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Swords to Plowshares, Part I

Trusting God

Tom Boogaart

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

A sculpture of a man beating a sword into a plowshare stands on the grounds of the United Nations in New York City. The UN was founded in October of 1945, after the carnage of the two world wars, and this sculpture was a testament to the hope that all nations would gather at one center, submit to a common law, and forswear armed conflict: as the prophet Isaiah said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.”

Isaiah was an audacious man. He challenged the Israelites’ fascination with military power. There was something exhilarating about brandishing a sword or riding in a chariot, thereby enhancing one’s power and transcending one’s human limitations. One felt quasi-omnipotent. There was something intoxicating about shooting arrows or throwing spears, thereby projecting power over ever-greater distances. One felt quasi-omnipresent. There was something God-like about warfare.

But Isaiah derided the people of Israel for their trust in weapons and alliances. When the army of the Assyrian king Sennacherib marched toward Jerusalem, and Hezekiah sent his ambassadors to Egypt for help, Isaiah was outraged. The Lord had liberated the Israelites from the Egyptians, and now they willingly returned to Egypt. The Lord had once destroyed the Egyptian army, but now the Israelites were trusting in its power rather than the Lord’s. Isaiah confronted them with their foolishness:

Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong....
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
their horses are flesh, and not spirit.

When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
and they will all perish together. (31:1,3)

With Sennacherib’s mighty army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and to reject the allure of weapons. Isaiah cast a vision of the Holy One of Israel hovering over Mt. Zion in order to defend and protect it:

As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey,
and – when a band of shepherds is called out against it –
is not terrified by their shouting
or daunted at their noise,
so the Lord of the angelic hosts will come down
to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.
Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts
will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it,
he will spare and rescue it (31: 4–5).

Isaiah challenged not only the common understanding of power in his world, but also the common understanding of kinship. Many of Israel’s religious leaders taught that the Israelites were God’s special people, and that their land was God’s special land. In their version of the story, God sanctioned violence against other peoples, who were irredeemably corrupted. Only the Israelites were created in the image of God, they taught, and other peoples, the Canaanites and later the Assyrians and Egyptians, were a danger to Israel’s survival, both by their aggression and, often more dangerously, by their idolatrous influence.

God was the Everlasting Father and the all people of the world were his children.

Isaiah believed, however, that the Lord was not only the source of all power, but also the source of all life. God was the Everlasting Father and the all people of the world were his children. The house of God on Mount Zion was every nation’s their true home, and God longed for all his prodigal children to come home. The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Canaanites were also the children of God, no more and no less than the Israelites.

Just as the Lord was hovering over the Israelites in Jerusalem, Isaiah claimed, he was also hovering over the Egyptians and Assyrians, “striking” them so that they would “return to the Lord,” who would “listen to their supplications and heal them” (19:22). This extraordinary prophecy concludes with these words:

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’(19:24)

Isaiah’s understanding of power and kinship were drawn directly from an encounter that he had with God while officiating in the temple. Not unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “kitchen table epiphany” revealed both God’s presence in his life and God’s power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany. Perhaps while serving as High Priest on the Day of Atonement and tending to the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of God, Isaiah saw the veil between the spiritual and material worlds lifted for a moment, and the Lord sitting on the throne surrounded by the angelic hosts. The Lord drew him into the divine council where the Holy One deliberated with his angels and determined the course of history. In the divine council Isaiah heard the seraphim singing:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of the angelic hosts;
the whole world is full of his glory (Isaiah 6: 3).

Isaiah was overwhelmed. The glory of God that permeated the whole world now permeated his whole being. It cast a light on parts of himself long hidden. The knowledge of God brought with it a true knowledge of self. Isaiah could only say:

Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of the angelic hosts (6: 5).

The Lord’s absolute sovereignty demanded absolute trust on the part of God’s people.

However powerful the words passing his lips as High Priest may have seemed to Isaiah and his people, however grand their rituals and pageantry, they were now exposed as unclean and feeble when compared to the purity and power of the words of the Lord. This “temple epiphany” revealed the Lord’s omnipresence and omnipotence: He alone determined the course of events. The people of God needed to put their trust in the Lord for their security, and putting trust in anything else, especially in the power of the sword, was an affront to their great King.

The Lord’s absolute sovereignty demanded absolute trust on the part of God’s people; it demanded pacifism, non-violent resistance to the powers of evil. Isaiah tried to convince the people of Israel that God would fight for them and defend them. They needed to realize what was later articulated by the apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom. 8: 31). They needed to remember Moses’ faith when they were standing between the Red Sea and the armies of Pharaoh:

But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still’ (Exod. 14: 13–14).

They needed to take seriously the words of their songs of worship:

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge (Psalm 46: 9–12).


Don’t miss the rest of Tom Boogaart’s series, Part II,  “The Mountain of the Lord” and Part III, “History’s Dramatic Reversal.”

statue of a man beating a sword into a plow, United Nations Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares statue at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City; sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, 1959
Contributed By Tom Boogart in orange shirt and black jacket Tom Boogaart

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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