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‘Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, He departed into Galilee; 13. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: 14. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 15. The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; 16. The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.’—MATT. iv. 12-16.

Though the narrative of the Temptation is immediately followed by the notice of Jesus’ return to Galilee, there was a space between wide enough to hold all that John’s Gospel tells of the gathering of the first disciples, the brief stay in Galilee, the Jerusalem ministry, and the journey through Samaria. John i. 43 refers to the same point of time as verses 12-16 of this chapter. It is rash to conclude Matthew’s ignorance from his silence, and it is plain, from his own words, that he did not suppose that the return to Galilee followed the Temptation as closely in time as it does in his narrative. For he does link the Temptation to the Baptism immediately, by ‘Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit’ (verse 1), and so some interval of time must be allowed, during which Jesus left the wilderness, and went to some place where He could hear of John’s imprisonment. A gap is necessary. Its extent is not indicated, nor are the reasons for silence as to its contents. But we may as reasonably conjecture that Matthew’s eagerness to get to his main subject, the Galilean ministry, led him to regard the short visit to Jerusalem as an episode from which little came, as put his silence down to a very improbable ignorance. The same explanation may account for the slight mention made of His ‘leaving Nazareth,’ of which Luke has given the memorable story.

John was silenced, and that moved Jesus to go back to Galilee and take up His ministry there. His reason has been thought to have been the wish to avoid a similar fate, but He was safer from Herod in Jerusalem than in Capernaum, within reach of the tyrant’s arm, stretched out from Tiberias close by, and the supposition is more probable, as well as more worthy, that a directly opposite motive impelled Him. The voice that had cried, ‘After me cometh a greater than I,’ was stifled in a dungeon. It was fitting that He, of whom John had spoken, should at once stand forth. There must be no interval between the ringing proclamation by the herald and the appearance of the king, lest men should say that one more hope had been dashed, and one more prophet proved a dreamer. And is there not a lesson for all times in the fact that when John is silenced, Jesus begins to speak? Is not the quenching of a light kindled to bear witness to the true Light, ever the occasion for that unkindled and unquenchable Light to burn the more brightly, though tear-dimmed eyes often fail to see it?

The choice of Capernaum as a residence suggested to Matthew Isaiah’s prophecy, which he quotes freely, fusing into one sentence the geographical terms, in verse 15, which, in the Hebrew, are the close of one paragraph, and the prophecy in verse 16 which, in the Hebrew, begins another. The territory of Zabulon lay in what is now called Lower Galilee, stretching right across from the northern end of the Sea of Gennesaret to the coast of the Mediterranean, while that of Naphtali lay further north. ‘The way of the sea’ is here not the designation of another district, but a specification of those named in the preceding clauses, and may be rendered ‘towards the sea,’ while ‘beyond Jordan’ is the almost heathen territory on the east bank of the river, and ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ is the general name for all three, the two tribal territories and the trans-Jordanic district. These are all smelted into one designation, ‘the people which sat in darkness,’ and thus the whole of verse 15 and the first clause of verse 16 make the nominative of the verb ‘saw.’ There is something very impressive in that long-drawn-out accumulation of geographical names, and in their being all massed in the one sad description of their inert darkness, and then equally massed as seeing the great light that springs up. The intense pathos of that description and its sad truth to experience should not be unnoticed. They sit in the dark—the attitude of listless languor and constrained inaction, too true an emblem of the paralysis which falls on all the highest activities of the spirit, if the light from God has been quenched. It is only wild beasts that are active in the night. The lower parts of man’s nature may work energetically in that darkness, but all that makes his glory is torpid in it. Christ’s light has been the great impulse to progress. Races without it sit and do not march. But that is not all, for the sad picture is sketched again with blacker shadows in the next clause, which substitutes for ‘darkness’ the still more tragic words, ‘the region and shadow of death.’ The realm of darkness is the region of death. That dread figure is the lord of it, and, grimly enough, its very intensity of blackness has power to throw a shadow even there where there is no light, and to deepen the gloom. The second clause advances on the first in another respect, for while the former spoke only of ‘seeing’ the light, the latter tells of the blessed suddenness with which it ‘sprung up.’ The one clause speaks of the human perception, the other of the divine revelation which precedes it and makes it possible.

But had Matthew any right to see in Jesus’ Galilean ministry the fulfilment of a prophecy which, as spoken, was simply a promise that the northern parts of Israel which, by geographical position, had to bear the first and worst brunt of Assyrian invasion, should have deliverance from the oppressor? Yes; for Isaiah’s vision of the light rising on Israel, crushed beneath foreign oppression, was based on a distinctly Messianic prediction. It was because Messiah should come that he expected Assyria to be flung off and Israel to be set free, and he was right in the expectation, for though the Messiah did not come visibly then, His coming was the guarantee, and in some sense the cause, of Israel’s deliverance. Nor was Matthew less right in seeing in that earlier deliverance but a germinant accomplishment of the prophecy, which, by its very transiency, outwardness, and incompleteness, pointed onwards to a better spring of the Light, and a fuller deliverance from a murkier darkness and a more mortal death. ‘The life was the light of men,’ the teacher of all knowledge of God, the source of all light of true joy, the giver of all light of white purity, and He has risen on a world sitting in darkness that all men may walk in the light, and be children of the light.

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