January 2: Isaiah 8:23ff

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

The poem in 9:1-6 [EV 2-7] brings the section of 6:1-9:6 to a close. It functions as an appendix to the section, and, in its literary setting, offers a message of hope to the survivors and exiles of the shattered Northern Kingdom. The poem is preceded by a narrative introduction (8:23 [9:1]), which clearly sets the message of the poem in the context of the 8th century Assyrian crisis. The Assyrian conquests of 734-732 remain the primary focus throughout this section; however, as we have seen, the fall of the Northern Kingdom (722/721) and the devastating invasion of Judah (701) are also in view. The compilation of 6:1-9:6 as a whole almost certainly took place after 701.

There are certain textual questions in 8:23 which need to be addressed.

Isaiah 8:23a[Wum* can be derived from [ou (“fly, flutter”) or [ou (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix Hl* is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (Jr#a# [“land”], hk*v@j& [“darkness”], or parallel hr*x*/hq*ox [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.

Isaiah 8:23b—Does /ovar!h* (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun tu@ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with /orj&a^h* (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs llq and dbk (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

These questions are important for establishing the basic context for the poetic oracle that follows. Compare the very different renderings of two modern critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]:


…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…


There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people that walk in the dark Have seen a great light…

In my view, Roberts is correct in understanding a contrast between the verbs (in the Hiphil) ll^q* (“make light [of]”) and db^K* (“give weight [to]”), in the sense of “disregard” vs. “honor”, and that YHWH is the implied subject. In allowing the Assyrian conquests to take place, God was “making light of” Israel, but now He will “give weight to” (i.e., honor) her. Here is my translation of the verse:

“(It is) that (there is) no darkness (now) for (the one) whom (there had been) distress for her; as (in) the former time (when) He made light (of) the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, even (so in) the later (time) He has given weight (to the) way of the sea, (the land) across the Yarden, (and) Galîl of the nations.”

However, there is no contrast between the territories mentioned. All five designations refer equally to the Northern Kingdom, but the last three specifically refer to areas that were turned into Assyrian provinces after 732: D¥°ru (Dor, “the way of the sea”), Gal±azu (Gilead, “[the land] across the Jordan”), Magidû (Megiddo, “Galilee of the nations”); cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 247; Roberts, p. 147f. The implication is that God will restore honor to these territories, by restoring them within a united Israelite Kingdom, under the leadership of a new king in Judah/Jerusalem. This is the focus of the poem that follows.

There are fewer problems of interpretation in the poem proper, the stanzas of which can be outlined as follows:

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible, but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C.

Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces (cf. above). The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

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