me to perish. This hope kept us alive.
A people in darkness: today I see before me the millions of the imprisoned, the exiled, the deported, the tortured, and the silenced everywhere in the world where people are pushed into this darkness. The important point is not the nations, which can be accused of these things. What is important is the worldwide brotherhood of the men and women who are living in darkness. For it is on them that this divine light now shines.
Peoples in darkness: how that cries out today from the Third World in Africa and Asia, and from the Third World in our own country — cries out for liberation and human rights! The struggle for power and for oil and for weapons ruins the weak, enriches the wealthy, and gives power to the powerful. This divided world is increasingly capable of turning into a universal prison camp. And we are faced with the burning question: on which side of the barbed wire are we living, and at whose cost? The people in darkness see the great light. To this people — to them first of all — the light shines in all its brightness. To these people the child is born, for the peace of us all. Do we belong to this people, or do we cling to our own lights, our fortune-tellers, and our own interpreters of the signs of the times, people who tell us what we want to hear, from Nostradamus and astrological calendars down to the learned interpreters of the laws of history?
More is promised here than can be expressed simply through old-soldier reminiscences. For God’s victory does not come about through new armaments and force levied against force, or through alliances and solidarity. God has his own, divine kind of victory. For God’s victory puts an end to all human wars and victories once and for all. It is a final victory, which serves peace, not one that leads to the next war, as our melancholy victories usually do. The prophet gives his images of war so alien an orientation that they actually describe the conquest of war. Every weapon becomes a flame, every aggression fuel for the fire. God’s victory puts a final end to the victories of human beings. People lose their taste for them. Swords are turned into ploughshares and peace treaties replace the atom bombs.
But how is this supposed to happen? Does not the power to liberate the masses stem from rifles just as much as the forces of oppression? How can oppression and war be fought against and overcome without bringing new oppressions and new wars into the world, again with bloody coats and the tramp of boots through the streets?
All the images the prophet uses to paint the possible future point to one fact: the birth of the divine child. The burning of the weapons, the jubilation, and the great lights are all caught up in the birth of God’s peace-bringer. They are all to be found in him. Now the prophet stops talking in intoxicating images and thrilling comparisons, and comes to the heart of the matter: the person of the divine liberator. “To us a child is born. To us a son is given.” This future is wholly and entirely God’s initiative. That is why it is so totally different from our human plans and possibilities. If liberation and peace are bound up with the birth of a little helpless and defenseless child, then their future lies in the hands of God alone. On the human side, all we can see here is weakness and helplessness. It is not the pride and strength of the grown man which are proclaimed on the threshold of the kingdom, but the defenselessness and the hope of the child.
The kingdom of peace comes through a child, and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming.
After the prophet’s mighty visions of the destruction of all power and the forceful annihilation of all coercion, we are now suddenly face to face with this inconspicuous child. It sounds so paradoxical that some interpreters have assumed that this is a later interpolation. The prisoners who have to fight for their rights also find it difficult to understand how this child can help them. But it is really quite logical. For what the prophet says about the eternal peace of God which satisfies our longings can only come to meet us, whether we are frightened slaves or aggressive masters, in the form of the child. A child is defenseless. A child is innocent. A child is the beginning of a new life. His defenselessness makes our armaments superfluous. We can put away the rifles and open our clenched fists. His innocence redeems us from the curse of the evil act that is bound to breed ever more evil. We no longer have to go on like this. And his birth opens up for us the future of a life in peace that is different from all life hitherto, since that life was bound up with death.
“For to us a child is born. To us a son is given. The government is upon his shoulders.” The liberator becomes a pleading child in our world, armed to the teeth as it is. And this child will become the liberator for the new world of peace. That is why his rule means life, not death; peace, not war; freedom, not oppression. This sovereignty lies on the defenseless, innocent, and hopeful shoulders of this child.
This makes our fresh start into the future meaningful and possible. The oppressed will be free from oppression. And they will also be free from the dreams of darkness, the visions of revenge. They stand up and rejoice, and their rejoicing frees their masters too from their brutal armaments. The oppressors with their cudgels, their iron shoes, and their bloody coats will be freed from their grim machinations and will leave the poor in peace. For the new human being has been born, and a new humanity will be possible, a humanity which no longer knows either masters or slaves, either oppressed or oppressors. This is God’s initiative on behalf of his betrayed and tormented humanity. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” It is the zeal of his ardent love.
There is no other initiative we can seize with absolute assurance, for ourselves or for other people. There is no other zeal for the liberation of the world in which we can place a certain hope.
There are certainly many other movements, and much fervent zeal for the liberation of the masses. It certainly sounds more realistic for people in darkness to dream of God’s day of vengeance, finding satisfaction in the hope that at the Last Judgment all the godless enemies who oppress us here will be cast into hellfire. But what kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge and needs the groans of the damned as background to its own joy? To us a child is born, not an embittered old man. God in a child, not as hangman. That is why he prayed on his cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” It sounded more heroic when, forty years ago, in 1934, Hitler’s columns marched through Tübingen, singing with fanatical zeal: “One day, the day of revenge. One day, and we shall be free.” It was a zeal that led to Auschwitz and Stalingrad.
Emperors have always liked to be called emperors of peace, from Augustus down to the present day. Their opponents and the heroes of the people have always liked to be called “liberators,” from Arminius of the Cherusci to Simón Bolívar. They have come and gone. Neither their rule nor their liberation endured. God was not with them. Their zeal was not the zeal of the Lord. They did not disarm this divided world. They could not forgive the guilt, because they themselves were not innocent. Their hope did not bring new life. So let them go their way. Let us deny them our complete obedience. “To us this child is born.” The divine liberty lies upon his shoulders.
What does his rule look life? We have to know this if we want to begin to live with him. He will establish “peace on Earth,” we are told, and he will “uphold peace with justice and with righteousness.” But how can peace go together with justice? What we are familiar with is generally peace based on injustice, and justice based on conflict. The life of justice is struggle. Among us, peace and justice are divided by the struggle for power. The so-called “law of the strongest” destroys justice and right. The weakness of the peacemakers makes peace fragile. It is only in the zeal of love that what power has separated can be put together again: in a just peace and in the right to peace.
This love does not mean accepting breaches of justice “for the sake of peace,” as we say. But it does not mean, either breaking someone else’s peace for the sake of our own rights. Peace and righteousness will only kiss and be one when the new person is born, and God the Lord, who has created all things, arrives at his just rights in his creation. When God is God in the world, then no one will want to be anyone else’s Lord and God anymore.
But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream?
There is nothing against dreams if they are good ones. The prophet gave the people in darkness, and us, this unforgettable dream. We should remain true to it. But he could only see the shadowy outline of the name of the divine child, born for the freedom of the world; he called him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The New Testament proclaims to us the person himself. He is Jesus Christ, the child in the manger, the preacher on the mount, the tormented man on the cross, the risen liberator.
So according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty, and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and — born again to a living hope — live as new men and women.
The zeal of the Lord be with us all.