A Great Light

Featured image for “A Great Light”

I am greedy.

When it comes to Isaiah 9:2, I want to use ALL the translations, because I want all the shades of meaning to be true, all at the same time. I crave the already-but-I-need-it-now-and-it-will-come of this passage.

The already:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. King James Version

In the first half, we’re in the past tense: the people aren’t in darkness anymore because they have seen the light. The light has already lit up their darkness, brightened it, revealed its contours. They are not governed by the darkness because the light has come. And it’s a great light, not a pinprick of light – so it has done some damage to the darkness.

The second half gives us a specific kind of darkness: the shadow of death. We hear the echo of Psalm 24, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” A friend who lived with metastatic cancer for many years described that shadow like a piano suspended by ropes above her head. Some days, she could hear the ropes creaking against the weight of the piano, threatening to give way. But most days, she was aware of the piano, but too focused on the light to be subject to its shadow.

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of her death. Her death cast a shadow over those who love her. A shadow we dwell with. It’s not just darker in the land of the shadow of death; it’s colder. And it can be lonely. The shining Christ light brings warmth, but it also reveals the world around, including the others who dwell in the land with you.

It is one of the beautiful mysteries of faith that “everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (Ephesians 5:13, NIV). When Christ illuminates us, we don’t just become bright, we become a light. So not only does the light reveal that there are people with us, but those people with us become the light of Christ for us. And with us. Because we become a light, too.

The already-but-I-need-it-now:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. Common English Bible

Here we have present-tense verbs. The people are walking in darkness. They are living in a pitch-dark land. Although the light has already come, and they’ve already seen it, they are immersed in their need, still surrounded by darkness.

Dawn is gradual. It takes time for the Sun to penetrate the darkness, to achieve full strength.

So it is, sometimes. We are living in a pitch-dark place, and the light of Christ grows gradually, becoming ever brighter, ever warmer, ever stronger. Dawn is only the beginning, after all – more light is coming.

The it-will-come:

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.  New Living Translation

This translation is all promise. The light will come. It will be great. And it will shine. No matter how deep the darkness is. Or how often the darkness comes.

I am grateful for all three of these translations and their different ways of rendering Isaiah 9:2. I need all three of them this Advent. Maybe you do, too.

We are no longer ruled by darkness because the light has come; the light is here; the light will come.

Jesus has already come.

Jesus is here right now.

Jesus promises to always shine in my darkness.


  1. Natalie,
    These thoughts on the light that shines in the darkness….and your post on For When you Enter the Darkness … remind me of Jerry Sittser’s Book – A Grace Disguised.

    He reminds us that when darkness descends…we instinctively run to the west, chasing after the sunset. We know that we need to stay in the light, for as long as we can. But really – the fastest way to the light is to turn towards the East – and walk bravely into darkness, heading towards the Sunrise, which we can not see, but trust is dawning nearby.

    I think that because darkness is so scary… the only way to walk in the dark is to hear and obey God’s command to Joshua and the Israelites as they entered the promise land. Again and again they were commanded to “Be Strong and Courageous.” And after reading these amazing stories of God fighting on Behalf of his People, we need to turn to eachother, as the Jewish people have done thru out the ages and encourage each other outloud,…. saying “Hazak, hazak, v’nit’chazek! Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!”

    You might not have realized that this is what you are doing… but you are encouraging us to walk in the dark… in spite of the fear. And so, we say back to you….”Hazak, hazak, v’nit’chazek! Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!.” The Lord your God Is with You.

    1. Thank you for this marvelous response, and for introducing me to Sittser’s book; I’ll have to check it out. Those timeless words of encouragement are so good, so necessary.

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