John the Baptist, Alexandre Cabanel, 1849, Musée Fabre (France – Montpellier)
(click for more information about this painting)
December 8, 2019
Last week, we examined how (First) Isaiah understood the call of the Jews. He prophesied that they would be the means by which all nations were to know and worship the LORD. Speaking of the Temple on Mt. Zion, he wrote:
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways.”
He also had a glimpse of what the effect of the universal worship of the LORD would mean:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
This is the text of the Isaiah Wall in front of the United Nations. It is a beautiful statement of a desire for peace and harmony, but forgets that it comes from a specific time and place and must be read accordingly. Today then, we will look at what Isaiah meant by peace and how we can expect it to arrive.
Isaiah reflects the political and social reality of his time: from to c. 740 BC to 700 BC in Jerusalem. The rise of the Assyrian empire was the major political reality of his day and is the key to understanding both the national and international situation. Judah and Israel were in the middle between Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. The leaders of both sought to play one empire against the other. Eventually though Judah (Jerusalem) became a vassal, client state, of Assyria. This means that a tremendous tribute was levied on the people. As is so often the case, the rich were able to pass these taxes on to the poor. When reading last week’s and this week’s passages, both the international and national causes and effects of injustice need to be remembered.
This is one of those cases when some of the most magnificent poetry and profound theology in the Bible arises from sorted and difficult circumstances. Here, we are basically given a meditation on the meaning of creation and re-creation.
If we define creation as a conscious decision by a loving and powerful god to make something where there was either nothing or complete chaos, it is a minority concept among world religions. Most people in the ancient world would have found a statement like the creation of light at very least bewildering if not incomprehensible:
Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw how good the light was.
They would have expected something much more dramatic and been suspicious that the product was good. There are many more questions, but we do not have time to look at them. The world that God created was good and indeed a Paradise: there was harmony between God and our first parents, Adam and Eve, and between them and nature.
It did not last very long. Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out. The history of the Hebrews has been God’s seeking to bring them back. For Isaiah, the key moments would have been the return from Egypt and the eventual establishment of the monarchy under David. He was chosen by God and promised that God would never abandon him. Yet we are now less than two centuries after David’s death and there is political and moral chaos.
What could change this?
Isaiah originally thought that a king obedient to God would arise and set things right. Although they sinned mightily, they could be led to repentance by a king filled with wisdom: Thus:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
This may have been referred to King Hezekiah of whom much was expected. He was a very good king but proved inevitably inadequate to the tasks.
They were not in paradise. Let us stop here for a moment and reflect upon how amazing this view of the harmony of creation is. This is 2,800 years ago yet I wonder how it would be accepted now. How many people would prefer the absence of war and a world where all live in peace and equality to the triumph of their tribe or nation? In today’s reading, we hear that we will know that our nation is in accord with God’s will when there is a ruler who:
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
Do we judge our society by the quality of justice or by its GDP? When the next financial crunch comes, will we demand that our government limit homelessness or keep our taxes stable?
By this time, Isaiah does not think that a king as we normally use the word will be able to accomplish either true peace or justice.
He reveals this in final section of today’s reading:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
This is truly a return to Eden when Adam named the animals, and all lived in harmony with them. It clearly is beyond any purely human agent. Yet notice that today’s passage both opens and closes with references to the “stump” or “root” of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David and this is an invocation of the line of David. Isaiah knows that something far more radical will be needed, but he also knows that it will not be through an extraordinarily profound philosophy but by adherence to the traditions of the Jewish people.
The climate change conference held this week should be in our prayers. It is very important, but I do not think that it will be a great success. It was intended to be held in Chile, but due to civil unrest has been moved to Spain. Also, the essential absence of the United States will make it difficult to attain any major success. Even if there are leaders as wise as Hezekiah, they will get no further than he did. A change in thinking like that of Isaiah is required. The recognition that only the God who created the universe can recreate it. Human beings can make some strides in peace and justice, but true harmony, Shalom, comes from the LORD alone.