Beating up on the Swords

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5;
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Isaiah 2:1-5

1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2   In days to come[1]
       the mountain of the LORD’S house[2]
     shall be established as the highest[3] of the mountains,[4]
       and shall be raised above the hills;
     all the nations shall stream to it.
3      Many peoples shall come and say,
     “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
       to the house of the God of Jacob;
     that he may teach us his ways
       and that we may walk in his paths.”[5]
     For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
       and the word of the LORD[6] from Jerusalem.
4   He shall judge[7] between the nations,
       and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
     they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
       and their spears into pruning hooks;[8]
     nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
       neither shall they learn war any more.
Judgment Pronounced on Arrogance[9]
5   O house of Jacob,
       come, let us walk
       in the light of the LORD!


Beating up on the Swords

Words and thoughts on a sermon based on Isaiah 2:1-5 
This section of Isaiah is unusual in a couple of different ways. First, it starts a new unit and it’s only the second chapter. One would expect the various sections to be a little longer than that, and they usually are. You can tell it’s a new start by the fact that it has a new introductory formula in v. 1 that sounds very similar to the introduction in ch. 1:1.

Compare 2:1, in the text above, with 1:1 “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

More importantly, it also is unusual in that it starts with a poem in vv. 2-4 which is almost exactly like one found in Micah 4:2-4 (Micah adds a brief bit at the end).

Read through our poem from Isaiah 2:2-4 above and then compare it with this one from Micah 4:2-4 and you’ll immediately see the resemblance:
2 and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3           He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4           but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
The options are that either Micah borrowed it from Isaiah, or Isaiah borrowed from Micah, or both borrowed from some earlier (popular) song. Probably the majority of OT scholars believe the latter, that it predates both Isaiah and Micah (even with “mythopoetic roots[10]) and it was later adapted to fit into the two books either by themselves or by one of their later editors.[11] And again, probably the majority of scholars believe that in Isaiah’s case, the one who added it was not Isaiah himself, because it is in such a different (positive) tone, unless perhaps he returned to his manuscript at a much later age with a more hopeful attitude.

Walter Brueggemann says that beyond who wrote it, the point is why was it placed here. For preachers and interpreters, the best question is what message occurs by its being here? What is its theological point? Whether it was placed there by Isaiah or someone else, the interesting and important point is that someone wanted us to hear a hopeful word in response to the dour message of chapter one, and that is the “Gospel” theme of the passage. It is a scene with the hope of peace contrasting with a scene of the destruction of war. Wherever it came from, he thinks that someone pasted it here later as an antidote, an alternative, to the hopelessness of chapter one. “Its placement,” Brueggemann says, “reflects a characteristic tendency of the final form of the text of Isaiah. For all of its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope….Here …the Jerusalem tradition looks beyond ‘the coming fire’ (1:31) to the ‘latter days.’”[12]

In this small passage nations are portrayed as wanting to come to Israel because Yahweh is present there and proclaiming the “teachings” (Law, torah, instruction) that make for peace. Imagine a time when people would flock to a certain nation because they were hungry for peace amidst their fighting and thought that they could find resolutions for it there. God would be the final arbiter for their disputes. Issues would be decided without recourse to fighting. Their swords would be turned into plow-shares, their spears into pruning hooks, and their young people would no longer learn how to kill others from other lands. There would be complete disarmament.

Are they going to do it because the word of Yahweh comes forth upon them? Or because the temple itself proclaims the teachings, instructions, Torah, and therefore people will flock to it (“stream”) and lay down their swords? We are not told.

Norman Gottwald sees this scene as something like a precursor to the United Nations. “Nations all come in concert, drawn by a shared offer of well-being, where war will be unnecessary and no longer an available practice of the nations.”[13] “All the nations will accept Israel’s Torah as their charter for wellbeing.”[14] Yahweh (or Yahweh’s temple) is kind of like the world court, United Nations, a court of appeal for the problems and brutality of the world.

