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All of us are aware of the biblical phrase, “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Few of us realize, however, how unsettling this vision of the end of history was to the people of Isaiah’s day and how it challenged their understanding of privilege and power.
Worship & Gardening
Isaiah sees history ending in a grand worship service. The temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem rises high above all the other mountains and hills in the world. These mountains and hills are not just physical landmarks. They are the high places where the peoples and nations of the world came to worship.
Isaiah sees them coming from their various places of worship on a pilgrimage to Mt. Zion, and, very importantly, he sees them returning home. God does not blot them out but draws them to what the book of Hebrews calls “his throne of grace.” They come as they are, with all their foolishness and wisdom, with all their tendencies to make war and seek peace, with all their self-justifications and self-deprecations, with all their deep, unrecognized longings for the one who created them.
At the end of history, God and all the peoples of the world stand face to face. God speaks words of judgment, and his words manifest both his frightening power and compassionate love.
The power of God breaks open the hearts of the peoples of the world, and the love of God transforms them. They beat their swords into plowshares, an act that is at once a confession of their sin and a commitment to live a new and different life. With plowshares and pruning hooks in hand, the people turn from the killing fields to the agricultural fields.
In his vision of the end of history, Isaiah sees the people of the world returning to the vocation that they had at the beginning of time, tending to the garden-world of God.
A Challenging Vision
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful reconciliation between God and all the peoples of the world challenged the vision being offered by others leaders of his day. Believing in the power of weapons and the necessity of military alliances, believing that God had sanctioned killing, many of the leaders of Isaiah’s day were advising King Hezekiah to ally with Egypt against the mighty Assyrians because Egypt’s chariots were many and their cavalry was very strong (Isaiah 32).
They were sure that history would end at Mt. Zion in a bloody battle in which their enemies would be destroyed, not in a worship service in which they and their erstwhile enemies would together ponder the truth of God’s word.
If we step back the take a long look at not only the witness of Isaiah but that of the whole counsel of Scripture, we see that Scripture contains within it the record of a heated and ongoing debate among the followers of God about the nature of power, use of weapons, the fate of the nations, and the end of history.
We have not always acknowledged this, and we have not given Isaiah’s vision its theological due. Very few people in the so-called evangelical church today seem to know anything about this scriptural debate. They are generally unaware of Isaiah’s call to reject weapons and to resist evil non-violently. They are generally unaware of the broader tradition, all the psalms and narratives, from which he draws his inspiration.
And very few draw the line from this biblical tradition to the teachings of Jesus who called on his disciples to reject the sword as a means of bringing the kingdom of God, to resist evil by non-violent means, and to love our enemies. In everything that Jesus said and did, he reversed the common understandings of power and taught that there was strength in weakness. The angels announced that he came to bring peace on earth and good will to all humankind. And he taught his disciples: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I sometimes wonder what happened to this Jesus of our Gospels, when we, the evangelical church, show such a fascination with the power of weapons and offer our support so quickly to any call for war, when we view ourselves as God’s chosen people and believe that God has sanctioned violence against our enemies, when we tell ourselves that leaders who seek diplomatic solutions to conflict are weak and leaders who order missile strikes are strong.
I sometimes wonder what will happen to us when the distinctive witness of Jesus is lost and the call to follow him is unheard, when the concerns of the church become indistinguishable from those of American nationalism.
The Scriptures invite us all to join the debate that is as old as Isaiah and his compatriots. What is the proper use of weapons? Is the killing of our enemies ever sanctioned? Is the power of God real enough in the world for us to trust in it? The church has been debating these issues for centuries, of course, and has developed criteria for a “just” war.
Maybe it is time for the evangelical church to join the debate, to explore the range of positions in the Scriptures about the use of weapons, to weigh in on what it understands a just war to be, and to ponder anew how the Creator of heaven and earth will bring all things to an end.