Isa. 60:4, v.9-10, 18 ‘Tarshish First’

The reading for Evening Prayer on the Fourth Sunday after Easter included the second-half of Isa. 60. Indeed, the last chapters of Isaiah are filled with prophecy regarding the coming millennium, so the richness of the text compelled an entire reading. What’s interesting is the method of interpretation this chapter demands, jettisoning any notion that events are either already accomplished or belong to a heavenly rather than physical reality. Part of that ‘physicality’ is locating Britain as a vessel in the Restoration of Israel.

The chapter, Isa. 60, begins with the following promise, read in its first two sentences, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon thee. For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples; but Jehovah will arise upon thee.” The chapter then unfolds to describe the nature of this light shed upon Israel: 1) the tribute and labor of Gentile nations dedicated to the Restoration; 2)  the consequent reign of peace and justice that follows; 3) and finally the joy and brightness of God to be had. Though we’ll deal mainly with the first point, the sum of the three divisions compel a particular ‘method’ of textual interpretation.  The next three verses of Ch. 60 read:

Repeated throughout is Israel’s glory (her Restored kingdom) ushered by the wealth and ministry of Gentiles. Thus, verse four is repeated in different ways through the chapter, and it comes to greater magnification further below. As more incredible details are culled, most 18th-century commentators conclude these verses remain largely unfulfilled, belonging to a future date. Not only is a regathering of Jews (considering current disbelief) fantastic, but especially later verses declaring a universal peace among nations. Consequently, the Rev. Thomas Scott is convinced the chapter pertains to unaccomplished events. Scott says,

“Nothing occurs in the history of the Jews after the captivity, which at all accomplished the prophecy in this chapter. That nation never enjoyed such permanent peace and prosperity, as it had done in the days of David and Solomon: but in this chapter events are predicted inexpressibly more glorious. Even the happy change, which took place on the coming of Christ, and after his ascension, did not by any means answer to this description. The church was indeed greatly enlarged and purified; but it remained in great tribulation, and passed through successive persecutions, till the conversion of Constantine. Then it had a short season of external prosperity: but its purity had previously been greatly tarnished and soon became much more so: it was speedily filled with time-serving hypocrites, split into furious parties, deformed with grievous heresies, and disgraced with abominable wickedness. And, not long after the Roman empire was overwhelmed, and the church was afflicted with dire calamities, which continued with little intermission, till antichristian idolatry and superstition had gained a complete ascendancy in the western, and Mohammedism greatly entrenched on the eastern, division of the church. So that nothing has yet occurred which corresponds with these predictions; and they are therefore reasonably concluded to relate principally to future events” .

However, the future focus of the text doesn’t exclude interspersed, happy moments of revival. The Gentiles indeed acquire a degree of outward prosperity and true doctrine, but this apparently is in preparation of Restoration and conversion of Jewry– purifying the Church (of say images) and enlarging her bounds. So, Scott sees converted nations as composing the ground work necessary for an earthly Jerusalem by their alms as well as spiritual ministrations.,

“Zion is here called on to lift up her downcast eyes, to behold the blessed effects of her extraordinary radiation. On every side converts were seen flocking to her, as his sons and daughters, from the remote regions, to be nursed at their side, under her care and tuition, and fed upon her spiritual provisions”

Also commenting on verse four, Winchester Prebend, William Lowth, sees the conversion of Gentiles as a means for gathering lost Jews. Lowth even suggests something of a parallel movement between the two, saying, “The prophet describes the fullness of the church, by the gentiles coming into it, and bringing the dispersed Remainder of the Jews along with them. This seems the most convincing scheme since lost Jews living among Gentile conceivably will be dragged by their mutual conversion by the Gospel. This might be concluded from the above text where Gentiles ‘from afar’ are described as carrying sons and daughters in their arms? This would be a regathering merely by the obeying the Great Commission, even recovering the ten tribes.

