Anyone who has ever experienced the “land of the shadow of death” can draw courage from the words of Isaiah 9:2:
“The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.”
Throughout the centuries, Christians have held on to this scripture during times of trial and tribulation.
It speaks of a faithful God who outshines the darkness. In a sudden, supernatural burst of light, the night is over. The longed-for deliverance has come.
But as amazing as these verses are in themselves, when you understand their context and see how God wove His divine strategy into the Prophet’s words, it will take your breath away.
The Galilee: A land with a heavy spirit
Isaiah addressed his prophecy to the region of Galilee in northern Israel.
“Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed,
As when at first He lightly esteemed
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
And afterward more heavily oppressed her,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
In Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1).
At the time of Isaiah’s writing in the 8th century BC, the Galilee was a region tinged with shame. There was a sense of discouragement hanging in the air that clung to the people and stole hope.
When the twelve tribes of Israel first entered the Promised Land and battled to take possession of the territories God had allotted them, the tribe of Zebulun fell short of its calling. Maybe there was already a dark spirit of defeat in the region because Zebulun never managed to drive the Canaanites out of the northern Galilee (Judges 1:30).
The continued presence of these foreigners meant that the territory was shunned by the supposedly purer Judeans in Jerusalem and was given the derogatory name “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
The Galilee’s reputation for being morally inferior and undesirable carried on through the centuries.
When King Solomon built the First Temple, he wanted to reward the King of Tyre for supplying him with valuable materials and chose to gift him twenty cities in the land of Galilee (1 Kings 9:10-14). Hiram, the King of Tyre was not pleased with these cities and called them Cabul, meaning “Good for nothing.”
Double tragedy in the Galilee
Isaiah 9:1 speaks of two misfortunes suffered by the region of Galilee:
“…at first He lightly esteemed the land… and afterward more heavily oppressed her.”
These two events are most likely the King of Syria’s attack on the Galilee in around 900 BC (1 Kings 15:20) and then the devastating Assyrian invasion 200 years later (2 Kings 17:5-6).
During Isaiah’s lifetime, the Assyrians violently uprooted the ten northern tribes of Israel and carried many people away into exile in the Assyrian Empire.
No lost tribes
Not everyone was taken, however.
It’s a mistake to think that ten tribes were lost. Biblical and archaeological evidence reveals that large numbers of Israelites from all ten tribes moved south during the Assyrian assaults and joined the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Judea.
The Book of 2 Chronicles speaks of:
“…Judah and Benjamin, and those who dwelt with them from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon, for they came over to him in great numbers from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him…” (2 Chronicles 15:9).
Likewise, archaeological records show that the population of Jerusalem increased by three to fourfold around the time of the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom.(1) There’s no natural explanation for this rapid growth other than an influx of Israelites from the ten northern tribes.
A curtain falls on the Galilee
Even though many Israelites managed to avoid exile, the northern tribes never again ruled over the territories that God had given them.
Archaeological evidence supports the biblical account and points to an abrupt end to Galilean civilization at the time of the Assyrian conquest in around 732 BC. Records show that the region was largely empty for the next five hundred years. Deep darkness fell upon the Galilee.(2)
But this all changed at the beginning of the first century BC. Within the space of a few decades, starting from around 100 BC, communities and buildings sprung up in the Galilee and the whole region came back to life.(3)
The Hasmonean dynasty: Israel back in Jewish hands
Archaeological and historical evidence links this new Galilean population to the Hasmonean dynasty.(4)
The Hasmonean period was a brief interlude, lasting a little over a century from 140 to 37 BC, when the Jews regained control of their ancestral homeland and ruled over Judah and parts of Israel.
The period began with the events told in the Hanukkah narrative. A Jewish zealot known as Judah the Maccabee took a stand against the Greek pagan influences propagated by the governing Syrian regime. In a miraculous military victory, Judah’s warriors defeated the Syrians against all odds and Judah’s family line – known as the Hasmoneans – ruled over Judah and parts of Israel for the next hundred years.
