By Jared WarnerWillow Creek Friends Church
November 27, 2022
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Isaiah 2:1–5 (ESV)
1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and 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.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and 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 anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
We have all inherited a faith. Ideas and concepts, beliefs and traditions have been passed down to us since ancient times. We have received these gifts, but at times we may have lost the context. As much as we would like to believe that we read scripture without bias, we cannot remove ourselves from cultural biases. I as a minister among Friends, read this passage much differently than people of other traditions. I am of course right, but we need to extend grace and learn from the perspectives of others because it may provide a richness to the soils of our hearts.
Today we read from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. During the 2nd temple era of Israel’s history, Isaiah had great influence. He is quoted, referenced, or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other author outside of the Psalms. And this is the same with the writings that were found among the Dead Sea scrolls. One scholar says this about Isaiah, “Isaiah is the Shakespeare of the prophets, and the St. Paul of the Old Testament.” Understanding Isaiah is important. And understanding how the various groups understand Isaiah is also important.
Isaiah is unique among the prophets. He came from an educated background. Most believe that he was a trained scribe, someone that worked within the royal courts, that along the way developed a sage like understanding of faith. He had access to the royal courts because he was a cousin to the king. This is also unique among the prophets. He had a position, education, and connections. Because of these his ministry was long, it extended through the rule of four kings. Many believe that this means he served for nearly forty years through this ninety-year period.
To understand Isaiah, we need to understand that he had these connections and knowledge of both his culture and the cultures surrounding Judah. When he spoke or wrote, much like Paul in the New Testament, he often spoke of how their God, and their faith interacted within the larger world. Isaiah did not simply work within a vacuum, he knew what was going on around him, and he knew what was going on at home. He had knowledge and he was also sensitive to the voice of God.
We begin this section with a touchpoint that connects the prophet to a time and place. “The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” This section of scripture begins with the Word and concludes with Light. These two words are connected, they refer to wisdom and knowledge. They refer to the Torah, and revelation. When we look at John 1, we see that John begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” John continues this line of thought about the divine word by saying, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Word and light, look at wisdom from two perspectives, knowledge and guidance or application. Light guides, and the word instructs. Life with God is relational and active as much as it is scholarly.
Isaiah is speaking of knowledge and revelation that will guide if we listen. But what are we to listen to? “It shall come to pass in the latter days…” The introductory phrase of the second verse can cause us to stumble depending on how the translation is made. In the English standard version it says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days.” Where the King James version says, “and it shall come to pass in the last days.” I want us to just sit with this difference for a bit. Both are correct because the Hebrew phrase can mean both a future time and the end. The interesting thing is that in the Complete Jewish Bible in English, a translation from Messianic Jewish traditions, they do not translate the phrase but leave the phrase as transliterated Hebrew. They do this because the true meaning is ambiguous. Isaiah could be speaking about the apocalyptic end, or he could be speaking of a future hope.
How has the translation of this ambiguous and loaded phrase influenced the way we approach this passage? Is the words Isaiah says something within our reach, or are they beyond human facility? Are they a goal we should stive to accomplish or the hope we cling to in that almost mystical era beyond the mists of time? The reality is that both interpretations have been equally used throughout history and we are not given any real context as to what Isaiah truly meant. Therefore, we make an honest attempt, but even within that attempt to provide an accurate translation our biases can come into play.
“The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” Most people look at this statement and their minds are immediately drawn to the temple mount because this is what Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. This is not necessarily wrong, but it may not give us the fullest picture of what Isaiah is speaking about.
Mountains have an interesting place in ancient religious thought. From the Greek’s Mount Olympus to the tower of Babel the image of mountains is central to many ancient religious thoughts. This is no different in the faith of Israel. The gods dwell in gardens upon the mountains. The council of the gods, where the gods make judgement and dictations for the earth are on the mountains. Hebrew scriptures speak in a similar manner. Several times Hebrew scriptures speak of God within his council. Psalm 82 states, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods, he holds judgement.” The gods dwell on these mountains, ancient people believed this because mountains were separated from humanity, our ancient ancestors did not have to tools to scale many mountains. But the ones that they could climb became places of worship. We are told of the righteous kings of Judea pulling down the high places, these high places were the temple of various gods. If an ancient culture far from mountains, they would often create their own, which is what the tower of Babel represents, and some believe that the pyramids of Egypt were man made mountains also.
