The prophet Isaiah paints a picture of hope, following a time of judgment. The Lord will gather in the Gentiles from around the world to obey his law and walk in his ways. He will judge the nations and put an end to violence and injustice. In this season of Advent, we can rejoice in the hope of God’s judgment, and spend our effort in cultivating our spiritual lives with the plowshares and pruning hooks of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Indeed, we are part of God’s in-gathering of the nations to worship and obey him. By our faithfulness to the Gospel we are participating in God’s grand design to bring the whole world to himself. Advent gives us a great opportunity to renew our devotion to him and to reflect on where this whole story is headed—to the point where God will finally vindicate the righteous, punish evil and bring about the fullness of his reign in Christ. The first coming of the babe at Bethlehem points to his second coming in power and glory.
This first reading presents Isaiah’s second vision—the first was recorded in chapter 1. While in chapter one, the prophet announces God’s judgment against Jerusalem, the unfaithful city (1:21), here he forecasts a time of restoration after the period of judgment. A time of faithfulness to the Lord will follow the time of infidelity and punishment.
The Mountain of the Lord’s House
Here, the “mountain of the LORD’s house” is Mount Zion, the place where the Temple—the LORD’s house—is built. Mount Zion is used continually throughout the Old Testament to depict the place to which the Israelites come to worship God. Since it is a mountain, albeit a small one, pilgrims “ascend” or “go up” to it (see Ps 122). In this case, Isaiah is decribing how the Lord will raise Mt. Zion above other mountains and hills to become the “highest mountain,” higher than Mt. Everest! The height of the newly-raised Mt. Zion symbolizes its spiritual importance, as the center of worship, the place where God dwells. Here Mt. Zion is the destination of mankind. It is very easy for us to fall into thinking that life is random, that it begins and ends at random, and that it isn’t “going anywhere,” that it is meaninglesss. But here, the prophet is showing us that there is a destination for all of us, a goal to reach, a place to make pilgrimage toward—and that place is Zion, the Temple, the presence of God in Jerusalem.
In-Gathering of Gentiles
Isaiah prophesies that “all nations,” that is, all Gentiles, will come to Zion. He even quotes the Gentiles talking to one another, encouraging each other to make the climb to the Lord’s presence in the Temple. (Their speaking recalls Ps 122 and Zech 8:20-23; it also parallels Micah 4:1-3 very closely.) Isaiah is showing us how God will “in-gather” the Gentiles, as the ultimate goal of his self-revelation throughout the Old Testament. God had promised Abraham that he would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3), and here Isaiah depicts what that will look like: pilgrimage (also see Isa 66). Several Old Testament feasts required all the men of Israel to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship. In this passage, Isaiah uses the images and scenes of pilgrimage to show what the in-gathering of the Gentiles will look like, when God expands his plan from his Chosen People to include the Gentiles as well. Of course, this prophecy only comes to fulfillment in the New Testament, when Jesus sends out his disciples to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and gather them into God’s family.
Instruction and God’s Paths
Note that the pilgrims seek two things when they come to Jerusalem: God’s instruction and to walk in God’s “paths.” The first word, instruct, comes from the same root at the word torah or law, which appears in the following lines (“from Zion shall go forth instruction/torah”). This word is extremely important in the Old Testament. In fact, the first five books of the Bible are called the “Torah.” So torah is law, but not just law. It includes the story of Israel’s origins and God’s plan for human life in general. The Jews considered torah as a great gift of God, which he had given only to his people, but here Isaiah forecasts that God will give torah to the Gentiles streaming toward Jerusalem. That is, all peoples will have a chance to live according to God’s plan, to learn his ways and to draw near to him through his instruction. The second thing the Gentiles desire is to walk in God’s “paths.” The path is a metaphor for following God’s ways, living according to his word, his torah. The image of the path is used frequently in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature (e.g. Prov 12:28). There is a good path, following in the footsteps of the wise, and a bad path, which the fool walks.
In verse 4, God is portrayed as judge, the ultimate judge who judges between nations. The image of God as judge is sometimes frightening to us. We don’t like the sound of “judgment.” But here God’s judgment is a sign of hope. We can hope that in the end, God will judge everyone according to their works, that all the wrongs will be “put to right” in a way which can’t happen in the course of normal earthly existence. We all know someone who suffers disproportionately and the Bible elsewhere talks about how the wicked prosper and righteous often don’t (Eccl 8:14). With Isaiah, we can hope in God’s judgment, that he will have the final say and that in the end everyone will receive their “just desserts.” Isaiah paints the time of judgment, not as a time of horror, but as a time of peace-making: Swords, weapons of war, will be melted down and made into “plowshares,” the blade of a plow for tilling earth. Spears also will be turned into “pruning hooks,” which are curved blades on the end of poles uses for pruning trees so they bear more fruit. Agriculture, the quintessential peacetime activity, here is the antithesis of war. He also forecasts that there will be no more “sword-raising” or bootcamp. The end of this passage exhorts the “house of Jacob,” the people of Israel, to “walk in the light,” to live out God’s plan, to follow his law.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.