Biblical Words 
The joy of Epiphany season is that of extravagant weddings!
The reading from the Prophets continues the visions of
’s restoration that began in Zion Isaiah 60, the reading for Epiphany. Today’s reading provides a climax for the
dawning light on that the previous passage proclaimed (Isaiah 60:1-6). Our passage essentially summarizes the gospel
of light for Zion , but proceeds to play on new names to correspond to the new
realities that are projected for Zion . Zion
After God’s judgment, the devastated city was known as Azubah, “Forsaken”; and its surrounding suburbs as Shemamah, “Desolate.” But
’s “vindication” has been announced in verse
1, and that vindication will include the return of lost and dispersed
populations. Those peoples who will be
brought back by the nations and their kings (see 60:1-5) will fill up the “forsaken”
places and restore prosperity to the “desolate” places. Zion
The new names that will be given to
by people who marvel at her change in fortune ring with the sounds of weddings. The bride-city’s new name will
be Hephzi-bah, “My Delight Is In Her” – a declaration by a thoroughly
pleased groom! Her “land” – that is, the
suburbs of the metropolis – will be
called be‘ulah, “Married” (perhaps more literally, “husband-ed”). Both names, Hephzibah and Beulah, have rung
down through the centuries in Christian hymns. Zion
The prophecy declares that the names will be appropriate, because Yahweh now delights in wife
, and Beulah-land will indeed be productive
of Yahweh’s blessings. For “as the
bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you”
(verse 5, Zion N). RSV
See below for a Special Note on
the Zion . Holy City
The Psalm reading is the “good” part of a psalm that is a mixture of indictment of the wicked and praise of God’s hesed, “steadfast love,” or “loyalty.”
Our reading opens with a set of God’s qualities paired up with parts of the universe:
God’s “steadfast love” with the “heavens”;
God’s “faithfulness” with the “clouds”;
God’s “righteousness” with “mighty mountains”;
God’s “judgments” with “the great deep.”
All of these terms have connotations of prosperity, of well-being from nature. Thus, the single conclusion that flows from these connotations: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (verse 6,
The rest of the reading elaborates the blessings that flow from this steadfast love of God. Because of it, “all people” can find safety “in the shadow of your wings” (verse 7). People can “feast” and “drink” from the cosmic depths of God’s house (verse 8), “for with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (verse 9).
The last thought (of our reading, not of the psalm) is a prayer that such blessings from God may continue.
I Corinthians 12:1-11.
The divine gifts of grace, hesed, praised in the psalm, become, in the Epistle reading, the charismatic gifts that sustain the community of faith.
The gifts referred to here are the powers bestowed by the Spirit of God; they consist of the list given in verses 8 through 10: wisdom speech, knowledge speech, faith (enacted more than spoken), healing gifts, power to work miracles, ability to prophesy, discerners of spirits (who provide some check on the prophecies), the gift of tongues, and the gift of interpreting the tongues.
The strong emphasis throughout the passage is on the harmony of all these gifts for the good of the community, guaranteed by the fact that it is one and the same Spirit of God that works through all these gifts. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (verse 7,
). (The “common good” translates sympheron,
what is [commonly] profitable or beneficial.) N RSV
The test for determining the authentic work of the Spirit is given at the beginning of the passage: “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (verse 3). There is an affirmation in this passage of the diversity of gifts and ministries, but an insistence upon a confessional unity that consists at least of kurios iēsus, “Jesus is Lord.”
To match the new bride-hood of
and the general marriage associations of the prophetic readings, the Gospel reading is the wedding in Zion Cana. This is a rich passage with many facets that
could be pursued, but let’s confine our focus to the joyousness of a wedding
feast that is, at least for the moment, in the house of the Lord.
There is a delightful exchange between Jesus and his mother, when she tells him – why does she do this? – that they are out of wine. Her statement is obviously not just a piece of information; it carries some appeal in it, namely, won’t you do something about it? So understanding the statement, Jesus replies somewhat grumpily, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (verse 4,
). N RSV
His mother seems to think the hour has come, and ignores his complaint. She goes to the maitre d’ of the banquet and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is an adroit way of handling the issue of Jesus’ authority: just take it for granted and act on that basis.
The next highlight, after the details of the water jars are seen to, is the steward’s response to tasting this newly provided wine: All smart hosts serve the best wine first, because as people get more and more tipsy the quality is less important. Here, however, this Jesus has kept the best wine to the last. After shortages and deficiencies, the best is yet to come! And the Gospel tells us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did. (In John, as usually counted, he will do seven signs.)
The Gospel According to John is unique in beginning Jesus’ ministry with a feast. It is certainly intended to pick up all the images and models of marriages and feasts from the Jewish scriptures, which are also carried on in many of the Synoptic parables. The message is that Jesus’ coming is good news, is joyful news fit to be feasted and toasted in a grand manner.
Even at celebrations in high society there is good news, as well as among the needy of
– and perhaps especially in those more distant suburbs that used to be called
“Desolate” (Isaiah 62: 4).
Special Note on Zion the Holy City
Great cities of the ancient Near East were complex sacred entities upon which the fates of their regions were concentrated by the actions of their gods. The
tradition, as reflected in the psalms and Zion prophets, is a remarkable survival of such older
holy-city mythologies. Jerusalem
The city is personified as the wife of the high god and mother of its population. The fate of its realm is acted out as events in the lives of the deities. The
tradition contains a major theme about the city
being unfaithful to its first spouse.