There is an ancient understanding about the supernatural aspect of life that is shared throughout the ancient world. The concept of spiritual warfare is at the foundation of the religions of the nations but also the interactions between the nations. Every nation believed that they had some divine guardian directing their path, and as they battled with other people, these divine forces were also at war.
If the gods are on the mountains, the highest mountain is the greatest god. “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Isaiah speaks of strength and power. When Isaiah ministered to the people there was a constant threat to the nations, the threat of Assyria. Isaiah witnessed the fall and the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel. He spoke to Judah about their own position against this mighty force. And it was a mighty fearsome force. The prophet Jonah was called to preach in the capital city of Assyria, and Jonah out of fear and hate ran from that calling. I understand why Jonah would act in that manner. If I were called to minister in the capital city of our nations’ greatest enemy, I too would question the wisdom of God.
In ancient understanding the power of your god was connected to battlefield. With this ideology in mind, the world’s understanding of the strongest god was not the god of Israel, but Assyria’s. Israel has never been a large nation. Even during its golden age under king David and Solomon the might of Israel has never come close to the might of the surrounding nations. It has always seemed to be one step behind, yet it still had influence that exceeded its size. Isaiah is telling Judah, do not pay attention to the ideas of the surrounding nations because our God is not like the gods of the nations.
Israel’s God will be lifted above the hills and all the nations shall flow to it. I love this image. Mainly because it proves that they are not speaking of a literal mountain, if it was a literal mountain, the flow is away from the mountain but this is reverse. People are attracted to it. “And the people shall come,” Isaiah continues, “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.”
This attraction is something I want us to consider. What attracts your attention? What brought you to this place? What has kept you here even though you are free to go elsewhere?
“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and 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 anymore.”
This is where I would like us to sit and consider things. Is Isaiah speaking of a goal we should strive for, or is he speaking of the end of days? This I believe is important, because how we answer that question determines how we live our lives in this time and place.
Isaiah is saying that something is drawing people, even nations, toward Israel and her God. His mountain, the seat of God’s divine council, is taking a higher position in relation to the gods of the other nations. His mountain is being lifted, but not in the manner the world understands.
In Deuteronomy we are given a glimpse into the supernatural realm that is at play behind the scenes of life. In Genesis we are told about three instances of human failings. Our first parents ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and they were banished from God’s presence. Then we are told that God became disgusted with the world because the sons of God took wives from among the daughters of men, and this led to the great flood. The last of the failings was when mankind wanted to make a name for themselves so they built a tower to reach the heavens, we know this tower to be Babel. The tower was built as a human attempt to reach the realm of the gods, but God decided that he would confuse the languages so that this could not happen. It seems odd but we were not really told the whole story in Genesis. In Deuteronomy we get the rest of the story so to speak. Deuteronomy 32 is near the end of Moses’s life and is considered his song. We might call it Moses’s farewell speech as sends the people of God into the land of Promise, and he remains with their parents in the wilderness. Moses writes, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you. When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.”
This is a weird passage but it is linked to the Babel event. God divided the people; he separated their languages and those that spoke the same language gathered to each other. We are told through Moses that these people were divided among the sons of God. We are troubled by this passage, but to the ancients this made total sense. Each nation had a god. Each people had a god. Yet among all these groups they had an idea that there were lesser and greater gods. Very few of the ancient world religious faiths allowed direct access to the Most High God. Most were lucky if they had access to the servant of the Most High. Even the Baal the false god that Israel often turned to when they turned away from God once they settled in the Promised Land, was not the primary deity in the pantheon of that faith tradition. Baal was the servant of El. This is interesting if you ask me, because El is often used as a name for God within the Hebrew Scriptures. The Most High God divided the nations, but there was only one group that had direct access to the Most High. And that was a group that did not yet exist at the time of Babel.
It was after Babel that Abraham was called, it was after Babel that God chose his people, and he did not choose the mightiest among the nations. He chose one old and childless man. If the world believes that the strength of a deity is based on the strength of the military God was determined to choose a different path.
