Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6
We read Isaiah 60 at Epiphany in part because of the connection between the three gifts of the Magi— gold, frankincense and myrrh—and the promises of favors of gold and frankincense for Israel brought from southern peoples (Isaiah 60:6). In addition to the mention of similar gifts, however, the Isaiah passage, and the hope therein, can meaningfully contextualize Epiphany, if only we can let the Isaiah text speak on its own terms.
Arguments still rage about what exact context(s) gave rise to the prophecies of the Book of Isaiah. Happily, it is beyond the scope of this short reflection to solve that issue. I will assume that chapter 60, at least, is reflecting on the Babylonian exile and captivity and offering an eschatological vision for Zion, rather than a specific and limited prophecy of deliverance from a particular time of trouble.
Chapter 60, like most of the rest of Isaiah, is intentionally intertextual. As before, a people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). In Isaiah 60, the people are called to respond to the shining of their light (that the light belongs to the people will be important). The people are called to rise up and shine, as a response to God’s glory and their light arriving in their midst. The world has come into darkness. But God is doing something about it. God called to a downtrodden nation, in the midst of successive foreign rule by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, to arise and let their light shine.
A relatively weak and subjugated people possess some sort of attractive quality that proves irresistible to nations and kings who cannot help themselves but investigate the strange light emanating from Zion. In the coming weeks, we will read how this light is the gravitational pull of a righteous society. This is, in no sense, a coercive attraction, or even a missional invitation. Rather, the nations take it upon themselves to come of their own volition and initiative because of the magnetic pull of the light shining from God’s people. 13th century French rabbi, David Kimhi, held that Isaiah 60:3 pointed to the promised fulfillment of Isaiah 2:3 (NASB):
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
So that He may teach us about His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.”
Previously Israel and Judah had warred with the nations, and even conquered some of them for a time. But in the future, God’s righteousness will shine though literally enlightened humans who will pull others to themselves solely because of their contrast with the befuddled rest of the world.
In the midst of this enlightening and attraction of the world, God calls the people to take notice of two simultaneous shifts that are happening as the nations stream toward Jerusalem. In verses 4 and 5, humiliated and abused people receive unexpected gifts. There are, of course, differing interpretations about what is going on here, but I choose to see this as divinely inspired reparations. Where once children were taken into exile, sons are returned from afar, and daughters are carried on the hips of their nursemaids. Again, we must look to the intertextual references within Isaiah to learn the identity of those who returned the abducted infants. Not only are children returned to those from whom they were stolen, but in God’s future, kings return captive boys to their parents, and queens nurse the kidnapped girls (Isaiah 49:22-23).
Accompanying the returned children, to a formerly despoiled people, comes the wealth of nations and the abundance of the sea (60:5). Upon seeing the restoration of children and of wealth, the people become radiant and shine forth even more light (60:5). There is something about an increase in justice, wrongs being made right, and those who have plundered exchanging positions with those they have plundered that causes the righteous to rejoice, as Hannah and Mary well know (1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Luke 1:46-55).
In addition to seeing their reparations for past wrongs arrive, God calls the people to witness the inclusion of formerly distant peoples. Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, and Nebaioth are listed in verses 6 and 7 as bringing gifts that allow them to participate in the praise and worship of the God of Israel. Midian, Ephah and Sheba bring innumerable camels laden with gold and frankincense. Kedar and Nebaioth bring sheep to be used at the holy altar.
These Arab and Afro-Arab tribes were not chosen at random. They were the other descendants of Abraham, with Hagar and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4, 12-13), whom Abraham sent away from his son Isaac (Genesis 25:5-6) so that they might not take what was his. Abraham gave these other descendants gifts before banishing them. Then Abraham gave Isaac everything he had. In the poetic promise of Isaiah, God undoes Abraham’s banishment and restriction of inheritance to Isaac. The tribes return, bearing gifts, and they are in turn welcomed to share in the greatest inheritance of Abraham: community with the God of Israel at its center.
We mark this day when nations recognize the Messiah, sent to bring near those who are far off, to rescue from sin, death and injustice, and to shine a light to the nations. Isaiah 60 must be about more for us than a prophecy of someone bringing gold and frankincense. Instead, it speaks of God’s longed for future, when a light shines out from God’s people that is so attractive that it cannot be ignored. Past wrongs will be made right through humble repentance and costly reparations. And the prophet foretells of a time when those who have been cast out and sent away will be welcomed back to the very center of what God is doing.