swords to plowshares and the rest of the story

April 22, 2008

at church on sunday we sang a song that has been running through my mind ever since then. it’s a folk-gospel-influenced tune written, if i’m not mistaken, by a couple in the church. the lyrics basically follow the first few verses of isaiah 2.

we tend to gravitate there:

In the last days the mountain of Yahweh’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

perhaps rightly so. we discover ourselves in a world brimming over with violence, with self-interest erupting into the clash of nation-states and the clash of spouses, friends, coworkers. a future emptied of these painful altercations, where that energy is redirected to productive creativity rather than sharp-edged retorts and piercing statements (or, to switch fields, rather than to the military-technological complex)–what more could we request?

but perhaps it is more testament of our haggard, world-weary souls than to the warm-and-fuzzy character of God’s eschatological intervention. a close look at the text will begin to point us in this direction; setting the text in its broader context drives this point home with unsettling insistence.

first, a careful reading of the passage moves emphasis from a hoped for utopia to the sure and expected exaltation of Yahweh. what will be established in the last days? the mountain of Yahweh’s temple–the worship of Yahweh. Yahweh will be worshipped above every other god, every other idol, every other false security. people from every part of the globe will come to take part in this, and they will want to learn how to live in his ways, how to be the people of God (like Israel).

but note: moral education is not the cause of the beating of swords into plowshares. this is not the eschatological glorification of the classroom, of self-help books, of courteous behaviours; it is not the apotheosis of what in the end amounts to the best of the status quo. this is God breaking in, God interrupting, disrupting the way we have been doing things. moral education falls short.

instead, Yahweh is the judge–his word goes out and settles the disputes (for disagreements exist as long as we preserve a multiplicity of perspectives). his ruling, his judging, his leading excises the need for implements of war. “do you have a problem? take it to the Lord…”

second, the context of this passage undercuts both triumphalist appraisals of our current system (no, it’s not going to get us there) and separatist, elitist tendencies to hole up in our sanctuaries and homes to wait for God to fix a world already gone to hell. the immediately preceding first chapter of isaiah already firmly establishes the ambivalence of the day of the Lord concerning those who view themselves as the people of God. the chapter is filled up with accusations, threats, and the occasional plea for israel and jerusalem to change their behaviour (“come, let us reason together”). even the temple cult is indicted–God is sick to his stomach at the thought of the innumerable sacrifices and feasts. judgment begins in-house.

the larger portion of chapter two that follows on from the swords-into-plowshares text returns once again to this promise of judgment on God’s people. the people are double-hearted, holding to superstitions from the east and magic from the west. their houses are full of gold and silver idols, their stables full of warhorses and chariots, and their hearts with pride and trust in everything but Yahweh.

but a day is coming… they will run to the hills, hiding in caves and spiderholes. they will be humiliated and and Yahweh will be exalted.

The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled;
Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.
[…] Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?

connections between the two portions of chapter two are tenuous. are we dealing with two different oracles? are the two portions of one piece? what is the relationship to the material that follows in chapter three? i can’t answer these questions. but we do have the blatant contrast created by the juxtaposition of these dissimilar visions of the day of the Lord as they stand in the text before us. perhaps it is better not to say two visions of the day of the Lord–it is one singular vision that entails both terror and hope.

a refrain from two books i have been reading recently comes to mind. both john howard yoder, in for the nations, and johann baptist metz, in the emergent church (written in 1976–this is a very different emergence metz is talking about, maybe one that’s more useful), consistently return to christians’ responsibility to be suffering, following as disciples the suffering messiah. isaiah’s presentation of the day of the Lord directs us once again to what this might mean for us. we sin and incur God’s judgment when we dub with messianic significance our programs and, moreso still, our successes. God’s way is not to baptize our programs (or our lack of program), our communities, or our service to our neighbours. these are good things, but they are not our hope. our hope lies in the declaration given in the resurrection that God has won, that worship of Yahweh will one day break forth and dissolve the impulse for us to spend billions of dollars on keeping a standing military or to speak guardedly around certain coworkers and relatives. our hope is in Yahweh, Yahweh alone.

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