One region deeply impacted by the Hasmonean dynasty was the Galilee. The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells of how Aristobulus I (the Hasmonean King who reigned for just one year from 104 to 103 BC) extended the northern reach of his kingdom into the Galilee.(5)
The Hasmonean kings populated the largely barren lands of the Galilee with Jewish people from the territory of Judea.(6) It is likely that Jesus’ own family – who belonged to the tribe of Judah – were part of the community of Jews planted in the Galilee by the Hasmonean kings.
But the Jews sent to settle the Galilee were not just from the tribe of Judah.
Following the mass influx of Israelites from the ten northern tribes at the time of the Assyrian conquest, Judea had become a mixed population representing all twelve tribes. So, when the Hasmonean kings populated the Galilee region, they filled it with Jews from the whole House of Israel.
Corrupt Jewish kings and brutal Romans
The Hasmonean period was not a happy one for the Galileans.
Although the idea of a self-governing Jewish kingdom may have sounded idyllic for Jews living in the land, the truth is that the Hasmonean dynasty quickly descended into a reign of greed, hedonism, and in-fighting.(7)
And then the Romans came.
When Greater Judea fell into the hands of Rome in 63 BC, things got even worse in the Galilee. In addition to the corruption and misrule of the Hasmonean kings, the Galilean Jews now suffered frequent attacks from the Romans as they tried to seize control of the region.
The Romans would attack Jewish villages and either kill or enslave the local people.
After quarter of a century of struggle, the Hasmonean dynasty finally collapsed in 37 BC. Rome appointed Herod, a puppet king, to govern the region, and he brutally suppressed the Galilean Jews who opposed him.
Herod, and then his son after him, Herod Antipas, taxed the Galilean people heavily, and forced them to finance extravagant building projects. These included the development of a new city on the shores of the Galilee, named Tiberias after the Roman Emperor.(8)
The Messiah: A light piercing the darkness
Jews living in the Galilee in the first century truly were “dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death” and their feelings of anger and resentment were at boiling point.
It was into this heavy, frustrated, discouraged region that Jesus came with a message of hope and deliverance.
In the dark despair of first century Galilee, the Light of the World began to shine.
Isaiah foresaw Jesus
Throughout the centuries, scholars have searched for alternative explanations for Isaiah 9:1:
“…In Galilee of the Gentiles…
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light.”
Doubters and sceptics can’t believe that an eighth century BC prophet could accurately predict events that would happen hundreds of years later. Jewish scholars can’t believe that the great Jewish Prophet Isaiah was writing about Yeshua, who they associate with Christianity and don’t recognize as the Jewish Messiah.
But try as they might, no one has ever been able to find a plausible alternative explanation for Isaiah 9:1. There was only ever one great light that shone in the Galilee and that was Jesus Himself.
The prophet Isaiah saw beyond the political chaos of his own day and the devastation the Assyrians were about to wreak on the Northern Kingdom. He saw hundreds of years into the future to a time when the Galilee would be populated again, but its people would be oppressed and close to breaking. And then he saw the Light of the World who would reveal Himself to ordinary Galilean people and free them from their bondage.
Why did God choose the Galilee?
It was no coincidence that Jesus grew up in the Galilee and invested the precious few years of his ministry there. This was always the divine plan, revealed to the Prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before.
But what was it about the Galilee that made it fertile soil for Jesus to plant the seeds of God’s Kingdom?
Of course, we can’t see into the mind of God to answer this question with certainty. But there were several key factors that made the Galilee uniquely suitable for the Gospel message.
Firstly, as we have already seen, the Jewish community in the Galilee represented all twelve tribes of Israel. Although the Messiah Himself came from the Tribe of Judah, God always intended for Him to bring salvation and deliverance to the whole House of Israel. Not to mention the Gentile communities who would benefit from the overflow of blessings and be drawn into a saving relationship with the God of Israel.
Secondly, the Galilean Jews knew they needed a saviour. The Jews in Jerusalem tended to be more self-righteous than the Galileans and considered themselves morally superior. They had the Temple and their religious rituals, which they believed were sufficient to win favour with God.
The Galilean Jews were spiritually hungry and knew their own religious efforts could not save them.
