In ancient cities, sentinels kept vigil on the city walls throughout the night. Long, difficult hours of waiting and watching characterized the sentinel’s evenings. The watcher’s role was vital for the protection of the city and the welfare of its citizens. Morning, nonetheless, meant great relief, both for the watchmen who kept vigil throughout the darkness and for the people within the city walls.
Biblical writers often juxtaposed the role of the watchman and the work of the prophet. Through long, dark hours of slavery and exile, stubbornness and despair, the prophets kept watch, calling out evils, calling forth awareness, peace, and repentance.
“This is what the LORD says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But you said, ‘We will not listen.'” (Jeremiah 6:16-17)
The book of Isaiah expands the imagery of the sentinel’s watch even further, suggesting watchful eyes throughout the kingdom of God, servants who hold vigil day and night, watching for light though presently surrounded by darkness.
“Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.” (Isaiah 52:8)
An old man in Jerusalem named Simeon was one such sentinel. All that is known of him is that he was righteous and devout, and he looked forward to the consolation of his broken land. Led by the Spirit, he went to the temple one day to offer the customary sacrifice when he noticed an infant in the arms of a young, peasant woman. Taking the baby in his arms, he began to sing:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
A watchman who kept vigil through long years of darkness, Simeon saw the infant Christ and used the language of a slave that has been freed to describe it. There is a sense of immediacy and relief, as if the light of morning has arrived after years of shadow, and he is finally free to leave his post.
We, too, labor through long nights, straining to see more. But in so doing, Christ himself transforms our watching and our waiting bringing light where death stings, tears discourage, and darkness haunts.
“I wait for the Lord,” sings the psalmist, “my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” (Psalm 130:5-6)
The night is indeed long, but the great light is real.
Keeping the Faith,