Swords into ploughshares
- Main text: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; then 2:1-4
- Accompanying text: Matthew 5:14
Our text opens with Judah overrun and Jerusalem in dire circumstances. The Assyrian armies had already conquered Judah’s neighbours (including Samaria), and had captured most of the fortified towns in Judah. The Assyrian king and his army were currently besieging Lachish, to the South West of Jerusalem, and once Lachish fell Jerusalem would be next. The defenders of Jerusalem were outnumbered and outmatched by the Assyrian army, meaning that the sacking of Jerusalem and the capture and deportation (Isa 36:17) of her occupants seemed inevitable.
The Assyrian field commander (Rabshaqeh) journeys to Jerusalem to entreat King Hezekiah into surrendering without a fight. Rabshaqeh’s speech takes place in the same spot where Isaiah had earlier urged Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, to place his trust in the Lord. Ahaz chose instead to rely on an alliance with Egypt for protection (Isaiah 7:1-3, 9). Then Rabshaqeh aims his speech more to those on Jerusalem’s walls than to King Hezekiah (hence why he spoke in Hebrew instead of Aramaic – see Isaiah 36:11). His aim is to undermine the defenders’ confidence: he tells them that Egypt cannot save them (Isaiah 36:6), and that they cannot rely on God just because Hezekiah had removed the altars at the high places throughout Judah (Isaiah 36:7). He even argues that God is with Assyria (Isaiah 36:10) in her many victories.
In 36:13, Rabshaqeh attacks Hezekiah directly in his speech before then questioning God’s ability to even save Jerusalem from Assyria. Jerusalem should not place their trust in King Hezekiah, Rabshaqeh argues, but in a greater king – the King of Assyria (Isaiah 36:13). He challenges their trust in the Lord to save them. He argues that the King of Assyria can give Judah ‘a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards’ just like their own (Isaiah 36:17). He urges them not to trust in their God as other nations had also trusted in their (false) gods and were subsequently captured by the Assyrians (Isaiah 36:18-20). The mention of Samaria is significant because the Lord had not prevented Samaria from being conquered and her people scattered.
Hezekiah’s response is one of extreme distress and he goes to the temple, presumably to pray, while sending his servants to the Lord’s prophet for help and guidance. Unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah places his trust in the Lord, not in Egypt to save them. He seeks the Lord’s help both through prayer and through seeking the Lord’s prophet to guide him.
Hezekiah’s address to Isaiah through his servants is one that acknowledges the bleakness of Jerusalem’s situation. They have no hope save for in the Lord, and Hezekiah’s hope is that God will step in, not just to save and glorify Jerusalem, but above all to defend God’s name from blasphemy.
Just as the Rabshaqeh spoke in 36:14 for his king, now Isaiah speaks for the Lord. While Sennacherib might be a more powerful king than Hezekiah, the Lord has ‘made heaven and earth’ (Isaiah 37:16). A greater king than Sennacherib now speaks, and he instructs them not to be afraid of Rabshaqeh’s words. Even though their situation seems hopeless, there is nothing that God cannot redeem, no situation where God is powerless. Where Sennacherib sought to capture Jerusalem with a word from his commander, God defeats him and forces him to retreat with just a rumour of trouble back home (see Isa 37:7), thus leaving Jerusalem undefeated.
The lectionary readings at this point jump back to the beginning of Isaiah, and a vision he has of a time of peace instead of a time of war – when weapons will no longer be needed. This peace is not something establish by the sword, but by people coming together to worship and know the one true God.
Barry Webb writes: “the mountain of the Lord [Isa 2:2], then, is a symbol of the coming kingdom of God, in which a purified and restored Zion is destined to play a crucial role. And Isaiah summons his contemporaries to live now in the light of that glorious prospect [Isa 2:5]… Isaiah was not blind to present realities. He spoke out against injustice, faithless politics and hypocritical religion with a passion that few could match today. But it was this vision of the future which inspired him. Religion for him was never an escape from reality, but the source from which he drew the strength he needed to face it squarely’ ’
How does this text testify to Jesus Christ?
Isaiah’s vision in 2:1-4 is of Jesus Christ. The law that goes out from Zion is not the Mosaic law that was given at Sinai, but the commands that Jesus Christ gave his disciples. The word of the Lord that goes forth from Jerusalem (through the apostles) is the good news of Jesus Christ, the light of the world (Matt 5:14). Even in the face of evil and the sins of mankind, God is not powerless, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope: ‘death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered’ .
- 2 Kings 18-20 (parallel account)
- 2 Chronicles 32 (parallel account)
- Micah 4:1-5
- Philippians 4:11-13
- Revelation 21:9-27
- Barry Webb, The Bible Speak Today: the Message of Isaiah, 1996. Digital Edition.
- Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, See What a Morning, 2003.