Archaeological finds from the first century show that Jewish communities in the Galilee at the time of the Lord were devout in their faith. Mikva baths were uncovered in the bedrock and many houses contained bowls, cups and plates used for religious purification. The communal waste contained animal bones, but no pig bones, indicating that the local people kept to a pork-free diet.(9)
What’s more, the Galilean Jews were known to be steadfast and unyielding in their convictions. They had a fighting spirit. Josephus said the Galileans were “always able to make a strong resistance on all occasions of war.”(10) For all the snobbery and disdain that the Judeans treated the Galileans with, it appears that the Galileans resisted the Romans with greater courage and resolve than their brethren in the south.(11)
It was the combination of all these factors that made the Galilean Jews not only receptive to the Gospel message, but also tenacious enough to hold on when the going got tough.
The Galilean light kept burning long after the Lord departed
After the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, the New Testament writers focused mainly on the Jerusalem church and Paul’s missionary journeys. It may be tempting to think that the Galilee was no longer important.
But when you look closely at the biblical accounts and historical evidence, you see that the Galilee continued to play a pivotal role in God’s salvation plan.
Archeological excavations reveal a strong and thriving Galilean Messianic Jewish community in the early centuries.
There’s strong evidence that the site known today as Peter’s house in Capernaum truly was the place where Peter lived, and that it became a hub for early believers after the Lord’s ascension.
Archeological digs found that the site was a simple Jewish home at the time of the Lord, but soon after His death and resurrection, it was developed into a rudimentary church. There’s evidence that an early community of believers used this simple church for more than 300 years until it was replaced by a more elaborate Byzantine structure in the fifth century.(12)
Records suggest that Jesus’ own brothers and their descendants became church leaders in the Galilee during the first and second centuries. While Jesus’ brother James led the community of believers in Jerusalem, Jose and Jude appear to have headed up congregations in the Galilee.
The second century Christian writer, Hegesippus – who was most likely of Jewish origin himself – wrote a history of the early church. He recorded one event in which the grandsons of Jesus’ brother Jude were brought before the Roman Emperor Domitian. Once the Emperor realized they were manual labourers with no money, he decided they were beneath contempt and let them go. Hegesippus describes how they shared the Gospel with the Emperor during their arrest and became leaders in the Galilean church after their release.(13)
Rabbinical sources mention Galilean “heretics” trying to perform healings in the name of Jesus during the early centuries. This is further evidence of an active Messianic Jewish community in the Galilee during this period.(14)
The Galilee’s missionary calling: “You are the light of the world”
It was in the Galilee, during Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, that He likened the Gospel to a lamp on a lampstand:
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
When God revealed to the Prophet Isaiah His plan to shine a light in the Galilee, He had far more in mind than just bringing hope to one local region that was feeling discouraged.
His intention was always for the Galilee to be a light to the world. He always envisioned the Galilean Jews radiating the truth out on to the highways and byways and leading God’s lost children home.
The Galilee’s missionary calling is nowhere more evident than in the Great Commission.
Even before the Lord’s crucifixion, while He was sitting with His twelve disciples eating His Last Supper in Jerusalem, He predicted His coming death and resurrection, saying “But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28).
A few days later, when the women found Jesus’ empty tomb, the angel reminded them of these words: “But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7).
Why did the Lord direct His disciples back to the Galilee?
Surely, it would have made more sense to meet them in Jerusalem. The disciples were already in Jerusalem, after traveling there with Jesus to celebrate the Passover. Jerusalem was the great city of God where the Temple stood, and God’s Presence dwelt. So, why did Jesus tell His disciples to journey back to the Galilee to meet with Him?
The reason was the Great Commission.
When the disciples arrived at the mountain in the Galilee that the Lord had appointed, He appeared to them and spoke these famous words:
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”’ (Matt 28:18-20).
It was here, in the region where Jesus had spent three years preaching and performing wonders, that He commanded His disciples to go out, share the Gospel and be His ambassadors to the ends of the earth.
And, just as God had always planned, these ordinary Galilean Jewish working men took the message of the Kingdom and set it on a lampstand.
