“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” These are the words the Prophet Isaiah speaks to us as we enter the Advent season. What did those words mean to the audience that he addressed? What do they mean to us now? What even is a plowshare??
Putting it into perspective, Judah and Jerusalem of the latter part of the 8th century BC were tumultuous places. With the geopolitical volatility of the time period, war came to be a part of everyday life in Isaiah’s world. The kingdom began amassing weapons and building defensive fortifications. This continued along with an increase in the country’s population, possibly three or four times its initial size over the next half-century. The financial burden of this armament and growth had to be footed by somebody, and the brunt of it was passed on to the kingdom’s working poor who were surviving largely on agriculturally based livelihoods. This is not unlike our own time in which wars on the other side of the world impact the price we pay for our food and gas.
Steel-like metals were just emerging on the scene in Isaiah’s day. From an agricultural perspective then, iron and steel were still considered luxury amenities and were used sparingly. Thus, farm plows were constructed mostly of wood. The one piece that was typically iron or steel would have been the “plowshare”; the metal tip at the end of the plow that is driven down into the ground to till the land. In a similar spirit, a pruning hook was a manual farming implement used by tenders of grape vines or olive trees. A typical pruning hook consisted of a wooden handle with a metal hooked knife edge on the end to prune branches during harvest.
Putting all of the above together then, we get a clearer idea of what Isaiah proclaimed with his prophetic words, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” He is foretelling of a time in which there will be such widespread and lasting peace that all of the nation’s resources currently being diverted to defense and armament can instead be used to support the people through peaceful agricultural initiatives.
For Isaiah’s audiences, themselves being mostly farmers, this message would have resonated strongly. Thus, at its heart, this is a message of peace and of hope. What better sentiment to embark on this Advent season with, which is a season of hopeful anticipation?
Because of Isaiah’s phrasing, the “plowshares” imagery has been adopted by peacemakers and war protesters throughout the modern era. We too can hear these words today and be inspired to bring about a more peaceful world. Peacemaking is, after all, something that all Christians are called to do.
As I reflect on this passage myself, I sometimes feel like I just don’t have the influence to make much of a difference in that regard. I cannot shape our country’s military policy or weigh in on global conflicts. Also, I am no farmer. Heck, I don’t even mow my own lawn – we have a guy for that.
So, what does it look like for me to make plowshares in my everyday life? I remind myself that every day I am faced with a myriad of little interactions that can have peaceful resolutions or quite the opposite. If somebody cuts me off on the interstate, I can choose to try to “get back” at them, or I can just let it slide. I can opt to add fuel to social media arguments, or I can intentionally step away from them. I can decide to be negative and spread pessimism, or I can make it a point to be hopeful and encouraging. It is all of these little wars that shape the world we experience on a day-to-day basis.
As we continue into this Advent season, I will contemplate those words of Isaiah and consider what other swords and spears I am maintaining in my own life that are no longer needed. If more of us do that, then maybe we can all look forward to a Christmas in which our gifts are plowshares and pruning hooks.