ain’t gonna study war…

The prophet Isaiah offers us a remarkable poem to set us moving in the right direction this advent. It’s actually a poem that doesn’t belong only to the prophet Isaiah – the prophet Micah offers almost the exact same poetic words at one point in his writings. Which means that this shared poem is one that clearly captured the imagination of God’s people in ancient times. This shared poem, this shared song, gave expression to something decisive about their hope in God. And so this poem has survived the ravages of time and has survived the challenges of transcription from one scribe to the next – it has been handed down through generations so that we also may hear this beautiful description of what happens when God draws near in judgment and grace.

The Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This song has resonated down through the centuries. It is a song that has been sung in many different contexts – giving expression to the hope of God’s people. One of the more beautiful and difficult and remarkable expressions of this song is one that comes to us from pre-civil-war America. This version of the song has been known as “Gonna lay down my burden” and as “Down by the riverside” and as “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Here is the earliest known recording of this song, by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, recorded in 1920:

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The arrogance…

Well, don’t those words from Isaiah (2:1-5) represent the height of arrogance?  “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

First of all, the mountain of the Lord, or Zion, or Jerusalem, as its known – the mountain of the Lord isn’t much of a mountain. It’s more like a modest rise in elevation. But this lowly little hill is supposed to established as the highest of the mountains, raised above the hills – it’s supposed to rival Everest and K2 and perhaps even our own Mount Logan. Come on, Isaiah. Sounds a little over the top.

And not only is Zion supposed to become the highest of mountains but, here’s where the arrogance really kicks in – Isaiah says that “all the nations shall stream to it.” That’s right – one day all nations will stream to Zion.” Within the Hebrew tradition, of course, Zion represents the dwelling place of God with his people. Zion represents the dwelling of God with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A little arrogant, isn’t it, to think that the nations of the world are going to stream to Zion in order to worship and celebrate this particular God. A little arrogant, isn’t it, to think that the God of Zion has something that all the nations of the world might need or want? Continue reading