Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 17, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
The readings for this Sunday continue the imagery associated with Epiphany. This Old Testament reading, especially when paired with the New Testament readings for this Sunday, seems easily to pick up the twin themes for the season of Epiphany, the mission of the church to the world and the focus on unity and fellowship of all people in Christ. But as with many Old Testament readings surrounding the major Christian seasons, we may have to struggle to allow the Old Testament to be heard apart from simply Christianizing it (see Hearing Old Testament Advent Texts).
While there is certainly some sense in which the Old Testament can and should be read in light of the Incarnation, we also need to allow the Old Testament to have its own theological integrity. That is, we need to resist the temptation to read the Old Testament only through the lens of the New Testament, and rather read it as providing a theological background against which to understand the New Testament witness.
Historically and theologically, the New Testament does not just reveal what had been hidden, and does not just fill in what was lacking in the Old Testament, as some dispensationalist or supercessionist approaches contend. Rather, it bears witness to the continuity of God's unfolding self-revelation in history since the time of Abraham 1,800 years earlier. With that historical continuity, which is a significant part of the Old Testament faith confession and is emphasized especially by the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we need to hear the Old Testament witness as a background for the Incarnation, not just as a supplement to it. We might even say that we cannot really understand the Incarnation without the theological base laid for that understanding from the Old Testament. So, careful attention to the message of this text on its own terms may yield valuable testimony to God that will help place the New Testament witness in context.
This reading comes from the third major section of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66 (the other sections are 1-39 and 40-55). While there has been a great deal of debate over the historical setting of the various parts of Isaiah, many scholars now conclude that this section of the book comes from the period following the Israelites' return from exile in Babylon, sometime after 538 BC (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah, as well as various commentary articles on Isaiah in the Text Index).
A major shift in world power had occurred around 539 BC. Cyrus the Persian took over the Babylonian Empire and established the Persians as new masters of the Ancient Near East (Isaiah 44:24; 45:1). Cyrus was a much more lenient ruler than the Babylonian kings had been. Deportation and exile of conquered peoples had been a state policy of Babylonian rulers. So when Israel rebelled against Babylonian rule, in 586 BC the Babylonians had destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and taken many of the leaders and prominent citizens as hostages and exiles to Babylon. However, Cyrus followed a different policy and allowed a great deal of autonomy within his Empire. As part of that policy, in 538 BC Cyrus issued a decree that allowed the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland (Ezra 1:1-4).
Yet, in spite of the promises of the prophets and the urging of the priests, there was no mass exodus back to Israel. Many exiles had grown comfortable in Babylon and were unwilling to leave. Even the handful that did return faced a ravaged land, a city and temple in ruins, and hostile neighbors (Ezra 4). While there had been great expectations from the early leaders of the return, first Sheshbazzar and later Zerubbabel, the rebuilding of the country progressed at an agonizingly slow pace. The prophet Haggai seemed to proclaim Zerubbabel as the new messiah, a new anointed one of God who would restore the grandeur of the Empire of David (Hag 2:23). Yet quietly, without even a mention in the biblical traditions, Zerubbabel disappeared from the pages of history. The glorious promises of a new future had not immediately translated into blessing and prosperity.
As a result the people grew increasingly discouraged, even to the point of despair. While they had expected a new day of restoration expressed in the imagery of light, they faced only darkness.
Isaiah 59:9 Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. 59:10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. 59:11 We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.
Some of the people drifted to a strict legalism, even a sectarianism, with the idea that rigid obedience to a code of laws would keep them safe from future catastrophes and bring God's blessing (58:1-3, 13-14). Others, despairing of any grand restoration, became indifferent and apathetic to the things of God, thinking that it did not matter what they did (56:12, 59:4-8; cf. Mal 3:14-15). There was a growing sense that history was out of control, and doubts began to emerge whether God was even capable of restoring the people (59:1). That apathy even allowed the creeping return of the idolatrous practices of Baal worship, a surrender to magical thinking that gave the illusion of control (57:5-11, 65:1-5). And the community itself began to experience inner conflict as various factions threw recriminations at each other (57:3-4).