This promised world is theological (that is, it can only happen when Yahweh is acknowledged as the judge and creator of all that is) but at the same time it is political (when nations acknowledge Yahweh as the adjudicator of international disputes). What a difference it would make in the world if there were an equitable authority that settled international disputes. No more critical a vision in “Isaiah’s” day than in ours. He saw the hatreds of countries and ethnic groups descending into hell and he asked, what if there was a time and a way when all of those groups could come together as one? He envisioned a world in which people would trust God and not arms. War as a national, “normal,” policy would no longer be needed.

The point of the season of Advent is promise and hope. To hope for a better world. To envision a better world. And if you are able to see the new world, then you can work towards it. It’s easy to get tied up in this season with visions of a baby in a manger, and forget that the point of this early belief was that this baby would be the prince of peace, the savior of humanity. During Advent we lean forward in hope, we see glimpses of what is ‘not yet.” That is the foundational function of sacred promise: faith empowers us to see what will be that is not yet, and the seeing is the first step towards creating.

This vision of hope is a “word” that Isaiah “saw” (1:1). Odd phrase. Usually one hears a word and sees a vision. But in a sense, you do have to “see” the word of God in the world, in action wherever it can be found, to truly be able to “hear” it. A pastor friend once remarked that you have to look seriously at yourself before you can see the future of what you could be. You have to authentically and honestly look at your own shortcomings before you can construct a vision of a positive hopeful new future. You must see the grit of today before you can envision the (possibility of) a joy tomorrow. Is there a “whiff” of that here? In the negative passage of Ch. 1 just before the positive passage of Ch. 2? The juxtaposition of what is now with what could be?

The relationship between this passage and the Gospel reading for the day is that both of them anticipate a coming God event. Both herald something coming and hoped for. The Gospel speaks of being vigilant for the time in the future of the coming of the Son of Man. The prophet speaks of a time in the future of the coming of world peace, when all of the nations of the world will come to God’s holy mountain and God will hold forth and teach them and adjudicate their disputes. All international issues will be decided by God and therefore they will no longer need to settle their disputes by killing each other by war. They won’t even study war anymore. It will be irrelevant, and they’ll have to turn their swords into something more constructive, like plowshares.

This is all well and good, but is it really an “Advent” passage? When most of us who are in churches think of Advent we think of the four weeks that run up to the coming of Jesus in the manger. But is that all there is to Advent? Well, of course not

The word, “Advent,” is a word by itself, and predated the churchy purposes to which we have assigned it. It means “anticipation,” and “waiting.” It is the anticipation of something grand and glorious that is coming. And that’s why we ripped it out of its history and applied it to the anticipation of the coming of a new world in Christ. We are the ones who are waiting for, anticipating that age of the plowshares made out of melted down swords and bombs. God will be at the end of the waiting period and “God” is the meaning of peace.

Here’s an interesting fact. There was a poll a few years ago that found that people who expect to be mugged or burglarized tend to feel more fearful of others and more hostile to them than people who don’t. The interesting part is that odds are they actually will not be burglarized any more than anyone else. But their thinking and anticipating that they will actually makes them dour and fearful and hostile. You are more likely to be hit by someone who is afraid of being hit than by someone who is not. Think about that in terms of the recent presidential campaign. Which candidate seemed more fearful of being hurt by outsiders and was (therefore?) more angry and verbally violent to those outsiders and others?

When people expect bad things to happen that impacts how they will feel while waiting for it. People who feel fearful of terrorists, tend to expect to be attacked by terrorists, and tend to be more angry and dismissive (and perhaps even violent) to others, even though actual attacks by a terrorist are off-the-charts unlikely. But those who live in fear of them, are probably far more serious and worried and tense and nervous and probably angry and a bit resentful than those who are better able to brush it off and not worry.

One time, years ago, when I was a teen, I did something terrible. My mother was at home and dad at work, and I did something bad. I don’t actually recall what it was, but at the time, it seemed real bad, like breaking a window with a baseball, or wrecking my bike by driving in traffic.

