This passage from Isaiah is made up of two distinct halves. The first half celebrates God’s power to stand against ruthlessness and cruelty in order to protect the poor and needy.
It may often seem as though the ruthless and the cruel will always be on top, but God has long been planning their downfall. It is as certain and sure as the fall of Sirte in Libya, for instance.
Nonetheless, it seems an alien idea for worshippers to exalt God, or praise him, for turning cities into heaps of ruin and fortified towns into rubble. In recent history we have seen more than enough of this kind of thing - the sieges of Stalingrad and Sarajevo, the destruction of Dresden and Berlin, the terrible fate of the twin towers in New York. We know how many innocent people suffer or are killed, even when cruel nations are defeated. Does God really seek to win awe and respect through displays of shocking destructive power, like the assault on Baghdad at the beginning of the first Iraq War? Does he trample the cruel and the ruthless under his jack boots ‘like slush’, to quote from a little late in the prophecy? Or does he seek to defeat cruelty and ruthlessness on the cross, overcoming them more patiently, with the power of love?
The Prophet can’t wait for patient solutions to oppression. He knows from his own experience that the blast of the ruthless is like an icy storm or a scorching drought. It destroys everything in its path. The Prophet calls on God to provide immediate refuge to the victims. He imagines God riding at the head of the Soviet tanks racing to encircle the besiegers at Stalingrad, or the NATO forces which eventually broke the siege of Sarajevo. He wants quick fixes.
But our own experience, trying to neutralise the Taliban in Afghanistan and to defeat al-Qaida across the world, has shown that there are no short-cuts, no easy wins, in the battle against cruelty and ruthlessness. Their advocates can’t be permanently overcome or eliminated by bombing them back to the stone age, not least because that way of combatting them brings us down to their level and makes us appear just as cruel and ruthless. This is a lesson which seems to have been learnt at last by NATO. Having intervened in Libya to stop Colonel Gadaffi from destroying the city of Tripoli, NATO realised that its bombers have to be used very sparingly against the remnants of his forces.
The second half of the passage makes more comfortable reading, therefore, because it offers us a vision of peace. On Mount Zion the Lord God will prepare a wonderful end-time banquet which brings together all the different peoples of the world. The things which separate them - different languages, cultures and religions, mutual hostility and suspicion - will be swept away. At last people will recognise the true authority and greatness of God, and they will all rejoice together.
This celebration is about removing the indignities which people face each day and wiping away their tears. Even death itself will be destroyed.
In my job at Sheffield we have just had a matrix inspection visit. Matrix is a standard used to assess how organisations treat their customers or clients, and the standard has recently been made stronger by giving it a new emphasis on treating people with dignity and respect. Well the Lord God clearly invented the new matrix standard, at least judging by what the Prophet reveals in the second part of his vision.
The passage from Philippians has something in common with the prophecy but its focus is intimate and personal whereas the scale of Isaiah’s vision is global and epic. The one large scale reference point which the two passages share is that, in the preceding verses of Philipians, Paul has reminded his readers that we are all supposed to be citizens of heaven, and it is from heaven that we expect our deliverer to come. Isaiah would have approved that sentiment wholeheartedly.
But Paul’s focus is on personal disagreements rather than international conflicts and the violation of human rights. Euodia and Syntyche have fallen out over something, probably something trivial one suspects, and Paul appeals to them to settle their differences with the help of someone he calls his loyal comrade or companion. All we know about these three is that they were loyal and valued fellow-workers,so there’s a warning here that even the best of us can fall out with one another. Being of long-standing in the faith, and even being in leadership roles within the church, like these two women, doesn’t inoculate us from the natural human tendency to quarrel with those closest to us.
The antidote to this tendency is to stand firm in the Lord, to rejoice in the Lord - or find in him reasons to be glad, and to make sure we are known for our consideration of others. If we’re considerate, if we try to be happy, if we focus on the Lord, it should be harder for us to f all out with one another. Remembering that the Lord Jesus is near to us at all times, and immersing ourselves in prayer and contemplation, will help us to discover the deep peace of God, which is otherwise beyond all human understanding. And that same peace will enable us to fill our thoughts with all that is true, noble, just and pure, lovable and attractive, excellent and admirable.
If we can put these lessons into practice perhaps we shall find a better way of overcoming cruelty, ruthlessness, bullying, harshness and quarrelling than the quick fixes that the Prophet imagined in his vision.