Most of the prophets during this era, including Haggai, Zechariah, and the author of these sections of Isaiah, in various ways try to address the people's discouragement as they longed for a new age of prosperity and blessing. Even when the temple was crudely rebuilt in 518 BC (Hag 2:3), there was still no Davidic king and no great restoration of the nation to even a semblance of its former eminence. The prophet Malachi writing about 450 BC takes the people to task for this national depression that had clearly deteriorated into cynicism (Mal 1:13-14). It is into this situation of discouragement degenerating into cynicism that the message of this section of Isaiah comes.
The three sections of Isaiah have distinctly different themes and emphases since they come from disparate historical circumstances. The arrogance of Israel's kings and self-righteousness of the people prompted Isaiah of Jerusalem's prophetic indictments and warnings of judgment in the face of the 8th century BC Assyrian threat (chs. 1-39). Against that background, both Jeremiah and later Ezekiel interpreted the devastation of the Babylonian invasion and exile of the early 6th century to be the judgment of God about which the people had been warned since Isaiah of Jerusalem first began his prophetic career around 740 BC. Jeremiah, who tried unsuccessfully for 40 years to get the people to reform their pagan ways, was so effective in linking the looming historical crisis with God's judgment that when the devastation unfolded the people were driven to near hopelessness. With the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem in ruins, the Davidic monarchy ended, and the people scattered all over the Mediterranean world, one of the key questions in the exilic era was whether or not there would be any future at all for Good's people.
In the midst of that hopelessness, the center sections of the book of Isaiah (chs. 40-55) deal with promise, hope, newness, and the gracious faithfulness of God to bring about new beginnings out of the endings of the past. Using the old royal imagery, and in some of the most elevated prophetic language in the Old Testament, this late sixth century BC prophet spoke eloquently of newness, re-creation, and a restored mission for the people of God in the world. This prophet understood unfolding world events in the rise of Cyrus in 540 BC as God's new activity in the world whereby God's people would again take their place as the chosen people of God.
The second section of Isaiah, and other prophetic traditions like Zechariah, had certainly seemed to promise a return to the glory days of the Davidic and Solomonic Empires. Even today, some read those chapters of Isaiah and apply them in very triumphal ways to the church, as if the language of power and glory only has a physical kingdom as its referent, and comprises the totality of what it means to be the restored people of God. The returned exiles understood the prophetic promises to guarantee a certain eminence in the world and a certain kind of earthly kingdom. They had read the promises of Isaiah 40-55 as guarantees of status and circumstance rather than as promises of the restoration of mission (the idea of "light to the nations" is an important theme, for example 42:6, 49:6).
What they had failed to catch was the conditional element in even the most grandiose language of the prophetic vision in Isaiah 40-55. They had failed to note that the Servant of the Lord who would be restored and elevated, a metaphor throughout that section of Isaiah for the nation of Israel (see The Servant of the Lord), was blind and deaf (42:19). They had failed to link restoration with the responsibilities that restoration would entail in being the people of God (42:6-8). And they had failed to note the urgency of the calls to be faithful to God and resist idolatry that had been interwoven throughout the promises (40:18-26, 44:9-20).
This third section of Isaiah directly addresses the despair and discouragement of the people. But it does so in ways that might be unexpected. Rather than simply offering new promises, this third section of the book again places much of the blame for the lagging restoration on the people themselves. It is not an indictment for failing to build an empire, but rather a chastisement for failing to tend to the most basic aspects of being the people of God.
