Peace on Earth. This is a nice thought, but it is also a thought few of us actually take seriously. It is idealistic, not realistic. It is a nice sentiment, but it is not possible…or so we often think. Our world is full strife and conflict. Right now, our country is struggling to hold it together over racial tension. Violence, mistrust, anger, and fear are spreading like wildfire. Last week, on the same day the Christmas tree was lit in Rockefeller Center, riots broke out in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that choked a man to death. We continue to hear reports about beheadings and public executions at the hands of ISIS. It is hard to imagine peace on earth right now. The same was true 2800 years ago, yet the prophet Isaiah wrote the following promise in a flash of inspiration. This is a revelation of a better world, hope for a better future, and it would become the center of messianic longing for the remnant of Israel:
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.”
This promise was originally received in a time of great strife, instability, and anxiety. King after king in Judah led the people further away from God and into idolatry. Threatened with invasion from both Israel and Syria, Ahaz King of Judah reached out to the Assyrian Empire for help. He could have trusted God for help, but he went against the advice of the prophet. Assyria is the regional empire in whose shadow these small nations dwell under constant threat of invasion, annihilation, or annexation. This is a bit like a mouse asking the cat to help resolve a conflict with another mouse. Now, prompted by the invitation to intervene, Assyrian invasion of Judah is eminent. As Isaiah predicted, Assyria assists in solving the present crisis only to replace it with another: the chances of being wiped out by the Assyrian war machine are almost certain. People are afraid. There is conflict and war all around them. This passage is God’s promise in the midst of this horrible situation. God is in control. Destruction is coming, but God still has a plan. The promise is a coming “messiah,” a deliverer that will set wrongs to right and bring lasting and true peace. At first, people assumed this anointed ruler was the young king Hezekiah. Long after Hezekiah’s death however, a remnant of God’s people longed for someone who would fulfill this promise completely. Even with this expectation, I am not sure anyone anticipated Jesus Christ. This passage was famously and masterfully incorporated into Handel’s Messiah, one of the most moving pieces of music in history. Jesus is the “prince of peace” on a level that no one saw coming.
This is a promise of peace beyond human ability. The theme of this section of Isaiah’s oracles is that every human solution to the nation’s problems will fail. Their demise is the vehicle that will take them to a place of realization that only God can be trusted. God’s revelation of light has come to those walking in great darkness. It is when there seems to be no hope that God’s hope is most evident. When Ahaz tried to trust in political alliances and military might, he ended up making a bigger mess of the situation. God’s people have turned away from Him to covenant with pagan nations and trust in their strength, and they will reap the destruction they sowed. The calamity is not the end of the story, but a chance for God to use the pain as a powerful tutor. The promise of the Messiah does not come to a proud nation glorifying in its strength, but to a beaten nation, one tied in the furnace of affliction. No, the darker the days, the brighter the flame of the dawn! The mention of Midian’s defeat is a reference to the story of Gideon, a story that underscores God’s strength and human weakness. God eliminated any cause for Gideon or his fighters to have confidence in human strength by dramatically reducing their number to 300 in a conflict against thousands. God ensured that everyone would know the victory was His alone. Where Judah has presently arrived in crisis because of their trust in human systems, alliances, and power – this reference is indicting. They have led themselves into darkness, but God will lead them out of it. The truth is that God is a better savior than we can be sinners, and He is better and finding us than we are at losing our way. We can continue in rebellion, but not without great effort and determined resistance to the One who seeks to re-write our tragic story. God is interested in bringing us something that we cannot achieve through human effort.
This is also a promise of peace beyond human imagination. The prophet uses the symbols of the warrior’s boots and the bloody garments to represent warfare. The rhythmic sound of marching boots is a powerful symbol of the noise of battle, while the bloody garments are a symbol for the pain and destruction left in the wake of war. The poem does not describe victory in terms of one combatant overcoming his opponent, but the actual end of conflict. The very implements of war will be burned up. For this coming king, peace is not realized through conquest but through the end of warfare. The destruction brought by war will itself be destroyed. This prince is not a fierce warrior, but a little child. A child appears insignificant and weak, but with God this weakness can be strength. His rule is not established in military conquest but in God’s power. This is not the power of the sword; it is the power over the hearts of humanity. He reigns over a people transformed through their obedience to God’s will. It is God’s Kingdom, and it will endure forever. There is something unspeakably beautiful in the picture that Isaiah paints if you have eyes to see it. This is a world at peace, a moral order, held together not by force or the threat of force but by love. He is describing the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is established on earth as it is in heaven. This cannot be achieved by political systems, though politics are not irrelevant. It cannot be achieved through social work or through humanitarian aid projects. Human civilization will not climb to this lofty reality through technological advancement. Organized religion cannot establish it through its programs. This kind of peace, what the Hebrews called shalom, is almost a dream. This peace is only possible when people surrender their tools, their minds, and their wills to the Kingdom of God. This king of peace is different than the warmongering empire builders and political connivers of Isaiah’s day (and our own!). He is the one who establishes peace, not just advocates for it.
Human kingdoms are often established in tyranny and conquest, upheaval and rebellion. The foundation of God’s Kingdom is justice and righteousness. This was such a difficult thing even for the disciples to understand. They were still looking at Jesus like a powerful conqueror all the way up until the cross. It was only after the resurrection that the nature of God’s Kingdom and the depth of the peace that Jesus was to establish became clear. This Advent season, walk toward peace. Allow God’s Spirit to help you imagine a better world, then invite God’s Spirit to help you live into that vision.