Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

The faithful are invited to merge their persistence with God’s own and keep the needs of the people perpetually in God’s presence

December 25, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

Isaiah 62:6–12 is a text written in the wake of military and societal defeat. Even though the defeat likely happened at some remove from the poem’s composition, the shame associated with defeat haunts lines like “I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored” (verse 8). Even more dramatically, in an earlier section of the poem the author claims, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate” (verse 4). Alienation from labor, land, and dignity resulted in a gaping rift. At its core, this poem acknowledges its audience’s pain and urges them to consider that they are living in a pivotal moment, when the old was giving way to the new.

But what is the nature of that change? Who is involved? And when will it happen? Those are the kinds of questions that human beings often ask when they realize that the ground is shifting. We want to know the “who, what, when, where, and why” answers—and we want to know them now. 

This section of Isaiah 62 begins with an invitation to agency. The prophet claims that “I” (Yhwh) have posted “guardians” (also translated as watchmen, sentinels, et cetera) on Jerusalem’s walls day and night. They have an unusual task. Rather than watching out for enemies and threats, their job is to remind Yhwh (verse 6) and “give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth” (verse 7). Like the widow in Luke 18, these guardians were called to pester Yhwh until fulfillment was granted. 

At issue is not that Yhwh is forgetful or lazy but rather that the faithful are invited to merge their persistence with God’s own and to keep the needs of the people perpetually in God’s presence—the one place where they could be definitively and effectively addressed. The long vigil of the “guardians” bears witness to Yhwh’s deep and persistent commitment to restore Jerusalem: 

For Zion’s sake I [Yhwh] will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch (verse 1).

The poet is fixated on convincing his audience that Yhwh was committed to a bright future for Jerusalem and that they should be as well. Along similar lines Yhwh also calls to make preparations for dramatic changes: 

Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way [panu dereck] for the people;
build up, build up the highway [hameseelah],
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples (verse 10).

The language of these verses intentionally echoes the more widely known 40:3:

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way [panu dereck] of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway [meseelah] for our God.

In addition to these lexical connections, both texts also address an unnamed group of people—likely the text’s audience itself. The author(s) hoped to convince their readers/listeners that God was on the move and working for their good. These intentional, intra-Isaianic echoes suggest that the revelation and salvation of God in Isaiah 62 is a continuation of God’s restorative work in Isaiah 40. 

Yhwh chooses not to undertake this act of salvation alone. The poem seeks to enlist others whose persistence and faithfulness were to mirror God’s own. Both divine and human agency were to play a role in the birthing of this new future. While this claim might cause some contemporary readers to shift uncomfortably in their chairs, it may just be that a sense of agency in the wake of historical trauma was exactly what was needed for this deeply disempowered audience. 

The poem offers its audience a way to participate in Yhwh’s restoration of Jerusalem, but the author also leaves one with the impression that this gleaming new future might take time to emerge—how long, nobody knows. The guardians were, after all, to be on Jerusalem’s walls “day and night,” offering Yhwh no rest until the work was done (verses 6–7). The audience existed within a season of transition between defeat and restoration, but without any clear sense of when the page would be fully turned. 

And this is where the prophet’s audacious poetry makes a pragmatic concession to the traumatized world of his audience. He promises them a new world, but on an uncertain timeline. The audience had something to do and to cultivate, but it wouldn’t bear immediate fruit. 

The fact that there would be a delay between the promise and its realization also rings true to the modern Christian ear. In fact, this is the theological space Christians more frequently occupy. It is the very reason we continue to pray “Thy kingdom come” when we gather together. To speak plainly, we pray for it because it hasn’t happened yet—at least not in an ultimate way. Desolation, forsakenness, defeat, savagery, and trauma continue to ravage this world day in and day out, seemingly without any end in sight. God’s redemptive work is often hidden and elusive. It can be perceived, however, in the persistence of God’s people as we patiently and prayerfully clear a path for God’s arrival.