Yet, the language here is not the language of judgment familiar from Isaiah of Jerusalem or Jeremiah. Many of the themes of promise and restoration that figured prominently in the second sections of Isaiah are picked up and reiterated. There is no sense that the vision of a restored people of God who will be a light to the nations is being abandoned. In more obvious and direct ways, those promises are linked to the faithful response of the people. The promises are still there, but they are not absolute promises to encourage a hopeless people (which they had never been anyway). They are promises that are tied to faithful living as God's people, promises aimed at restoring a sense of mission to a people falling into pessimism and apathy. There is a transparent and sustained call for the people to live responsibly in the world as God's people, to live the life of torah that had always marked God's people (see torah). While there is still a clear sense that God and only God will bring the full restoration for which the people long (59:15b-19), there is an equal sense that the people share some responsibility for fulfilling God's purposes in the world (58:6-14; see Divine-Human Synergism).
Chapters 60-62 are the heart of the third section of Isaiah (56-66). They are unified in both style and message. In many ways these chapters are reminiscent of the second section of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. However, these chapters cannot be abstracted from their larger context within this third section. To do so would leave them as the same kind of absolute yet misunderstood promises that the people had taken the second section of Isaiah to be. After calling the people to accountability for their apathy and drift to idolatry in chapter 56-58, and concluding with a call to national penitence in chapter 59, the prophet turns to building hope for the future in these chapters. But it is hope thoroughly grounded in an awareness of the dangers of expectation without responsibility.
There is some ambiguity about the speaker in verse one. Some suggest that it is God speaking here directly, demonstrating urgency to proclaim vindication to the people. However, more likely the speaker is the unnamed prophet speaking both to and for the people, a continuation of the prophetic proclamation begun in chapter 60. The parallel declarations "I will not be silent" and "I shall not rest" serve to emphasize the determination of the prophet to proclaim a message of hope for Jerusalem, as well as the certainty of the message itself.
Verse 1 begins with a proclamation about Zion and Jerusalem, poetic synonyms for a city and for the covenant people of God. By the 8th century BC, the identity of the Israelites was so intertwined with the city of Jerusalem that they could be used interchangeably. In the post-exilic era, the prominence of the city of Jerusalem was inextricably tied to the prominence of the people of God in general.
The contrast of darkness and light that has figured so prominently in the book of Isaiah again carries significant meaning here. Darkness has symbolized threatening historical event (5:30) as well as spiritual failure (5:20, 8:20) and discouragement (50:10, 59:9-10). The imagery of light, specifically of dawn that dispels the darkness of night, has been used throughout the book to communicate new actions of God in the world for the restoration of his people. Light has implied God's presence (2:5, 10:17, 60:19), deliverance (9:20, 51:4, 58:8, 60:1-3), as well as renewal and hope (42:16, 53:11). In the second and third sections of the book (chs. 40-66) light brought by the dawning of God's new work among his people has also been used to symbolize the mission of the people, their purpose in being God's people in a larger world (42:6, 49:6, 58:10; see Commentary on Isaiah 58).
The imagery of light in these verses picks up two important aspects. On one level, the light speaks of a change in the status of Jerusalem and thereby the people of God. The dawning that is promised will bring new light to the people, the dawning of a new day symbolizing a new era in their history as a people (cf. Isa 42-44). The Jerusalem Bible translates verse one with this emphasis: "until saving justice dawns for her like a bright light and her salvation like a blazing torch."
But more importantly, especially in light of the developing emphasis in the second and third sections of the book, this new light, the restoration of Israel as the people of God, is a light that will shine into the world. The Hebrew actually speaks of the light going forth: "until her justice goes forth like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch." Verse two clearly picks up this idea that "the nations will see your vindication." In any case, this "light," this new presence of God with Israel that brings restoration and vindication, will shine so brightly that it will easily be seen by "the nations."
This continues the theme of mission that has come to dominate restoration language in Isaiah. Israel is not to exist only for herself, but is called to be "a light to the nations" (Isa 42:6, 49:6). If the purpose of God's people is to be a light to the nations, it is only logical that they cannot be that light unless they themselves have the light. In other words, the restoration of Israel is not simply for the purpose of restoring the nation of Israel as God's people. It has a deeper purpose, that of bringing the "light" of restoration to Israel so that light of God can shine into the world.
