Sunday 8 December 2019
The Second Sunday of Advent
The passage this morning from Isaiah is one of the best known in Isaiah, and it’s one of the better known passages in the entire bible. It’s often referred to as the peaceable kingdom. The wolf lives with the lamb. The leopard lies down with the goat. The cow and bear eat together. So do the lion and the ox. No one hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain. It’s an ideal picture of what peace could look like, a metaphor for the ways that the people of the earth could live together in peace and harmony.
It comes from a time when the people of Judah were particularly vulnerable. We don’t know the exact timing. The Book of Isaiah probably contains words and prophecies covering at least a couple of centuries. What we do know is that throughout that time, Judah was caught between a number of competing regional empires. Assyria, which many consider to be the world’s first empire, was centered in what is now northern Iraq, to the Northwest of Judah. Their rivals, and eventual conquerors, were the Babylonians, centered in what is now central Iraq, to the east of Judah. Even farther to the east were the Persians, who eventually conquered the Babylonians, centered in what is now Iran. And to the south of Judah was the Kingdom of Egypt. Judah was just one of many small kingdoms in the area, trying to make their way in the midst of feuding and emerging empires. They were sometimes allied with one empire and sometimes with another, sometimes relatively independent, sometimes entirely subjugated, often finding themselves on the losing side of these large, regional wars.
This meant a great deal of instability for the people of Judah. By this time, the northern Kingdom of Israel had already been utterly devastated by Assyria, many of its people being relocated and never heard from again, the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel. The people of the southern Kingdom of Judah risked the same fate if they found themselves on the wrong side of the wrong opponent. In fact, they would eventually be conquered by the Babylonians, who would deport a large portion of their population.
In the midst of this general unrest—and again, we don’t know exactly when this part of Isaiah might have been written—the prophet has a vision of a new king who will establish a reign that is free of the war and unrest and oppression that the people have been suffering for generations.
“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, generally considered to be the greatest king of Israel and Judah. If Jesse’s tree is now a stump, it means that that line of kings has been cut off, or that that line of kings has become unsatisfactory. If a new shoot is growing up, it means that a new king is coming, still in the Davidic line, but one who is truer to the spirit of King David, one who acts more like David did.
And there are some specific ways that this new king is going to be different. First, he’s going to have the Holy Spirit on his side. “The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” The Spirit will make him wise. The Spirit will make sure that his decisions are based in a thoughtful humility and a deep grounding in God’s laws.
Isaiah continues: “He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.” This is a very important point. This king isn’t just supposed to bring peace. It’s not just about making sure that there isn’t war or open violence. No, Isaiah’s new king has got to do more than that. He has to rule with justice. He will not favor the wealthy and the powerful. He will offer special protection for the needy and the vulnerable. He will, in fact, show favoritism for those at the bottom of society. That is what Isaiah expects from the ideal king. He shouldn’t favor the landowners or the job-creators. Instead, he should favor the day laborers and the unemployed.
Isaiah goes on: “He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.” So, here the ideal king is described as using violence, but it is very interesting how that violence is described. In the real world, all rulers employ violence to some degree or another. In order to police the people, some level of violence is generally necessary, if only to prevent a greater violence. That’s the kind of violence that’s described here, a violence that targets only those who use violence to hurt others and exploit the oppressed. But notice how that violence is described. It’s described as the rod of the king’s mouth and the breath of the king’s lips. It’s not the king’s arm. It’s not the king’s sword. It’s not the king’s spear or arrow. The only weapons that this king wields come from his mouth. The only weapons this king wields are words.
Finally, Isaiah says of this new king, “Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” These belts are part of the armor of the time. They are righteousness and faithfulness. Righteousness, meaning that the king will be just, that he will do right by his people, that he will set things right. Faithfulness, meaning that he will trust in God and that he will do his duty as king.
Now the prophet Isaiah would probably never have imagined this, but Christians have interpreted this passage as speaking about Jesus. Jesus is the new king who comes from the line of Jesse and David. Jesus is the one who will bring about justice for the people. Jesus is the one who will set things right. Jesus is the king whose only weapons are the words of his mouth.
What this king is ultimately supposed to bring about is the peaceable kingdom, what we described earlier, the ancient equivalent of dogs and cats living together. And that is also the goal for those who seek to live the Jesus way. We should be striving to bring about the peaceable kingdom.
