YEARS A, B, C: CHRISTMAS DAY 2
This magnificent passage captures all the joy and sense of anticipation that gathers as a time of waiting comes to an end. However, to understand the imagery and the joy we have to see the passage within a number of contexts. First, we cannot think of the passage only in terms of the verses set in the lectionary. The chapter needs to be read as a whole. Secondly, Isaiah 62 is part of ‘Third-Isaiah’, the last section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 55-66) which comes from a time when those from Judah and Jerusalem, who had been taken captive to Babylon, are allowed to return home. The year is probably somewhere between 540 and 520BCE. There is, especially in Isaiah 60-62, a strong sense of relief, joy, and anticipation of a renewed life for the people and for the city of Jerusalem.
Thirdly, there is a series of passages in the latter half of Isaiah that speaks of Jerusalem using the metaphor of a woman. She is sometimes called ‘daughter Zion’ (cf. 62:11). In many cases this female figure can only be distinguished by the feminine pronouns for ‘you’ or ‘your’ used in the Hebrew text. That is the case for most of Isaiah 62. The female figure appears in many guises in Isaiah: as a bereft mother needing consolation over the death of her children (49:14-26); as an abused drunken woman living in the streets (51:17-52:2); as an abandoned, barren woman who now is promised remarriage and abundant children (54:1-17); as a prostitute who is called to regret her past ways (57:6-13); as a young beautiful woman who awaits the coming of her groom (62:1-12); and finally as a married woman who gives birth to a multitude of children (66:6-16). In the story of this female figure we hear the story of the city of Jerusalem (Zion) as it passes through times of great trouble, only to rejoice again as its people return. This passage brings the series on ‘daughter Zion’ almost to its climax with the focus on the marriage celebration. Fourthly, we must note that reading Isaiah 62 on Christmas day, places the text in another, quite different context.
We probably have to reckon with the prophet as the speaker throughout the chapter. The pronoun ‘I’ in vv. 1-7 is ambiguous but since the speaker refers to the former promises by the Lord (vv. 8, 11), and the prophet seems to be the speaker in 61:10-11, it is fair to assume the same person speaking at the end of Isaiah 61continues to speak as a servant figure in chapter 62. This person will not keep silent or rest until Zion’s vindication (in the Hebrew the word is ‘righteousness’ probably referring to the Lord’s righteous act toward Jerusalem) and its salvation are seen. It will be like dawn coming or the approach of a torch burning in the darkness (v. 1). The whole earth will see this act. Zion will be adorned as a bride before her husband and will receive new names – a new destiny. No more will she be called ‘Forsaken’ or ‘Desolate’ but ‘My delight is in her’ and ‘Married’. Here we should note the pun on the words Azubah ‘Forsaken’ and Hephzibah ‘My delight is in her’ (v.4). This will be a new start for Zion just as the marriage of a couple is a time of newness, hope, and overwhelming joy. The city’s groom is none other than the Lord, its ‘builder’ (v. 5).
As part of the prophet’s excited action he posts sentinels to keep watch (v. 6). This is where the passage set for Christmas day begins. These sentinels, like the prophet in 62:1, will not be silent or rest. But their job is also not to let the one who is coming rest, and in this they do not act as sentinels normally do. A sentinel usually watches out quietly for those who are expected or unexpected, but these sentinels actively call out to the one who is coming reminding him and not letting him rest until he has come and done his job (vv. 6-7). These sentinels are active, not just reactive, and in that image an important point is raised in relation to Advent. An intriguing question is also raised.
First, the point. We might often think of Advent, the season that has just finished, as a time of our waiting for the coming of the Lord, as if all the coming was on the Lord’s part, and the waiting on ours. To an extent that is true, but the image of these noisy and impatient sentinels suggests that our waiting should not be all passive. Our Advent prayer, that the Lord come, should be active, passionate, impatient, urgent and not a little noisy, as we wait for the establishment of the Lord’s justice and rightness in the world, and as we wait for those in our world who have been ‘forsaken’ to be ‘not forsaken’ again.
And the question. Do we shirk our responsibility as disciples, as faithful people, if we do not take upon ourselves the urgent task of calling for God to get on with the task of renewing our poor world? Is part of our calling, and our waiting for the Lord’s coming, even our celebration of that event, to remind God of his promises?
In vv. 8-9 the prophet recalls those promises for the people of his day. First, there is a promise of safety and sustenance. The prophet speaks of the people not being ravaged by war and invasion, with its loss of life and crops. We might add the elimination of injustice in our world where third world countries produce crops to be devoured by an affluent first world, or where the carbon emitting industries and lifestyle of rich and powerful nations will mean the literal submersion of smaller island nations. Secondly, there is the promise of a joyous return. Verses 10-12 pick up the call of Isa 40:1-11 to build a highway to Zion. Isa 62:11 quotes part of 40:10 and the thought of the Lord feeding his sheep in 40:11 is echoed in 62:8-9 with the feeding of the people in Zion. There are also allusions to Isa 49:16 and 57:14. Isa 62:12 finishes, however, with the naming of the people as ‘The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord’ and the city is now called ‘Not Forsaken’ (lo’ ne’ezabah), a reversal of the old name ‘Forsaken’ mentioned in v. 4.
This passage still has a theme of waiting about it, but the expected event is now imminent, indeed it is in the process of happening, so the passage is an appropriate opening for the joyous celebration of Christmas. We might also be reminded that just as this passage speaks of exuberant sentinels, so the Gospel tells of another group of watchers who are caught up in the sheer joy of the announcement of the Lord’s coming among us (Lk 2:8-20). And finally as Isaiah 62 brings the disturbing and turbulent story in Isaiah of ‘daughter Zion’ to its joyous conclusion, so the waiting of another young, but poor woman is brought to a joyous conclusion in the birth of our saviour. Both the woman in Isaiah, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are models for our waiting and joy, for our living as people of promise who, in the end, are overwhelmed by God’s grace.
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