Have you ever been disappointed in a politician? Have you ever voted for a politician because you believed in what he or she promised or supposedly stood for, only to learn later that this politician was like all the rest? Well, in one sense we have only ourselves to blame. This is, after all, a democracy and for the most part we probably get what we deserve.
But imagine yourself living in Isaiah’s time when you were stuck with whatever king (sage or fool) who happened to come to the throne of David. Kings were not elected. They were born. And for centuries the people of Israel had been waiting for a king who fulfilled their fondest dreams—a king who would be just and not crooked; humble and not arrogant; more concerned about the food in his subject’s bellies than the gold on his palace walls. But time after time—reign after reign—king after king—buffoon after buffoon, the people were disappointed. No one could live up to the expectations of the people and the promises of God.
You see, when David came to the throne, God made a promise (at least, that was what David and his descendants maintained—see II Samuel 7; Psalm 89). God promised that the royal house of David would rule Israel forever and would usher in an ideal age of justice and peace. Each king came to the throne with a platform delivered from heaven: they were to be God’s representatives on earth making sure that the social structures of Israel reflected the shalom of God. And one by one they failed. There were moments of hope—flickers of light in Israel’s otherwise dark history, but for the most part, God’s people suffered one arrogant fool after another—kings who were a lot more concerned about lining their own pockets and polishing their own image than they ever were about the welfare of their people. (Or should we say God’s people?)
As Isaiah faced this problem he had two choices. He could abandon God’s promise for an ideal king ushering in the age of cosmic peace and justice, or he could push that promise into the future. One day a king would come to the throne who would live up to the platform given by God. But this king would be unlike anything Israel or the world had ever seen.
First of all, the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon this king—not a spirit of fear or greed or pride or expediency or violence or foolishness, but the Spirit of the Lord—that same Spirit which hovered over the deep darkness incubating the dreams of God for creation—that same Spirit which breathed life into humankind in the garden—that same Spirit which called Abraham and Sarah, an aged couple, to believe the impossible—that same Spirit which parted the sea for God’s people coming out of Egypt—that same Spirit which empowered Deborah and Gideon to acts of courage and wisdom—that same Spirit which inspired Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Huldah (Yes, there were female prophets–see II Kings 22:8-20) and all the prophets to speak truth to power—that same Spirit which would bring life to the womb of a poor Jewish teenage girl as she offered herself for the plan of the ages. In Isaiah’s day as in our own, there were many spirits which possessed both leaders and their people. We too look in vain for one upon whom the Spirit of God rests.
Secondly, this king would not act according to what his eyes saw or what his ears heard. This ruler would not make decisions based on popularity polls and expediency. He would not use his power for his own benefit. He would not align himself with the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and defenseless. He would act and decide according to the justice and righteousness of God.
Thirdly, this king would usher in a cosmic age of shalom. This shalom which would include peace, harmony, and a caring community would happen only after the king established justice. This king would understand the dynamics of peace. There must first be justice (which means deliverance from whatever oppression the most vulnerable suffer) and only then can there be peace in the fullest sense of God’s intention for the world.
Most leaders except for madmen like Hitler want peace, but most of them (and perhaps most of us) don’t want what it takes to secure real peace and harmony in our world. It takes justice—sharing—redistributions of wealth and power—protection for the weak and defenseless. It takes fairness, mercy, compassion, and telling the truth. The precondition for peace in our world is the pursuit and attainment of justice. Isaiah says that the ideal king will know that and act accordingly. Do I have to tell you that this is an insight which has escaped our politicians and perhaps even us?
The mission of the Messiah is to bring peace through justice. And Isaiah must resort to poetry at its most beautiful to describe this peace. Notice that the cosmic peace prophesied by Isaiah focuses on animals and children. Adult humans are not even mentioned in this portrait of peace. Wolves and lambs, leopards and baby goats, cows and bears, lions and oxen, and even poisonous snakes participate in this cosmic shalom. They dwell together in harmony and peace. No one will hurt or be hurt. The dream of Eden will become a reality.
And notice who presides over this peaceable realm. A little child shall lead them. Not a politician—not a mighty king—not a brilliant scientist—not a no-nonsense pragmatist—not a military general with a vast army and massive weapons—not a tycoon from Wall Street—not an evangelist who pounds his pulpit with such ruthless certainty. No! A little child shall lead them. And even infants will be safe in the peaceable realm, for the whole earth will be full of the knowledge (which means in the Hebrew Scriptures the direct experience) of God.
What a bold piece of poetry! Isaiah dares to speak of the consummation of the world without mentioning a single adult. It’s as though we are not even there! What in the world was in this prophet’s mind?
At this point I want to focus on the children in this prophesy. The animals will have to wait for another sermon. A little child shall lead them and even infants will enjoy a safe place in the world which becomes a sanctuary where they will not be hurt in any way. Why does Isaiah focus on children to the total exclusion of adults in this poem? The answer is quite simple—Isaiah’s concern is justice, and justice is always measured according to the welfare of the weakest and most vulnerable in any society. The biblical norm is clear. God starts with the weak, the vulnerable, the insignificant, the least of these and judges a society on the basis of their welfare. It matters not what a nation’s GNP may be or what its economic growth may be or how many missiles it may possess—what matters to God is how the weakest and most vulnerable fare in this world.
And in any society the weakest and most vulnerable are always the children. For all our sentimental rhetoric, they are expendable and superfluous, far down on the list of our priorities. They are the first to be ground up in the cruel wheels of poverty. One child in four (according to the Democrats) or one child in five (according to the Republicans) lives below the poverty level in this, the richest country in the world. Children are the first and most numerous victims of war. They are the first victims of hunger in our world. Tens of thousands of children die from hunger and the diseases associated with malnourishment every day on this planet. They are subject to all kinds of abuse from parents and other adults in unspeakable ways. In this nation they must walk through gun detectors as they enter their elementary and secondary schools (and no matter how many are killed by gunmen with automatic weapons, our politicians refuse to make the necessary decisions to eliminate such weapons because they are more concerned about being reelected than the fate of the innocent). And too many children in the inner cities of this country no longer say “When I grow up.” “They say, “If I grow up,” for they have witnessed the senseless violence of a drug addicted culture. Children are always the first victims of adult greed and violence.
If there was ever a time for children to be the top concern of this world, it is today. We’ve tried it for too long the other way. Our trickle-down justice simply doesn’t work. We must start at the other end—at the bottom with the weakest and most vulnerable and seek their welfare and allow them to lead us into a brighter future.
And at this point the church can play a vital role. If we wait for the politicians to decide and to act, it will never happen. Politicians never lead. They simply reflect the opinions and prejudices of the polls as well as being for sale to the highest bidder regardless of their party affiliation. Most of them are “bought” before they ever take office, and those who “buy” them are concerned with profits and not people (especially the most vulnerable and powerless among us).
Let us remember that the Christian faith maintains that in Christ the Messiah has come. The time for this Peaceable Realm is now, not just in some distant future. At Christmas we marvel at the coming of God in a newborn baby. But the truth is, Christ comes to us in every infant and in every child, for when we do it unto the least of these, we do it unto him. As co-creators with God in this world, we can generate safe places for our children as we allow them to lead us into the Peaceable Realm. In other words, it’s time for the church to act like the Messiah has come.