The Messiah would be the great light
In Isaiah chapters 7-12, the prophet speaks of the salvation of Israel from its enemies, with the person of the Messiah in view – the child of 7:14 and 9:6-7 (Hebrew, 5-6). Galilee, represented here by the tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphtali, were the first to be taken into captivity by Assyria in the eighth century BC. Here, Isaiah promises that they will see a reversal of this tragedy, for God’s light will shine on them – an emblem of His presence and guidance.
Matthew chapter 4 portrays Jesus’ ministry in Galilee as the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy. Galilee, though inhabited by Jews, was also a populous area for Gentiles, hence the designation “Galilee of the Gentiles” – with a hint that Jesus’ ministry will impact not only the Jewish nation but others as well.
Luke 1:77-79 alludes to Isaiah 9 when Zechariah prophesies about his son John the Baptist, declaring that he will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” and that this will “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The phrases “those who sit in darkness” and “shadow of death” are very clear allusions to Isaiah 9:2 (Hebrew, verse 1).
The theme of Jesus as the light is prominent in the New Testament. In John 1:4-5, he says about Jesus that, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men [i.e., people]. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In John 8:12, Jesus himself says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” while in John 9:5, he declares that, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Yet again, in John 12:46, he says, “I have come into the world as light.”
In Luke 2:32, Simeon sees Jesus and calls him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” – having just told us that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (verse 26).
In the context of chapters 7-11, Isaiah is speaking of the messianic light, fulfilled in Jesus who sheds his light both on the Jewish people and on the nations of the world.