In our last essay we studied Isaiah 59. In this essay we are taking up chapter 60. In verse one Isaiah uses the “prophetic present,” that is he speaks of a future event as if it already has happened. He declares that Israel’s light, that is God their Redeemer, has come. Remember, Isaiah had just promised a few verses earlier, in 59:20, that the Redeemer was coming, “And he will come to Zion as Redeemer.”
It is verse two that tells us that the “light,” the glory of the Lord,” is God himself. It also tells us that thick darkness covers the world. The thick darkness symbolizes the darkness of sin. But the glorious light of the Lord has risen above Israel. Verse three goes on to say that nations will be attracted to the light and will come to it. And verses 4-5 add that the nations not only will come; but they also will bring with them many sons and daughters of Israel and much wealth. Now this prophecy may have some application to historical Israel, but I believe he primary application is to the New Israel, the Church. And the prophecy has been fulfilled many times over since the first coming of the promised Servant-Messiah, Jesus.
Now then, in verses 6-9 Isaiah lets his mind range over various ways that wealth could flow to Jerusalem in his day. He pictures camel caravans streaming from the major trade routes. And he sees so many camels resting in the streets that the camels cover them. There are camels from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba. You may remember that the Midianites were identified as caravan traders as far back as the days of Joseph (Gen. 37:28). Ephah was a son of Midian, so he had the same family connection to caravan trading. Sheba is the ancient name for modern Yemen, which is located at the south end of the Arabian Peninsula right next to the southernmost part of the Red Sea. Sheba was the crossroads for trade from both India and Eastern Africa.
Notice that Isaiah says that the caravans will bring gold and frankincense. Gold and incense were two of the most valuable products traded in those days, so he naturally mentions them as part of the wealth that would flow into Jerusalem. And Isaiah says that this would result in praise to the Lord. I remind you that these items still were extremely valuable several hundred years later when the wise men brought gifts of gold and frankincense to the newborn King-Messiah.
In verse seven Isaiah mentions flocks and herds as another source of wealth. Kedar and Nebaioth both were sons of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13). It is believed that the descendents of Nebaioth were the Nabateans, who settled in the area of ancient Edom, which is in the country of Jordan today. They are associated with the rock-hewn city of Petra. They were known for the high quality of their wool; and their wealth stemmed from that trade. Notice that Isaiah says their wealth would minister to Israel and that their rams would be acceptable for sacrifice on the Lord’s altar.
In verses 8-9 Isaiah continues in the same vein. He describes a fleet of ship’s sails on the horizon as like a cloud or a flock of doves. They are ships of Tarshish. Tarshish was famous for her fleet of ships that carried goods all over the Mediterranean, and perhaps elsewhere. And Isaiah says that they would be bringing Zion’s children and more great wealth, specifically silver and gold, to Zion. Interestingly, no one knows the location of ancient Tarshish. One wonders how the location of such a well-known trading center could have become lost in the mists of time, but it did. It seems to have been somewhere in the West. And notice that a reason is given for their coming. It is to honor the name of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.
In the next segment Isaiah talks about the relationship that Israel will have with the foreigners who come to her. As we work through the segment, you will see that the biggest interpretive problem is to decide how literally we should take it. Verse 10 indicates that some of the wealth that is brought to the city will be used to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Isaiah declares that the foreigners will do that work while their kings will serve Israel in the city.
Now previous verses in the chapter clearly suggest that the nations and their kings will be coming voluntarily, because they want to honor God. Therefore it seems safe to assume that this work on the walls by the people and the service by their kings also is voluntary. At the same time, in this segment the nations are depicted as subservient to Israel (vv. 11, 14, 16). Some interpreters get themselves in trouble by interpreting too literally. Isaiah’s point is metaphorical. He is saying that the day is coming when Israel’s former enemies, who mocked God, will come to worship him. Those who destroyed the city, symbolized by its walls, will rebuild it. And those kings who once lorded it over Israel will serve her. Don’t miss the fact, in the last half of verse 10, that God is engineering the whole thing. He struck Israel down as punishment, and he is showing mercy to her by reversing her fortunes.
