Yeah, But is it True?

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
(For exegetical notes and commentary, see following this article)

Isaiah,” the prophet for whom the book of Isaiah was named, probably only authored the first thirty-nine chapters. The total book spans close to a hundred and fifty years, years and it’s unlikely anybody (except my uncle Al) ever lived that long. As with many of the prophets, what we know of  him  is  sparse.  He was a prophet of Judah in the sixth century. His father’s name was Amoz, as this passage notes. By time references in the work, we think he was probably born a little before 760. He says he was called to be a prophet “the year that King Uzziah died (6:1),” which means it happened 742. He was married and had sons. We don’t know his wife’s name (he called her “the Prophetess” 8:3). He gave both of his sons names that were symbolic of events of the time. The first was (wait for it…) Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which translates roughly as “quickly to the plunder” or “run to the loot.” Which means, either, the enemy is rushing to us to plunder our goods, or in light of the rushing enemy grab the loot. His second son was “Shear-jashub,” which is generally rendered something like, “A Remnant Shall Return” and probably refers to that portion of Israel that would survive the coming disaster and eventually regain power again.

While not as old as my uncle Al, his ministry lasted for about forty years, which would be quite long in those days. He lasted through the reigns of four kings of Judah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezikiah. There was a legend that he died being cut in half by King Manassaeh, but that’s impossible to determine. The only reference we have of that is in the  Ascension of Isaiah, which was not written until the late first century b.c.e. It would, however, be a dramatic way to go out, at an advanced age, so I still hold it up as a possibility. One of these days I’ll tell you how my Uncle Al, went out. It would make Isaiah proud (but that’s for another time).
This brief section starts a new unit in Isaiah. You wouldn’t think it would happen so close to the beginning of the book, but there you are. You can tell it has changed by the new introductory formula the author uses in v. 1, which sounds very similar to the introduction to the entire book back in chapter 1:1. The jury is out on why that is. Some believe that Chapter one was added later and that this chapter, with this line as its title, was the original start of the book. Others think that since this chapter starts off with a probably-borrowed poem (see below), the compiler may have wanted to put the superscription here to claim evidence that Isaiah was in fact the author.[1]  Who knows?

The “probably-borrowed” poem is in vv.2-4. If you’re very observant, and have a good memory, and read the Hebrew Scriptures extensively, you’ll notice that these verses are used almost word-for-word in Micah 4:2-4 (Micah adds a brief bit at the end). It’s unclear whether Micah borrowed from Isaiah, or Isaiah borrowed from Micah, or both borrowed from a popular song of the times. Walter Brueggemann thinks the latter, and I’m inclined to agree, since he’s smarter than I am.

Brueggemann also makes much of the fact that this positive, hopeful, piece follows after the negative, harsh passage in chapter one. He thinks that 2:2-4 was pasted in here as something of an antidote, an alternative. “Its placement 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.’”[2] In placing it here (or writing it here), the compilers seem to be saying that after the disaster, after the worst of the destruction,, there will still be hope. There will still be a time of restoration and even prosperity.

“‘The highest of the mountains’: the theme of the ‘cosmic mountain’ is a widespread one in the ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible in particular. 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.” [3]

Norman Gottwald has described this vision as something like an early (and more effective) version of 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.”[4] They will want to come because Yahweh is present and proclaiming the “teachings” (i.e. Law, Torah, instruction) that make for peace. God will be the final arbiter for national disputes. Issues will be decided without recourse to fighting. There will be complete disarmament. What a vision.

The oracle, or poem, says that all of the nations of the world will “stream” to Jerusalem and that Yahweh will judge and adjudicate between the debates and disagreements of the nations and they will (therefore?) turn their swords into plowshares. When the temple proclaims the teachings, instructions, and Torah, therefore people will flock (“stream”) to it and lay down their swords? “All the nations will accept Israel’s Torah as their charter for wellbeing.”[5] Therefore, Yahweh (or the temple?) will function kind of like the World Court of the United Nations, that is, a court of appeal for the problems of the world.

This promised world is theological (a vision of Yahweh as judge and creator of all that is) but at the same time it is also political (a vision of a time when nations acknowledge Yahweh as the adjudicator of international disputes). What a difference it would make in the world if there was an equitable authority that settled international disputes. This was 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 policy would no longer be needed.

