Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60 casts a magnificent vision of Zion’s future — full of light, prosperity, and prestige.

"Epiphany." Old Cathedral, Salamanca. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

January 6, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60 casts a magnificent vision of Zion’s future — full of light, prosperity, and prestige.

This city, whose history is riddled with the wreckage of war and marked by the scars of empire, will exchange the sounds of violence and ruin for the clamor of reconstruction and international traffic. To gain a fuller appreciation for what this text hopes for and how it imagines Zion’s future, one must move beyond the boundaries established by the lectionary (Isaiah 60:1-6) to include the entire pericope (Isaiah 60:1-22). When considered in its entirety, the oracle can be broken into three broad movements: vv. 1-3, 4-17, 18-22.

Isaiah 60:1-3 is flooded with divine light: “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” (v. 1). Darkness will afflict the earth, but upon Zion “the Lord will shine” (v. 2). The echoes of the plague of darkness (Exodus 10:21-29) are clear, only this time, it is unleashed on a global scale: The whole earth will be plunged into darkness, and Zion alone will mediate divine light to the nations and will become a lantern by which kings will walk (v. 3).

Reading Isaiah 60:4-17 is like standing in front of a slow moving parade, and this may very well be the point. The authors enjoin their readers, “raise your eyes and look about” (v. 4). What does one see? Not only returning exiles (v. 4) but “the wealth of nations” (v. 5): camels, dromedaries, gold, frankincense, flocks, rams, offerings, silver, laborers to restore the city, vassal kings, and lumber, will adorn Jerusalem’s streets. Like other great imperial capitals of the Near East, Jerusalem will “suck the milk of the nations” (v. 16). One thing is clear: Zion’s fortunes have been reversed: “Bowing before you, shall come the children of those who tormented you; prostrate at the soles of your feet shall be all those who reviled you” (v. 14).

The astounding claims continue in Isaiah 60:18-22. The familiar clamor of violence will cease to haunt Jerusalem’s blood-soaked streets. Instead, the walls and gates of the city will be renamed, “victory” and “renown” (v. 18), to commemorate Zion’s new status. Not only will violence cease, the whole nature of creation will change: the sun and moon will retire from their celestial duties, because the Lord himself will be Zion’s everlasting light (vv. 19-20). All of Zion’s people will be righteous and will possess the land forever (v. 21). Even the smallest will become an entire class, and the least a mighty nation (v. 22). Peace, prestige, and power — these are Zion’s destiny.

“Reversal.” This is the word that best describes the hope expressed in Isaiah 60. Through the power of God, the oppressed are put into power; those once stripped of resources and goods not only receive what was taken from them, they become exceedingly wealthy in the process; those driven far from Jerusalem return. The world, the text claims, is about to be turned on its head.

One thing the author of Isaiah 60 did not change, however, is the organization of imperial power. The differentials and binaries present in Near Eastern empires — and many empires, for that matter — remain unchanged in Isaiah 60’s vision of the future. There is zero tolerance for disobedience in this new system: “For the nation or the kingdom that does not serve you shall perish; such nations shall be destroyed” (Isaiah 60:12). The forgiveness, compassion, and redemption promised to Zion will never be available for those who disobey the new empire in this new reality: disobedience is death. New empire, same as the last?

These observations raise an important set of questions, especially given the fact that this text is used to inform Christian thinking about the future of creation. While profound in its capacity to imagine a new and hopeful future, Isaiah 60 is never able to move beyond a discourse of domination, despite Israel’s own story of redemption from oppression in Egypt. In its worst moments, this text is a revenge fantasy that longs for one’s oppressors to be the oppressed, for the masters to be the servants, and for the system of economic oppression to be tilted in favor of the victims. At the very least, one can say that Isaiah 60 doesn’t go as far as other Isaianic texts, which imagine Zion as a place where violence ceases to exist (Isaiah 11:9; 65:25).

Do we really want our advent hope to be funded by texts like this? Is the power one finds in the cross and Advent, where divine power manifests itself in weakness and suffering, the power one finds in this text? Does such a text remain a useful source for Christian eschatological thinking?

Martin Luther gave us a profound lesson in how to wield divine power in his essay, “The Freedom of a Christian.” Although certainly not dealing with the kind of political power imagined in Isaiah 60, there is deep wisdom in his claim that all the riches of heaven are given to us in Christ, not in order that one might subjugate others, but rather that the Christian might empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and “in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him.”1 The divine power we have in Christ, in other words, is power for the neighbor. Great power, of course, enables the domination of those who are weaker. Terrifying is the fact that great power actually enables us to act out our revenge fantasies. But if we take a cue from Luther, then we realize that power does something else; it frees us, not to subjugate, but to serve, not crush but to heal, not to extract resources but to provide them for those less fortunate.

So in the end, should one preach Isaiah 60 and its ilk? Yes, absolutely. Preach it, talk about our hope in God’s ability to remake our fractured world, and to reconcile on earth what has already been reconciled in heaven. But when you do preach on Isaiah 60, also use it as an opportunity to teach your congregation that biblical interpretation is not about uncritical adoption of what the Bible claims. Rather, biblical interpretation is always and at every time dialogical. It evokes a conversation between the reader and the text.


1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writing (ed. John Dillenberger; Garden City: Doubleday, 1961), 75.