“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2 (Full context: Isaiah 8:11-9:7)
The text deals with Isaiah foretelling the coming of the Assyrian invasion and the coming of the Messiah and His relationship to the region. The verbs (have seen, and has dawned) in this text are what is often called “prophetic perfect”, an event that is in the future but described as if it has already happened. In 733 BC, Assyria invaded and captured a large portion of the land located in the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians deported the captured Hebrews to Assyria (2 King 15:29) to reduce local nationalistic feelings and increase their labor force. Historical records show a flood of foreigners (Egyptians, Arabians, Phoenicians, and Greeks) resettled the vacated land.
The captured land is described in Isaiah 9:1 “Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. But in the future He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations.” The captured land belonged to the Jewish tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Later this region would be called Galilee, but the Assyrians identified it as three of their provinces called the Way of the Sea, the land east of the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations. The phrases, “people walking in darkness” and “those living in the land of deep darkness” refer to the great devastation the Assyrian brought on the Jews. The Jews had to walk to Assyria, a land of deep darkness and of many false gods. Isaiah kept reminding the Jews to “...come and let us walk in the Lord’s light”(5:2), but they continued to seek false gods, witchcraft, and mutual defense alliances with other nations. Because of their sins, God withdrew His saving presence from them (8:17). Yet Isaiah prophesied that in the future God would bring honor to this area.
In Matthew 4:12-14, to fulfill what was prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus makes an important move by shifting his base of operation from Nazareth to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee (“Way of the Sea”) in the region called Galilee. The way of the Sea was an ancient trade route stretching from Damascus through Capernaum down to Caesarea Maritima located along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Capernaum was a Roman tax collection station along the trade route where many groups of people passed. Matt 4:16 is quoted slightly different than Isaiah 9:2, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of
death, light has dawned.” The verb tense now reflects what has taking place with the start of Jesus ministry. The “light” refers to Jesus ministry and message of hope. The people living in Galilee are now the first to see the great light of God’s deliverance in Jesus. Jesus’ new base of operation allows Him to reach not only the Jews but large groups of Gentiles. Matthew (4:15) describes Galilee as “Galilee of Gentiles”. This indicates that Jesus message of hope and salvation is for all people in the world who live in darkness (sin) and the shadow of death (Luke 1:79).
Paul in Ephesians 5:8 reminds believers, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light“.