The Environmental Vision of Isaiah

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To say that Isaiah isn’t about the environment is to misunderstand his vision. The Old Testament faith was very much about the environment. From the beginning, Adam and Eve were given a custodian stewardship over the environment.  They were not to rule the environment according to the strategic dictates of their nation state, in a global competition of alliances, but in the image of God, which meant in his sabbath rule. We see more about this in the Torah, but “sabbath rule” means a rule of neighbourliness, which Jesus said includes those of other groups, even our enemies.

The environment mattered. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice the centrality of the earth to the vision. This vision is carried all through the bible, but to a large extent in modern times we have replaced it with an individualistic faith and a faith of the “spirit,” of going to heaven, which is a practical denial of this present creation. If you announce a church seminar on the environment, planting trees, compositing for soil regeneration, many Christians will think you mad. “That isn’t spiritual,” many will say. But to Isaiah this is central to his vision of what it means to be spiritual.

In Isaiah we see certain things emerging together. We see care for the poor, care for the displaced, reconciling of relationships, enemies destroying their hostile outlooks, the renewal of beastly world powers (be they military or economic), the breaking of swords into ploughs, and the emergence of a renewed natural environment. All these aspects are interdependent. They emerge together in a “new creation.” A new kingdom is birthed in the world, through a humble baby, and his kingdom eventually takes over and displaces the rule of empire, the empires of destruction in Isaiah’s day, that have their continuance in the self-centred rule of our own time.

It’s not good for us to say this vision in limited to metaphor, about our spiritual salvation. Or, to say this vision is to be fulfilled later, in the resurrection. Certainly, the final climax of this new creation is in the resurrection of our bodies, when all death shall end, but the vision of Isaiah characterises the whole kingdom of the Messiah, with its outworking in our present lives and the renewing of creation in our own time. At least, this is how the early church saw it. They saw themselves as Isaiah’s new kingdom people, living already in the spirit of Isaiah’s vision, breaking down oppression by the building of new relationships of care, destroying the walls of separation, bringing us all into a new neighbourliness. What Jesus did on the cross for his enemies, was to characterise our whole lives, and the same principle of reconciliation we live towards our enemies. It also means being reconciled to our Adamic commission of care over the creation. The early church claimed that we are living in Isaiah’s vision now, not just metaphorically, being healed of our destructive enmity towards each other and towards the natural world. This was spirituality to Isaiah and to the early church.

By divorcing our Christianity from Isaiah’s vision we have lost our way. We have ended up with a “reductionist” faith, that is centred mainly on our own personal “relationship with God” and goes little further. To some extent, we have divorced ourselves from a biblical vision of what the gospel is, and even of evangelism, thinking it is about preaching rather than living the new creation life of renewal in our current world and communities. This new life is our witness to the lordship of Christ, showing the gospel through his will and image that governs our renewing hearts. Then people ask the question Peter referred to, “Why do you live this way, what is the hope you have when you aren’t living in basic individualism like Caesar and this world’s current culture?” This new life makes disciples, who are like Christ and this is evangelism and the Great Commission.

In drifting from Isaiah’s vision we have lost the “moral high ground” in the current world. What good is a church that has become mainly individualistic, that lacks a truly reconciling quality in the world, that lacks a renewing witness in our broken relationships, our broken nationalism, and in our broken natural environment. If we can’t give up our privatised comfort and security to be a witness of the cross that renews the old creation in resurrection life, then we have lost our saltiness. The “environmental movement” takes up the challenge the church refuses. But this movement has too much economic opportunism at its core, it doesn’t effectively heal the poor and it tends towards non-democratic tactics. A vision to restore the world needs to be a vision of the cross working in all our lives and sharing communities, which is the central ingredient to Isaiah.

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” (Isaiah 32:1-2)

This is Christ and his church. Isaiah was speaking about those who were suffering oppression from the empires of the day, the displaced, refugees and impoverished. Isaiah told Israel not to behave like those nations, and even if they saw their enemies in unfortunate circumstances, they were to help them out of their trouble. Isaiah 16 told Israel to treat the refugees of Esau in this way, sworn enemies who often harmed Israel. If that was the case then, this is how we are to treat refugees today, even if we consider it a “security risk.” The main security risk comes form not helping our enemies.

“The fruit of righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17)

The kings of Israel fled for refuge by building larger fortresses and by putting their security in alliances with other deceptive powers. The more money they spent on such things the less they had to care for the poor, which meant future conflicts were assured. From the Torah, God told Israel not to put their security in such measures, but rather in sabbath, meaning helping the widows and orphans, setting slaves free and forgiving all debts. In the verse above “righteousness” comes from the root word for “justice,” which means the mercy that Isaiah 32 opens with, the people of God showing compassion in the world. The consequences of this self-giving would be peace. Unfortunately, we have taken verses like this in an “evangelical” sense, about a personal righteousness and peace with God. That is part of it, but on its own it misses the point of Isaiah.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday… You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations.” (Isaiah 58-9-12)

Vilification of others is at epidemic levels today, especially in a world of political correctness. People are “crucified” in the media daily. But in this same world there is no real care for the poor. The number of poor in all our nations and the number of refugees from broken nations keeps growing. Isaiah shows a restored natural environment flowing from people who change the way they treat the poor. By “rebuilding the foundations” Isaiah means our communities and our natural environment, returning to Israel’s original Edenic and sabbath vision. Isaiah’s vision of a restored natural world flows from us exchanging economic greed and self-security for care of neighbour.

