First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

Our text falls within the central section (chapters 60-62) of what is traditionally known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

December 28, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

Our text falls within the central section (chapters 60-62) of what is traditionally known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

According to the historical-critical consensus, this portion of the book was written by disciples of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) after the return from exile. However, the return was not as glorious as Second Isaiah had envisioned (cf. 62:4). Therefore, Third Isaiah continues to articulate the hope of a full restoration of the people and nation, with special attention on setting things right for Jerusalem (cf. 62:1).

While this consensus is helpful and has not been abandoned, the past twenty years have seen the emergence of a new consensus− that is, the book of Isaiah should be read as a unity. Edgar Conrad, a major proponent of the unity of the book,1  concludes that the shape of the book itself implies it was addressed to “survivors” (1:9; 66:19, although the Hebrew differs in each case). These “survivors” have witnessed the defeat of Judah by Babylon (39:5-8), and now await with hope for God to deliver them, just as Isaiah 1-39 (First Isaiah) recounted that God once delivered Judah from the Assyrians (chapters 36-39).

At this point, it is easy to detect points of congruence between Conrad’s argument and the historical-critical consensus. But Conrad goes even further. He suggests that although the return from exile is anticipated in Isaiah 40-66, it is not explicitly narrated. Thus, in his view, the book of Isaiah positions its readers in every generation to wait with hope for a new act of divine deliverance. In addition, Conrad concludes the Babylonian exile can be understood metaphorically, not just historically. As a metaphor, then, the whole book of Isaiah invites its readers, whatever their time and place, to live in hope toward a future which is claimed and redeemed by God. Indeed, this redemption will ultimately involve the setting of things right not only for Judah and Jerusalem, but also for all peoples and nations (cf.2:1-4; 42:1-9; 49:1-6). See also the extraordinarily expansive Psalm 148, the psalm for the day.

In this regard, notice in today’s Gospel lesson that the prophet Anna testifies concerning Jesus “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). And having seen the child Jesus, Simeon proclaims he has seen the “salvation” which God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:31-32). These references are not to say that Isaiah 61:10-62:3 (or any portion of the book of Isaiah) is a prediction of Jesus, although the Gospel writers sometimes seem to have thought so. Rather, the congruence between Isa 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2 (see also the citation of Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-21) suggests that the Christ-event is similar to the book of Isaiah. Both are invitations for people in every place and time to live toward a future which is claimed and redeemed by God.

In a real sense, when we read Isa 61:10-62:3 during the 2008 Christmas season, we are still “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” and the setting of things right for the nations. Even after Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we are called to live with hope, entrusting ourselves, our futures, and the future of the world to God and God’s deliverance.

Apparently speaking for the entire community, the prophet declares, “I shall greatly rejoice.” Such joy could be a response to the promises in 60:1-61:9 (cf. 60:17-18, where three of the capitalized words recur in 61:10-11−Righteousness, Salvation, and Praise). Further reasons for joy are introduced by the two occurrences of “for.” The clothing imagery in verse 10 features “salvation,” a prominent theme in Isaiah 40-66 (45:17, 21-22; 49:6; 51:5-6; 52:7, 10; 59:11; 60:16, 18; 62:11; 63:1), and “righteousness.” Occurring four times, “righteousness” becomes the keyword in our passage (two are in verses 10 and 11, while two are in 62:1-2, where the same Hebrew word is translated “vindication”). The clothing imagery is filled out by the mention of wedding attire, and weddings would have been occasions to rejoice. It is perhaps not coincidental that the covenant relationship between God and God’s people is sometimes described as a marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2:1-13; and note the mention of “covenant” in Isaiah 61:8).

Agricultural productivity, featured in verse 11, would also have offered reason to rejoice. The second occurrence of “righteousness” and the mention of “all the nations” reinforce the source of the joy−God setting things right for God’s people and for the world.

Whereas the previous two verses suggested God has set things right, these three verses suggest that there is still work to be done. Whether the prophet continues to speak, or whether God should be understood as the speaker, is unclear. In either case, God still needs to act for the sake of Jerusalem/Zion (see Isaiah 42:14; 63:18-19; 64:1-12, especially verses 10-12). The pairing of “vindication”/”righteousness” and “salvation” in 62:1 recalls 61:10; and as in 61:11, the “nations” are involved. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, to envision the “glory” of Jerusalem (62:2) is to envision that “the full rule of Yahweh is established.”2  The rule of God is regularly characterized by righteousness (our keyword), along with justice and peace (cf. Psalm 96, 98). These three traits are the substance of the new identity or “new name” (62:2) which God will give the people, in contrast to the current condition of being “Forsaken” and “Desolate” (62:4).

The royal imagery in verse 3−”crown” and “royal diadem”−may hint that the new identity/name of the people will include a mission. In other words, the people as a whole will be entrusted with the former monarchical function of administering God’s justice and righteousness in the world.

The tension between “already” (61:10-11) and “not yet” (62:1-3) is important and instructive for Christian reflection upon and proclamation of our text. On the one hand, we affirm that Jesus proclaimed and embodied “the full rule of Yahweh,” so that we can “greatly rejoice” in the ways that Jesus has set us and the world right. On the other hand, we (as individuals and as the people of God) are clearly works in progress, and there is much in our world that still waits to be set right. Thus, we live as the postexilic community lived, and as the final form of the book of Isaiah invites God’s people in every generation to live. We live, entrusting ourselves to God, living in hope toward a future which is claimed and will be redeemed by God, and contributing by our words and deeds toward making the world right and life-serving, for God’s sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of “all the nations” (61:11; see Isa 2:1-4; 42:6; 49:6; 51:4-6).

1Edgar Conrad, Reading Isaiah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).
2Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 220.