Here in Isaiah 60, we are at the core of “Third Isaiah”, addressing those who have returned to the land of Israel after seventy years in exile. The return has not been quite as glorious as the people likely envisioned. A generation removed, few of those returning to the land of Israel would have direct memory of it. Memories would have been passed down from parents and grandparents, and it seems safe to assume that they would have remembered the good old days with a little extra romance. Grandma and grandpa might have had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, but those were the mighty hills of Zion, filled with milk and honey and the glory of the Lord most high.
In other words, these Israelites have probably grown up with a grand vision of returning to the land of their ancestors that was a bit more glamorous and glorious than 1 and 2 Kings report. Some of us might relate to this phenomenon fresh off of Christmas gatherings with older American relatives who long for a return to a day that almost certainly seems greater in memory than it ever was in reality. As these exiles return, we can imagine their disappointment as they find a piece of land that didn’t just lack the rose-tint of their parents’ glasses, but that was in ruins. The temple had been destroyed, the place reconfigured, and maybe worst of all, other people occupied the place. Just as Israel had been relocated to other peoples’ land, other people would have been relocated to theirs, and there were even a number of Jews who never left (probably the poorest of the bunch). In other words, the place was a mess. All infrastructure had been dismantled, there was no clear system to figure out who among the Jews was in charge, and they were still under Persian rule.
Have you ever stayed up late into the night articulating a vision for some new and exciting project or idea? Maybe you detailed this grand vision in a journal, drafted emails to people you wanted to bring into it, or even spoke it aloud with a group of friends, all filled with the energetic buzz you get when your brain falls into its dream rhythm but you don’t fall asleep. Everything seems to make perfect sense during those visionary evenings. But the cold, hard morning can come quickly sometimes. The morning air brings with it the reality that few of your friends are likely to quit their jobs and move across the country to start a monastery with you, after all. And didn’t you have funding all worked out last night? Where did that money go?
I imagine a beeping alarm clock hidden under a pile of rubble and a cold rush of morning air blowing through the crumbling rock piles that used to be the gates of Jerusalem, greeting each family as they walked through and saw the state of Zion. They had spent years upon years praying that they would return to this place, and when the impossible became a reality, it was not at all what they expected. God had brought them back to this land, but the dreamy vision was confronted with the ugly reality of a ruined city with a million problems to navigate.
Isaiah 60 is addressed to “the morning after,” and it begins appropriately with two mandates. “Arise, shine.” Ultimately this passage will present a new vision of hope and promise, but it begins with these two words of instruction. “Arise. Shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The morning is here, so get up and shine forth the glory of the Lord that has fallen upon you. This vision that seemed impossible in the days of exile is coming to pass. And while the work ahead is more complex and difficult than you expected, the vision was not wrong. It is a new day in the land of Israel, and the glory of the Lord is shining on you. So, get up, hear the promise of the Lord anew, and shine.
After hearers are called up from their morning-after fog, they are presented with a new vision for the future. This fresh word of hope promises a sort of reversal of the exile. The nations had previously cast a shadow over Israel, carting away their sons and daughters along with every bit of wealth that had been in Jerusalem. Now, the promise is that the nations will experience a deep darkness, and the sun will rise only in Israel. People from all over the world will be drawn, like moths, to the light that has risen upon Israel, and with them, they’ll bring the missing sons and daughters of Israel and the wealth of nations. We get an image of a stream of camels, loaded down with riches, heading for Israel to experience the light of God.
Israel may be in ruins, but the sun is rising in Israel and setting everywhere else. God will not only bring back the previous glory, but God will bring the abundance of the sea, the wealth of the nations, and the children of Israel to this holy place. This is once again the land of promise, a place that God will lift up as a shining light in a world of darkness.
In its immediate context, this passage calls upon those returning from exile to continue forging ahead, through their disappointment, through setbacks, through infighting and power struggles, and through whatever other obstacles might be blocking the shalom of Israel. They are encouraged to keep working and to trust that the God who miraculously brought them back to this place will make it all they hoped it might be. It felt like a dream to return to this land of promise, but the dream has given way to a morning of sobering realities. These words encourage them to get up and face the day, because it’s going to be a good one. The Lord is at work, and the sun is rising in Zion.
As is often the case with the visions of Isaiah, Israel does partially see this vision come to pass in the years following it’s pronouncement. They rebuild and resettle, but they never fully get out from under the thumb of occupying forces, and Israel’s glory always remains partially muted. But a few centuries later, Jesus comes along. And while he does not bring about a worldly political revolution, we believe that Jesus has brought this vision to fruition. We see the signal of this even as Jesus is still a small, vulnerable child, when the wise men (kings?) come from distant lands on camels, bringing gold and frankincense, guided by a start that rose over Bethlehem specifically (no word on the myrrh from Isaiah – we all have our blind spots, I guess). Jesus is the light, shining in a world of darkness. He is the sun rising in Israel, drawing the rest of the world to his glory. On Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate the fulfillment of this promise, and the revelation of God to the world through Israel.