This text has been co-opted or used by people as varied as communists to liberation theologians. You can almost hear them pulling the swords out of the hot coals and blacksmiths banging the swords into hoes for digging in new gardens these soldiers turned farmers are planting. They won't even train for war anymore.
Is this vision something for our time or our future? We can always hope for peace! This is always a vision we want to see in our lifetime, but let's look a moment at what it may have meant for the original hearers.
One of the most helpful things we can do in prophetic literature is to get acquainted with the background and history of the prophet's time, so that the writings make more sense to us about the whole story of God, Israel, and the world. Some modern preachers claim certain prophecies predict events in our future, but is it likely that writings from 2,700 years ago were written specifically or mainly about events of twenty-first century America? Why wouldn't they more correctly be written for people in their own times, showing them how Yahweh is working then? If we patiently learn the context, history, meaning of these texts, then we can understand better how the whole story of Yahweh matters for all times.
The second helpful thing we can do is to realize that the ways of Yahweh are not all about our times and our needs. We can engage in history and God's work in history and be joyful or learn from ancient times, our times, and future times, rather than immediately applying a very limited understanding of ancient words because they sound nice, skipping over words that don't sound so nice.
For example, the vision of people turning their spears into pruning hooks to trim trees sounds great, but it comes in the context of people being humbled. It's a future vision all right, but near future in the life of Judah, and as it turns out, after a punishing 70 years in exile in Babylon. These besieged then exiled people needed such a future vision of the work of God to bring all nations under His rule. We need that today too, but we need to understand the actual text of Isaiah rather than just picking a nice verse and making a Facebook meme out of it.
Yahweh, you said you would teach ethnic groups your ways. I am part of an ethnic group that needs to continually learn your ways. Teach me your teachings that go out from Zion. Yahweh, your Word will go out of Jerusalem. You are the Always-Present One who will mediate among the nations. O Yahweh, you will settle international disputes. We may not live to see nations make their swords into plows and make their spears into pruning hooks for trimming trees, but we believe you have a future intention to restore your creation to line up with this vision of Isaiah, to be a place where you are King and nations bow to you alone. We long to see nations no longer fighting other nations, not because they have peaceable rulers, but because you alone are ruler over the universe. As we wait for that day, we long to see nations do other productive and creative things that give you glory, rather than training for war.
Fasting and Giving
If you are a gun owner, consider not shooting during the season of Lent, 40 days through Easter.
If you are an "unarmed citizen," consider finding a creative and open-hearted way to thank a veteran for what he or she has done to serve your nation.
Questions and More Reading
Do you have a question about this important passage about beating swords into plowshares? How does it apply today? Please feel free to ask questions or comment below.
If you'd like to learn more about the history and background of Isaiah, you can read texts about the kings Isaiah prophesied to and the events of Isaiah's day in 2 Kings 16-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32.
Other prophets contemporary to Isaiah also give clues to the background of Isaiah: Micah 1:8-16; 3:9-12; 4:8-5:6; Jeremiah 26:16-19; Psalm 83:8. Isaiah himself gives several clear indications of the background and concerns he has during this period of time in the 700s B.C. You can read these in Isaiah 1:7-8; 10:5-32; 17:12-14; chapters 7-8; 28-33; 36-39.