God chose a nation that did not yet exist. The Most High God, chose to reveal his greatness in a manner that contradicted the wisdom of men. The might of God is revealed through what men see as weakness. And yet Isaiah is saying there will be an attraction to the Most High. The attraction is peace and justice. It is equity and concern for others. It is a continuation of what God began in Eden, God commissioned our first parent to go into the world and bring it into submission. We often look at that commission through the eyes of conquest. This is a mistake because that is looking at the commissioning through the wisdom of men. Instead, we should look at it through the eyes of diplomacy and convincement. Adam and Eve were commissioned to reflect the life they had in Eden to the world that lay outside the borders of that garden. The garden is described by the prophets as God’s Mountain abode. Our first parents were to go out into the world, walking with all of creation in the same manner that God walked with them in the cool of the evenings. They were to go into the world as God’s royal envoy to extend the influence God had in the garden to all of creation.
When God gave Moses the law, this is what God was attempting to restore. We as humans turned away from God’s created order, we used might and force to exploit and control. But Torah was given to teach a different lifestyle. God chose Israel to be a light to the nations, to be the evidence that there is a different lifestyle available. A life where the poor are treated with dignity, where the outsider is treated with the same respect and honor as the native. Where people are concerned with the wellbeing of others just as much as they are concerned with the wellbeing of themselves.
People will flow to the Mountain of God to learn His ways, why? “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Reflect for a moment on what that means. The people of God will use the resources available to them for, agriculture. They will use the resources available, not to exploit and steal from others, but to create an abundance. Jesus told his disciples that he came to give life, and life to the full or abundance. This is what he means. It does not necessarily mean that we each need to have a farm, but that we should use what we have available to encourage others.
“Neither shall they learn war anymore.”
I have contemplated that last statement over the years. I have wrestled with it, as I look at the world around us. I have wrestled because I do believe that the ambiguousness of verse 2 means that this is both the goal we should strive to reach within our lifetime, and it will also be the hope we have in that future beyond the veil. I wrestle because we do not live in a world dominated by peace and justice.
As I have wrestled with this, I have been convicted. What have I done to promote this kind of life? And this has caused me to wrestle more. Through the past few weeks people have asked me what I think of war and peace, because they know that Friends are opposed to participation in war. They ask how we can say these things knowing that there are people in the world dying every day in war. To be opposed to war does not mean war does not exist, it simply means that I recognize that it is not the way things should be.
What promotes peace? Isaiah tells us. Teaching. We should educate. Education equips the next generation to meet the challenges they will face in the world. We should teach our children everything we know and we should encourage them to learn even more. We should be curious and free to explore the things that make us curious. The second thing that promotes peace is having a place to speak. When Isaiah says, “He shall judge between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” He is promoting equity and free speech. He is saying that there cannot be peace unless all people can voice their concerns and are given fair consideration. And the third pillar of peace is fair and free trade, this is what the sword to plowshares is. It is using our resources to benefit others instead of using them to exploit.
People need free speech so that they can voice their concerns, we need education so that we are able to find resolution to those concerns, and we need fair and free trade so that we can act on those concerns, with mutual profit for all involved. This is the goal, and yes, it is my ideology and my hope. If all people have access to these things, we will see a startling difference in the world.
Twenty-two years ago, a student in Ukraine asked me why I was in their country teaching English. I was asked why people from the United States even cared. Twenty-two years ago, Ukraine was still a new nation. They had emerged from nearly a hundred years of being our enemy and I was sitting at a table in McDonald’s encouraging them. I was honest with this student. I told them that I did not care about the politics but I wanted friendship. If nations can talk, if they share ideas, and if they can trade goods and services, they are less likely to participate in war against each other. But when we begin to cut ties, when we begin to look to our own self interest instead of mutual benefit, we start down a road to destruction. We see this in Ukraine, we see it in our own nation, we saw it in the 2nd world war, and we see it throughout Africa. God has given us the pathway to peace. Will we take it?
“The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” It begins by recognizing and honoring that of God in all people. It continues when we take up the cross and follow Jesus. When we take on his life and lifestyle and live it in our community, we show them that there is a better way. When we love God with all that we have, when we embrace the Spirit in our times of prayer and live the love of Christ with others, we participate in the things that promote peace. Isaiah challenges the people of Judah. He says to them, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” He is calling them to live the lifestyle of God. He is calling them to return to God and to allow God to guide their lives. Will we repent and turn to God, or will we allow the destruction of selfishness and envy reign in our lives? Will we promote peace or will continue to suffer the wrath of the sword?