This is the last of four daily notes on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Today’s note explores the third, concluding line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).
“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”
Here is a slightly more literal rendering of v. 32:
- Light unto (the) uncovering of the nations
- and (unto the) splendor of your people Yisrael
The Greek is as follows:
- fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin e)qnw=n
- kai\ do/can laou= sou )Israh/l
In all three parts (bicola) of the hymn, the initial word establishes and governs the line. In verse 29, it is the temporal particle nu=n (“now”); in vv. 30-31, it is the conjunctive particle o%ti (“[now] that”); and here in v. 32, it is the noun fw=$ (“light”). The structure of this line is the simplest of the three:
- light unto
- (the) uncovering of the nations
- (the) splendor of your people Israel
The conjunction kai/ (“and”) is at the center of the line; its significance will be discussed below. There has been some question among commentators as to whether do/ca (“honor/splendor”) is parallel with fw=$ (“light”) or a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”). If the former, then the structure would be:
- light unto the uncovering of the nations
- honor/splendor (for) your people Israel
I have opted for the latter parallel, which I feel is more accurate to the syntax and theme of the hymn.
fw=$ (“light”)—The word, in the initial position, builds upon the motif of seeing in vv. 30-31. The reason why people are able to see the salvation God brings is that is light. The importance of light-imagery in the Old Testament and as a religious symbol is so widespread as to scarcely require comment. For more detail on the background, cf. my discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament” (soon to be posted here). Though the noun fw=$ does not occur elsewhere in the Lukan Infancy narrative, light-imagery plays a significant role, including the scenes of heavenly/angelic manifestation (shining forth)—cf. 1:11, 28ff; 2:9-14. It is in the Song of Zechariah (esp. vv. 77-79), which, in many ways, functions parallel to the Song of Simeon, that we find corresponding imagery and similar language (in italics):
“to give knowledge of salvation to his people in (the) release of their sins, through the inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God, in which (there) has looked upon us a springing-up out of the height [i.e. from on high], to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death and set our feet down straight into (the) way of peace.”
Mention should also be made of the famous star in the Matthew narrative (2:2ff). While the light (fw=$) of salvation should be understood in the context of the entire line in verse 32, it may also be said to relate specifically to the nations of the first half, according to the Isaian allusions—cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6. That it also relates to the people of Israel (the second half of the line) is clear from a comparison with Isa 49:9; 60:1ff, etc, and the citation of Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 3:15-16.
ei)$ (“unto”)—According to the structure outlined above, the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) governs both halves of v. 32. That is to say, the light is unto both the uncovering of the nations and the splendor of Israel. There are two aspects of the preposition which apply here: (a) for the purpose of, and (b) leading toward the goal of, i.e. the result of. More concretely, it can be understood as something which points in the direction of these results for the nations and Israel respectively—the light shines toward them both, and, more importantly, into the darkness (cf. the Isaian passages referenced above).
a)poka/luyin (“[the] uncovering”)—The noun a)poka/luyi$, from the verb a)pokalu/ptw, literally means “taking (the) cover away from”—i.e., “uncovering”. In this case, the motif relates to removing darkness, through the shining of light (Lk 1:77-79; Matt 3:15-16, etc). The noun and verb both are used frequently in the New Testament, often in reference to God’s revelation to his people (believers) in the person and work of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel. Cf. again the discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament” (to be posted here).
e)qnw=n (“of [the] nations”)—The genitive of this noun may be understood two ways: (1) the light is revealed (uncovered) for the nations, or (2) the nations themselves are uncovered/revealed by the light. Probably the former is more readily in mind here in the hymn, but the latter cannot be excluded, especially in the context of the Lukan theme of the identity/inclusion of Gentile believers as the people of God (cf. below).
kai/ (“and”)—This simple conjunctive particle here has special significance, since it emphasizes that both Israel and the nations (Gentiles) will experience the light of salvation manifest in the person of Jesus. If the structure of the line is understood differently (cf. above), then the emphasis of the conjunction would be on salvation in terms of both (i) light for the Gentiles and (ii) splendor for Israel. However, the theme (and theology) throughout Luke-Acts strongly favors the structure I am following, whereby the emphasis is squarely on Jewish and Gentile believers together making up the people of God.