She said to me, “You just wait until your dad gets home and he’ll take care of you for this,” or something to that effect. I spent the day in hell. Nothing that happened that day could lift my spirits. It was a miserable wait. I was living in the “Advent” of a horrible upcoming event. The waiting around for something miserable to happen made the entire day miserable. Nothing was good that day. My every second and minute felt awful. As it happened, when he got home he talked to me about it, and we worked out a way for me to pay off the broken window or the broken bike and that was it. No spanking, no grounding, no nothing. The actual event was not nearly as bad as my waiting anticipation of it. But anticipating something terrible, made my very life and existence feel terrible.

Be careful what you hope for, because you will be living in that hope while waiting for it to come. Be careful what you live in your own “advent,” because you will live with that during the time you are waiting for its coming.

So what does any of this have to do with Advent?

People of God in ancient Israel lived during wars and horrors and rumors of wars, yet they created this prophesy (this and many others) of a time in the distant future when all the nations of the world would turn around, and come together up on the mountain of God, and God would speak and teach and they would listen and God would adjudicate their disputes and all of their conflicts. And they would therefore no longer have to study for war. They would lay down their swords and turn them into plowshares, and turn their spears into pruning forks.

It was an impossible vision, an impossible dream, an impossible prophesy. And, in fact, it never happened. From that day, thousands of years ago to this, it never happened. It quite possibly will never happen.

But was it wrong? Was it wrong to live out their lives expecting, anticipating, hoping for an age of peace and justice? Was it wrong to lean forward into the future living out an “advent” of the time when nations would turn their swords into plows hears? Was it wrong to live in hope?

[1] “In days to come”  “Latter days,” “in a later time, “in the distant future” etc. “The phrase, which does not appear again in Isaiah, is not at first what it later becomes (cf. Dan. 10:14), a technical term for the messianic age.” (Isaiah, IB). “Later in this chapter we shall find frequent references to the day of the Lord, pictured as a day of disaster. This oracle, in common with much else in Isaiah, seems to be saying that beyond the disaster there will be a genuine hope of restoration and new prosperity.” (John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford Bible Commentary, Is 2:2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
[2] “The mountain of the Lord’s house” This is referring to the Jerusalem temple which sits high up a hill. However, the usual expression for this would omit “Mountain” or “house,” as the LXX does. The parallel in Mic. 4:1 omits “house” but then adds “the house of God.”
[3] “Established as the highest” Or: “set first,” made most prominent.” (Isaiah IB).
[4] “The theme of the ‘cosmic mountain’ is a widespread one in the ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible in particular (Clifford 1972 offers a useful survey of the main relevant texts). The theme is frequent in the Psalms (cf. e.g. Ps 48:1–3; 68:15–16), and both in this passage and in the Psalms the claim is made that Mount Zion, in fact not at all a spectacular mountain, will be established as ‘the highest of the mountains’. The mythical features of this picture show us that this is theological geography.” (John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford Bible Commentary, Is 2:2 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001]).
[5] “Walk in his paths.” “This familiar biblical idiom (cf. ‘the Way,” Acts 9:2) connotes both a religious belief and the moral behavior according with that belief; it appears to combine two pictorial ideas, (a) the path as a customary route, and (b) the right path to choose where paths diverge, leading to the temples of different gods (cf. Exod. 32:8).” (IB Isaiah).
[6] “Word of the Lord” “It is striking that here tôrâ (law) and ‘word of the Lord’ are treated as synonymous. The word of the Lord is characteristically that which was uttered through prophetic mouthpieces; tôrâ, as we have seen, had a variety of meanings, but here it may be comparable to the kind of summary of divine guidance found in 1:16–17. (John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford Bible Commentary, Is 2:3 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001].)
[7] “He shall judge.” Or: settle the disputes…decide the issues.” “The biblical pictures of the messianic age link the coming of peace with the establishment of a just rule among men (cf. 9:7; 11:1-9). (IB Isaiah)
[8] But see Joel 3:10: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
[9] This verse is actually a fragment. It is possible that it is a textual variant of a part of v. 3. But nobody knows.
[10] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary, ed. William P. Brown, Carol A. Newsom, and Brent A. Strawn, 1st ed., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 28.
[11] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: W/JK, 1998), p. 24.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.,, p. 25
[14] Brueggemann. Texts for Preaching), p. 3