This issue and this passage are strongly embedded in Advent, because the vision of Advent is one of promise and hope, and that’s what we find here, hope for a better world. To try to envision a better world. Most of us, steeped in Christian traditions, get tied up in visions of the baby in the manger, and we forget that the point of this early belief was that this baby would be the prince of peace, the savior of (his) people. During Advent we lean forward in hope, we see glimpses of what is ‘not yet.” That, says Brueggemann is the function of promise: to “see” a world that does not yet exist.

This act of hope is a “word” that Isaiah “saw.” Odd phrase. Usually it is a word that he hears or a vision that he saw. Does it mean that he saw God’s word in a vision?

I think we need to look seriously at ourselves before we can envision the future. We have to authentically and honestly look at our own shortcomings before we can construct a positive hopeful new future. We must see the raw and blunt existence of today before we can envision tomorrow. Is there a “whiff” of that in the negative passage of Ch. 1 preceding the positive passage of Ch. 2? The juxtaposition of what is with what could be? We don’t hope for the promise of a better world unless the hurt of the present one has been made clear to us. What we hope for in a future world is based on our critical analysis of the present one. It is impossible to hope for something to come unless we can see and acknowledge a wrongness in the present. Our hope for tomorrow is that which will cure the ills of today.

This passage and the Gospel reading for today both speak of some kind of upcoming event. Something anticipated, hoped for. The Gospel speaks of being vigilant for the time of the coming of the Son of Man, and the prophet speaks of a time way off in the future 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 war. They will study war no more, they will turn their swords into plowshares; they will turn their spears into pruning hooks.

But is this “advent”? 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? No.
Advent is a word by itself that is unrelated to churchy issues. It means the anticipation, the waiting, the anticipation of something grand and important that is coming. So, in that sense, both of these passage are about an “advent.” One is the advent of a new reality and the other is a person who teaches, preaches and embodies a new reality.

Here’s where I think this prophesy in Isaiah touches the world most clearly: There was a poll a few years ago: People who expect to be mugged or burglarized tend to feel more fearful and hostile to outsiders than those who don’t. Interesting point 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 into dour and fearful and hostile. It is what they expect to happen that impacts how they will feel waiting for it. Is that the message of Isaiah 2?
To get at that, here are two stories from my childhood. Both have to do with waiting for something with great anticipation.

The first story took place back in the 1950s, and has to do with my waiting excitedly for the coming of my cousins for Thanksgiving. 

There were five of them, and they were the children of my mother’s sister and brother who lived in Corpus Christi, Texas and Frederick, Oklahoma. It was a huge event. Counting my brother and I, we made seven kids running excitedly around the kitchen and dining room while Thursday morning cooking was going on. So, starting fairly early in my life (about five), our parents started taking us out and dumping us off at a nearby theatre (called the “Lakeview”). Then early evening when the table was all set, they’d go back out and haul us all home for the big feed. None of us ever had any idea when the movie might be beginning or what might be showing. It wasn’t important, and nobody cared. I don’t think in all of my years growing up that I ever asked what was showing or complained about what we saw. For our parents the movie was just child care. For us it was a spiritual experience, an annual religious ritual of being in the presence of a group of people who loved me and whom I loved with all of my heart mind and soul. It was something I looked forward to with a bone-quivering, delirious anticipation. The “Advent” of the movie day.

Sometimes the movie was great and sometimes it was a bust. It didn’t matter to us either. What was important for the many children in our family, was the waiting in excitement for it to happen. It was our chance to be together and it was one of the most glorious times of the year. One time they dropped us off to see “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which was corny and awful and schlocky even back then. Another time we arrived in the middle of the “Wizard of OZ” (when they first arrived at the castle). It was all the same to our parents and frankly all the same to us kids. I was five; I didn’t understand either movie. However, the day of the movie, the occasion, the event--the idea of being with, and being loved by, my cousins, whom I only saw and hugged once a year--that part was glorious. Looking forward to it was to dream of a time and life that would someday be better than the one I was living in at that time. It had religious and prophetic overtones to it that would make Isaiah proud. We went up to the mountain, we brought good gifts, my brother and I agreed to turn our swords into plowshares (for the moment at least). It was a dream and a hope for the advent of a wonderful coming future, and the anticipation of it happening changed me inside and out (well, maybe not that much, but a little…you get the idea).