do/can (“[unto the] splendor”)—My interpretation (cf. above) assumes that both nouns a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”) and do/ca (“splendor”) are governed by the preposition ei)$ (“unto”). To reiterate:
- (the) uncovering of the nations
- (the) splendor of your people Israel
The noun do/ca is actually difficult to render accurately in English. Typically it is translated “glory”, but this can be rather misleading. Fundamentally, it refers to the esteem or honor which is accorded to someone or something—that is, how a person is considered, acknowledged, recognized, etc. In the case of God, the honor which is due to him involves his essential nature and character, as the Holy One and (all-powerful) Creator, and so forth, which is traditionally described and depicted with light-imagery. Thus the do/ca of God is envisioned as a brilliant and effulgent splendor surrounding him. In the LXX, do/ca generally translates the Hebrew dobK*, which has the basic meaning “weight”—i.e., the honor and reverence which must be given to God due to the greatness, etc, of His nature. The word has a somewhat different nuance and emphasis when applied to human beings; generally, it is best rendered as “honor” or “splendor”, depending on the context. Here, if do/ca is parallel to “light” (fw=$) then it is perhaps better understood as “honor”—i.e. revelation (light) for the nations, honor/esteem for Israel. However, if it is parallel with “uncovering”, then it is particularly important to preserve the element of light-imagery. The light of salvation then has two (related) effects—(1) it shines in the darkness, revealing/uncovering the nations, and (2) it causes the people Israel to shine with splendor. Light and splendor (do/ca) are juxtaposed in Isa 60:1, and splendor/honor/glory in connection with salvation specifically in Isa 46:13.
laou= sou )Israh/l (“of your people Israel”)—that is, God’s people, referring primarily to Israel as the elect/chosen people, with whom God (YHWH) established a special relationship and agreement (covenant). The singular noun lao/$ (“[a collective] people”), used together with the plural e&qnh (“nations”), emphasizes the point of contrast—Israel was selected among all the different tribes/nations of the worlds to be the distinct people of God. The plural laoi/ (“peoples“) is often synonymous with e&qnh (“nations”), though in Acts 4:25-27 it seems to refer to Israel (i.e. Israelites and Jews), perhaps in the sense of the various groups which make up “Israel” at the time of Jesus. The significance of the terminology in this passage in Acts (citing Ps 2:1-2) likely runs deeper, however; note the possible contrast:
- In their opposition to Jesus, Israel becomes like the nations—”peoples” (laoi/, plural) instead of the true “people” (lao/$, singular) of God
- In trusting in Christ, both “peoples”—Israelites/Jews and Gentiles—become a single “people” (lao/$), the people of God
This helps to explain the use of the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) in line 2 of the Song of Simeon (v. 31). The expression “all the peoples” (par with “all flesh” in Lk 3:6) refers to those (believers) among all of humankind—Jews and Gentiles both—who respond to the Gospel (the “light” of salvation) and come to faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes a principal theme of the book of Acts. Note especially the words of James in 15:14:
“…how God looked upon (it/us) to take out of the nations a people for/unto His name”
This precedes the (modified) quotation from Amos 9:11-12 in verses 16-17, in which Gentile believers are identified as part of the “remnant” (i.e. the true/faithful Israel) who will seek the Lord, and so respond by trusting in Jesus. Paul, of course, as the “apostle to the Gentiles” draws heavily upon this theme, though often in a complex (and somewhat controversial) manner. Note, in particular, the discussion in Romans 9-11 which is vital to the overall emphasis (in Romans) on the unity of Jewish and and Gentile believers in Christ. For a more concise, similar, statement elsewhere in the New Testament, cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10.
The theme itself goes back into the Old Testament, especially in (Deutero-)Isaiah and the later Prophets, continuing on through Jewish literature and tradition. Isa 42:6 was a cornerstone verse, and is alluded to here in the Song; but there are many passages which might express either of two basic, related ideas: (1) that God’s revelation (his Law, salvation, etc) will go out from Jerusalem (and the Temple) into all the nations, and (2) that the nations from all around Jerusalem will come to the Temple and worship God there. For this latter image, cf. especially Isa 56:6-8, cited by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Lk 19:46 par). That the converted/faithful Gentiles would become part of the people of God is also expressed (or implied) in several places, most notably Zechariah 2:10-11, which refers to a future/eschatological moment when the Lord will come and dwell in the midst of his people in Zion, and
“many nations will be (inter)twined [i.e. joined] to YHWH in th(at) day, and they will be unto [i.e. as] a people for me [i.e. my people], and I will set (up my) tent [i.e. dwell] in your midst…” (v. 11)
The two themes mentioned above are both present in the central Pentecost scene of Acts 2—(1) Israelites/Jews from among the nations come to Jerusalem, along with believers miraculously speaking in the languages of all the nations; and (2) Christian missionaries go out (from Jerusalem) in the surrounding parts of Judea, and, subsequently, into the nations all around (cf. Acts 1:8, etc). Yet it may be said that this is already prefigured and foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative, in the Song uttered by Simeon as he stands in the Temple, holding the savior Jesus in his arms. It is by the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, that the chosen ones (believers) of Israel, along with Simeon, acquire true honor and splendor.