Exchanging swords for plowshares

Isaiah 2:4

Isaiah 2:4 written on a wall across the street from the United Nations Building in New York City

God’s promise, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares,” stands on a wall near the United Nations. The UN exists because the world wanted to make it come true.

What happened?

The first four verses of Isaiah 2 leading up to that promise presents a compelling image: God’s house sits on a mountain higher than any other mountain on earth, and “all the nations stream to it.”

Imagine! A stream flowing uphill! 

It has to be a supernatural occurrence. Yet it’s entirely voluntary. The people say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord . . . so that we may walk in his paths.”

And God promises that the earth will see war in the rearview mirror.

But notice the context. It comes when people voluntarily seek his judgment and submit to it. Humanity hasn’t done so yet. We no longer have swords and spears. We have invented more lethal weapons that can kill multitudes of people at a distance.

God’s indictment on Judah

Canaanite gold female idol

Canaanite gold female idol

Isaiah spends the rest of the second chapter, all of the third, and one verse of the fourth laying out God’s judgment. It begins with a stinging indictment of conditions in Judah, God’s chosen but apostate nation. It continues with a detailed account of the consequences.

And it’s not just the tiny kingdom of Judah. The indictment and judgment apply equally to us:

First, they decided to follow the ungodly practices of their neighbors, practices forbidden in the law.

Second, they sought their security in the abundance of silver and gold.

Third, they were too much impressed with military might. If Isaiah delivered this prophecy during the reign of King Jotham, Judah was still a strong and independent kingdom.

His son Ahaz appealed to Assyria for help against a couple of small neighbors. He appealed to the biggest bully on the block and turned over Judah’s sovereignty in the process. Judah no longer had much military might and spent most of the rest of its existence scheming to get help from other bullies to protect them from Assyria.

Fourth, the land was full of idols. The Ten Commandments begin with a commandment to worship God and God only, but most of the people worshiped the work of their own hands instead.

The previous charges amount to idolatry. So the last encompasses all the other idolatry.

What does it have to do with us today?


We still have idols!

Ancient society looks so different from ours. But once we look past the foreign surface and consider the substance of the indictment, it applies equally to the US and the American church.

Poll after poll shows that taken as a whole, the behavior of church-goers hardly differs from the rest of society.

Whatever Scripture denounces as sin, church-goers do and approve as much as anyone else.

It takes a commitment to personal discipleship, not simply church membership, to gain any freedom from the lure of the world.

Those who have wealth spend so much energy flaunting it that they have no energy to devote to the things of God. Those who lack it spend so much energy trying to get their hands on some that they have no energy to devote to the things of God.

America has been the strongest nation on earth for generations. We celebrate Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to recall the heroism of those who have fought for the peace and freedom we enjoy.

But if we give all the glory to them and not to God blessing us through them, we turn our backs on him as surely as Ahaz did. We make idols of soldiers that likely as not would spurn the title of hero.

The ancients bowed down to blocks of wood. We’re more “sophisticated” than to behave like that. But we still figuratively bow down to our desires and accomplishments.

God’s judgment on our rebellion

Last judgment, heaven or hell

Last Judgment / Jean Cousin the Younger, late 16th century

Isaiah’s description of the Day of the Lord and the coming wrath echoes that of other prophets. It also foreshadows Revelation.

The Day of the Lord will first bring not joy, but terror. It will bring low everything that has exalted itself above God. And people who have worshiped anything less than God will recognize its worthlessness.

Isaiah 2:20 pictures the people of Judah throwing their idols of silver and gold to the bats and rodents. But how can anyone so easily dispose of pride and self-worship?

But before that day comes, social order will disintegrate. Isaiah 3:1-5 speaks of the disappearance of experienced leaders from the land—both the worthy like prophets and the phony like fortune tellers.

And so only the inexperienced and immature will be left in positions of influence. Youth will oppress the old and the base will oppress the honorable. Women will rule. Not well qualified women, but the haughty and flippant.

Society will consider the most frivolous attainments as qualifications for leadership, but people will duck any real responsibility.

Isaiah 2:19-21 portrays people not only discarding their idols, but rushing into caverns to get away from God’s splendor and majesty. So does Revelation 6:15-16. Revelation 9:20-21 goes on to say that all the people not killed by various plagues will still refuse to repent of their rebellion and wickedness.

Everything Isaiah prophesied in these chapters came to pass when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, set it ablaze, and carried the people into exile. The last days, when God pours out his wrath on the entire earth, will bring even greater terror.

God’s promise of Grace

Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch / Edward Hicks, ca. 1826-30. Hicks must have loved this theme. This only one of several different paintings of it.

But in the midst of graphic descriptions of God’s wrath, we find expressions of grace.

Isaiah 3:10 says, “Tell the righteous it will be will with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.”

Similarly, in Revelation 9:4, the locusts harmed “only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”

In Isaiah, this long passage of judgment has two bookends of grace.

The first, with the promise of the end of war, opened this post.

The concluding bookend, Isaiah 4:2-6, promised the Branch of the Lord, the Messiah.

He will take care of those who are left after the wrath has ended. He will wash away filth and cleanse bloodshed. His glory will shelter his people from all harm.

Don’t feel sorry for all those who suffer total destruction when God pours out his wrath. They will bring it on themselves. They will have spurned a lifetime of incentives to turn to God.

The ultimate outcome of these end time troubles will be joy for anyone willing to receive it. Only then will the world genuinely desire to beat their weapons into peaceful tools and forget how to train for war.

So turn you heart toward God now, while you have the chance, and make sure it stays turned toward him.

Image credits:
Isaiah wall. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Canaanite idol. Source unknown
Idols logo. Source unknown
Last Judgement. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Peaceable Kingdom. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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