ISAIAH 60-62: THE CONTEXT
These three chapters promise great things to the people of Jerusalem and record the rejoicing that they will experience upon the fulfillment of those promises. They constitute an optimistic, joyful unit. A number of themes, such as light, righteousness, salvation, and joy are repeated throughout the chapters.
The former exiles have returned to Jerusalem after a lengthy exile that challenged their faith in Yahweh. Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonians and instituted a new policy. Instead of subjugating Jewish exiles, Cyrus allows them to return to Jerusalem and even provides funds to finance the rebuilding of the temple.
However, upon their return, the former exiles find that Yahweh, who made their return possible, has not seen fit to make their task easy. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. The returned exiles experienced opposition from local people and the project ground to a halt (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4-5).
These new obstacles created a crisis of faith, just as the exile did. Yes, Yahweh has made it possible for them to escape their bondage in Babylonia, just as Yahweh earlier made it possible for their ancestors to escape slavery in Egypt. However, just as the earlier Israelites grumbled and doubted when they experienced obstacles in the wilderness, so also these former exiles are experiencing obstacles that create a similar crisis of faith for them. Yahweh has allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but has permitted opponents to dog them at every turn. Is Yahweh powerless to achieve what he promised? Is Yahweh faithful—will he keep his promises? Has Yahweh given up and abandoned them?
Second Isaiah dealt with these same questions while the people were still in exile (see 50:2). Yahweh is a passionate God who is in travail as he labors to achieve his goals (42:14). He is not like the powerless Babylonian gods, who are made of wood. More to the point, Yahweh is committed to the restoration of the people. He said, “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Now Third Isaiah, addressing people who are no longer exiles, addresses those same issues—answers the same questions. Chapters 56-59 outline the sins of the past and present, but the mood shifts at the end of chapter 59 as the prophet announces, “A Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from disobedience in Jacob” (59:20). Yahweh promises, “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says Yahweh. “My Spirit who is on you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your seed, nor out of the mouth of your seed’s seed,” says Yahweh, “from henceforth and forever” (59:21).
The mood of chapters 60-62, then, turns joyful. Chapter 60 starts with a call to “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (60:1). It promises that:
• “Nations (Gentiles) shall come to your light” (60:3).
• The people will enjoy prosperity and well-being.
•”Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you” (60:10)—and “that men (shall) bring to you the wealth of the nations” (60:11)—and the nations that refuse to serve Judah “shall perish” (60:12).
• “Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, so that no man passed through you, I will make you an eternal excellency, a joy of many generations” (60:15). It promises that “Yahweh will be to you an everlasting light, and your God your glory” (60:19).
60:1-6 is the traditional Old Testament reading for Epiphany because of its emphasis on the nations (Gentiles) bringing wealth to Jerusalem—and because of the mention of camels and gold and frankincense in verse 6 which makes it an especially good pairing with the story of the Wise Men in Matthew 2:1-12, the traditional Gospel reading for Epiphany.
ISAIAH 60:1-2. ARISE, SHINE; FOR YOUR LIGHT HAS COME
1Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh is risen on you. 2For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples; but Yahweh will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh is risen on you” (v. 1). The people of Jerusalem have suffered through the darkness of a lengthy exile—and a difficult return to a Jerusalem that lay in ruins—and neighbors opposed to the rebuilding of the city and the temple. They have been beaten down by circumstances—circumstances brought upon them by their sin—circumstances that constituted God’s judgment. However, God has not punished them to destroy them, but to redeem them. Now the time of their redemption has come, and it is time for them to receive it. They have been living in the darkness of despair, but their “light has come”—”the glory of Yahweh is risen on” them. That light is Yahweh, who has seemed so absent for so long.
To receive the gift of their redemption, they must arise—lift themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually to begin the work that Yahweh has set before them. After arising, they are to shine—to reflect the light of Yahweh’s glory both inside and outside their community—to bear witness to the light that has begun, once again, to enrich their lives.
There is a parallelism here between “light” and “glory.” The glory of the Lord is “often associated with brightness or splendor in theophanies” (divine appearances) (Myers, 420).
“For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples; but Yahweh will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you” (v. 2). The exiles experienced spiritual darkness in their lengthy exile, but now the great reversal has begun. It will be “the peoples” (Gentiles) who will be enveloped in “thick darkness,” and the former exiles who will experience the light of Yahweh’s glory. We are reminded of an earlier verse, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined” (9:2).
ISAIAH 60:3. NATIONS SHALL COME TO YOUR LIGHT
3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
This verse brings to mind the Wise Men from the East who came following the star to the place of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1-12).
We should also briefly recap here the story of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. That story began with King Cyrus of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and led Persia to become the dominant power in the region. “Yahweh stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom” to proclaim the king’s edict (Ezra 1:1).
In that edict, Cyrus acknowledged that the Lord charged him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2). Therefore, he gave permission to the exiles to return to Jerusalem, and commanded that others assist them in this endeavor with “silver, with gold, with goods, and with animals, besides the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:4). Cyrus himself returned all the gold and silver vessels that the Babylonians had removed from the temple several decades earlier—over five thousand gold and silver vessels in all (Ezra 1:10).
