On Gold and Frankincense

One Old Testament reading for Epiphany is Isaiah 60:1-6, which concludes, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” I’ve read many fanciful and imaginative explanations of the magi’s gifts to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12), but the simplest is this: Matthew believes the magi fulfill Isaiah 60:6. This is probably the origin of camels and kings in our Christmas hymns and traditions about the magi (also known as wise men). Matthew says nothing about camels or kings, but they are here in Isaiah 60:1-6: camels are featured in verse 6 and kings in verse 3.

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Isaiah 60:1-6

One Old Testament reading for Epiphany is Isaiah 60:1-6, which concludes, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” I’ve read many fanciful and imaginative explanations of the magi’s gifts to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12), but the simplest is this: Matthew believes the magi fulfill Isaiah 60:6. The lectionary compilers got this one right.

This is probably the origin of camels and kings in our Christmas hymns and traditions about the magi (also known as wise men). Matthew says nothing about camels or kings, but they are here in Isaiah 60:1-6. Camels are featured in verse 6 and kings in verse 3.

One of the things that we will discover about Matthew is that he loves fulfilled prophecy, even if that fulfillment hangs on a word or a phrase. In this, he is no different than other Biblical interpreters of the second temple period. In chapter 4 of Incarnation and Inspiration, Peter Enns discusses the problem of how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Most of us schooled in modern interpretive methods find New Testament hermeneutics quite foreign. New Testament writers – including Matthew – don’t seem nearly as concerned with the original author’s intent as do modern interpreters.

What, then, was the author’s intent in Isaiah 60?

The author speaks in God’s voice. He speaks to Jerusalem, which itself represents the entire nation and its people. The author envisions a day in which Jerusalem will shine in the darkness (cf. John 1:5). Jerusalem will be glorious and at peace. God’s people will be righteous, plentiful and powerful. A host of people will stream to the holy city. Exiles will return to her (the city is feminine) and the nations (gentiles) will be drawn to her (cf. John 12:32). The nations will enrich Jerusalem with their wealth and labor. The Gentile people will be subservient to the people of God. The Gentile leaders will be humiliated in captivity. All the nations of the earth will bow down in abject submission and all threats to Jerusalem’s safety will disappear. Her gates will be open day and night to receive the tribute of the nations. Any nation that will not submit to her reign will be destroyed. There are elements of role-reversal and revenge to Isaiah’s vision, and its hopes are materialistic. “You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall suck the breasts of kings” (Isaiah 60:16).

Isaiah’s vision is also proto-apocalyptic. While most of its images are mundane and its hopes are common-place, its poetic language anticipates the apocalyptic and eschatological imagery that will characterize later Jewish and Christian thought. When this day arrives, Isaiah says, it will last forever. In fact, all creation will change. The sun and moon will no longer rise and set; God himself will be the light of the city (cf. Revelation 22:5).

Within the context of Isaiah’s vision, gold and frankincense constitute part of the tribute of the nations. They enrich Jerusalem and are a symbol of gentile subservience.

The people who first heard Isaiah’s vision must surely have needed these words. The Assyrians – and later the Chaldeans – reduced the land to poverty. For centuries, the people knew only subjugation, fear and violence. When the magi brought their gold, frankincense (and myrrh) to Bethlehem, the situation had not much changed except the names of the oppressors.

In Matthew’s story of the magi, it is ironic that Persian imperial astrologers pay tribute to Jesus, while the Judean king Herod attempts to kill him. Isaiah’s vision has not yet reached its ultimate fulfillment.

The magi’s fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision, then, is anticipatory in nature. It looks forward to the day in which this vision will be finally and completely fulfilled. The one in whom it will be fulfilled, however, has already been revealed. The Persian priests who bring their nation’s tribute to the king of Israel are simply first in line. Eventually, all the nations of the earth will bow before him.

It is Jesus himself – and not the holy city or the people of faith – whom Matthew envisions as the focus of this tribute. This is significant. Christians don’t envision the world bowing at their feet, but at the feet of their master. I myself am a part of the formerly hostile crowd drawn to the light of God in Christ Jesus.