At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 as a prophecy about Jesus ministry in Galilee.
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.
13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
This passage referred to the Hebrew exiles who would return after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations. God promises to dispel the gloom and anguish and to shine His light on His people once again. “The way of the sea” refers to the major road from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea which passed through Capernaum on the west side of Lake Galilee. This is the route by which the exiles would return and thus the way would be made glorious. Matthew applies this passage to the coming of Jesus who brings light to those in darkness in this region.
The passage cited by Matthew is followed in the same paragraph in Isaiah by the prophecy of the child who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting, Father, Prince of Peace. This clearly sets the passage in a Messianic context.
Foreshadows Gentile mission
Galilee had a mixed population of both Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles had occupied Galilee from the time of the Assyrian conquest and deportation in 722 BC. Isaiah would know Galilee as a territory associated with non-Jewish peoples in his day. The mention of Galilee of the Gentiles foreshadows the Great Commission to evangelize all nations which is given on a mountain in Galilee.
Matthew 28:16-20 (ESV)
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In Isaiah 9:1-2, God promises light to the returning exiles. However, Jesus is the true light and comes to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the region of death’s shadow.
Christ comes to shine light on those living under the shadow of death. Jew and Gentile both dwell under the shadow of death and are under the curse. Death looms over us as our inevitable destroyer. But Jesus comes and dispels the shadow of death by the life-giving light of the gospel.
John 1:4-13 (ESV)
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Jesus fulfills the eternal plan of God by dispelling spiritual darkness in all the earth.