The bride turns to other lovers – that is, to other gods – from whom it
expects the benefits of nature to flow abundantly. (That the lovers are expected to provide
abundance is seen clearest in Zion Hosea 2:5
[Hebrew 2:7]. This passage is, indeed,
not about , but the same traditional language is used about
the great Israelite city of Zion ,
see Jezreel Hosea 2:21-22 [Heb. 23-24].
The Older Language about the Unfaithful City
(In the following texts, the 2nd person verbs and pronouns are feminine singular in Hebrew, addressed to a woman.)
How the faithful city
has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her –
but now murderers! …
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
Jeremiah used this conventional language to speak of God’s judgment on the city in the last decades of the monarchy.
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness
so that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil schemes
lodge within you?
For a voice declares from Dan
and proclaims disaster from
. Mount Ephraim
Tell the nations, “Here [she is]!”
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of
They have closed in around her like watchers of a field,
because she has rebelled against me,” says the Lord.
Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
It has reached your very heart.”
The city as the unfaithful spouse is elaborated at great length by the prophet Ezekiel, applied only to
in Jerusalem Ezekiel 16,
and to both and her older sister Jerusalem – equally adulterous – in Samaria Ezekiel 23. In his
harangues Ezekiel presses the language of illicit sexuality to the verge of
And after the punishment, the desolate city confesses her own guilt and deserved punishment.
The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
have gone into captivity.
The Language of the City Restored
Right from the earlier versions of this city language, the tradition projected a return from punishment to restoration. (“You” and “your” are feminine singulars.)
I will turn my hand against you;
I will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterwards you shall be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
the punishment of a merciless foe …
[But now her fate will be reversed.]
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, everyone of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord…
And the most spectacular versions of the city beloved again and restored in wealth and population are given in the later chapters of Isaiah, the exilic and post-exilic proclaimers of a new gospel. The famous opening words of the Second Isaiah’s message, “Comfort, O comfort my people, … speak tenderly to
… that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:1-2) set the
theme, but fuller statements come later, such as this: Jerusalem
said, “The Lord has forsaken me, Zion
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me. …
Lift up your eyes all around and see;
they [her children] all gather, they come to you.
As I live, says the Lord,
you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
and like a bride you shall bind them on.
Zion as the World Sanctuary
And the fullest expectation of the glory of
’s restoration comes in the great texts of the
Epiphany season, Isaiah 60 to 62. Zion
Here there is repeated (from the ancient liturgies of the old city tradition) a vision of Zion as the World’s primary Holy Place, as the main place in the world of the nations at which the glory, wisdom, and righteous judgment of the only True God can be found (see
The peoples of the nations will recognize that something of incomparable value is now radiating from
, and they will come to revere and serve the God
whose benefits for all peoples flow from Zion . Jerusalem
The newly-restored population of
will benefit from all this, for they will be the
intermediaries, the go-betweens, at this great sanctuary of the True God. They will be the “priests” and
Strangers shall stand and feed your [masc. plural] flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
[The assumption is that the nations will bring their wealth
as tithes and offerings to the sanctuary and the people
will live off them as the priests do at all sanctuaries.]
Historically the great sanctuary city was tied closely to the great king. The sanctuary of Yahweh was in the City of
– and all the nations would be ruled by Yahweh’s
anointed from there, to their own benefit.
(This is the view reflected in David Psalms 2, 20, and 72 among others.)
In the post-Exilic time, however, the little
was not allowed even a dependent king, much less one with serious
royal ambitions. Therefore, the royal
theme is muted, in the great Isaiah visions of the coming glory of province of Yehud . Muted, but
not entirely absent. The “anointed” one
of Zion Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus in Luke cites as his own authorization
(Luke ), is a royal figure, one who can “proclaim liberty
to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (61:1). In the old traditions of the great City of , city and king were bound up together; their
destinies fell and rose in the same divinely directed judgments and
In Persian times, the great Sanctuary city gradually went its own way. The Persians allowed Nehemiah to refortify
(perhaps as a buffer between Persian governors and tribes to the south and
east), but the effect was to greatly enhance the reputation of the city that
was becoming increasingly famous as the single sanctuary (place of sacrifice)
to the God of the Jews. Jerusalem
The sanctuary city would thus become great without the entanglements of independent political power – without a king! This is clearly the accommodation assumed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in another way behind the stories and visions of the book of Daniel. The vision of a great deliverer king did not disappear; it only went underground, to reappear from time to time in messianic movements.
The great vision of Lady Zion restored in wealth and population had grown into the charter for a world-famous sanctuary city. This sanctuary achieved its last earthly glory in the restored temple that Herod the Great built beginning in 20
BCE. That temple was the largest and most gloriously
ornamented temple complex in the whole Greek and Roman world. It was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70
CE, requiring the Jews in all subsequent centuries to live without animal
In much later times, the vision of the restored
became a prophecy of the new Jerusalem of the end times.
Interpreters of “Bible Prophecy” have come to see in the Zion of
Isaiah’s visions the events that will lead up to the Millennium. After the “rapture” of Christians out of the
violence of the “Tribulation,” Zion ( Israel ) will be restored to great power and the people of
the nations will be attracted to it. Then
will follow the final battle of Armageddon.
(For one among hundreds of such
readings, see Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, Zion AMG Publishers, 2000, comments and chart at Isaiah 61, page 746.)
The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 gave great reinforcement to this way of reading Bible prophecy, which is often called “Christian Zionism.” The political consequences of such readings have been very large. (See Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, Baker Academic, 2004.)