Years before Paul encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Peter the Galilean was preaching the Gospel to thousands of Jews in Jerusalem. Various writings from the early centuries describe the missionary journeys of the other Galilean disciples. It appears that most of them were ultimately martyred for sharing their faith.
The Galilee continued to be a missionary hub well beyond the days of the original disciples. The third century Christian historian, Julius Africanus, reported that the descendants of Jesus’ brothers travelled out from the Jewish villages of Nazareth and Kokhaba (in the Galilee), preaching the Gospel throughout the land.
Conclusion: A Servant King in a servant province
A key theme developed in the Book of Isaiah is the Suffering Servant. Isaiah accurately predicted the nature of the Lord’s first coming, which would be marked by servanthood and suffering. He would have “no beauty that we should desire Him.” He would “bear our griefs and carry our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:2, 4). He would lay down His life to set us free.
The Galilee was a fitting region for the Suffering Servant.
It was a province that knew suffering and shame. But its people had a deep and uncompromising faith.
In a profound way, the whole region of the Galilee became God’s servant during the days of Jesus. The Galilean terrain, climate, agriculture, and industry served as a backdrop to the message of God’s Kingdom. The fish in the lake, the storms on the waters, the isolated hilltops, the vineyards, and wheat harvests were all used to illustrate Kingdom truths.
Likewise, accounts of the Galilean people who interacted with Jesus were recorded on the pages of scripture for millions of others to read and learn from. These ordinary Galilean people – the fishermen, the tax collectors, the faithful, the sceptics, the sick, the sinners – all became servants of the Gospel message. Stories of their faith, fear, courage, and fragility have been used to disciple believers throughout the centuries.
And then there were the original twelve Galilean disciples (or eleven, minus Judas) who took to heart Jesus’ Great Commission and spent the rest of their lives bringing His message to the world, suffering persecution and, for the most part, martyrdom.
When the Lord comes a second time, He will take up His throne in the great city of Jerusalem, and rule as King of all creation.
But first, He had to come as a servant.
The Prophet Isaiah understood this nearly 800 years before Jesus’ birth. And he saw the role the Galilee would play in God’s salvation plan.
Praise God the Galilee was faithful to its calling. When the light began to shine, the Galilean people set it high on a lampstand so the whole world could see. And the course of history was forever changed.
1) Broshi, M. “The Expansion of Jerusalem in the Reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh.” Israel Exploration Journal 24, no. 1 (1974): 21-26
2) Gal, Zvi. “Israel in Exile.” Biblical Archaeology Review 24, no. 3 (1998): 48–53
3) Jensen, Morten Hørning, David A. Fiensy, and James Riley Strange. “The Political History in Galilee from the First Century BCE to the End of the Second Century CE.” Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods. Volume 1. Life, Culture and Society 2014: 51-77
5) Josephus. “Antiquities” 13:11:3. Chancey, Mark A. “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee: The Population of Galilee and New Testament Studies.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004: 42
6) Markus, Cromhout. “Were the Galileans ‘religious Jews’ or ‘ethnic Judeans?’” Hervormde Teologiese Studies. 64 (3) (2008)
7) Jensen, Morten Hørning, David A. Fiensy, and James Riley Strange. “The Political History in Galilee from the First Century BCE to the End of the Second Century CE.” Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods. Volume 1. Life, Culture and Society 2014: 51-77
8) Horsely, Richard A. “Jesus and Galilee: The Contingencies of a Renewal Movement.” Meyers, Eric M. (ed.). “Galilee Through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures.” Eisenbrauns 1999: 57-74
9) Chancey, Mark. “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
10) Josephus, B.J. 3.2 (Whiston)
11) Loftus, Francis. “The Anti-Roman Revolts of the Jews and the Galileans.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 68, no. 2 (1977): 78-98
12) Strange, James F. “Archaeological Evidence of Jewish Believers?” Skarsaune, Oskar, Hvalvik, Reidar (eds). The Early Centuries: Jewish Believers in Jesus. Peabody: Massachusetts 2007: 727-731
13) Bauckham, Richard. “The Relatives of Jesus.” Themelios 21.2 (January 1996): 18-21.
14) Schäfer, Peter. “Jesus in the Talmud.” Princeton University Press, 2007