The Displaced Character in the Christmas Story
by Kevin C. Peacock
Christmas is just not Christmas to me until I have heard Handel’s “The Messiah” with its marvelous Baroque music and glorious passages of Scripture that probably don’t even need to be explained, but simply adored. In the first section of the oratorio (Advent), the contralto solo sings the aria, later joined by the entire chorus, “O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.” It’s an amazing piece of music that sends chills down my spine no matter how many times I hear it. The lyrics are taken from Isaiah 60. With a little literary license, the librettist (who writes the lyrics) took Isaiah 40:9, in which Zion is the herald of good news, and flipped it around by attaching it to Isaiah 60:1 in which Zion is the recipient of good news.
Isaiah 60 is “A Song to Zion,” in which the prophet gives a word of hope to Zion (60:14) after its judgment and destruction. The prophet speaks of a time when the Lord would come to His people, bringing them salvation. He speaks of all of the things that will “come.” In fact, the term “come,” “come back,” or “bring” (all the same Hebrew word) is used nine times in the chapter. Here is a brief outline and overview of Isa 60:1-22
God’s light will come back to Zion (vv. 1-2).
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness will cover the earth
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will rise upon you
And His glory will appear upon you.
The nations will come to Zion to worship (vv. 3-4).
Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see;
They all gather together, they come to you.
Your sons will come from afar,
And your daughters will be carried in the arms.
The wealth of the nations will be brought to Zion and offered as a gift to the Lord (vv. 5-14).
Then you will see and be radiant,
And your heart will thrill and rejoice;
Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you,
The wealth of the nations will come to you.
A multitude of camels will cover you,
The young camels of Midian and Ephah;
All those from Sheba will come;
They will bring gold and frankincense,
And will bear good news of the praises of the Lord (vv. 5-6).
The sons of Israel, scattered by the exile, will “come back” (v. 9).
Surely the coastlands will wait for Me;
And the ships of Tarshish will come first,
To bring your sons from afar,
Their silver and their gold with them,
For the name of the Lord your God,
And for the Holy One of Israel because He has glorified you.
The joy will come back (vv. 15-22).
Whereas you have been forsaken and hated
With no one passing through,
I will make you an everlasting pride,
A joy from generation to generation.
You will also suck the milk of nations
And suck the breast of kings;
Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior
And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
So, when would all of this take place?
A Promised Fulfilled?
Well, I can tell you when it didn’t take place – when Israel came back from exile and rebuilt Zion. The temple that they built was but a shadow of their previous temple, built by Solomon. When the tabernacle had been completed in the wilderness, the glory of the Lord had filled it, and his glory was so intense that even Moses could not enter (Exod 40:34-35). When Solomon had built the first temple and dedicated it, the glory of the Lord had filled the temple, and all of the priests had to leave (1 Kgs 8:10-11). As the people became sinful, Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord departing from the temple that would then be destroyed (Ezekiel 10-11), but he also saw a day in the future when the temple would be rebuilt and the glory would come back (Ezk 43:1-5; 44:4). So, after the exile, under the encouragement of the prophets and the leadership of Zerubbabel, the people rebuilt the temple of God (Ezr 6:13-18) – Zion had been restored!
But not quite – something was missing. God’s light didn’t come back. The nations did not come to worship. They didn’t bring their wealth. Israel was not restored. Israel was not “an everlasting pride, a joy from generation to generation.”
God must have meant something else.
As Israel’s history went on after God’s glory had departed, the first people to be privileged to see “the glory of the Lord” return was a group of shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem:
“and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9).