In the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, the Prophet foretells in dramatic fashion Israel’s return from exile. Not surprisingly, Christ—the Anointed Messiah—takes these words upon His own lips and declares that the day of restoration and redemption has come (Lk. 4:17-21). With a twist of irony, Luke says that after speaking these words Jesus “closed the book” and opened their understanding, “This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
There is much that is worthy of comment in the first two verses regarding the exile-ending ministry of Jesus: the pneumatological significance, the kerygmatic emphasis, the liberating character of the Messianic office, the two-fold announcement of the “acceptable year of the Lord” and the “day of vengeance” which would follow it, etc. Perhaps we can revisit some of these themes in due course. For now, I want to make a few observations concerning the third verse.
The Prophet declares that the “mourners in Zion” will be comforted upon their return from exile (and God’s return to His people). The consolation of Israel is here accomplished by a three-fold gift; a triune benediction.
- Beauty (or, ‘beautiful headdress’) for ashes
2. Oil of Joy for mourning
3. Garments of praise for the spirit of heaviness
This seems at first blush to be simply a poetic prediction of Israel’s ultimate reversal of fortune. But, as is usually the case, the details are highly significant. No words are wasted.
First, we note a literary observation. We are struck first by divine comedy. The Spirit employs a pun to highlight the comic nature (here I use ‘comic’ in the classical sense denoting the opposite of tragedy) of Israel’s great exchange. The pun is linguistic; it is a play on words. The word rendered “beauty” is pe’er; the word translated as “ashes” is ‘epher. The latter word inverts the first two consonants of the former. When spoken, the verbal form literally embodies the reversal which is involved in substituting beauty for ashes.
Second, we note a liturgical observation. The order of the triple gift signifies a re-consecration and re-investiture of Judah to priesthood as it follows the divinely instituted ordination rite for priests. Washing was the first step in the ordination rite; the removal of any dirt, soil, ashes, or other contaminates. Next we see the ordinands anointed with oil and being invested with ‘garments of glory and beauty’ (which includes a beautiful headdress and may be the referent of the earlier allusion). This interpretation seems to have warrant in contextually and canonically. When Messiah comes to deliver Israel from exile He will re-invest them as a priestly people (Is. 61:6). The Apostles also designate the people of God under the New Covenant as “a kingdom of priests.” When Christ comes the mourners in Zion become ministers of Zion; the people become priests. Even more, they become “Kingly Priests” after the order of Melchizedek just as their Covenant Head.
These priests are spoken of as “trees of righteousness” and the “planting of the Lord.” Priests are often associated with threes and this may even be an echo of Psalm 92:12-13. The Temple is the Garden of God; it is Eden in exile. But all exiles are ended with the coming of Messiah. Steal a glimpse inside Yahweh’s Grove and you will see men as trees walking; look again through twice-touched eyes and see the priests of God—we comforted mourners—passing between the cherubim beneath Eden’s blooming bowers; flaming swords extinguished by the blood of the slain-yet-living Lamb.
With the coming of Christ comes a new place of worship. Having consecrated for us a new and living way through the veil of His flesh, Jesus rends the heavens and pours the glory of the Lord into His new temple—a temple made of living stones—the transfigured temple of His Mystical Body. Turn aside and see the great mystery! Behold, the tabernacle of God is with man. Now turn again and see a greater mystery! Behold, Man—the tabernacle of God! In this Great House the priests are the dwelling place of God extending the blossoms of Eden to the ends of the earth.