< January 06, 2008 >

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6


Bleak midwinter seems a fitting stage for this lectionary text that likely dates to the early days of Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. Those days are cast easily in hues of grey -- the city of Jerusalem and its temple yet in ruins, the community rag-tag and divided, the once proud monarchy now a small colony on the fringe of the Persian Empire. 

One imagines worry, like a wet chill, settling deep in the bones, and hope struggling in darkness. But the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) pierces the gloom with a brilliant light: a vision of God's glory transforming the world, a promise that God restores God's people to wellbeing and calls all people home. Addressing Israel in the second person feminine singular (suggestive of Daughter Zion in Second Isaiah, e.g., 49:13-50:3; 51:12-52:12; 54:1-17), the prophet announces the reversal of her fortune in two units (Isa 60:1-3, 4-7), each of which opens with a double imperative ("arise, shine!" and "lift up.see!").

Having just declared that God is coming as Redeemer (Isa 59:20), the prophet summons Israel to "Arise! Shine!" and explains immediately why: "for your light has come" (60:1a). "Your light," the parallel in 60:1b indicates, is "the glory of the LORD," God's presence which, like a sun or bright star, rises over the people, showering them in light. God is the source of their renewed vitality. At the same time, "your light" evokes Israel's revived splendor. The community shimmers with light. Israel is radiant (e.g., "shine!" 60:1; "be radiant," 60:5). As God's glory transforms Israel, it transforms the whole world. Thick darkness envelops formerly powerful nations. And "nations" and "kings" stream to Israel, the beacon of God's glory, the bright dawn of a new day (e.g., Isa 2:1-5). Indeed, "your light" literarily frames and restrains the darkness (60:1b, 2d).

Two imperatives-"Lift up your eyes! See!"-urge Israel to witness the unexpected homecoming (60:4-7; cf. 49:18a). With repetition of "all (of them)" and verbs of ingathering (e.g., the verb "to come" occurs four times, the verb "to gather" twice), the prophet depicts the event as all-encompassing. "Your sons.and your daughters" likely refers to exiles who had not returned or been allowed to return home. Their approach from far away, with the next generation cradled in the arms of nurses, inspires joy (60:5). Moreover, the nations come and, ostensibly of their own freewill, bring all of their wealth with them. For the first time in a long time, Israel receives treasure rather than paying it as tribute or tax to other nations. Midian and Ephah signify the great camel riders and caravan traders of the desert (e.g., Gen 25:4; 37:25-36; Judges 6-8). Sheba recalls the lavish gift of gold, spices, and precious stones given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9). Kedar is renowned for sheep-breeding (e.g., Ezek 27:21). And "gold and frankincense" are valued treasures (e.g., Exod 30:34); indeed, the Magi later bring the same to honor the Christ child (Matt 2:11). The in-pouring of nations and outpouring of their abundance sparks Israel's delight (60:5)-indeed, her heart "opens wide" (NRSV "rejoices"), an expression that aptly conveys the restorative power of happiness.

It is imperative to note the abundance flows to Israel not to fill its coffers or appease its leadership. Rather, the world carries its wealth from afar, as do the Magi in Matthew (2:1-12), so that they might "proclaim the praise of the LORD" (60:6). God's glory illumines a new day and in praise of God's glory peoples from everywhere devote their finest goods. The prophet's vision of God's restoration thus ends with the renewal of worship-sheep and rams for the altar, and God's promise to glorify again God's glorious house, the temple (60:7). The whole world gathers to be part of God's future.

So testify this Epiphany to the in-breaking, world-inverting power of God's glory-to the radiant light that by no effort of human will or ingenuity, has come for the sake of everyone (cf. Eph 3:1-12). That light enables the forgotten and hopeless to rise to their feet. That light prompts nations and kings to pay homage. It is to that light we make our way in midwinter, bringing all that we have to kneel before God.