The Mountain Beckons: Come and Be Made Whole
by Jennifer Arnold
Isaiah 2.1-4 (NRSV)
The Future House of God
1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 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.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He 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.
At the United Nations headquarters in New York City, a man made of bronze stands over the bay mightily swinging his hammer down to bend his sword into a plowshare. The vision of peace found in Isaiah 2:4 inspired this sculpture like many others, such as chairs made of old weapons. However, while many people may know this famous verse, it is less common to consider the verses which precede it. These verses give context to help better understand the vision of unity that Isaiah saw. Although many scholars have analyzed the book of Isaiah by trying to identify and place its varied authorships and dates of writing, this paper will focus specifically on seeking to understand Isaiah 2:1-3 philosophically. In his Biblical commentary, Ivan Friesen says, “it is impossible to read the book of Isaiah without noticing both its geo-political perspective and its preoccupation with a distinct people” (17). By looking critically at Isaiah 2:1-3 with these geographic and socio-political themes in mind, one can better understand Isaiah’s vision of shalom that has inspired so many; it is one of hard work, wholeness, and transformation.
The geographical setting of this text is obvious even from the first verse; Isaiah’s vision concerns two distinct physical places – the hills of Judah and the city of Jerusalem nestled in those mountains. Isaiah then goes on to mention repeatedly physical geographical and geological features of the area – mountains and hills. It does not seem so out of place to talk about the “mountain of the LORD’s house” as an actual local because people are to come and go up this mountain. However before this can happen, the mountain of the LORD’s house must be established as “the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills” (vs. 2). It seems logical to say that the hills Isaiah is referring to could be the Judean hills, which are around Jerusalem. The “mountain of the LORD’s house” would have referred to the Temple Mount, or the mountain where the temple – YHWH’s physical residence – was located. Even thousands of years ago, the Temple Mount was not the highest mountain among Judah’s hills. Nor is it today; today it is 2,428 feet high, yet the some of the Judean hills reach up as high as 3,280 feet. Even 3,280 feet, though, is pretty lousy; Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is almost nine times as tall.
However, being the tallest mountain is important because it creates a sort of “city on a hill” affect; people will see it and “stream to it” (vs. 2). One can see this same magnetic attraction today with the world’s tallest mountains. No one dreams of climbing a 3,280 foot “hill”; instead, people regularly come from around the world to summit Mount Everest. Even those who don’t want to make the trek themselves can watch a television show about others’ journey. Physical dominance leads to dominance in people’s imagination and desires. By making the Temple Mount the highest of all mountains, it similarly attracts awe and daring inspiration instead of being overshadowed by the other hills of Judah. However, drawing on the similarities to climbing Mount Everest one can also see that climbing the mountain of the LORD’s house will not be anything close to easy. It will be exhausting both physically and mentally. It will require much preparation as well as the help of others along the way, and of course, there will always be unknown, unforeseeable dangers. It is not a climb for the faint of heart.
This is part of the geographic perspective, but what can this image of the dangerous yet beautiful mountain reveal about those who choose to embark up the mountain? Returning to the first verse, it reminds one that this is a vision “concerning Judah.” Judah was not just a mountain range, but was also historically Jacob’s fourth son, the tribe Judah fathered, and the kingdom ruled by this tribe, which by the way included Jerusalem. Therefore, one can understand Isaiah’s vision to be talking about the people (social) and their kingdom (political). In ancient societies more so than today, these two concepts were highly interwoven and almost inseparable. People’s allegiance was to their tribe which held certain political structures and norms – a nation. This deep sense of identity to a people and a nation also led to much warfare; the Old Testament is filled with stories of tribes attacking and conquering others whether in the name of God or for their own material gain.
Despite these factions, Isaiah declares that “all the nations” shall stream to the mountain of the LORD’s house, just as people from around the globe flock to Mt. Everest (vs. 2, emphasis added). Yet, Isaiah is not saying that all people will come to the mountain – only “many” (vs. 3), only those who desire to do so and are determined for the climb of their lives (Friesen, 38). When facing such a perilous journey, the previous barriers of identity and politics are broken down into a new whole identity together. For that reason, “many people shall come and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD’” (vs. 3, emphasis added). “Us” – the people are not just coming as representatives from separate warring factions but are speaking together with one voice united by their journey up the mountain. They are one people coming together for one journey up one mountain.
The preeminence of the mountain of the LORD’s house is important for the many people of all nations to become by allowing them to come to one central location to gather and learn God’s ways. One can imagine Zion – which can mean the temple (the LORD’s house), the Temple Mount, or Jerusalem, “the entire temple city” (Anchor 1098) – as a big conference center where all the people of the world, a new people, can gather after climbing the mountain. There they fellowship and receive training together in the LORD’s ways. Then after their preparation at the top of the mountain, the people must leave and head back down the mountain to apply what they have learned: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (vs. 3). No one could live on top of Mount Everest. Even the vocabulary used to describe the peoples’ motives suggests that they desire to take their learning away from the mountain; the words “ways” and “paths” can both signify physical travel which require a starting point (Jerusalem) and a journey to pursue (down the mountain).
However, one does not associate “Zion” just with the theology of the temple, but it also commonly refers to God’s people as a whole (Anchor, 1096). In this interpretation, one can see the newness that the journey to and the training on the top of the mountain create. For it is “many people” – individuals – who come to the mountain, but when they leave, it is from Zion – one people – that God’s word goes forth. Nonetheless, the text shows that things are still not perfectly unified, for God must sit as the judge and arbitrator between the nations and people. In the practice of conflict resolution, the positions of judge and arbitrator both hold ultimate power over decisions of judgment and dispute that others, such as mediators, do not hold. Therefore, the LORD is only able to serve in this authoritative capacity once the people of all nations have first come together as a new body which honors God above all others by having allowed God to teach them. God’s judgment stands because all involved respect God’s authority.
It is only then, after a long, hard journey up and down the highest mountain – the mountain of the LORD’s house – after diverse and warring peoples are united by learning and walking in God’s ways, and after God is able to judge and arbitrate among them, that the many people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” and not one nation “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (vs. 4). This is the change that the LORD – the judge and arbitrator of all nations, all people, and all humankind – has decreed as right. It is the coming of shalom, of true peace – not just the absence of fighting, but the presence of justice, unity, and wholeness, which is grounded in the God’s incredible transformative power.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this is the LORD’s vision for humanity when one considers the fact that the last three consonants of Jerusalem mean shalom – peace. The vision of Isaiah 2.1-4 goes beyond a swinging hammer or a chair made of former weapons; one can never capture it in a lifeless sculpture. No, instead Isaiah 2.1-4 draws the reader towards the mountain of the LORD’s house to put aside divisions, be united with enemies, and start climbing, even knowing that this will be the most difficult climb possible. Then maybe someday, “in the days to come” (vs. 2), God will bless this world with shalom.