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat… the lion will eat straw like the ox… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)

This represents our renewed relationships, where hostility gives way to community, and speaks of a renewed natural creation, where there is no killing. This vision often doesn’t exist in a more secular “environmental lobby,” where “survival of the fittest” often informs a philosophy of life. In a pagan vision of creation, we move from “chaos to cosmos” (order) through violence, or today we might call it revolution. In the biblical vision we move to order by overcoming greed, to care for the poor, which includes restoring natural environment and life conditions.  This vision informs the image and relationships the church forges with its neighbours, as a witness, or a sacrament of God’s coming rule. The “glory of the Lord” that fills the creation is neighbourliness, acting in the best interests of others, rather than self. This is God’s perfect image, his love, which begins to fill the world through his church. God’s rule doesn’t come by a cataclysmic event, but by actions of faith, hope and love.

“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him (the seven-fold Spirit of God)… He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but he will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for those exploited in the earth.” (Isaiah 11:2-4)

The gospel is not a vision about leaving this earth and going to heaven. It is a vision of earth being renewed by heaven. There is a dualism in Christianity today that separates the spiritual from the natural, in opposition to each other. The bible doesn’t do that. They are one. “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,” recalls the Spirit hovering over the sea in Genesis 1, about to launch into creational activity, bringing order out of chaos. Isaiah speaks of the seven-fold Spirit of God, which recalls the seven days of creation, specifying the church’s call in renewing communities and natural habitats. There is nothing individualistic, or even nationalistic, about this gospel.

How did Isaiah say this environmental restoration, this forming of new creation, would take place? By the coming of God’s rule, that would not judge by personal, economic, ethnic, or religious bias, but would bring mercy to the powerless and poor of the earth. This is God’s sabbath government coming to the world through the church, which restores our ancient creation. (If you have a problem with the next verse [not quoted above] about Christ smiting the nations, we discuss the meaning of this in our other books. Briefly, it refers to the ruin the greedy bring upon their own hearts and lives, e.g. the fall of Jerusalem.)

“The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

The New Living translation brings out the meaning of “judgment” in this and similar passages. It means to mediate, to bring parties together in reconciling community. The church is God’s instrument in doing this. We are not to divide and drive people or groups to the fringes of religious or ethnic separation, but to bring our communities together. How do we do this? By serving in mercy without bias for all concerned. A church that seeks to care for only its own, and not for any person that suffers, is not fulfilling the Isaianic vision, as the Good Samaritan shows it. All are our neighbour.

There is a circular relationship between peace and the restoration of our natural environment. As we disarm, we can shift finances and natural resources to the poor, taking the pressure off our exploitation of those resources to dominate others. And as we do this, looking after the poor, greater reconciliation occurs between our nations and peace is further strengthened, leading to further disarmament. This is an escalating cycle, finally heading in the right direction of care for others, peace and the non-exploitation of the environment. This way of life just keeps growing. It is the life the Torah bears witness to, in caring for others rather than building the military, which was to be Israel’s security and witness as they lived between the Egyptians and the Hittites. This is also to be the church’s witness. The cross that we carry as the principle of new life is at the centre.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.” (Isaiah 35:1-2)

“The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived.” (Isaiah 35:7)

“I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:18-20)

“When the Lord returns in glory the wait will be over, and soon afterward the creation will once again resemble a lush garden. He will make her deserts like Eden, her waste lands like the garden of the Lord.” (Isaiah 51:3)

These are “return from exile” passages. It’s like coming back to Eden, mankind’s original home. It shows the result of the fallen empires of greed, when we begin to treat each other with care. This is God’s “return” to his renewed temple, to dwell with his people, giving us a new heart. These texts were not fulfilled when Israel returned from Babylon, but by the coming of Christ. Jesus referred to these passages as being fulfilled in his ministry, as he brought about a new economics or care, which was foreign to the elite of Jerusalem at that time and to the Roman powers. Christ’s cross, resurrection and new people would establish of new ethic of sabbath rest, where “there is neither Greek nor Jew, rich nor poor, male nor female, slave nor free,” but one table or family.

“The creation that groans, is finally delivered from its bondage to corruption,” the corruption of our fallen relationships. The “sons of God,” the peacemakers emerge, putting things right, bringing mercy to the broken. (Romans 8:19, Matthew 5:9) See how the scripture ties creation renewal to the emergence of the peacemakers.

Isaiah’s prophecies follow the Edenic and sabbath themes that are central to the story of the people of God in the Old Testament. Eden is restored by a sabbath life. The sabbath in the Torah was kept on the seventh day of the week. On that day, care and rest were to be freely given to those under the boss’ power, unlike the economics of Pharaoh Israel was delivered from. This new economics was central to Israel’s community identity. The farmland was to be rested every seven years, so the ecology of the whole environment could recover. They celebrated seven feasts every year, in which the poor and refugees were cared for. These were their remembrances, in humility, recalling the way God loved them in their own brokenness, not the obstinance of the military parades the pagans held. After seven times seven years, there was the Jubilee, a complete restoration of the land and the poor. “Seven” was representative of creational nourishment, which was the social and environmental centre piece to the identity of God’s people and their witness to the world. This was a world that exploited and destroyed all before it, both man and beast and all nature itself. God’s people were called to turn this around.