The prophets of the Old Testament predicted a time, sometimes refered to as “the day of the Lord”, when God would come and reign with his people and set up his Kingdom. This new reign would be a hopeful future not only for the Hebrews but also for the whole world. Today we understand this future to be occurring now ever since the advent of Jesus Christ.
Not all the prophets were in agreement on how this would happen.
Isaiah and Micah
The prophet most quoted by the Church and the New Testament authors is Isaiah. He is the one who gives us the famous Christmas song “For Unto Us a Child is Born” (Isaiah 9:6 KJV). The prophet had a vision of the future where the Messiah has come and begun to set up his Kingdom.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
In Isaiah’s vision, the nations give up their weapons and turn them into tools of agriculture to cultivate food. Isaiah says that nations will not train for war anymore. Micah 4:3 echos this prophetic claim in support of Isaiah. This sounds like a world who have begun to follow the Prince of Peace.
While Isaiah and Micah agree that the coming of Messiah will usher in a new age of nonviolence, Joel paints a completely different picture.
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.
Beat your plowshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears.
Let the weakling say,
“I am strong!”
Joel’s imagery uses the exact same phrase but backward. Instead of turning weapons of death into tools to cultivate life-giving food, Joel says the nations will turn those tools into weapons. Joel’s vision better matches the messianic expectations of the Jews.
As you can see, there are stark differences between the vision that Joel and Isaiah/Micah have for the coming of God’s Kingdom. While Joel claims that peace will be achieved through bloody violence, Isaiah and Micah claim that peace will come through peace.
A Kingdom Like Every Other?
Joel’s vision is no different from that of practically every nation on earth: peace will be attained when we defeat and subjugate all our enemies. But a peace won by the sword has to be maintained by the sword; that is why Joel does not follow up his prophecy by saying that afterward they won’t need their swords and can beat them into plowshares. You’ll always need swords in Joel’s prophesy. This is the way of Babylon, Rome, and America. This was the way of the Jews and it resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible teaches us that the way of Joel’s vision results in death and destruction. Jesus did not choose this way.
Isaiah and Micah offer a different vision, and it is at odds not just with Joel but with most of the world. In this vision, God’s people win the peace when they repent of their idolatry and their injustice—including the injustices that are done when seeking peace through violence—and turn to the Lord.
Some commentators try to reconcile the differences between the prophets by asserting that Isaiah/Micah and Joel are addressing two different historical contexts. In other words, when the Messiah comes, the nations first wage war on each other, and Judah defeats all its enemies. Then everyone beats their swords into plowshares. But we know this is not the case because Jesus never at any point called his people to create weapons or to participate in war. Quite the opposite.
Certainly, it is Isaiah and Micah who give us a higher vision of both the future and our actions in the present. Nowhere in Joel do we find the soaring ethical insight of Micah: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For unto us a child is born…
Isaiah paints a picture of the future that when the Messiah has come every nation’s military will dissolve, every person will give up their weapons, and peace will come through peace. This is a bold claim. This is a claim that runs counter to the ethos of America.1 This claim is blasphemous to American culture. This claim was blasphemous to the Jews as well.
Joel claimed that when the Messiah came that more weapons would be created and there would be a rally to war. We see this played out today in America where the belief is that more weapons must be created and wars must be fought to achieve peace. This is the way of every empire.
Getting God Wrong
It’s significant that, while Jesus quotes Isaiah extensively, he never quotes Joel. Not even once. When Jesus came he never lifted a weapon. When Jesus came he did not rally anyone to war. Instead, Jesus repudiated violence. Jesus even claimed that a sign of being one of his followers was that they do not fight (John 18:36).
Jesus modeled the prophet’s claim of nonviolence, peace through peace, military renunciation, and the abolition of weaponry. In doing this, Jesus went up against the most popular messianic expectations fueled by prophets like Joel. False prophesies like Joel’s helped to mislead the Jews and contributed to Jesus not being recognized as the one true Messiah. Jesus didn’t meet the Jew’s expectations and it got him killed.
The difference in vision between Joel and Isaiah/Micah illustrates just one example of the Old Testament’s multivocal nature. Though at times we see conflicting views throughout the Old Testament, Jesus gives us a clear picture of God’s will. We see this in several issues like animal sacrifices, temple systems, and government. While there is no consensus on which was written first, if Joel was written earlier it means that Isaiah and Micah were intentionally quoting “plowshares into swords” and reversing it as a rebuke against a false prophecy. Regardless, today we know that Joel prophesied falsely due to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Isaiah or Joel? It’s clear which vision Jesus adopts. Which makes it clear which we should as well.