The exiles, more than forty-two thousand of them plus servants and animals, returned to Jerusalem and began the task of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 2-3). They encountered resistance from the local people, who wrote King Artaxerxes (a successor to Cyrus), slandering the exiles. As a result, the former exiles had to discontinue work on the temple for a time (Ezra 4). However, the former exiles made an appeal to King Darius (another successor to Cyrus), asking him to check the royal records to confirm Cyrus’ decree. After doing so, Darius permitted the former exiles to resume rebuilding, and agreed to bear the cost (Ezra 5-6).
Ezra 7 then tells of Artaxerxes sending a decree to the treasurers in the province Beyond the River: “Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done with all diligence, to one hundred talents of silver, and to one hundred measures of wheat, and to one hundred baths of wine, and to one hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much” (Ezra 7:21-22).
This history is related to Isaiah 60:3-6, because it tells the story of “the nations” (Gentiles) providing support for the rebuilding of the temple. The edicts by Cyrus and Darius led to ships and caravans heading for Jerusalem bearing great treasure.
(NOTE: The name, Artaxerxes, in Ezra 4:11 is confusing, because Artaxerxes I ruled 464-424 B.C., many years after Darius’ death in 486 B.C. However, Darius is mentioned in Ezra 5:6 as if he followed Artaxerxes. I haven’t been able to reconcile that.)
ISAIAH 60:4. THEY COME TO YOU
4Lift up your eyes all around, and see: they all gather themselves together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms.
“Lift up your eyes all around, and see: they all gather themselves together, they come to you” (v. 4a). The returned exiles have been required to live as second-class citizens (or non-citizens) for decades. That sort of servitude is spirit-killing. People who live under that kind of oppression often find it difficult to regain their footing. But this verse calls them to lift up their eyes so that they can see the blessings that are arriving—blessings that, by the grace of God, are coming to them from far-flung princes and kings. From their perch on Mount Zion, they can look out and see ships coming from the sea and caravans coming from inland.
“your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms” (v. 4b). Some fifty thousand people have returned, but that is not nearly all the exiles. Others will be arriving from various locations.
ISAIAH 60:5. THEN YOU SHALL SEE AND BE RADIANT
5Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart shall thrill and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
“Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart shall thrill and be enlarged” (v. 5a). These verbs—”see and be radiant…thrill and be enlarged”—convey the excitement that the former exiles will feel at seeing the wealth of nations brought to them. That would be a wonderful sight for any people, but especially so for these former exiles who for so long have had to pay tribute to more powerful nations. Now these nations will be bringing tribute to Jerusalem. This will bring to an end their crisis of faith. “The epiphany of the Gentiles now becomes the catalyst for the epiphany of the people of Jerusalem…. The believing community will see anew; for the unbelieving community has come to see and believe” (Reid, 377).
“because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (v. 5b).
“The abundance of the sea” refers to goods transported by ship—most likely come from Phoenicia, which is on the Mediterranean coast and north of the Sea of Galilee (modern-day Lebanon). Phoenicia includes the cities of Tyre and Sidon, important seaports.
These former exiles would have seen great wealth during their exile, but it belonged to their masters. Now they will see “the nations” to whom they have been servants bringing their wealth to Jerusalem. This wealth, however attractive it might be in its own merit, has a deeper meaning. It is a sign of Yahweh’s love for them, and is given by “the nations” as a tribute to God.
ISAIAH 60:6. THE MULTITUDE OF CAMELS SHALL COVER YOU
6The multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Yahweh.
“The multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come” (v. 6a). Most countries sending support to Jerusalem would not have access to seaports, so they would use camel caravans to transport their goods.
• Midian was the fourth son of Abraham by Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2). The people of Midian were located south and east of Judah (modern-day northwest Saudi Arabia), near the Gulf of Elath (modern-day Gulf of Aqaba).
• Ephah was the son of Midian (Genesis 25:4) and the Ephah mentioned here is apparently a Midianite tribe.
• The location of Sheba was probably on the south edge of the Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Yemen) (Rasmussen, 251). It would have been a source of “gold, frankincense, sweet cane and other spices, gems, and other goods from Africa, India, and the East” (Myers, 934).
However, this mention of Sheba alludes more importantly to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon at a time when Israel’s power was at its peak and Solomon’s wisdom was legendary. “She came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2. See also 2 Chronicles 9).
That story goes on at length about Solomon’s great wisdom and the riches sent to him, not only by the Queen of Sheba, but also from Hiram (1 Kings 10:11) as well as traders and merchants and “of all the kings of the mixed people, and of the governors of the country” (1 Kings 10:15). It tells of a fleet of ships that brought cargoes of “gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” every three years (1 Kings 10:22). It says, “They brought every man his tribute, vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and clothing, and armor, and spices, horses, and mules, a rate year by year” (1 Kings 10:25). It tells of Solomon importing horses and chariots from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29).
In other words, this mention of Sheba would have brought to mind a time when Israel was great and kings and queens brought lavish gifts from all over the world. Solomon used those gifts, in part, to build the first temple. Now the prophet says that once again the people—until very recently exiles—can expect kings and queens to bring gifts from all over the world to help them build a new temple.
“they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of Yahweh” (v. 6b). Gold and frankincense are valuable commodities that are compact and easy to transport. Frankincense is an incense used in temple worship and to embalm dead bodies. The Wise Men will bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan