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Swords to Plowshares: Part III

History’s Dramatic Reversal

Tom Boogaart

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This is the third installment in a three-part series, “Swords to Plowshares: Isaiah’s Vision of Peace.”

Genesis 1–11 describes humankind’s descent into violence. It begins with an account of Adam and Eve tending and keeping the Garden of God and then their banishment from it. When Cain feels jealousy in his heart toward his brother, he cannot master the impulse to murder him. He strikes his brother down in the field, possibly, according to some ancient readers, using one of his agricultural tools. As time goes on, the hearts of all people are overcome with evil (Gen. 6: 5, 11). God attempts to wash the world clean with a flood of water, but evil survives. After the flood, the people are not content to tend and keep the Garden of God. Instead they gather together and, filled with a sense of their collective power, they decide to build a tower, storm heaven, and remove their King from his throne. To defend himself from their attack, the Lord confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth. Genesis chapters 1–11 end with a situation that will bring endless war and bloodshed to the world: the nations do not understanding one another (the English word “war” comes from the Old High German, “werra,” meaning confusion).

In this account of humans turning a garden-world into a cemetery, of blood crying out to God from the ground, of humans beating plowshares into swords, three events stand out that move human beings step by step to greater violence:

1) Cain the gardener becomes the warrior. He kills Abel, after which killing and fear of being killed become a way of life for humankind;
2) God confuses the languages of the peoples so that they cannot understand one another;
3) God scatters the peoples over the face of the earth so that they lose a sense of their common life and purpose.

In his vision, Isaiah sees God reversing these three, primordial events:

3) God gathers the peoples and nations to one place, the temple on Mt. Zion (all the nations shall stream to it, and many peoples shall come);
2) God instructs them in one language (for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem);
1) God turns the warriors into gardeners. Weapons are turned back into agricultural instruments (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).

Isaiah envisions a great reversal of human history. The end of time will be a return to the beginning of time: the people of the world returning to the work of tending the Garden of God.

The act of beating swords into plowshares and spear into pruning hooks is a dramatic depiction of the reversal that will take place the end of time. This depiction continues to capture the imagination of people even thousands of years after the time that Isaiah lived. There is, however, another depiction of this same reversal in this same vision that is not so well known:

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation;
neither shall they learn war anymore.

This is the second reference in this vision to the act of “lifting up.” The first was to the house of God being lifted above the hills, the holy places of the other nations. The word for “lift up” in Hebrew has a wide range of meanings: lift, raise, bear, carry, and forgive. In many cases the action of lifting up has religious connotations. All things “lifted up” are brought closer to God. We lift up our hands and eyes as acknowledgement of God’s presence in our world. We lift up the things we want to dedicate to God. So when nations lift up the sword, it is a metaphor for going to war, but it also carries with it the suggestion that war is a religious act. The nations are dedicating their swords to their gods and seeking their blessing. The vision suggests that the sword will no longer be so honored. It will no longer be an object of worship and killing will no longer be sanctified as the will of God. At the end of time the only thing that will be lifted up is the mountain of the house of the Lord.

The act of beating swords into plowshares and spear into pruning hooks is a dramatic depiction of the reversal that will take place the end of time.

Isaiah depicts Mt. Zion becoming the highest of the mountains and being raised above the hills. As we have mentioned above, this depiction of Mt. Zion’s elevation is more than a reference to physical geography; it is a reference to spiritual geography. The mountains and hills of the world are not just physical high places; they are religious high places, the various centers of worship for the peoples and nations of the world. In this vision, Isaiah scans the whole world, and he sees the peoples and nations coming from their worship centers. And, very importantly, he sees them returning to those centers. They are not blotted out. People 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 longings for the true God.

In Isaiah’s vision God is not distant and aloof, but present and hospitable. God invites all the people of the world into his house, and there God converses with them. At the end of time God and God’s people will be face to face. Before his throne, the people of the world will feel both the frightening power of God’s person but also his love and compassion. They will listen to his judgments and decisions and submit to his authority. His words will convict them. They will 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.

It is passages like Isaiah 2:1–4 that has led theologians to argue that all people in the depths of their hearts long for God and that all their devotion and religious practices are in some way directed toward God. They hold, therefore, some element of truth, and this truth will be perfected in the word of God at the end of time.

The depiction of the peaceful reconciliation between Israel and the other nations is at odds with that found in other places in Scripture. We read, for example, the following in the Book of Deuteronomy, a book difficult to date but certainly representative of the theological climate after the Babylonian exile in 587 C.E.:

You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. You shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there (Isa. 12:2–5).

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel were instructed to demolish completely the religious centers of other nations, smash their sacred objects, and leave bare their holy mountains and hills. There was nothing of value in their life together; in fact, their religious rules and practices were a threat to the purity of rules and practices of the people of Israel. Later in the Book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are instructed to totally wipe out all the nations immediately around them:

But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20: 15–18)

Isaiah’s vision of the end times challenged the other religious leaders of his day. The contrast between their world views was sharp. Believing in the power of weapons and the necessity of military alliances, believing that God had sanctioned killing, many of the leaders in Isaiah’s day were sure that history would end 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 Torah. To put the contrast of world views in sharp focus:  Isaiah called on the people of Israel to beat their swords into plowshares, and his opponents called on them to beat their plowshares into swords (cf. Joel 3).

God is not distant and aloof, but present and hospitable.

The Scriptures contain the record of a heated and ongoing debate among the followers of God about the nature of power, the fate of the nations, and the end of time. We have not always acknowledged this. Very few people in the American 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 and unaware of the broader tradition, all the psalms and narratives, from which he draws his inspiration. 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 reach out to those deemed unclean and outside of the circle of care. 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 American, 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. Maybe it is time for the American, 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.


Don’t miss the rest of Tom Boogaart’s series, Part I: Trusting God and Part II: The Mountain of the Lord.

a watercolor of the prophet Isaiah painted by James Tissot Isaiah by James Tissot
Contributed By Tom Boogart in orange shirt and black jacket Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogart is a minister in the Reformed Church of America. He has spent a lifetime immersed in the scriptures, as a student and teacher in the Netherlands and in England, and later at Central College in Iowa and at Western Theological Seminary.

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