Isaiah was prophesying while the Assyrians were invading the Northern Kingdom of Israel and threatening the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But – as Isaiah’s prophecies played out – the Babylonians conquered Judah and took its best and brightest into exile.
Many of Isaiah’s prophecies offered hope to those people who would go into captivity that they would return home to Jerusalem someday. But this particular prophecy has a longer range – Isaiah was holding out a hope of peace for God’s people in the time after the exile ended – the time in-between the two Testaments – as well as for our time in-between.
After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, the exiles returned, and rebuilt the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem. The Persians allowed them a good deal of freedom – as long as they behaved. The High Priest had a bit of authority in civil affairs – and a whole lot of influence.
Then the Greeks under Alexander the Great defeated the Persian army and took control of their empire. Alexander wanted all of his subjects to adopt the Greek language and culture – including their pantheon of gods. This process was called “Hellenization.”
Alexander died before he could see his dream come true in Samaria – the former kingdom of Israel – and Judea, which was the Greek form of the name Judah. His empire was divided among his four generals. Ptolemy was placed in charge of Egypt, and soon expanded into Judea and Israel. He and his successor followed a policy of toleration – in which Judaism and Hellenism co-existed peacefully. The result was an infiltration of the Greek way of life into the life and religious practice of the Jews. That split the Jews into the pro-Greek and the Orthodox factions.
When conflict broke out between Egypt and Syria – Judea and Samaria were caught in the middle. After the Syrians won – the region was annexed to Syria. That was 200 years before the birth of Jesus.
The Hellenizing party bribed the Syrian leader, Antiochus Epiphanes, into replacing the Orthodox High Priest with one of their own. The political conflict brought Antiochus and his army to Jerusalem – and they started wiping out all traces of Judaism: he outlawed circumcision and sacrifices, prohibited Sabbath observances, and canceled all the High Holy Days.
He destroyed almost every copy of the Hebrew Bible, forced Jews to eat pork, and even had a pig sacrificed to Zeus in the Most Holy Place in the Jewish Temple.
These were dark days for the Jewish faithful – but they finally had enough and revolted. The feast of Hanukkah commemorates their re-taking of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. They enjoyed about 70 years of self-rule under the leadership of faithful High Priests – but conflict then emerged over who should be High Priest: the Pharisees believed it must be one of Aaron’s descendants, while the Sadducees wanted someone who had political strength.
Then in 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey conquered Syria and moved on into Judea and Samaria. They were now part of the Roman Empire – and 59 years later, this one of Isaiah’s prophecies would come true as the Prince of Peace was born into that empire.
The Jewish people spent more than 450 years in that In-Between Time – between the return from Babylon and the birth of Jesus. Because they were located at the crossroads of the major trade routes, they were often at the crossroads of conflict. All but 70 of those years were spent under the domination of a foreign power.
Isaiah’s prophecy promised peace – and it kept the people from despairing during the In-Between Time: “no more gloom for those who were in distress.” After humbling His people, God would “honor Galilee of the Gentiles …” And one of the most hopeful verses in the Bible: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Isaiah also speaks specifically about peace for people who have been occupied or been in the crosshairs – because they happened to live along the road between enemies. That was going to change, too: “as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” Their warfare would come to an end – for a while.
The Pax Romana – “Peace in Rome” – started under Caesar Augustus and lasted until 180 AD. During that time, the Roman authorities were more interested in keeping the peace and keeping the empire together than in expansion. They could be brutal in putting down rebellions – but ordinary citizens in Judea and Samaria enjoyed relative peace, compared to what they had experienced in the In-Between Times. Jesus was born just 23 years into the Pax Romana.
Isaiah described the Messiah’s leadership and His kingdom of peace in a beautiful but mysterious way: “to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”
It makes you think of a child stooped over, carrying the weight of officials and diplomats and armies – like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders.
“And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” People can expect peace under the Messiah’s rule.
Unfortunately, most of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day assumed that the Messiah would bring peace through an earthly kingdom and with armies. As Jesus approached Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He lamented their inability to see that His was a heavenly kingdom, with the Holy Spirit as the driving force behind its expansion.
So they would not find the peace that Isaiah had prophesied and they had looked for: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
So the vast majority of the Jews did not find the peace they had longed for. In 70 AD, the Roman army under Titus savagely put down a rebellion by the Jews and destroyed Jerusalem and their Temple.
So what about Isaiah’s prophecy? Was he wrong? Of course not. The Prince of Peace had come – and the Kingdom of God had come near to God’s people – but they wanted peace as they defined it: driving the Romans out, so they didn’t have soldiers around all the time, watching them and helping tax collectors shake them down for money.
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus explained to His disciples that that was not the kind of peace He came to bring. We read some of that in our passage today from John 14: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
His is not the peace the world gives – or Caesar Augustus gave – or as the United Nations gives – or the most advanced weapons systems give. His is the only peace that lasts – because Jesus puts us at peace with God.
We are in the In-Between Times again: in between Jesus’ first coming to earth on the first Christmas and His return at the end of time. And these past 2000 years have been filled with war and strife and sorrow and pain.
That will continue until He comes back and finishes restoring His fallen Creation, and establishes His Kingdom of Peace that will never end.
But we can have peace in the In-Between Times because Jesus’ sacrifice has established peace between God and us. No longer do we live in fear of God’s wrath. No longer do we fear separation from our Creator or the fires of Hell. Because the Prince of Peace has come – and gives us a peace that the world cannot give us.
God knows we need it. The Rev. Paul Detterman – writing in a blog for Reformed Worship Magazine – says we know we need it, too:
… the weight of our accumulated reality in 2017—the bloated, blundering leadership of a once-great nation, the accelerating demise of public civility, rampant accusations of sexual abuse (and the seemingly little impact they are having on the culture that nurtures those actions), the reality of gang violence and mass shootings, carjackings as close as the corner bank, the bludgeoning the gospel is taking from noisy people on the right, on the left, and across the academy, the opioid crisis in many places and the teen suicide crisis in others—the list goes on. (And that’s just in one part of the First World.) I know our global situation is no worse in December 2017 than it has ever been, and far better than it was the night the Word became flesh and began his dwelling among us. But it is our reality—our dogged daily reminder of the depravity and desperation of a world that is largely ignorant of or allergic to its Savior.
What Detterman wrote about is desperately sad. Just like most of the Jews in Jerusalem as Jesus approached, most of the people in our world are paying no attention to or openly rebelling against the One who would bring them peace.
Don’t be one of them. Find your peace for this In-Between Time in Jesus.