In verse 11 Isaiah, once again using hyperbole, says that the procession of wealth into the city will be a 24 hours per day operation. The gates will never close as the goods and the nation’s kings stream through. The last line of the verse has created an interpretive problem, because the word used in respect to the kings is one that usually means, “to be led captive.” Of course that seems to be in opposition to the previous indication that they come voluntarily. The answer to that problem becomes clear when we take verse 12 with it. It reads, “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.” As the larger biblical revelation shows us, there always are some who stubbornly refuse God’s love. And Isaiah says that they will perish. And their kings will enter the city to serve Israel involuntarily.
In order to properly understand Isaiah’s vision here, we must realize that the Zion he speaks of is much more than literal Jerusalem, or a literal Jewish state. This is the “Zion of the Holy One of Israel,” as verse 14, puts it. It is a place where justice and righteousness reign, as we saw in chapter 59, verse 17. And it is a place where the Lord himself is the light, as verse 19, which we haven’t yet come to, tells us. In other words it is the end time kingdom of God.
In verses 13-14 Isaiah continues his exaltation of Zion. In addition to the silver, gold, frankincense, flocks, and so on, that we have seen coming into Zion thus far, the various excellent types of wood from Lebanon also will flow into Israel. The wood will be used to beautify God’s temple and thus glorify God. Moreover the descendents of those who had oppressed Israel in the past will come and bow down to them. This is another example of the idea of reversal that we saw in verse 10. And again one should not take this too literally. The main idea is that they are coming to “the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” In other words they are coming because of God.
Verse 15 further describes the change. Whereas Zion has been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, God will make her majestic; and joy will characterize her. Verse 16 may seem a bit strange at first; but to Isaiah’s original readers, it would have been a familiar picture. Isaiah was playing off of an idea that, though unfamiliar to us, was well known across the ancient world. Those who believed in certain goddesses metaphorically thought of themselves as receiving life from the goddesses by sucking it from her breasts. Isaiah uses that same image to symbolize Israel’s receiving nourishment from the nations and their kings. And Isaiah says that the result will be that they will know that the Lord is their Savior and Redeemer.
In the rest of the poem (verses 17-22) Isaiah sets forth a vision of the end-time Holy City. This poem soars to the same heights as the similar vision in Rev. 21:9-27, though metals rather than jewels are featured. First, the Lord promises to replace the better with the best: stones with iron, wood with bronze, iron with silver, and bronze with gold. This symbolizes permanence and security. In the second half of verse 17, the Lord promises that peace and righteousness will be the operating principles of the Holy City. Notice the irony. Peace will be their “overseer,” NIV “governor.” And Righteousness will be their “taskmaster,” literally “slave-driver.” In their history, their governors and rulers did not rule in peace and with righteousness. But in the coming Holy City, this will be the case.
Then verse 18 declares that “violence,” “ruin” and “destruction” will be no more. Salvation will be the walls and praise the gates. Thus there will be harmony and safety; and all who enter will worship the Lord with praise. Verses 19-20 proclaim that the light of God, which already had dawned (verses 1-3) will be so bright that there no longer will be a need for the sun and moon. God’s light is everlasting, and it will end their days of mourning.
Finally, in verses 21-22, Isaiah turns from a description of the city to a description of the people. First, they are righteous. They totally reflect the holy character of God. Second, they will “possess the land forever.” From the time of the Abrahamic covenant, the land has symbolized permanence. The land has become a metaphor for God’s faithfulness to his people; and we will possess it forever. God planted us. We are the shoot that the Lord planted. Thus third, we will fulfill the purpose for which he created us, namely, to glorify him. Finally, fourth, they (we) will have influence beyond anything we could have imagined. The least will become a thousand (NRSV, a clan) and the smallest a mighty nation.
The last two lines sum up the chapter. God will make it all happen because he is the Lord. From the perspective of the New Covenant, we see the fulfillment of this passage in the two comings of Christ. God brought forth his Son “in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). And he will create the New Jerusalem at his second coming.