The Surprising Pathway to Joy (Isaiah 8:16-9:7)


Big Idea: Joy comes, not in popular or expected ways, but through the birth of a baby.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!

We sing those words every Christmas. In fact, we’re going to sing it in a few minutes after the sermon. But it wasn’t originally written for Christmas. In fact, it wasn’t even written to be a song.

Isaac Watts was one of the great hymn writers in church history. In 1719, Watts published a book of poems in which each poem was based on a psalm. Rather than just translate the Old Testament texts, he adjusted them to refer more explicitly to the work of Jesus to show their focus on Christ.

One of these poems was an adaptation of Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!
(Psalm 98:4-6)

Watts interpreted this psalm as a celebration of Jesus’s role as King the church and the whole world. More than a century later, the second half of this poem was slightly adapted and set to music to give us what has become one of the most famous of all Christmas carols.

It makes you wonder, though: what kind of joy is the song talking about? Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the four weeks in which we prepare for the first coming of Jesus, even as we keep an eye on his future return. And it’s the Sunday in which we usually focus on joy. But I think you’d have to admit that joy is in pretty short supply both in the world and in the church. You could say that we suffer from a joy deficit. It feels like we’re living with the Paris effect.

Have you heard of the Paris effect? It’s the disappointment that many first-time visitors to Paris experience after hyped up expectations from the media. A recent (2015) article in The Wall Street Journal explains that it often “affects women … who arrive expecting an affluent and friendly European capital where slim, beautiful Parisians walk around smelling of Chanel.”

The article went on to note that many visitors

expect a place full of romance, beauty, and wealth. Instead, they find pavements peppered with cigarette butts and aggravated commuters in packed metro trains … For some, the shock is too much to bear, prompting them to seek medical help for symptoms that may include irritability, fear, obsession, depressed mood, insomnia, and a feeling of persecution by the French. In extreme cases, the only remedy is a one-way ticket out of France.

In other words, disappointment sets in when visitors realize that daily life in the City of Light is nothing like the romanticized vision in movies like Midnight in Paris and Amélie, or Sofia Coppola's evocative Dior commercials. The suggestive images of Paris in the media inevitably build up high expectations and create a lot of room for disappointment.

It feels like that with life sometimes. And so when we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” we need to decide whether that’s just a sentimental song we sing, or if it’s really something that’s available to us.


As someone who’s interested in joy, I want to know if it’s something that we can expect. We’re spending more and more money on trying to get happy. Books are coming out. We have more available than ever. And yet it seems that we’re not really happier. Can we discover joy? Isaiah has something important to tell us on the topic.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived 2,700 years ago in Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah speaks and writes at a time when the Assyrian empire had grown and gobbled up the northern empire so that its borders were just eight miles away from Jerusalem. They were doing okay in one sense: the economy was good, and many of them were living okay. But the world was an uncertain place, and world events threatened to swallow them up.

So what do you do when you’re squeezed? That’s the decision that Judah faced. Isaiah told them to trust in God. But instead they made a series of tragic decisions. They trusted the wrong things. At the beginning of the book, Isaiah said:

They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
(Isaiah 1:4)

They trusted foreign kings: the king of Egypt, and then the king of Assyria, and then the king of Babylon. They trusted other gods. They trusted themselves.

It’s the same problem that we face today.

We are God’s special people, and we are often tempted, individually and corporately, to put our trust in the wrong things. In your own life, what motivates you? What are your real goals, your real ambitions, your real purposes? And what do you trust in to accomplish those ends? Is what you are hoping in enough to focus your whole being? And is what you are trusting in enough to carry you throughout your life? (Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament)

From Isaiah, we learn three lessons about the path to joy.

The end of chapter 8 is depressing. People are consulting fortune-tellers and to get messages from the dead. And so Isaiah speaks words of judgment from God:

They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Isaiah 8:21–22)

They’re going to go into exile. They’re going to be judged by God. Isaiah describes the scene by referring to thick darkness. There’s nothing to encourage you in this passage.

