Simeon and the salvation of Israel before the eyes of the nations

Now you are releasing your servant, Lord, according to your word in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all the peoples, a light for revelation to nations and glory to your people Israel.

One more quick post in the mad rush before Christmas. I want to clarify my reasons for thinking that Simeon is not speaking about the salvation of Gentiles when he speaks of God’s salvation as “a light for revelation to nations” (Lk. 2:30-32).

It is tempting initially to read this as an allusion to Isaiah 49:6 where it is said that God’s servant, Jacob, will be “as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (cf. Is. 42:6). But Simeon makes no reference to a servant. He is holding Jesus in his arms, but he speaks of a “salvation that you have prepared”—an event, not at person. The closer parallel, I would suggest, therefore, is Isaiah 52:9-10:

Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The parallels with Luke’s story of the encounters with Simeon and Anna (2:22-38) are multiple. Simeon has been looking for the “consolation (paraklēsin) of Israel”; Isaiah says that the Lord “has comforted (ēleēsen) his people” (LXX; cf. Is. 40:1, which has parakaleō). Simeon’s eyes have seen God’s salvation; the eyes of Isaiah’s watchmen “see the return of the Lord to Zion” (Is. 52:8). Simeon says that God’s salvation has been “prepared before the face of all peoples”; Isaiah says that this act of salvation—the baring of God’s holy arm—has been carried out “before the eyes of all the nations”.

The thought in Isaiah 52:7-10 is that the salvation of Israel, which is a matter of “good news”, will be seen by the nations; the character and power of Israel’s God will be revealed to the nations. The idea that the nations will at some point turn to YHWH for justice and salvation in response to the work of God’s servant Jacob is present elsewhere, but it is not the argument here.

Since Simeon is speaking about God’s salvation rather than God’s servant, he is probably only saying what Isaiah says in 52:7-10—that the coming salvation of Israel will reveal something about Israel’s God to the nations, and that this revelation will redound to Israel’s glory. We should not, therefore, read into his words a thought that is nowhere else evident in the birth narratives—or arguably anywhere else in the synoptic Gospels—namely that Jesus was born to save not only Jews but also Gentiles. That development belongs to a later stage in the narrative.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 12/26/2011 - 13:12 | Permalink

In contrast with your interpretation Andrew, the parallels of Simeon's words with Isaiah 52:10 having been noted, we are drawn back to Isaiah 49:6 and Isaiah 42:6 by Simeon's use of the word "light"  in his phrase "a light for revelation to the nations", which brings the addition of covenant in the one and salvation in the other for the Gentiles.  

Is there any significant contrast in meaning then, between Isaiah 52:10 and Isaiah 49:6, such as the former having a "wider" significance, and the latter a "limited" significance, which would make Isaiah 52:10 the unique key to understanding Simon's words? I don't think so.

Isaiah 52:10 speaks of the Lord laying bare his holy arm "in the sight of all the nations", and says "all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God". Supporting your view, this could mean: Israel's salvation from her enemies will be observed by all the nations. It could also mean, against your view: all the nations will "see" the salvation of Israel in the sense of experiencing the power of salvation (whatever that may be) for themselves. That it's likely to be the latter meaning is inferred from how the story turned out. Israel was not "saved" in the sense that she had been saved on previous occasions. The nation was to be destroyed, along with the key symbols of her national identity. On the other hand, a remarkable power was unleashed amongst a believing remnant, which the Gentiles also experienced and, increasingly, in greater measure than the believing remnant of Israel.

From this perspective, Isaiah 52:10 says no less than Isaiah 49:6, with the added significance of 49:6 that Paul later takes it as his own commission to the Gentiles - Acts 13:47. Isaiah 42:6 also says no more than Isaiah 52:10, using the same "light for the Gentiles" language as Isaiah 49:6.

The cryptic mystery in Isaiah, and in Simeon's words in Luke 2, is that what God did for Israel is bracketed with what God was also doing for the Gentiles. Both inferred that God's intervention on Israel's behalf was also for the benefit of the nations. The servant in Isaiah 42 is called "to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles", where covenant might be for believing Jews as well as Gentiles. In Isaiah 49:6 - "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and being back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

If we read Simeon's words in the light of these prophecies, then what is presented cryptically, but nevertheless promisingly for the nations, becomes abundantly clear when the report of Jesus and his resurrection is embraced increasingly as a message of salvation for the Gentiles, as they experience it as preached first by Peter and then Paul. What the Gentiles hear is not simply encouraging information about another nation's God who is worth believing in, but a message which, when believed, is accompanied by direct personal experience of that same God through the Spirit, just as believing Jews had also experienced on the day of Pentecost and on subsequent occasions.

Simeon's words significantly include a message of salvation for the Gentiles.