Listen To Article
All of us are aware of the biblical phrase, “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Some of us recognize that these words are found in the eschatological vision of Isaiah (repeated in Micah).
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.
Your words both convict and challenge me, Tom–summon me to deeper trust in our Savior’s words and redeeming work.
I’ve never really thought until reading this, but it is as if in obeying God we are given an invitation and an indication that we could return to a kind of Eden.
Sadly when called upon to lay down the sword, which can also be a metaphor for incendiary rhetoric, most would be unwilling to do so.
…but we live in hope, don’t we?
“And they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
“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 … ”
There ought not be ANY debate over instructions from a church leader as powerful as God – just quiet, humble listening for clarity. But, as you pointed out, our problem in America is that we view our church leader democratically – as if we elected him – instead of being created BY Him …
“…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.“
Tom, do you really think that the witness of Jesus can be lost? I guess I don’t. Or is your concern more “what will happen to us”? Our current status as the world’s super-power will one day end, continuing the eternal cycle of nations rising and falling, don’t you think?
Let’s keep lifting up Jesus, the giver of life, so that the rocks won’t need to cry out. Regardless of who currently leads the world and the debate.
The love of power is the sin of humankind – everything flows from it, including the need to pile up the money and show it to the world with extravagant living … planes and yachts, and mansions bulging with glitter, and the guns to defend it all from those who would take it from us. Nationalism and guns, of course, go together – both are inverted expressions of power, both lead to death. Your commentary here is clear and “powerful,” too. We can’t be Pelagian here, unfortunately, but Niebuhrian and Augustinian – which is to say, we won’t find the final solution until Christ returns, but the call of Isaiah calls us to the task, and so do the worlds of Jesus with regard to wealth, the on-going task, the daily task, of challenging the powers-that-be when they play-act their “christian” charades in order to mask their lack of moral character and devotion to Christ, and compelling both church and society to keep before themself the imaginative reworking of the human story, from one of power over, to one of power with and for one another, through the redemptive, and self-giving, power of God.
Right on, Tom!
I am nearing the end of reading Roberts’ biography of CHURCHILL. In light of your meditation, you might conclude the Chamberlain and Halifax were on Isaiah’s side, yet my heart cheers Churchill. In the end, but in the meanwhile …
When I read Isaiah 2, it seems to me that the house of the Lord is established first…and then the people beat their swords into plowshares. The non-violence follows. Am I misreading this?
I love the picture of the people streaming up the hill. Who is the artist and where can I get it?
House of the Lord exists already in Jerusalem and then is raised and “established” as the highest of the mountains and hills [ other high places of the nations] from which they come and to which they return. There is a hint that they are coming with their weapons–perhaps even from the battle fields of the world–when the word of the Lord convicts them they beat their swords into plowshares, realizing at last God’s peaceable garden-kingdom desired from the beginning.
I love this print too. I believe the artist is Bonnie Liefer, long-time staff member with the CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach) in Pittsburgh. It hangs above our mantel, in hope.