Yet there is an emphasis by commentators on ‘preparation’, and certain important attributes are named. Consequently, an elaboration upon such features begins where the scripture asks respecting Gentiles, ‘who are these that fly as a cloud’? So, this part of the chapter reads:

Evidently Scott understands the ‘first ships’ in verse 9 as indicating a certain preeminence possessed by Tarshish among Gentile kingdoms who otherwise help and give tribute. This is where Britain begins to figure more prominently in the narrative. Scott describes some  characteristics for Tarshish:

“Who are these? To this the Lord answers, that surely the isles of the Gentiles would wait for him, to give them admission into his family: and that it would become the first use of the ships of Tarshish, which traded to the most remote regions to bring her children, and all her wealth with them, to Zion, that they might worship the name of Zion’s God, who thus glorified her: or they would be among the first that did so”. 

While Isles Afar, or ‘remoteness’, may indicate any Gentile people very distant from Palestine, Scott also deduces– in alignment with other period commentators– the importance of Tarshish’s commercial prowess. Keep in mind Catholic nations like Spain or Sicily were already eclipsed as navigational powers by mid-18th century. Moreover, the energy of the English in places like Asia and America was often advanced, in part, by missionary zeal. So, Scott likely favors a Protestant country with a sufficient Navy despite a apparent vagueness. Sometimes this even includes the Dutch. Anyway, the logic of commerce gives an important clue toward Tarshish’s prophetic identity:

“This prediction will be accomplished, when Christians shall unanimously agree to make commerce and navigation subservient to the preaching of the gospel, in every country with which they trade. For the locality of the emblem, taken from the temple and worship at Jerusalem, rendered it necessary that it should be predicted in this manner; rather than as the setting up the worship of Jehovah in those distant lands. The restoration of Israel, and the assistance rendered them by commercial powers, may also be predicted

Our favorite Wesleyan commentator, Joseph Benson, further narrows possibilities for Tarshish while pondering the history of ancient commerce. Here, Benson’s choice of Cornwall is very significant,

“Surely the isles shall wait for me— The countries remote from Judea, and especially the islands and continents of Europe, generally intended by the term isles...Tarshish first– Those that traffic by sea. In naming this, he implied all places that had commerce with other nations. Concerning Tashish see note 2.16 Benson   “The learned seem now to be perfectly agreed that Tarshish is Tartessus, a city of Spain, (near Cadiz, now called Tariffa) at the mouth of the river Boetis (now named Guadalquiver, running through Andulasia) whence the Phoenicians, who first opened this trade, brought silver and gold in which  that country then abounded; and, pursuing their voyage still further to the Cassiterides, the islands of Sicily and Cornwall, they brought from thence lead and tin“.

Mr Benson suggests a further clue for Britain as foremost among Gentile ships where he touches the persons of “Kings/foreigners”. Though many converted Kings have served Christ midst the spread of Christianity, Benson sees Constantine as most impressive of the bunch. Do not forget Constantine’s British birth before winning the Empire of New Rome (Byzantine). Anyway, here is where Benson mentions the British Imperium, and we might speculate it a secondary, albeit weaker, mark.

“Namely, such as were not Israelites born, but of Gentile race; and he puts sons of strangers, by a usual Hebraism, for strangers: shall build up thy walls– As Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion assisted the Jews in repairing the walls of Jerusalem upon their return from captivity, so Gentile converts to Christianity assisted the Apostles, Evangelists, and other ministers of Christ, who were of Jewish extraction, in building and adorning the Christian church; and for many ages it s builders have been wholly of the Gentile race. And their kings shall minister unto thee– Ecclesiastical history affords us many instances of kings and princes that were great benefactors to her, among whom Constantine greatly excelled”. 

Apparently, signs of commercial power, maybe even Royal patronage, makes Britain a very tantalizing candidate for the fulfillment of Tarshish. But, altogether Scott and Benson are rather modest about such. Perhaps France, Germany, or even Russia might qualify considering the ratio of raw power during the 18th-century? But, among fellow evangelists, Tarshish was increasingly understood as Britain, especially as England dominated the seas and was the reputed ‘bulwark of Protestantism’.

