The Peaceable Kingdom
Our Old Testament reading today is one of the best-loved passages in all of holy Scripture; it was celebrated in a well-known painting by the 19th century American Quaker artist Edward Hicks, which he called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’. Or, to be strictly accurate, I should say, in a series of paintings, because Hicks literally painted this same picture dozens of time, with little variations on the theme. People who don’t look closely sometimes assume they’re looking at the same picture, because the style and the basic layout are the same. But the details are different; it was as if Hicks was never satisfied with his depictions of the peaceable kingdom and wanted to make it better and better each time he painted it.
But the basic theme is the same. In the foreground are the literal figures from our passage from Isaiah today: the lion and the ox, the child playing beside the nest of the snake, and so on. But if you look in the background you see another scene: American Indians standing together with white settlers, not fighting each other, but making a peace treaty. Hicks obviously saw the scene in the background as part of the theme of the biblical prophecy in the foreground.
The historical background to this painting is the peace treaty made by the devout Quaker William Penn with the Lenni Lenape tribe on June 23rd 1683 in the land that became known as Pennsylvania. Unlike others who made those kinds of treaties in American history, it was not Penn’s intention that the native people would be driven off their land. Rather, he had a vision for aboriginal people and white settlers living in peace together. Many people would have seen them as natural enemies, but to Penn that was no excuse, because the gospel was about the reconciliation of natural enemies. Hicks obviously agreed. To him, our passage from Isaiah today was not about some time in the future when the stomachs of lions are somehow supernaturally changed so that they can eat grass. Rather, the lions and calves, the wolves and bears, the snakes and the children, stand for natural enemies, and in the peaceable kingdom those natural enemies are reconciled and stand together. To him, Penn’s peace treaty with the Lenni Lenape was a modern fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and so a sign of the hope that the gospel brings for reconciliation and peace.
And Isaiah does see it very much as a gospel hope. What Isaiah celebrates in this passage is not a general spirit of peace and reconciliation brought about because human beings suddenly remember that they have a lot in common. No; verses 6-9 come after verses 1-5, in which Isaiah celebrates the arrival of an ideal king, and it is this ideal king who will bring about the peace that verses 6-9 celebrate so eloquently. Later theology called this king ‘the Messiah’, which means ‘the anointed one’; prophets and kings in ancient Israel were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit being poured out on them to equip them for their work, and so to call someone ‘the anointed one’ was to call them ‘God’s Spirit-filled King’. The Greek word ‘Christ’ means the same thing; it’s a translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’, and so to call Jesus ‘Christ’ is not to give him a name, but a title: ‘Jesus the King’ – or, more completely, ‘Jesus, God’s Spirit-filled King’.
Nonetheless, Christians who read this passage carefully will find that not all of it fits in easily with the New Testament picture of Jesus. Certainly Jesus stood in the tradition of his Jewish ancestors in faith, but he didn’t adopt everything that they said uncritically. In fact, he radically re-interpreted the ancient faith of Israel, emphasizing parts of it and setting aside other parts. This is especially clear in a passage like this one. Let’s take a closer look at what it says about the coming king, and let’s also think about how Jesus chose to interpret this vision.
The first verse locates the coming king firmly in the royal family of David, the ‘King Arthur’ of ancient Israel. Although it’s clear to careful Bible readers that David was far from perfect, later generations still looked back on his reign as the ideal time, the golden age of God’s people, when Israel was safe from its enemies and was ruled by a king who judged justly. It’s not entirely clear when Isaiah 11 was written, but it seems as if it was a time when the royal family of David appeared to have been cut down like a felled tree. It seemed that there was no more hope for it, but Isaiah obviously thought that appearances can be deceptive. Just as you sometimes see a new shoot growing up from an old stump, so there will be a new branch of David’s royal family; a new king who would rule wisely and bring peace and security to his people.
What would he be like, this new king? Isaiah describes his character in terms of the gifts that the spirit of God would give him. The spirit will ‘rest’ on him – that is to say, taking up permanent residence in him, not just visiting him occasionally. This spirit will give him wisdom and understanding – the ability to discern the right thing to do in all the daily challenges of ruling God’s people. The spirit will give him ‘counsel and might’ – words that were often used in the Bible in a political and military context.
The spirit will also give him ‘knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. ‘Knowledge’ in this context means ‘knowing God’; the king will know God and fear him – in fact, verse 3 goes on to say ‘His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord’. How a person can delight in being afraid of God is a mystery to many people today, but in fact it’s not particularly difficult to figure out. Politicians fear all kinds of people: they fear the electorate, they fear their political competitors, they fear journalists, and they fear foreign enemies. Sometimes those fears cause them to cut ethical corners, to take bribes, to conceal the truth, and to act ruthlessly toward their political opponents. But a person who ‘delights in the fear of the Lord’ is not going to do that, because they always remember that everything that they do is done in the sight of God, and therefore they will always act with honesty and integrity. And that’s good news for people who are looking for a king they can believe in.
