Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3
An enduring challenge for preaching prophetic literature in the Advent and Christmas seasons is to avoid the idea that the Old Testament is some kind of coded message—as if, when run through the correct cipher, it will reveal “Jesus” as the one right answer. After all, Old Testament texts were meaningful on their own in their ancient contexts, and they continue to make meaning today on their own terms, for Jewish and Christian interpreters alike.
At the same time, Christians do read Old Testament texts through the witness of the incarnation of Jesus, and it is important to be honest and forthright about when and how we are doing that. The Gospel writers and Paul, like Jesus himself, were interpreters of the Law and the Prophets in conversation with other first-century Jews, and Christian belief branches out from this ancient tradition of reading Scripture, and rereading Scripture, and rereading Scripture again.
Isaiah 40–66, sometimes called “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah,” is widely understood to represent early postexilic additions to the largely eighth-century Isaianic material in Isaiah 1–39. Chapters 40-55 probably date from around 539 B.C.E., right at the end of the Babylonian exile. Chapters 56–66 are a bit later, as they seem to presuppose the reconstruction of the temple, which was completed in 515 B.C.E. Thus, this week’s Old Testament reading probably dates from the end of the sixth century B.C.E.
The soaring, hopeful poetry of Isaiah 40–55 bespeaks the mood of optimism that must have accompanied Cyrus the Great’s call for the exiles of Judah to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple there. Isaiah 56–66 retains a hopeful tone, but it also reveals more of the messiness involved in post-war community-building under the watchful eye of the Persian Empire. The joy of return is tempered by internal conflicts, as well as the persistence of some unrealized expectations in the work of restoration.
The volatile political situation in postexilic Judah reminds us that there is an immediacy to these prophecies in their ancient context. The prophets behind Isaiah 40–66 were not just waxing poetic about theology. They were advocating competing visions for what the reconstituted community in Judah might look like, and they were looking for God to restore and vindicate Jerusalem, still reeling from its destruction and defeat over seventy years earlier, in full sight of the nations around it. At the same time, exactly what this vindication looks like is not always clear. It is still poetry, after all, and the book turns to metaphor to describe an imaginative, expansive vision of the future—not a granular strategic plan.
The passage’s metaphors are rich and varied. First, the prophet praises God for dressing the prophet with “the garments of salvation” and the “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). As far as biblical clothing metaphors go, Isaiah 61:10 paints a very different picture than, for example, the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6:10–17. Rather than a uniform for spiritual warfare, these “garments of salvation” are celebratory and lavish, like the outfits a couple wears at their wedding. Moreover, God is the one doing the dressing—“he has clothed me.” God’s agency as the one “doing a new thing” (see also Isaiah 43:19) is emphasized throughout much of Isaiah 40–66, and this passage continues that motif.
Next, the prophet turns to an agricultural metaphor to describe how God will bring the salvation of the prophet and his people to “all the nations”; “righteousness and praise” will “spring up” before them like shoots in a garden (Isaiah 61:11). Again, Zion’s vindication (also translatable as “righteousness”) and salvation will be made known to the nations, this time with the metaphor of light, “like the dawn” or “a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). Finally, Jerusalem will be “a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Isaiah 62:3). The glory of Jerusalem will showcase to all nations God’s fidelity and power.
The lectionary pairs Isaiah 61:10–62:3 with Luke 2:22–40, Jesus’ presentation at the temple as a child. In that New Testament story, Simeon and Anna stand in the stream of interpretation that is shared in Isaiah, which looks for Jerusalem’s righteous vindication.
In their day, Judah is under the power of the Roman Empire, just as it was under Persia’s control in the time of Deutero-Isaiah, and just as it was under Babylon’s control when Jerusalem was destroyed and its elites exiled. Simeon is “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), and the prophet Anna begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
Luke’s vague description of Anna’s speech is a classic move visible throughout Luke-Acts. He does not say exactly what Anna was saying, nor exactly what that redemption has to do with the child.1 The style is reminiscent of the somewhat off-putting phrase “If you know, you know,” with its wink to fellow insiders.
But the result of leaving those connections unarticulated is not just a nod to the ones who are presumed to “know.” It is also an invitation to any reader to try to draw those connections themselves: in other words, to interpret. Luke accomplishes (intentionally or not) with a rhetorical flourish what Deutero-Isaiah accomplishes with poetry: to craft a vision of hope for God’s ongoing love of God’s people that resonates anew with different audiences in different eras.
Both Isaiah and Luke leave lots of room for interpretation. Preachers today stand in that stream of interpretation, not to decode but to imagine: to craft a vision of hope that assures their listeners of God’s faithfulness through the generations.
- Compare, for example, Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts, where the prophet Isaiah is brought into the story specifically, but Philip’s interpretation is reported with the same vagueness as Anna’s prophecy: “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). How exactly Philip understood the connection between Isaiah and the good news is never spelled out in the text.