Another popular maxim among Anglo-evangelicals was the millennial, personal reign of Christ. Isaiah 60:17-22 provides something of a description the Kingdom of God on Earth, describing its many virtues of perfected Governance. Besides the fascination of such, it’s especially these last verses which prove the futuristic fulfillment of the chapter, compelling the reader avoid relegating too much to past events. So, the text outlines some wonderful features of the coming Kingdom of God on Earth:

Scott makes pleasant inferences from the verses above in the following commentary :

The language here grows still more energetic; and the images employed more grand and magnificent… The increase of knowledge, holiness, comfort, and prosperity, in the church, shall be so great, that it shall resemble a new building erected in the place of an old one, in which gold is sued instead of brass, and silver instead of iron, etc.. or, like a city whose magistrate had been grievous oppressors, but were now become equitable and peaceable,  in the greatest degree, and sought nothing but the quiet and prosperity of the public; and whose tax gatherers and been oppressive extractors, but were now become most just and equitable. This represents the internal peace and purity of the church, and the excellency of her rulers and teachers. Along with this, external peace will be connected: so that no wars, invasions, or persecutions will disturb her repose: but the very walls of Zion will be justly called ‘salvation’, and her gates inscribed with ‘praise’ to her God and Protector. The Lord himself will shine upon his church, with so glorious and enduring a light as shall eclipse all which has heretofore been enjoyed by her, from the word and Spirit of God. And this light shall no more be withdrawn or obscured; for the days of Zion’s mourning shall then be ended; and this heavenly light and glory, and joy of the eternal world. Her people shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the earth as long as it endures, and heaven for ever. The church shall take root and grow and flourish as ‘a branch which God hast planted’; and prosper as the work of his hands, that he may be glorified. From every small numbers and feeble beginnings, the people of God shall multiply and become exceedingly numerous and powerful”.

Most likely Scott, like many of his contemporaries, were not premillenialists but understood this passage in a less disruptive eschatological way. Although Scott is likely writing to a broad audience– whether post- or premi in bent– a Zion on Earth will come about regardless(1). Interestingly, William Lowth (an expert often quoted by Scott and Benson), is rather blatant about his premil convictions, saying about this passage, “they shall inherit the land forever’ This must by meant of the blessed Millennium, when Christ and his Saints shall reign upon Earth“.

Again, Scott’s final thought regarding this chapter is the unfulfilled nature of it. Therefore, we can conclude both Tarshish and the return of sons and daughters belong to theses latter days– neither spiritualized away nor relegated to the past.

“We can conceive nothing more glorious than this description: and nothing can answer to it, but some future glorious state of the church on earth or the state of the church triumphant in heaven.

Conclusion:
Among period commentators, a literal interpretation of the text inculcates a few important maxims: The first is a conversion of Jews alongside the fullness or gathering of Gentiles. Second, the Gentiles would restore the Jewish Church in Palestine, preparing arrival of Christ in an Earthly Kingdom. Thirdly, among Gentile nations, Britain was the logical and plainest candidate for commercial and navigational power, having ‘preeminence’ like “Tarshish first”. Among English evangelicals, especially, these tenets would evolve into a stable or popular way of interpreting Isaiah, going from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. But such conclusions largely rest upon a literal reading of the text rather than over-allegorizing nor discarding events to the past. More on this method later.

Notes: 

  1. Relegating prophecy as already fulfilled can be either a preterist or partial-preterist position. Describing the differences of preterism to millennialism, Andrew Crome explains via the works of Henry Hammond who was more typical of 16th century interpretation, “Against the previously dominant historicist mode of exegesis, the ‘preteerism’ advocated by Henry Hammond (and by Grotius on the continent) claimed that all prophecies of the Jewish restoration had already been accomplished. This was more than simply looking for a spiritual fulfillment of the promises made to Old Testament Israel. Rather, it was to argue that all prophecies previously seen to refer to the end of time were fulfilled in the return from the Babylonian exile, with the Apocalypse describing the downfall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Those who used the book of Revelation to speculate about the future were therefore deceived, and hopes of Jewish restoration were inherently false.” p. 110 (Christian Zionism and English National Identity).
Isa. 60:4, v.9-10, 18 ‘Tarshish First’

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