Theologically, this is similar to the prophet Ezekiel's earlier perspective (c. 591 BC) on Israel's failure and God's restoration. Ezekiel also had promised a restoration of Israel after the Babylonian destruction. But it was not just for the sake of Israel that the people would be restored. God had brought the people out of Egypt and into the land so that they might be God's people before the world (Eze 20; cf. Psa 106:8). Now that they had failed in following God and were about to be sent into exile, God's name, his reputation among the nations, would be damaged. Ezekiel contends that the exile would bring dishonor on God among the nations. God needed to restore the people so that he would no longer be a laughingstock in the world because of the failure of his people. So God would act to restore the people in order to vindicate his name among the nations (Eze 20:9, 14, 22, 44; cf. Psa 115:1-2, 1 Sam 12:22, Jer 14:7-9). The restoration of Israel would vindicate not only God's people, but also God himself (note Isa 59:19).
This sense of a wider purpose for Israel's existence than simply the privilege of being God's people was not a new idea in Isaiah. It had been proclaimed by prophets before, for example Amos in 750 BC (Amos 3:2, 9:7), and earlier in the Abraham traditions (Gen 12:3). But here this larger mission to the world is clearly tied directly to the restoration of Israel in the post-exilic era by a new act of God. The dawning of a new era in Israel arising out of God's grace should result in the shining of the light of God into the whole world (Isa 58).
The idea of "vindication" in the first two verses is interesting, and may be misunderstood from modern perspectives. It does not mean exoneration or acquittal in the sense of "declared innocent." The Hebrew word is tsedek, which is commonly translated "righteousness," in the sense of "what is right" or "just" (note JB: "The nations shall then see your saving justice. . .") However, the word has a wider range of meaning as the results of justice, or can pick up overtones of justified, pardoned, or vindicated in conflict with enemies. Especially when used in relation to God and his actions, the term refers to the "right" results of God's saving activity. In this sense, it comes close to meaning "grace," or the "rightness" that comes from God's grace.
The Israelites had not been innocent, as the southern prophets from Isaiah of Jerusalem to Jeremiah had consistently maintained. They had repeatedly failed to respond faithfully to God as his people since their entry into the land nearly a thousand years earlier. Yet, in spite of their failures, God had chosen once again to create them as a people, to renew his covenant with them (Jere 31), to bring them again into the land as his people (Isa 41:8-20, 51:11). It is this "vindication," a pardon and second chance for those who have failed as an expression of God's grace, that is in view here.
The sense of newness is emphasized by a "new name" that God would give Israel (v. 2). Any Israelite would immediately think of the renaming of the patriarch Jacob. The name Jacob meant "liar" or "cheat," a fitting name for the scheming Jacob. Yet his long journey with God brought him to a point of transformation where he symbolically struggled with God for a blessing. The climax of that encounter, besides a deep wound that he carried to mark the struggle, was a new name, Israel (Gen 32:28). Something similar had happened to Abram when he became Abraham (Gen 17:5; cf. 17:15 ). The changing of a person's name signified a profound change in the person's character and direction in life (note Matt 16:17-18). Other prophets like Hosea (1-2) had employed the changing of names as a means of prophetic proclamation (see Isa 1:26, 60:18).
Here the symbolism of a new name implies that Israel is being significantly changed in the crucible of the exile and post-exilic crises. The royal language in verse three continues the emphasis on the transformation of the people. The imagery of "crown of beauty" and "royal diadem" is in stark contrast to the way the people saw themselves in 59:9-11. What that change entails is not yet evident, although the context of this section of Isaiah suggests that it will involve being a "light to the nations" as defined in Isaiah 58 and 61.
Verses four and five shift to a new set of metaphors, the imagery of love and marriage. Combined with the change of name, this contrasts the newness of the promised vindication with the despair of the present. The subject here is still the city of Jerusalem who like a woman scorned is known as "forsaken" and whose land is "desolation." The names contrast an unloved and rejected woman with a beloved bride. (The word translated "wedded" in v. 4 is the Hebrew word beulah, known to many from the gospel song Beulah Land.)
