“But there will be no more gloom.” Isaiah 9:1-2 is quoted in Matthew 4:15-16. The reason there will be no more gloom is that the Messiah will come and rule the earth in a godly manner (Isa. 9:6-7; see commentary on Isa. 9:6).
“those who were.” The Hebrew text is singular, “she who was,” speaking of Israel as a woman, but due to the context which is involved, that literal English rendering is somewhat unclear, so many English versions opt for a clearer English translation, and treat Israel as a nation of people and say “those who were.”
“he treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt.” The “land of Zebulun” and the “land of Naphtali” are the historic areas of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali that were assigned by Joshua (Josh. 19:10-16, 32-39). The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali are said to be “treated…with contempt” because of what happened to those tribes. Because of Israel’s disobedience to God, it was afflicted by outside armies. The northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali (and Dan) bore a lot of the burden of those attacks because those tribes were attacked first when armies from the north invaded Israel. Before the time Isaiah wrote in the 700s BC, the Syrians had invaded Israel, and by the time Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9, perhaps even the Assyrians had started invasions. In fact, by the end of 722 BC, the Assyrians had conquered Israel and then they carried all Israel away captive back to Assyria (2 Kings 17:6, 23).
But Isaiah 9:1 foretells “there will be no more gloom” for the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and they will be glorious. In fact, the whole Galilee and even land east of the Jordan River will see a great light, and light will shine on them (Isa. 9:2). We should notice that God specifically mentioned Zebulun and Naphtali, because a great light did shine in those areas because much of the Messiah’s life and ministry happened in those two tribal areas. For example, the town of Nazareth where Jesus grew up is in the tribal area of Zebulun, so the people of Zebulun got to experience the Messiah more intimately than most of the other tribes of Israel. Also, the town of Capernaum is in the tribal area of Naphtali, and Capernaum was where Jesus lived during most of his ministry.
In fact, much of what Jesus did in his life and ministry was in Zebulun and Naphtali. He announced his ministry in Nazareth in Zebulun (Luke 4:16-21). He turned water into wine, his first miracle, in the town of Cana in Naphtali, and also taught the Sermon on the Mount, his first public sermon, in Naphtali (Matt. 5-7). Also, he called most of his apostles in Naphtali as well. He pronounced woes over Capernaum and Chorazin, two towns in Naphtali where many of his mighty works were done because they did not generally accept who he was (Matt. 11:20, 21, 23).
Isaiah 9 does not specifically say that the Messiah would spend most of his life and ministry in Zebulun and Naphtali, and in fact it says the Messiah will reign on David’s throne, which is in Jerusalem (Isa. 9:7). However, given the fact that the Messiah had to grow up before he ascended to the throne, and given the fact that no other tribes besides Zebulun and Naphtali are mentioned by name in Isaiah 9, it is possible that godly people suspected that the Messiah would somehow be closely associated with the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali even though he was foretold to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and reign as king in Jerusalem.
“in the latter time he will make glorious.” The text says, “he has made glorious” (past tense), even though the event is future. This is a good example of the Hebrew idiom of the prophetic perfect. The prophetic perfect idiom occurs when a future event is spoken of as if it had already happened. The Semitic languages do this for emphasis, writing about a future event in the past tense to emphasize that the event will absolutely happen. Especially in Hebrew, which does not have a specific future tense like Greek or English does, it was important to be able to express that a future event was sure to happen. The idiom that accomplished that was the idiom of the prophetic perfect, which spoke of the future as if it was in the past and had already happened, thus assuring the reader that the event would happen.
Often the prophet was taken into the future in a prophetic vision, and thus in his vision he saw the events that he wrote about actually happening or having already happened, and then he wrote it as he saw it. Isaiah 9 is about the coming Messiah and what he will accomplish, so it makes sense that it has a lot of prophetic perfect idioms. Comparable chapters include Isaiah 11 and 53, which are about the Messiah, because they also have a lot of the prophetic perfect idioms. One clear prophetic perfect in this context is Isaiah 9:6, which says a child “has been born” even though Isaiah wrote more than 700 years before the Christ was born (cp. Young’s Literal Translation of Isa. 9:6).
The prophetic perfect idiom is a challenge to translators because if they translate it literally as a past tense, it may confuse the English reader, whereas if they translate the text idiomatically, it may be easier to read the English but what the Hebrew text actually says is lost. The translators and versions are divided about what to do, as we can see by the English versions. For example, in Isaiah 9:6, some English versions say, “a child is born” (ESV; KJV; NIV); some say, “a child has been born” (NET; NJB; YLT); and some say “a child will be born” (HCSB; GWN; NASB; REV).
[For more on the prophetic perfect idiom, see commentaries on Eph. 2:6 and Isa. 11:1].
“the Way of the Sea.” This was the major road from Egypt to Syria, often called the “Via Maris,” its Latin name.