Isaiah 60, the magi and the child

The following is an extract from my book The Bethlehem Story: Mission and Justice in the Margins of the World

There is another ancient oracle that seems to have been in Matthew’s thinking as he wrote of the wise men. There are definite resonances of Isaiah 60:1-7 in the Matthew 2 story.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house.

Isaiah 60:1-7

Isaiah’s prophecy was intended for Zion (Jerusalem), but fulfilled in the child of Bethlehem. He speaks of the rising of a great light upon the child. Nations (meaning Gentile, foreign, “outsider” nations), represented in the magi, come. “Camels” create an image of a caravan of Arabs coming up from the desert, and undoubtedly this is how the magi would have travelled. Explicitly, Isaiah prophesies the bringing of gold and frankincense. Matthew expands the gifts to include myrrh. He knows the end of the story that Isaiah could not know, and myrrh is the fragrance of death. Matthew, writing on the other side of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, reflects on the magi’s prophetic insight to bring not only gold and frankincense, but also myrrh—the sweet-smelling spice used in burial to mask the odour of the dead—as a sign of Jesus’ burial.

Matthew’s readers, who knew Isaiah 60, would have expected the magi to bring gold and frankincense. Myrrh, though, would have been a surprise, an unexpected gift that would not have immediately made sense. Why would you give a new-born baby a token of death? Why would you present a king whom you were trying to placate a reminder of his mortality? Such things are not done! Yet here, as Word becomes flesh, as immortal becomes mortal, such a note is utterly and perfectly appropriate. Mortality takes the national triumphalism out of Isaiah 60. And Jesus’ eternal kingdom is only achieved through his burial, and only entered through our burial, at baptism. And Bethlehem? Bethlehem has always been a place where the Beloved dies.

Verse seven speaks of flocks of sheep belonging to nomadic shepherd-tribes in the desert being brought up to be sacrificed on the Jerusalem altar. All of these are seen as signs of “the nations” bringing tribute to Israel’s God. Such a danger here of ethnocentric arrogance—“they” are coming to “our” temple, to “our” God. So much injustice can arise from mistakenly aligning one’s national narrative with the purposes of God!

And here is the wisdom of God. That this prophecy is fulfilled, not in the physical city of Jerusalem, not in Solomon’s or Herod’s mighty temple edifice, but in the Child. The magi arrive at Jerusalem, only to be re-directed to Bethlehem. This re-directing must happen to us all at some point. Jesus is the new Jerusalem. He is the new centre. Bailey, after his thorough exegesis of Isaiah 60, arrives at this stunning conclusion.

Although the glorious events projected for honouring the city of Jerusalem never happened, the Gospel authors perceived them to be taking place in the birth of Jesus. Around the child there was a great light and the glory of the Lord appeared. To the child came Arab wise men from the desert on camels bringing gold and frankincense. Shepherds visited the child, not the city. The great hopes for the city were transferred to the child in a manger. Indeed, “the glory of the Lord shone round about” the child. This shift from the city to the child is significant. The birth stories “de-Zionize” the tradition.”[1]

The locus of prophetic fulfilment moves from a place to a person, from Jerusalem to Jesus, from the palace to the periphery. The magi are mistaken and re-directed. This truth is of enormous significance for Christianity. Our faith, unlike the other great ancient religions, does not have a geographic centre. By implication, there is no holy city, holy land, special ethnicity or sacred language. Or, more precisely, the sacredness of the “land” is now expanded to the whole earth. All land is sacred. All languages are redeemed. All ethnic groups are included on equal footing. The concept of “land” is maximised, rather than minimised,[2] as Palestinian theologian Salim Munayer writes, “The blessing of the Promised Land has been stretched over the whole earth, stretched far but not thin. The whole earth is filled with promise.”[3]

[1] Bailey, Middle Eastern Eyes, 54.

[2] One example from Paul is Ephesians 6:2-3 where, quoting from Exodus 20:12, Paul takes a promise regarding the “land” and presents it as regarding the whole earth.

[3] Munayer, “Theology of the Land”, 251.