THE DREAM ISAIAH SAW
by Bob Wheeler
The composer Glenn Rudolph tells us that he was writing his choral piece “The Dream Isaiah Saw” in 2001 and that he was still in the process of writing it when the 911 terrorist attack occurred. The words are based on Thomas H. Troeger’s poem “Lion and Oxen Will Sleep in the Hay,” which in turn is based on a prophecy by Isaiah found in Isa. 11:6-9 which says, among other things, that
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . .
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . .”
In his poem Mr. Troeger goes on to say,
“God will transfigure the violence concealed
deep in the heart and in systems of gain,
ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain . . .”
Isaiah’s prophecy was written 2,700 years ago, and yet, as Mr. Rudolph noted, the problem it addresses still exists today. Civil wars have torn apart Syria and Yemen, the Islamic State has come and gone, and crime and corruption have driven thousands from their homes in Central America. And here at home we have seen a poisoned political atmosphere, accompanied by mass shootings and bomb threats. Is there any real hope for peace in the world?
Isaiah paints an extraordinary picture of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the young goat. It is hard to know how far to take the imagery. Wolves, leopards, lions and bears are all carnivorous animals, and it is hard to imagine bears grazing and lions eating straw, as is mentioned in verse 7 of the text. But Romans 8:19-22 in the New Testament does tell us that “the creation was subjected to futility” but that at some point “the creation itself also will be from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” And we are told elsewhere that in the future God “will cause wild beasts to cease from the land, and they [i.e. God’s people] will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods” (Ezek. 34:25-30). Apparently there will no longer be any wild animals.
Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says that
“God will transfigure the violence concealed
deep in the heart and systems of gain,
ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.”
But the question remains, how will this take place? Is it a realistic expectation at all? Isaiah’s text goes on to say,
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).
The immediate context is Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa. 11:1-5 about the coming of the Messiah. In keeping with the promises made to King David one of David’s descendants would someday occupy his throne. “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, / And a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1 – the word translated “Rod” might better be rendered “shoot” – NASV, NRSV, ESV, NIV; Jesse was David’s father).
Isaiah then goes on to describe how this king will reign: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him ,” a Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might. In other words the Messiah will possess all the attributes necessary in a ruler if he is to be good and effective.
But ultimately that wisdom and knowledge must be grounded in “the fear of the Lord” (v. 2). “His delight is in the fear of the Lord” (v. 3a). In order to understand things aright one must understand them as God intended them to be. God is the Creator; we live in a universe that was ordered and structured by Him. In order to understand things properly we must understand His creative will and purpose. And while we may have a natural human tendency to assert our independence and think in terms of our own individual self-interest, God is concerned that we acknowledge Him and do what is just and right and true.
The end result of Messiah’s reign is that “with righteousness He shall judge the poor, / And decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . .” (v. 4a). In almost any human civilization – one that has achieved any degree of prosperity – there will be a tendency for the rich and powerful to take advantage of the weak and poor. This sometimes results in the outright corruption of the judicial system, with judges that would “justify the wicked for a bribe, / And take away justice from the righteous man’ (Isa. 5:23). In this sense Mr. Troeger is correct in condemning the “systems of gain.” And he is correct in thinking that such systems are “ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.” The rulings of the Messiah, Isaiah tells us, will be in strict conformity with the law and the facts of the case.
And how will all of this come about? There is one sense in which the Messiah’s kingdom is already here on earth, in the hearts of believers; and another sense in which it will not be fully manifested until the Second Coming of Christ. In the Parable of the Tares and the Wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) Jesus said that the tares of the wheat grow together until the end of the age, when “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness . . . Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (vv. 41,43).
Isaiah goes on to say, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, / For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord / As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9). The key to world peace is for the world to know God – to know His will, intents and purposes, to live according to His will. And what He intended for us is not that we should lie, cheat and steal, much less kill each other in war; but rather that we should “love the Lord with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:34-40). When we as human beings lose sight of the divine and eternal, when we forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, our Creator, for our actions, human life degenerates into an endless conflict of warring factions and “identity politics,” and that is where we are today.
Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says, “Little Child, whose bed is straw / take new lodging in my heart.” Jesus told Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). In the short run we can find peace and happiness by repenting of our sin, going to Christ in faith, and being reconciled to God. But peace on earth as a whole awaits the Second Coming of Christ. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!