Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6
The contrast of light and darkness is ancient and universal spanning cultures and religions.
It’s primal. Fundamental. Foundational to human experience. Consider that the first creative movement in Jewish and Christian scripture is the creation of light, the second, the separation of light and darkness. So, the day was born and with it the basic movement of all life in the rhythm of light and darkness.
The prophet’s language in this text is vivid.
Arise, shine; for you light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1 New Revised Standard Version)
In the exilic and post-exilic contexts the “glory of the Lord” was understood to be the presence of the Lord, which guided the children of Israel through the wilderness,1 was present in the tabernacle,2 and resided in the Holy of Holies.3 The prophet’s poetic parallel here equates the light which shines and the glory of the Lord. The light is the very presence of Lord.
The context wherein and whereupon this light shines is one of darkness. The image here is of a land covered with darkness and people wrapped in thick clouds.4 At the very least, the poetic structure here suggests that eyes are veiled from any clarity near or far. It is the darkness of a moonless night far from the ambient light of any city with clouds obscuring even the faint flickers of the stars. Such is the metaphor of darkness here.
Yet, even such pervasive darkness is not impervious to the light, the glory of the Lord.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite. This light vanquishes darkness that surrounds the returnees from Babylon. It escapes their horizon and impacts the nations and their rulers. The scattered are beckoned home. The heart swells at this gathering in. The text speaks even of riches — the abundance of the sea, caravans of camels, and then… gold and frankincense. It is the Feast of Epiphany.
We’ll come back to this, but before making this move to the afterlife of Isaiah 60 in the imagination of God’s people, it is important to think carefully about what the vision is here.
It is at the same time poetic and truthful. The meaning, then, dances back-and-forth across the line of the physical eyes and the eyes of the heart.
How do we think about this light? Blinding? Something like the revolving beacon at the small airport by my hometown? Perhaps like the bright beam of the Cape Hatteras Light towering over the Outer Banks? These riches from afar, are they rare tuna steaks from the northern Pacific? Camels… I haven’t a clue with what to compare the riches of camels… You get the idea. We are operating in the realm of the poet where the line between the eyes of the body and the eyes of the heart are blurred.
What is clear is that the promise is that the very presence of God that illuminates what is covered in thickest darkness.
This text has been read and heard on the Feast of Epiphany for centuries. Epiphany being the Christocentric feast of the resonance of the light of Christ to the nations. The gospel story — Matthew 2 — recalls the visit of the Magi — wise folks from afar. They followed a light — an anomalous star. The light of which drew them to the incarnate Son for whom they brought gifts, the riches of their lands. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.
The Epiphany story of the magi with hints of the fantastic draws the magnificent, vivid vision of Isaiah 60 into the orbit of a small child, to the light, to the glory of the Lord as revealed in the weakness of a child. No pyrotechnics. Just a simple encounter of those from afar with the Light who drew them to himself.
By the most basic experience of darkness and light we are drawn to the very presence of God.
Welsh priest and poet, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), penned a simple verse that draws me in as it creates an intersection with this vivid vision of Isaiah on this Feast of Epiphany. Perhaps it will draw you in as well.
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence
to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end
of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.5
Without exhausting the poem by way of explanation, Thomas’ words here seem to come from the confluence of Isaiah’s vivid call, “…your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and Matthew’s story of the revelation of the one in, by, and through whom the cosmos came to be drawing all people to the light that is himself.
The Feast of Epiphany draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Light in the midst of darkness. A flower on the mind’s tree of thorns. A swelling heart at the good news of the Lord.6
1. See also Exodus 16:10
2. See also Leviticus 9:5f.
3. See also Ezekiel 1:28
4. The New Revised Standard Version translates “araphel” as “thick darkness,” but the image leans more toward the darkness of a heavy cloud.
5. R.S. Thomas, “Waiting,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Press, 2001) 376.
6. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew of Isaiah 60.6b as: “… and announce the good news of the salvation of the Lord.” (NETS) The interpretive move from the Hebrew, which is closer to “…and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord,” to being more specific about the content of the announcement and proclamation. This is the salvation of the Lord.