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    blue and grey image of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne

    Swords to Plowshares, Part II

    The Mountain of the Lord

    By Tom Boogaart

    September 20, 2017

    Editorial Intro: This is the second installment in a three-part series, Swords to Plowshares: Isaiah’s Vision of Peace.

    These themes of Isaiah’s ministry come into a sharp focus in his vision of the elevation of Mount Zion. God’s sovereignty over all the sacred mountain temples of the other gods is fully realized when Mount Zion is raised above them all. All the peoples and nations come to worship together in the presence of the Lord, and they become one people, the people of God. Instruments of death and war become useless, and people rework them into instruments of life and productivity. In the end, the world becomes what God intended it to be in the beginning, the Garden of God.

    Mountains were important to the people of Israel. A mountain’s height suggested transcendence, and its massive size suggested permanence and reliability. Draped in clouds, it seemed to touch the sky. Like other ancient peoples, the Israelites thought of mountain tops as the abode of God, a place of connection between heaven and earth. It was on Mount Sinai that God appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Mount Zion was the house of God, complete with a banquet room (the Holy Place and courtyard) in which God set a table to feast with his people, and a throne room (the Holy of Holies) from which God’s judgment went forth. The temple and earlier the tabernacle were the center of worship for the people of Israel throughout their history.

    The whole world is God’s holy land, and all nations are God’s chosen people.

    In a vision, Isaiah saw Mount Zion established as the highest of the mountains and rising above the hills. Isaiah saw, with the eyes of his heart, the physical geography of the world conforming to its spiritual geography. The physical Mount Zion is unremarkable when compared to other mountains, but, for the people of Israel, Mount Zion was the center of the world, the place where words proceeded from the mouth of the Lord and gave life to the world, the place where the people of Israel experience the truth of Moses’ teaching that humankind “does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). The temple on Mount Zion was the place where heaven and earth met, where the connection between the spiritual and material worlds was as seamless Jesus’ robe, where the glory of God began to fill the world. In this vision Isaiah saw the world as it truly was, for despite the physical appearance of this mountain, no other one had the elevation of Mount Zion.

    Mont Sainte-Victoire painted by Paul Cézanne

    Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, oil on canvas

    Isaiah saw the peoples and nations streaming to Zion from every corner of the world to the house of the Lord. Isaiah saw a great procession of pilgrims, and heard their song:

    Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob.
    He will teach us his ways,
    and we will walk in his paths.
    For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

    In this song, the pilgrims were looking forward to the coming worship at Mount Zion and were anticipating a service with a threefold movement, a basic liturgical pattern that is still common today:

    Approach to God (Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord);
    Word of God (he will teach his ways);
    Response to God (we will walk in his paths).

    The liturgical pattern which the pilgrims anticipated in their song is exactly the pattern that they follow when they finally arrive at Mount Zion. Isaiah’s vision as a whole depicts a worship service with a threefold movement of the pilgrims. After the mountain of the Lord’s house is established as the highest of the mountains and is raised above the hills, it becomes visible to all, and its elevation is a call to worship:

    Approach to God (All the nations shall stream to it, and many peoples shall come);
    Word of God (He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples);
    Response to God (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).

    In this vision, which encompasses the whole world with all its peoples and nations, Isaiah saw human history culminating in a grand worship service. The whole world is God’s holy land, and all nations are God’s chosen people. The geography of the world is not a formless mass upon which humans draw borders, defend with weapons, and build temples to their gods. The world has a center, Mount Zion, from which the sustaining power of God goes forth, and to which all people are drawn.

    The world has a center, Mount Zion, from which the sustaining power of God goes forth, and to which all people are drawn.

    Throughout history, worship has been imperfect, and its imperfections have led to the many, unhappy divisions. Throughout history, there have been many competing centers around which people have built their lives and defended with their blood. They have gathered at these centers and called on their gods to protect them and give them victory in battle. But at the culmination of human history, worship will be perfected. The many peoples and nations will see the mountain of the house of the Lord and find the roads leading to the Lord. They will ascend the Lord’s mountain and hear the Lord’s words of judgment. They will descend and return home on these same roads transformed. They will beat their swords into plowshares. The path to God is the path of peace.

    This reconciling of enemies and their worshiping together before the Lord in his temple was a firm hope of the people of Israel, a hope expressed often in their stories and Psalms. For example, 2 Kings tells the story of the war between the Israelites and the Arameans. During this conflict, the Lord constantly intervenes to stop the violence. First, he forewarns the villages of Israel so that they could protect themselves from the raiding parties of Aram. Next, the Lord protects Elisha from the army of Aram that surrounds his room in the city of Dothan by immobilizing it with a blinding light. After this, Elisha, the would-be captive now commander, leads the befuddled army into the city of Samaria and into the hand of the King of Israel. All this sets the stage for the climax of the narrative. The King of Israel believes that the Lord has delivered his enemies into his hand, and he asks Elisha for the Lord’s permission to kill them all. Against all expectations, Elisha tells him, not to kill them, but that it is the Lord’s will that the King of Israel feed them. The will of the Lord is that all his children gather around a table and eat together.

    Another powerful expression of this hope for peace and universal kinship is also found in Psalm 23. We are so familiar with this psalm, and so captivated by its shepherd imagery, that we often lose sight of its larger meaning. The Psalm ends:

    You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
    You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
    Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
    and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

    Notice how personal is the depiction of the Lord in this the psalm. “You prepare a table before me…You anoint my head with oil.” The Psalmist pictures the Lord as the host, personally honoring his guests by serving them and anointing them with scented oil.

    Notice too the phrase, “in the presence of my enemies.” We have consistently read this phrase to mean that Israel’s enemies and by extension our own will be on the outside looking in when we believers arrive at the house and table of the Lord. But there is another way to interpret this phrase, another way that is suggested by Isaiah’s vision of the latter days and by narratives like 2 Kings 6. God prepares a table in the presence of Israel’s enemies – they are apparently already at table when the people of Israel arrive.

    Don’t miss Part I and Part III of Tom Boogaart’s series, “Trusting God” and “History’s Dramatic Reversal.”

    Contributed By TomBoogaart

    Tom Boogaart 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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