Second story: this one took place back in the sixties. It was a time when I was a teen, my mother was a stay at home mom, and my step-dad away for the day at work. He worked down town as a sundry buyer at a wholesale drug company and always got home just in time for the meal to go on the table. I had done something bad that day (I think I broke a window with a baseball, but I’m not sure). She said you just wait until your dad gets home and he’ll take care of you for this. I spent the day in hell. Nothing that happened that day could lift my spirits. It was miserable. I was living in the Advent of a horrible upcoming event. The waiting for something miserable to happen made the entire day miserable. As it happened, when he finally got home that evening, he sat down and talked to me about it, and we worked out a way for me to pay off the broken window and that was it. No spanking, no grounding, no nothing. The actual event was not nearly as bad as my terrifying, waiting anticipation of it.

Be careful what you hope for, because you will eventually be living out that hope while waiting for it to come. Be careful what you live the advent of, because you will find yourself living with it during the time of its coming.

So what does any of this have to do with Advent, the big “Advent,” with the capital “A”?

The people of God in ancient Israel lived during constant wars and rumors of wars, yet they created this and other prophesies of a time in the distant future when all the nations of the world would come together around 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 plow shears, and turn their spears into pruning forks.

You’ve got to say that on its face it was an impossible vision, an impossible dream, an impossible prophesy. Practically speaking, you’d have to say it should never have been spoken. Because, frankly, it never happened. From that day, thousands of years ago to this one, it never happened. And, quite possibly, it never will 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 look forward to an “advent” of a time when nations would study war no more? Was it wrong to live in hope? Did they change their behavior, their demeanor, their love for one another in light of it? Would their lives have been better blessed in the present if they had been expecting a time of turning weapons into tools or expecting an era of war. Would they have experience more joy if they were looking forward to a spanking or to a family reunion?

Hint: the smart money is on Advent.

[1] John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
[2] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: W/JK, 1998), p. 24.
[3] Barton/Muddiman, Oxford Bible Commentary.
[4] Brueggemann, p. 25
[5] Brueggemann. Texts for Preaching, p. 3


Isaiah 2:1-5

The Future House of God
 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,[6]
       and the word of the LORD[7] [will go forth from] from Jerusalem.[8]
4    He shall judge[9] between the nations,
       and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
     they shall beat their swords into plowshares,[10]
       and their spears into pruning hooks;[11]
     nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
       neither shall they learn war any more.
Judgment Pronounced on Arrogance[12]
5    O house of Jacob,
       come, let us walk
       in the light of the LORD!

[1] “In days to come.” Or, “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 in the middle of the city, which was itself up on a high 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.” (Interpreter’s Bible, Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953).
[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 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001]). It uses the language of topography to describe its dream of what could happen in the future politically.
[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)” (Interpreter’s Bible, Isaiah).
[6] “Instruction” (תּוָֹרה, tôrāh) N. Fem. direction, law, Torah. It means “instruction” in the sense that it represents the teachings of the Torah, the whole Law. Also in niv. kjv has “torah,” neb has “Moral instruction.” cev has “law.” The Oxford Bible Commentary says on this, “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.”
[7] “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. (Oxford Bible Commentary).
[8] “Centuries ago, instruction went out from Mount Sinai (Exod. 20). In the future, instruction will go out from Mount Zion. At Sinai it was the Lord who spoke; from Zion, that which is spoken will again be ‘the word of the LORD’ (v. 3)” (James Limburg, “First Sunday of Advent, Year A,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 296.
[9] “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 [and women] (cf. 9:7; 11:1-9). (Interpreter’s Bible, Isaiah)
[10] “Plowshares.” “[T]his same Hebrew word is used in 2 Kings 6:5, where it appears to refer to some sort of ax. Since the sword is ‘broken up,’ it is possible that the resulting product is metal shards that could then be put to various uses” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[11] But see Joel 3:10: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
[12] This verse is actually a fragment, added by the editor. It is possible that it is a textual variant of a part of v. 3. Limburg believes the editor placed it here to make sure that when people heard the above poem read in worship they would not assume it was talking about someone else, or think that listening was all that was required of them. “They are aimed at the community living in the hard realities of the present. The appeal is doubled, using the same verb twice, for emphasis: “O house of Jacob, / walk (Heb. halak), let us walk / (halak) in the light of the LORD!” (Limburg, Lectionary Commentary, p. 297).
Micah 4:1-4, where this poem also appears, also ends with a phrase added by an editor:
For all the peoples walk,
    each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God
    forever and ever. 

[1] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: W/JK, 1998), p. 24.
[2] Ibid.,, p. 25
[3] Brueggemann. Texts for Preaching, p. 3