The final verse of this reading pictures the beloved Jerusalem, Israel, as the bride of God who loves her and rejoices over her. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah of Jerusalem had not been shy in condemning Jerusalem, and thereby Israel, for her sin, injustice, and pagan practices. Both had called her a prostitute, adulteress, and murderer (for example, Isa 1:21-23; Jere 2:20; cf. Eze 16). So now to use such tender imagery strongly emphasizes the grace that God is willing to extend to the city, to the people.
Preaching from this passage in the season following Epiphany naturally allows an emphasis on the mission of God's people to the world. Most preaching paths from this passage rightly lead in that direction. But this passage is more complex than simply proclaiming unqualified vindication and positive promise. There is no question that there is a new act of God in view here that becomes the impetus for fulfilling a mission to the world. But there are also cautions here that may need to be proclaimed just as strongly.
Following the Christmas season we are geared to celebration and rejoicing over the new act of God in human history that we have just celebrated in the birth of Jesus. And of course, Epiphany is the season in which we begin to look outward in terms of showing Christ to the world. And this passage, along with others in the third section of Isaiah reinforces that sense of mission.
But lest we become too enamored with the "light" and so slip into some form of self-righteousness, which we do all too easily, perhaps we need to take the context of this passage in Isaiah a little more seriously. Yes, the word from God here is of promise and restoration, of vindication and newness, of mission to the world. And yes, we have the light and are called to shine that light into the world, as even Jesus himself commissioned us (Matt 5:15-16).
But this passage in its wider context will not allow a glib and facile grasping of promise without responsibility and the recognition of the second chance that grace allows. It is not enough to bask in the light ourselves, or even to proclaim that we have the light. The very fact that we need a change of name, that we need transformation from "Forsaken" and "Desolate" says that we can only be a light to the nations from a profound sense of the grace that transforms "Forsaken" into "My Delight."
Unfortunately, human beings are such that we tend to latch onto positive promises and rip them out of any context that makes them conditional. Israel did that repeatedly, from the promises in Samuel concerning the Davidic monarchy, to the promises in Deuteronomy about the land, to the priestly assurances concerning the city and the Temple. Yet, all of God's words were linked to faithfulness to Him as their God. The Israelites, as most of us still today, had trouble understanding that "I will be your God" also required "you shall be my people." And being God's people was not the rituals of Temple worship and sacrifices, but living in righteousness toward God and in justice with others.
One would think that after the decimation of the country by the Babylonians the people would have learned that responsibility, just as one would think that 2,500 years later we would have learned it even better. In the crisis of the exile, when everything that made them a people was gone, God had proclaimed a gracious restoration of the people, a second chance. And yet, they had received that newness in the same mode as before, thinking that it was an unconditional act of God that brought restoration and triumph that required no response to grace. And when history did not track as they thought it should according to their understanding of the promises, they were ready to abandon God.
Yet, God's commitment to the people could not so easily be swept aside. He remained committed to them, and continued to affirm that they would be given the opportunity to fulfill their mission to the world, a mission that they continued to have trouble understanding. This reading represents the patience of a loving God who is still trying to get the people to respond to his grace in ways that are not just selfish. They will be restored. But not just for themselves. They will be given a new name. But not just for themselves.
So, this passage needs the proclamation of the grace of God that declares vindication, pardon, to a people who have failed, more than once. It needs the proclamation of the mission of God's people to the world, the lifting up of the light of God's revelation in Jesus, as Simeon says in Luke (2:31), "a light of revelation for the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." But it cannot be triumphal. Not yet. It also needs the somberness that comes from recognizing how easily we take such promise and newness and make it serve our own needs and wants.
We lift the light to the nations! But we do so with humility, knowing that not so long ago we were "forsaken" and in darkness. Perhaps if we retain that humility, that profound sense of God's grace that so recently has given us a new name, we will be able more authentically to bear witness to the transforming light of God's presence. Perhaps finally, it is in that humility, that sense of grace, that our own light shines most brightly.
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