7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
To some, Isaiah 52:7-10 may appear to be an unusual Christmas text. Its grand message of the return of YHWH as king, the redemption of Jerusalem, and the revelation of YHWH’s holy power to all of the peoples of the earth seems to sit rather incongruously both with the humble character of the birth of Jesus and with our notions of his mission.
In its original setting in Isaiah, this text declares the coming of relief for the beleaguered captive city and exiles of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s image is a powerful and poignant one, of desperate and weary watchers on the ruined walls of a forsaken city, suddenly espying an advance messenger, a man bearing tidings that their deliverance is at hand. No sooner than this message is heard than the sentinels’ eyes see the distant rising dust of their king coming to redeem them, leading all of their captive people back to freedom. The returning king brings peace, joy, and salvation with him, and is greeted with jubilation and singing by a people who had been forsaken by all hope.
The ‘good news’ of this royal return in Isaiah, of YHWH’s restoration of Zion after its bitter exile, his defeat of her enemies, and his personal presence in her midst as king is paradigmatic for much of the New Testament, whose ‘gospel’ message takes up and develops these Isaianic themes, relating them to the person and mission of Jesus. In such texts, the New Testament writers believed that the prophet was disclosing a horizon further than that of the return from exile following Cyrus’ decree, foretelling a greater deliverance that redemption only anticipated.
Within Luke’s gospel, key notes from Isaiah 52:7-10 are softly sounded at critical junctures. While Luke does not foreground these verses in the way he does the related verses of Isaiah 40:3-5, which he cites directly in Luke 3:3-6, they may be no less significant in his thinking, as his careful deployment of them in the background suggests.
Indeed, Isaianic themes repeatedly dart beneath the surface of Luke’s narrative, alerting us to the importance that Isaiah’s prophetic message has for Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. As Richard Hays observes concerning the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, in their allusive references to scriptural promise both Anna and Simeon bear witness to Jesus employing the words and, by implication, the framework of Isaianic prophecy (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 217).
Simeon is ‘righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25), later declaring ‘my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (2:30-32). Simeon’s anticipation of the ‘consolation’ of Israel recalls the recurring theme of comfort that appears throughout the latter section of Isaiah, beginning with 40:1—‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.’
Simeon’s further statements are also tightly woven from Isaianic themes, drawing together threads from texts such as Isaiah 40:1-5, 42:6, 49:6, and 52:7-10. The same holds for the description of Anna the prophetess as speaking of the child Jesus ‘to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38). Together with Simeon’s prophecy, this description of Anna alludes to part of our text:
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.—Isaiah 52:9
The power of such echoes lies in their capacity to summon the broader surrounding context of the specific echo to the mind of the reader or hearer: as Luke draws upon particular threads of Isaiah, the entire tapestry of Isaiah’s prophetic message is gradually established as the backdrop for his gospel and understanding of Jesus. As Hays maintains, in such an allusion to a familiar text such as Isaiah 52:9, the text that immediately follows it is also implicitly evoked—‘The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ Hays writes:
Once again, the allusion to Isaiah has the effect of joining the redemption of Jerusalem with the motif of proclaiming God’s salvation to the whole Gentile world. God’s faithfulness to Israel, fully understood in light of these Isaian subtexts, also necessarily entails the mission to the Gentiles that will unfold over the course of Luke’s two-volume composition.—Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 217
A competent sentinel must be vigilant, alert to and able to read the faintest signs upon a distant horizon, perceiving the most minuscule of details and discerning their greater import when they finally appear. In the opening chapters of both Matthew and Luke, we encounter a series of watchers and signs, presented in part as examples to the readers of the gospels in their own watching.
Matthew’s opening chapters are set in darkness, filled with dreams and heavenly portents. We meet the Magi, those who watched the heavens, perceiving in them the sign of a new king of the Jews. In Luke, the shepherds watch their flocks at night. Like the shepherd Moses in Exodus 3, in the event that heralded the great deliverance from Egypt, they witness a dramatic angelic appearance, with a message and a sign. However, whereas the sign that Moses received from the Angel was that Israel would worship YHWH on that mountain, the sign given to the shepherds was a child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger (Luke 2:12; cf. Exodus 3:12).
That people diligently watching or receiving visions by night should be prominent in both of these gospels is unlikely to be accidental. While others were lost in the insensibility of sleep, there were those who are waiting and watching, vigilantly scanning the horizon for the slightest signs of a divine light to pierce the gloom of Israel’s captivity.
The shepherds and the Magi symbolically illustrate the spiritual activity of watching in the darkness, the state that Simeon and Anna, the faithful sentinels of Jerusalem, typify. Simeon is ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel’, while Anna keeps constant vigil in the temple. In the infant Jesus, these spiritually perceptive watchers see the small cloud of dust on the horizon, the harbinger of YHWH’s return to his people as king. Reflecting upon Simeon and Anna, we may marvel at their recognition in the fragility and dependency of the infant Jesus all that child portended.
The nativity and infancy stories of the gospels return us to the setting of Isaiah 52, to an abandoned and captive city, a promise of its coming deliverance the only flickering candle held against the enveloping pitch. From the sentinels and the watchers in these chapters we are to draw crucial lessons: how to be alert to and to perceive the significance of signs that others ignore or miss, and how to be expectant in our waiting, while others sleep.
The Advent season is one of such expectant waiting, waiting for the great Sign of the world’s deliverance that Christmas brings. Yet for most the greatly anticipated appearance of this Sign is not attended by great fanfare: it is but the faint plume of dust from a distant hillside or a seemingly unexceptional baby in the Temple. Yet, no matter how faint the sign, its appearance is greeted with great joy by all who appreciate its immense import.
Advent continually returns us to the posture of vigilant and expectant watchers, looking for the coming of Christ in our lives, communities, and world. Christmas calls us to spiritual perception, to be those who see the import of the signs when they appear, recognizing and rejoicing in them.
For many, Advent may be a time associated with the experience of doggedly waiting in the darkness of personal pain, abandonment, loss, or tragedy, eyes hungrily seeking out the smallest indication of divine arrival to relieve a terrible night. For others this Advent, the darkness may be a political one, anticipating a year with threatening and troubling prospects on the domestic and international stage. Wherever we find ourselves, Advent recalls us to our fundamental way of being in the world as Christians: to being an expectant people, a people who perceive the darkness as their eyes are ever watchful for the coming Light.
Every Christmas we are presented anew with a first century Jewish peasant infant, the great Sign of the world’s salvation. The Advent season connects the expectant waiting for the first advent of Christ with our expectation of his great and dread final appearance to judge the world and restore all things, and connects both of these Advents with the Christian expectation of Christ’s coming to our lives and communities. From the faithful watchers of the gospels and their evocation of passages such as Isaiah 52, we learn to recognize the latter disclosed in the sign offered by the former.
The faithful anticipation of Advent rejoices in the surety provided by the Sign of the infant Jesus, yielding to a reinvigorated expectancy, as we await the fulfilment of all this Sign portends. As Simeon, who having seen the infant Jesus was prepared to depart in peace, so we, regarding the infant Jesus this Christmas season, are to be confident and assured that all God has promised will surely come to pass.
May God richly bless you and yours this Christmastide.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.