After Jesus was tested by Satan in the wilderness, he went to back to his childhood home of Nazareth, a city in Galilee. Assumedly, he must have visited his mother, Mary, his father, Joseph, his half-brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as well as his unnamed half-sisters (Matthew 13:55-56). In years past Galilee had belonged to the Jews – the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali – but because they did not keep God’s laws he gave them over to Roman rule and it was now home to many Gentiles. It was situated alongside one of two of the most important highway trading routes from Egypt to Mesopotamia (Iraq, Syria and Turkey), a coastal route called the Way of the Sea. It was here that Jesus heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been put into prison. He then left Nazareth and went to Capernaum, which fulfilled a prophecy given to Isaiah:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
From that time on Jesus began his ministry to the Jews and Gentiles, preaching throughout the lands,“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
In order to understand what was happening in Jesus’ life at this time, and what this promise of a “light in the darkness” means, we need to know some backstory on John the Baptist and Isaiah’s prophecy.
The Herodian Empire
At the time of Jesus’ birth, King Herod, who was called Herod the Great, was in charge over Judea (formerly Judah), the mountainous southern part of Israel. He wasn’t a Jew by birth but was raised as a Jew. His father, Antipater the Idumaean, was a high-ranked official under Roman governor Hyrcanus II, and he appointed Herod governor of Galilee at age 25, and his elder brother, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem.
Two years later Antigonus, Hyrcanus’ nephew, took the throne from his uncle with the help of the Parthians. Herod fled to Rome to plead with the Romans to restore him to power. There he was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate. Naturally, when Herod the Great heard that a promised “King of the Jews” had been born of Jewish descent, from the Magis who came to see Jesus after following a star that signified a king was born, he thought he would eventually lose power to this baby. So Herod declared that all baby Jewish boys under the age of 2 years old be murdered, to try to stop Jesus from gaining power (Matthew 2:16). However, Joseph was warned of Herod’s plan by an angel in a dream and escaped to Egypt ahead of this so-called “massacre” or “slaughter of the innocents” (Matthew 2:13-14).
Herod ruled for 37 years and was responsible for the construction of Herod’s Temple, amongst other large building projects. Today, only the four retaining walls remain standing, including the Western Wall, which created the flat area for the temple to be built on called the Temple Mount. Upon his death, Caesar Augustus divided his kingdom among three of his sons and his sister, Salome I. Archelaus became governor of Judea, Herod Antipater (called Antipas) became governor of Galilee and Peraea, Herod Philip I became governor of territories east of the Jordan, and Salome I became governor of Jabneh, Ashdod, and Phasaelis.
Herod Antipas and Herod Philip were half-brothers, by different mothers. Antipas divorced his first wife Phasaelis because he was in love with Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias, who was Philip’s niece, his full brother’s (Aristobulus) daughter. Philip and Herodias had a daughter named Salome II. Herodias’ divorce from Philip and subsequent marriage to Antipas was despicable by Jewish law.
John the Baptist had gone to Herod Antipas and warned him that he was not obeying Jewish law by having his brother’s wife. Rather than be convicted of his sin, Antipas put John in jail to shut him up, but he was afraid to have him killed because he was a popular prophet with the people (Matthew 14:3-5). This was where we pick the story back up, when Jesus found out John was imprisoned and went to Capernaum.
Soon after Herodias took it into her own hands to have John killed, because she was angry and guilt-ridden, by baiting her husband Antipas with her now grown daughter, Salome II. When Antipas was drunk on his birthday, she had Salome dance seductively for him and he was so inflamed with lust that he promised her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. At her mother’s behest, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Antipas didn’t want to do it but he was stuck because as governor he had to keep his word, so he had it done (Matthew 14:11). John’s disciples buried his body and told Jesus that his cousin was dead (Matthew 14:12).
Isaiah, like John the Baptist, was a great prophet during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1). At the time that these scriptures were given, Judah was under threat of attack from Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, son of Remaliah and King of Israel. God gave Isaiah visions of heaven with God on his throne and his Seraphim giving praise, told him of the impending birth of Jesus from Mary, and of the last days, when Christ returns to earth to setup his kingdom.
God gave Isaiah warnings for Israel that their rebelliousness and ingratitude towards God would lead to their destruction. The people were still going through the motions of having their annual festivals, bringing God burnt offerings (animals) for their sins, but they no longer had the truth in their hearts, no longer were humbled by their sins or feared God (meaning, to be affected by his presence). In fact, God hated these “gifts” and refused to hear their prayers.
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats… Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening” (Isaiah 1:11-15).
Isaiah kept trying to tell them of their troubles ahead, to stop worshiping idols, and that all they had to do was turn back to God and his mercy would forgive them. Israel’s attitude was much like many people today, who claim to not need him and that he is a myth, because they want to continue doing their evil and unjust deeds and not be held accountable. Those people who continued in those ways – then and now – God promised through Isaiah that he would break their proud and arrogant spirits (Isaiah 2:12), bring them disgrace and shame, and that they would perish (Isaiah 1:28-29).
God also promised that in the future, his city Zion [Jerusalem] will be delivered with justice, and those people who are penitent (remorseful for their sin) will be delivered with [Jesus’] righteousness (Isaiah 1:27). While God will take from Jerusalem and Judah their food and water, and people will oppress one another – man against man, neighbor against neighbor, young against the old, persons of low status against those of high status – the righteous will be kept safe and they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds (Isaiah 3:1,5,10).
Isaiah warns the people to not follow the kings Rezin and Pekah, or consult fortune tellers and mediums/spiritists to make decisions and try to see the future, but instead to consult God’s instructions and warnings, comparing his word to the light of dawn (Isaiah 8:19-20). Those who turn away from God will find themselves in darkness and distress.
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 (Isaiah 8:21-22).
Isaiah then speaks to Israel about hope; that in the future God is going to turn this whole gloomy scene around when Jesus is born.
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past [God] humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali [by giving them over to other nations], 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 [will] have seen a great light [Jesus]; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:1-2).
[God has] shattered the yoke [of sin] that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor [Satan]… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on [Jesus’] shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 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 (Isaiah 9:6-7).