And it’s worth paying attention to just how that peaceable kingdom is described. It’s not “can’t we all just get along.” It’s not about people keeping quiet about their differences or about the ways that they are being slighted by others. In the peaceable kingdom, there is peace, but not everyone is allowed to stay the same.
The peaceable kingdom is described with a number of unlikely pairings of animals. First, “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat.” These are obviously strange because we would expect the wolf to kill and eat the lamb, and we would expect the leopard to kill and eat the goat. And notice that the animals we would think of as prey are especially vulnerable. They are not even fully grown. It’s not a sheep, it’s a lamb. It’s not a goat, it’s a kid. And yet they remain unharmed by their natural predators. The lamb and the kid don’t change. It’s the wolf and the leopard that have to change. They have to refrain from killing or harming what is an utterly helpless prey.
Isaiah’s vision continues: “The calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.” Here again we have a baby prey animal paired with a predator, this time a calf paired with a lion. This time, though, they don’t just live or lie together, they eat together. And this cannot mean that the calf eats what the lion usually eats. Eat must mean that the lion eats what the calf usually eats. The lion becomes an herbivore.
And thrown into the picture of these unlikely pairs of animals is another vulnerable baby animal: this time a baby human. “A little child will lead them.” Under no circumstances would any decent parent allow a small child to hang out with a wolf, a leopard, and a lion. But in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, not only is the small child left unaccompanied with three large carnivores, the child is left in charge of them. It’s not the child that’s asked to change, it is the carnivorous animals that have to change.
In the next part of the poem, this change is made even more explicit. “The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.” Here we are explicitly told that the bear and the lion have to change their behavior and act like a barnyard animal. They have to graze and eat straw. It’s not the cow and the ox that have to change, it’s the bear and the lion that have to change.
Finally, Isaiah says, “A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.” Again, it is helpless children being paired with deadly predators. It’s not the nursing child or the toddler that have to change, it’s the snake and the serpent that have to change.
The lesson should be very clear. Bringing about the peaceable kingdom is not about changing the behavior of the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless. Bringing about the peaceable kingdom is about changing the behavior of the rich, the privileged, and the powerful. Peace is not about the poor and oppressed keeping quiet about their situation. Peace is about the privileged changing their behavior so that their actions no longer take advantage of others.
And it’s interesting, because we wouldn’t say that the wolf, the leopard, the lion, the bear, and the snake are mean. They don’t have a deep and abiding hatred for lambs, goats, calves, and oxen. The wolves are just going about doing their normal wolf things. The lions are just going about doing their normal lion things. But the way that wolves and lions normally behave results in the deaths of other animals. The wolf doesn’t have to be especially cruel in order to kill a lamb. The lion doesn’t have to be bigoted in order to kill a calf. They only have to behave normally.
In fact, we would say that it is a part of the very nature of the wolf to hunt. It is a part of the very nature of the lion to kill. Not to do so is unnatural. A lion eating straw is unnatural. Any lion who was asked to eat straw would not doubt feel very put upon. That lion would no doubt feel that its rights were being limited. That lion might even feel oppressed. For as long as anyone can remember, it was the absolute right of lions to hunt whatever other creature they pleased. That is simply the natural order of things. And can a lion even survive by only eating straw? Doesn’t it need meat in order to live?
In our society, the people who have advantages and privileges rarely feel like they do. We don’t have to be mean or bigoted in order to benefit from the privileges of race, gender, and class. And we don’t have to go about trying to exploit others in order to benefit from systems that also oppress others. We can just be going about living our normal lives and not even notice that the abundance of our lifestyles are dependent upon the relative harm of others. Most of the products that buy and give to each other as gifts are made by people earning a tiny fraction of our minimum wage often in very poor working conditions. The fossil fuels that are disproportionately burned in the developed world result in climate changes that are disproportionately experienced by the world’s poor. Many of the advantage of race, gender, class, religion, and nationality are almost completely invisible to those who enjoy them. One doesn’t have to be mean, hateful, or bigoted in order to benefit from systems that disadvantage others.
We want Jesus’s peaceable kingdom. We want the rule of justice and harmony. But in order to get there, it may require a change in us. May Jesus bring about the peaceable kingdom. May we be instruments of the coming of that kingdom. And may we have the grace to make the changes that are required to let it be.