The joy of Epiphany season is that of extravagant weddings!
The reading from the Prophets continues the visions of Zion’s restoration that began in Isaiah 60, the reading for Epiphany. It provides a climax for the dawning light on Zion that was then proclaimed (Isaiah 60:1-6). Our passage essentially summarizes the previous gospel of light for Zion, but proceeds to play on new names to correspond to the new reality that is projected for Zion.
After God’s judgment, the devastated city was known as Azubah, “Forsaken”; and its surrounding suburbs as Shemamah, “Desolate.” But Zion’s “vindication” has been announced in verse 1, and that 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.
The new names that will be given to Zion by people who marvel at its 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 have rung down through the centuries in Christian hymns. The prophecy declares that the name will be appropriate, because Yahweh now delights in wife Zion, 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, NRSV).
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, NRSV).
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 hesed praised in the psalm, become the charismatic gifts that sustain the community of faith in the Epistle reading, which has the heading “concerning spiritual gifts.” 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 rather than spoken?), healing gifts, power to work miracles, ability to prophecy, 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, NRSV). (The “common good” translates to sympheron, what is [commonly] profitable or beneficial. See Special Note below on “the Common Good” in this passage.)
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.
To match the new bride-hood of Zion and the general marriage associations, the Gospel reading is the wedding in Cana, the first “sign” of Jesus’ ministry as related in the Fourth Gospel. 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 temporarily, 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, NRSV). 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 of high society there is good news, as well as among the needy of Galilee – and perhaps especially in those more distant suburbs that used to be called “Desolate” (Isaiah 62: 4).
Special Note on Zion the Holy City
Isaiah 60-62 is a remarkable expression of a much older city tradition. 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 Zion tradition, as reflected in the psalms and Jerusalem prophets, is a remarkable survival of such older holy-city mythologies.
The city is personified as a divine consort of the high god, and the fate of its realm is acted out as events in the lives of the deities. The Zion 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 Hosea 2:5 [Hebrew 2:7]. This reference is, indeed, not about Zion, but the same traditional language is used about the great Israelite city of Jezreel, see Hosea 2:21-22 [23-24].
The Older Language about the Unfaithful City
(In the following quotations, 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.
(Isaiah 1:21-23, NRSV)
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]!”
Proclaim against Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of Judah.
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.”
(Jeremiah 4:14-18, NRSV)
The city as the unfaithful spouse is elaborated at great length by the prophet Ezekiel, applied only to Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16, and to both Jerusalem and her older sister Samaria — equally adulterous — in Ezekiel 23. In his harangues Ezekiel presses the language of illicit sexuality to the verge of obscenity.
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.
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
(Isaiah 1:25-27, NRSV)
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 Jerusalem… that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:1-2) set the theme, but fuller statements come later, such as this:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
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 Zion’s restoration comes in the great texts of the Epiphany season, Isaiah 60 to 62. Here there is laid out 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 Isaiah 2:2-4). The peoples of the nations will recognize that something of incomparable value is now radiating from Zion, and they will come to revere and serve the God whose benefits for all peoples flow from Jerusalem. The newly-restored population of Jerusalem 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 “ministers.”
Strangers shall stand and feed your 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 David – and all the nations would be ruled by Yahweh’s anointed from there, to their own benefit. (This is the view reflected in Psalms 2, 20, and 72 among others.) In the post-Exilic time, however, the little province of Yehud was not allowed even a dependent king, much less one with serious royal ambitions. The royal theme is muted, in the great Isaiah visions of the coming glory of Zion. Muted, but not entirely absent. The “anointed” one of Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus in Luke cites as his own authorization (Luke 4:21), 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 God, city and king were bound up together; their destinies fell and rose in the same divinely directed judgments and salvations.
In Persian times, however, the great Sanctuary city gradually went its own way. The Persians allowed Nehemiah to refortify Jerusalem (perhaps as a buffer between Persian governors and enemies such as Egypt), 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. The sanctuary city would become great without the entanglements of independent political power – without a king! This is clearly the vision behind 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 grew into the charter for a world-famous sanctuary city. Finally, the sanctuary achieved its last ancient glory in the restored temple that Herod the Great built beginning in 20 BCE. That Jerusalem temple was the largest and most gloriously ornamented temple complex in the whole Greek and Roman world.
In much later times, the vision of the restored Zion became a prophecy of the new Jerusalem of the final 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,” Israel (Zion) will be restored to great power and the people of the nations will be attracted to it. The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 gave great reinforcement to this line of prophecy reading. After Zion’s restoration, the drama of the Armageddon final battle will then be played out. Thus Isaiah’s vision of Zion’s glory will be fulfilled, like all the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. (For one example of such a reading, see Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, AMG Publishers, 2000, comments and chart at Isaiah 61, page 746.) This kind of reading of Bible prophecy is usually assumed by the current advocates of “Christian Zionism.”
The basic idea behind the phrase translated “the common good” in NRSV is useful, advantageous, as opposed to bad or detrimental. The verb sym-phero is a compound made up of “bear, carry” and the preposition “with, together” prefixed to it, meaning to carry together (to a successful conclusion). It is sometimes applied to what is useful for an individual’s welfare or spiritual health, but it more commonly refers to what is good for the group at large, what would be recognized by group members as advantageous to them all.
The Corinthians had a high sense of the value of Christian freedom. Having heard the gospel message that Christ had fulfilled the old law, they proudly proclaimed, “All things are lawful for me” (I Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23). Paul does not deny this claim absolutely, but insists that to it must be added, “but not all things are beneficial” (same two verses). “Beneficial” here is the phrase translated “the common good” in 12:7. What is appropriate to the individual in the liberation resulting from God’s salvation may not be appropriate for the welfare of the group. That is what Paul insists on in discussing illicit sexual relations (chapter 6) and food sacrificed to idols (chapter 10).
In chapters 12 and 14 he discusses especially the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues. The Corinthians seem to take pride in this gift, and assign it special status in the group. Paul brings “the common good” to bear on this spiritual gift, to balance the welfare of the group against the great privilege of possession by God’s Spirit.
J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on the I Corinthians 12 passage brings out this balance well.
[W]hile recognizing the diverse allocation of gifts, Paul’s opening points in vv. 4-11 are that (1) whatever gifts one has are not given to vaunt oneself but are designed to serve the common good of the community (12:7), and that (2) “one and the same Spirit” has allocated the gifts strictly as it pleased the Spirit (12:11). So the gifts are not for our own aggrandizement but are for the community; …Paul, therefore, dissociates gift and status and ties together gift and service to the community.
Paul’s succinct claim that the charismata are given “for the common good”… is striking in two ways. First, he claims the charismata for the benefit of the community and thus undercuts individual efforts at enhancing status. Second, his auditors, sophisticated rhetorically as they are, will no doubt note the echoes of the root term sympheron from its two significantly placed earlier occurrences in the letter (6:12; 10:23). …in both [these passages] Paul has tried to increase the scope of … moral reckoning by saying that believers must also consider whether the projected action is indeed “helpful” (sympheron) to others. So against that background Paul bluntly simplifies by saying in v. 7 that the point of charismata is to help or to serve the community. Chapter 14 will be a protracted reflection along the same line – namely, that tongues and giving thanks through them may be quite significant for the one doing it but will not edify (another way of describing being helpful or seeking the common good) the person who does not understand the glossolalia (cf. 14:19). Paul’s appeal to “let all be done for edification” is an elaboration of the notion of doing all things, even glossolalia, in such a way as to be helpful, to seek the common good.
(J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 944-45.)
The common good is the enhancement of community life that happens when God’s Spirit liberates gifted humans for mutual care and edification.