The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase.
The first statement that struck me here was this: “You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase.” It’s not that the people were without gladness or joy, but that the dawning of the light has made that gladness and joy greater.
Christians can often exaggerate the misery of life as it is experienced outside Christ, which means that the gospel fails to gain traction with those who hear it and who think, “Well, actually I’m feeling pretty fine, so I don’t need that religious crutch, thanks all the same.” The message which this passage has to people like that is: your gladness could be greater; your joy could increase.
But in what sense is that gladness “greater” or that joy “increased”? I don’t think it necessarily lies in subjective experience, but rather in this: in a universe without God, the joy and gladness we experience can only be carved out of a fundamentally impersonal and joyless reality. Joy is thus an act of rebellion by small sparks of reality against the rest of itself.
That is not without its aesthetic appeal. But the dawning of the light of Christ reveals that our joy and gladness is not setting ourselves against the fundamental nature of reality, but bringing us back into line with it. Our joy and gladness is not a brief spark to be extinguished by death, but a distant glimmer of the joy, gladness, light and love that underlies all things. It is in that sense that our gladness is greater and our joy increased.
Well, that’s all very well for those who are experiencing joy and gladness. But what about those whose experience of life is very different? I can’t presume to speak for people in that situation, but Isaiah’s words do at least hold out a message of hope: that for those who walk in darkness and deep shadow (“the shadow of the valley of death”), light has dawned, joy and gladness are in prospect, even if for now the darkness appears to be prevailing.