The passage goes on to talk about the things that the coming king will actually do. In Isaiah’s day one of the king’s jobs was to hear grievances and to give judgements, and the people were longing for a king who wouldn’t judge by outward appearances: ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear’ (v.3b) – in other words, he’ll go below the surface, he’ll make sure he has all the facts, so that his final decision is the right one. And he won’t favour the powerful, he won’t take bribes, he won’t give preference to the old boys club and the aristocracy that he grew up with; rather, ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (v.4a) – the meek, the ones who have no one else to speak on their behalf, the ones who get trodden down over and over again – this king will protect them. And above all, he will be known for his godly character, for his own personal integrity: ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins’ (v.5).
But there’s a surprise here, in the second half of verse 4: ‘He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. We might have expected this king to use the rod in his hand, not the rod in his mouth; we might have expected that he would kill the wicked with the sword of justice, not the breath of his mouth.
This verse starts to hint at the way Jesus reinterpreted these Messianic prophecies, because, of course, he just didn’t fulfil them in the way most people expected. He didn’t drive out the Roman armies and punish the corrupt Jewish leaders; he didn’t set up a royal court and start hearing lawsuits; he didn’t set up a justice system to protect the poor by using the power of the righteous state. He was never seen with a sword in his hand, coercing people to do what he wanted to do. The only weapon he had was the weapon of his word; he spoke the truth in love, and his words were so compelling that people caught his vision of the kingdom and decided to join the movement he had started. His way of establishing justice and mercy wasn’t to impose it by force from above, but to change the hearts of men and women and bring them together into a community which would learn the ways of justice and mercy freely, not under compulsion, but out of love for God and love for their neighbour. That community is you and me.
And that’s why it’s so important, as we said last week, to ‘live into the kingdom’. There is, of course, a way of using these old prophecies that’s actually a cop-out. You hear it sometimes when people say, “There’s no point in trying to stop wars; Jesus said there will be wars and rumours of wars until the end of time, so we’d better just get our weapons out and fight on”. Never mind that Jesus told his followers to be peacemakers; this way of reading prophecy basically says, ‘The world is a mess and it will remain a mess until Jesus comes again. There’s no point in trying to make it better; the world is a sinking ship and the only thing we can do is try to get as many people into the lifeboat of the church as possible’. People who think this way relegate these ancient prophecies to the future: this is about the return of Christ, they say, and it’s no good trying to live this way now. That’s just not the way the world is at the moment.
But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus told his followers to be like salt and light – influencing the society around them, spreading the light of the gospel, preserving the world from going from bad to worse just like salt was used in the ancient world to preserve food. Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God has come near’, and he called people to ‘repent’ – that is, to turn away from the values of the kingdom of darkness and to live by the values of God’s kingdom. These prophecies weren’t just meant to predict the future; they were meant to change the future.
So we need to ask, ‘What would it look like if we took the characteristics of the Messiah, as listed in this passage, and made it our business to make them characteristics of the church?’ What if the church was a community in which no one judged you by outward appearances, but instead focussed on the heart? What if the church was a place where the rich and powerful didn’t always have the upper hand, but the poor and meek were valued and protected as equal citizens of the kingdom of heaven? What if the church was known as a community of righteousness, faithfulness, and integrity?
And what about the wolf lying down with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the kid? As we’ve said, the prophet is looking forward to a day when natural enemies will be forever reconciled. He’s not talking about some mythical time in the future when God will change the digestive systems of bears and lions. Rather, he’s talking about the Assyrian empire turning away from the brutality that causes it to devour smaller and weaker nations around it. Or the Third Reich – or any of the other empires that have come and gone in human history, leaving a trail of blood behind them.
How will this happen? Through the power of God, yes – but there’s a part for us to play as well, as the people of God. Jesus called on his followers to turn away from violence and the thirst for vengeance, to love their enemies and to forgive those who persecuted them, and to work for peace and reconciliation. It has to be admitted that there is a nasty streak of vengeance in many of these Old Testament texts – the sense that ‘Assyria and Babylon have made us suffer, but the day is going to come when God sets things right, and then they’ll get what’s coming to them’. It’s easy for us to sit in judgement on people who feel like that, of course; most of us have never seen our cities burned to the ground and whole populations murdered by the marauding armies of the enemy. Perhaps if we had, we’d be a lot more enthusiastic about those psalms that call on God to break the teeth of the wicked and give them what they deserve.
Nonetheless, Jesus chose to set that attitude aside and call on his followers to learn the way of forgiveness and love instead. Jesus saw very clearly that violence always leads to more violence, that vengeance always leads to more vengeance, and that if you want peace, the only way is for someone, somewhere, to take the risk of being the first person to refuse to strike back. Jesus was always crossing boundaries, loving people he wasn’t supposed to love, and turning enemies into friends by treating them as human beings made in the image of God.
So as we think about applying this passage to our own lives, perhaps we should ask how God is calling each of us to work for reconciliation in the world today. What is the boundary that God is inviting me to cross? Is it with someone I’ve been at odds with, someone with whom I have a history of conflict and misunderstanding? Is it with a group of people I’ve stereotyped – Muslims, aboriginal people, gays and lesbians? Is it with another Christian group, people whose interpretations of the Bible I disagree with, people I may even have vilified in the past? Let’s ask God to guide us on this, and then let’s ask him to show us what would be the first step in crossing that barrier, so that Isaiah’s prophecy may help to shape a new world within our sphere of influence, a world in which natural enemies are reconciled at the foot of the cross of Christ.