We look at the first reading for Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1-6) with at least two reference points: first, the message of the prophet for the Israelites in 539 BCE, and: second, the way this reading is applied to the coming of the Magi. Uniting the two readings is the news that God’s salvation will embrace peoples of all nations. But there is also a contemporary way to read this lesson.
The original setting is the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem after the Persian King Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians. Instead of the beautiful city of their parents’ and grandparents’ memories (the exile had been 70 years) the Israelites found ruins. Instead of being welcomed home they found that the descendants of those who had been left behind, treated them as unwanted refugees.
Despite this, Isaiah tells the people, Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
The idea of Zion’s centrality to the earth due to God’s favour and the unique wisdom of divine teaching was a profoundly powerful message. (See Isaiah 2:3). At the same time, Isaiah told them that this special favour would be a magnet for nations and kings.
Metaphors of light and darkness dominate this whole passage. (If there is time, read John 1:4-10. The similarities are striking. John 1 represents one of the ways in which the original verses of Isaiah are reinterpreted.) Not only would God’s light shine on Israel, but this bright beacon would inspire the rest of the world to come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Isaiah continues, Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.
Your sons come from afar and your daughters… refers to the return of the Israelites from Babylon, but it is an ‘open’ reference. It could apply to spiritual sons and daughters: those who have received the grace to respond to God’s call.
Then Isaiah tells them Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. Camels represent domesticity and prosperity. Nations will come bearing gifts of their wealth to Israel and Israel’s God from the east, Midian and Ephah.
While we use this passage from Isaiah on the feast of Epiphany for its references to stars, which the Magi would follow, camels from the east, and gift of gold and incense, which the Magi would bring to the infant Jesus, the passage deserves attention on its own merits, for the news that God’s salvation would be available to all nations.
For the Israelites, newly released from captivity, seeking to reestablish their own identity by withdrawing into the cocoon of the ruined Jerusalem, Isaiah’s message must have been upsetting. They saw foreign kings and countries as warlike and oppressive, with no regard for the God of Israel. They wanted nothing to do with these kinds of kings and cultures.
Yet here was Isaiah proclaiming the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. When they were inclined to turn their vision inward, Isaiah told them to look outward. His passage even suggests that they welcome the foreigners.
In the centuries after 539 BCE some of Isaiah’s promises took on a crust of expectation of worldly glory and even a military Messiah who would overthrow the oppressors of the day… and there would be other rulers of Israel after Cyrus, notably the Greeks then the Romans.
Today we tend to read Isaiah as a prophet-poet. We look for the meaning in his metaphors, not interpreting them literally. This brings us to some questions of our own.
· Have Christians retreated into a cocoon in the face of an oppressive and dominant secular and atheistic culture? Are we that different from the Israelites who returned from captivity and wanted nothing more than to hide away and practice their faith far from the sight and scorn of the overriding society?
· Do we believe that the glory of the Lord rises upon us … and his glory appears over us. Nations will come to our light and kings to the brightness of our dawn… or is that too far-fetched? How do we interpret this prophecy? Is the light something that has been fulfilled, on Epiphany, or is it something to which we have to be open and work for in our contemporary world?
· Towards the end of Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, Henry delivers his St. Crispin’s Day speech to inspire his outnumbered men. He holds up to them an improbable but glorious future to inspire them. His speech is a twist on the glorious and improbable vision of Isaiah delivered to the Israelites to convey a message of faith and hope in their God. We do well to consider these in our contemporary world and to go forward with the same fidelity and anticipation in our God who “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”.
· Are those we fear precisely those who would come to honour our God of we let them know?