But here’s the good news amidst the bad. In

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isaiah 8:16-18)

Here’s the first news that could lead us to joy: even when bad things are happening and evil people have the upper hand, God always has his people. He pictures a group of people who are gathered under the word of God, who are safeguarding God’s Word. Isaiah speaks on their behalf and says that he’s waiting for God and hoping in him, even though God seems to be hiding his face from Judah. He has confidence in God even though the darkness gathers.

The path to joy isn’t popular. It’s found among people who swim against the flow. It’s found in the margins.

Don’t go looking for joy in the usual places, because Isaiah reminds us you won’t find it there. The path to joy is not popular.

Second: the path to joy isn’t expected.

Isaiah 9:1-2 says:

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

Galilee was north of Judah. It was the most ethnically diverse part of Israel, which means that it was the place where there was less belief in Israel’s God. It was also the first place that Assyria would conquer as they came south to steamroll over Israel. Armies would rape, pillage, and steal on their way to Jerusalem, and they’d go through Galilee first. It was the last place you’d expect God to move.

God always loves to do this. He seems to love to work in unexpected places and unexpected ways. The gospel of Matthew tells us that this promise was fulfilled when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Who would expect that a baby born in a backwater place would end up becoming our Savior? Who would expect that he’d choose to start his ministry in the middle of nowhere? But that’s exactly what God loves to do.

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself…
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life. (adapted from James Allan Francis)

You would never expect to find joy or meaning in the birth of someone like Jesus. It’s unexpected, even today. Joy doesn’t come in popular or expected ways.

Three: It comes through the birth of a baby.

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost city in the United States. It’s located north of the Arctic Circle. Over four thousand people live there. The sun set there on the afternoon of November 18, and it won’t rise again until January 22nd. Don’t get too excited, though, because they’ll only get 26 minutes of sunlight that day.

According to Isaiah, that’s us. We live in darkness and we don’t even know it. But then we read:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
(Isaiah 9:2)

What’s he talking about? In Isaiah’s time, God had promised a sign to King Ahaz. A child would be born, and this child would be a sign that God had not abandoned his people. This child would be evidence that Ahaz didn’t have to trust in foreign powers. He could trust in God. That would be enough. The birth of this child would be proof that God is with his people, and that they could depend on him.

But verses 6 and 7 show that Isaiah is talking about more than the birth of a child in his day. The words that he uses wouldn’t work for any ordinary baby:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall 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,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
(Isaiah 9:6–7)

According to Isaiah, a child sent by God is more powerful than all the nations of the world. A child will be born, and he will have the best strategies, will defeat his enemies easily, will love us endlessly, and bring us peace.

Joy comes, not in popular or expected ways, but through the birth of a baby.

The question comes to us today: What are you trusting in? It seems to make a lot of sense to trust in ourselves, our careers, and other people to bring us joy. According to Isaiah, that will never work. When we look to all of these things we’ll suffer from the Paris Effect: the sense that things never really lined up with our expectations. That’s not the path to lasting joy.

Joy comes, not in popular or expected ways, but through Jesus. You’d never expect this. Verse 3 says, “You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.”

It’s like Isaiah has no choice but to compare the joy that comes with the arrival of Jesus to common experiences of joy that we can all relate to. “Remember when this happened? That’s what it’s going to be like again!”

And that’s what Isaiah does in this passage. Isaiah is talking about something that’s going to happen, and he compares it to harvest time, when all the hard work is over, and the party begins, or the end of a battle, when the conquering army returns with all the spoils of war, and the people begin to party.

Do you want joy? Look in a surprising place. Look to Jesus. You can have the joy of knowing that your sins are forgiven, that you’re endlessly loved by God, and that his kingdom is breaking into the world. There’s no better news than that such a King has come.

It’s why Isaac Watts could write the poem that’s become a hymn:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room And heaven and nature sing!
And heaven and nature sing!
The Surprising Pathway to Joy (Isaiah 8:16-9:7)
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada