‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks’
Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3
Recently I heard it stated that ‘…creatives, artists, have responsibility to define the vision of the future (of what peace might look like in N Ireland), and that ‘…only creatives can see the way’. Given that God’s people have His ear and He has ours, we are also in a very privileged position to define what peace looks like and how it might be achieved. This is where Isaiah’s (and Micah’s) prophecy comes in with its powerful counterpointing of destruction caused by swords and spears and abundance resulting from ploughing and pruning.
The ploughshare is the horizontal pointed cutting blade on a plough which determines the depth of soil to be turned over. In Northern Ireland up to ten furrows may be created in one pass with ploughs driven by powerful tractors while in other parts of the world cattle and horses are used to draw a single wooden blade.
Pruning hooks are less familiar to me, maybe because I’m a very amateur gardener and a pruning hook is a specialized gardening tool. Trees and shrubs benefit from judicious removal of old or weak branches and their shape is created through pruning. This is carried to an extreme in topiary, confirming that pruning is an art. Pruning is an essential skill and activity in agriculture or, more specifically, arboriculture. Fruit trees require pruning if they are to produce lots of healthy high quality fruit. Indeed a whole language describing the structure of trees is associated with the art of strengthening the chosen branches through pruning.
How might Isaiah’s prophecy take shape in our world here and now? Visiting the province of Aceh in Indonesia about five months after the 2004 tsunami, I had my first (and to date, only – sadly) helicopter flight. It was a Russian military helicopter flown by a Russian crew, on secondment to the UN, flying aid workers to points along the coast no longer reachable by road. For me it was a graphic illustration of a ‘weapon’ being transformed into a ‘ploughshare’.
Wars and weapons are not necessary to human existence, agriculture is. Many governments prioritise military prowess, in some cases at the expense of the wellbeing of their people. In some countries government and business seek to attract the brightest academics to conduct war-related research. But in the decades since World War II food security has been increasingly ignored until very recently. In the developed west we have blind faith in the retailers to provide food and we ‘care’-lessly throw a lot away. If the effort that has been put into arms races had been focused on agriculture, if our economies followed the principles of the three Ps (people, planet, profit), would millions go hungry today, and/or not have access to clean water and sanitation?
And what does this prophecy say to those of us who are not involved in either the war industry or agriculture? During the years of ‘The Troubles’ we learned that sectarianism wasn’t just expressing negative attitudes towards others, it could also be overlooking them by simply not ‘seeing’ them. ‘Reckless words pierce like a sword’ says the writer of Proverbs (12:18a) reminding us that words are weapons that can wound and gossip is destructive. But words in any and every group of people – our workplaces, our families, our social spaces – can also create a healing ‘atmosphere’, much as ploughshares cultivate the soil, in which friends and strangers alike should feel welcome and valued (Prov. 12:18b). Like pruning forks we can use words to shape society, to bring about changes that benefit all (1 Peter 2:11-17). And God’s people, being Spirit-filled and called to peace, should also be using words to express thankfulness and praise and in helping others to be fruitful in their discipleship (Eph. 5:15-20; Col. 3:15-17).
Dr Ethel White is a research scientist in agriculture.