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While the Bible doesn’t approve of war for every cause, and while it encourages peace with all persons (Rm 12:18), it nonetheless indicates that peace and justice sometimes require war (Mt 24:6). This is made clear from many considerations. First, the Bible does not prohibit all taking of life. For instance, killing in self-defense is justified (Ex 22:2), as is killing in capital punishment (Gn 9:6). Government is divinely authorized to use “the sword” (Rm 13:4), as Jesus Himself recognized (Jn 19:11). Second, under the law, God spelled out the rules of warfare for Israel (Dt 20). Third, while Jesus forbade His disciples from using a sword for spiritual purposes (Mt 26:52), He urged His disciples to buy a sword if necessary for protection (Lk 22:36–38). Fourth, John the Baptist did not say that armies should be abolished and did not call for repentance from serving in the office of soldier (Lk 3:14).
The Bible commands Christians to obey their government (Rm 13:1–7; Ti 3:1; 1 Pt 2:13–14). However, there are limitations to such obedience. When the government commands worship of idols or a king (Dn 3:6), forbids preaching the gospel (Acts 4–5), or orders the killing of children (Ex 1), then it is a believer’s duty to disobey. Like-wise, if government engages in unjust warfare, believers may dissent. However, like Daniel (Dn 6), the three Hebrew young men (Dn 3), and Peter (Acts 4–5), those who disobey government must accept the consequences meted out by the state.
Several conditions for just war are given in the Bible. First, it must be declared by one’s government (Rm 13:4). Second, it must be in defense of the innocent and/or against an evil aggressor (e.g., Gn. 14). Third, it must be fought by just means (Dt 20:19).
In addition to the above reasons for a just war policy, biblical arguments for total pacifism are flawed. For example, Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39) refers to a personal insult (like a slap in the face), not to bodily harm. Indeed, even Jesus refused to turn His cheek when smitten unjustly (Jn 18:22–23). The exhortation to love our enemies does not preclude the use of force to restrain them from killing us (cp. Paul’s instigation of government intervention for his protection in Acts 23).
Isaiah 2:2–5 Isaiah declared that war between nations would end “in the last days” (v. 2); the Lord would bring about that peaceful situation among nations through His arbitration (vv. 3–4). A precondition for peace is worldwide acceptance of God’s instruction (v. 3), as His Word would prepare people to follow His path of justice and forgiveness. Peace will never result from the efforts of sinful humanity. Apart from the Lord’s doing it is only the political slogan of anti-war protestors, the optimistic dream of national diplomats, or a nebulous religious ideal.
Isaiah 2:9 Why would the prophet pray, “Do not forgive them”? First, Isaiah may have been aligning himself with God’s holy hatred of sin; divine justice would require that sinners not be excused without suffering the consequences of their disobedience. Second, the verb “forgive/bear” (nasaʾ) is often translated “lift up.” The prophet might simply have been asking God to humble these proud people.
Isaiah 2:22 God created humanity in His image (Gn 1:26), and the psalmist affirmed that God crowned man with glory (Ps 8:5). Isaiah was not speaking about a person’s intrinsic worth or importance in God’s eyes. The issue here was reliance on other people who might not be realizing the dignity God had conferred on the human race. Isaiah was only reminding people that they should not trust in gold, armies, idols (vv. 7–8), other proud people (vv. 11, 12, 17), or the structures people erect to give them security (vv. 15–16). God alone is worthy of trust; relying on human devices is a waste of time.
Isaiah 3:10–11 God’s covenant with Israel established a broad relationship between obedience and blessing, disobedience and curse (Lv 26:1–45; Dt 27–28). The book of Proverbs is based on this fundamental relationship between right actions and beneficial consequences, and the converse. Isaiah reaffirmed this principle, that “it will go well” for the righteous but badly for the wicked. This does not mean that righteousness or innocence, even when consistent, bring an immediate earthly reward—as the Bible’s examples of Joseph (Gn 37–45), Job (Job 1–2), the man blind from birth (Jn 9:1–4) and Jesus’ own unjust execution (Mt 27) make clear. But the long-term biblical view (in those instances, and many others) affirms that the principle is valid. In the end, the righteous person is vindicated, in the resurrection (see Acts 10:36–41) if not before.
Isaiah 3:16–24 Isaiah portrayed the judgment of the proud women of Jerusalem in graphic and gruesome word pictures. His description was a realistic portrayal of what would happen should the army of another ancient Near Eastern nation conquer Jerusalem. The enemy would respect neither men, women, nor children, but would savagely abuse and slaughter them. Such would be the Lord’s judgment if the wealthy women of Jerusalem, with the leaders of Judah, failed to repent of their pride and oppression of the poor (cp. vv. 13–15). In seeking to move them to repentance, the prophet did not gloss over the possible consequence of continuing disregard for the ways of the Lord. Jerusalem’s women would not be excused from punishment, for they participated with their husbands in the corruption of the culture (cp. the women of Samaria, Am 4:1). God will humble the proud and He alone will be exalted (Is 2:12, 17).
Isaiah 4:1 So many men in Jerusalem would be killed in battle (3:25) that there will be no husbands left for these rich women. In their desperation to avoid the disgrace of not having husbands, they will stoop to the shameful state of sharing a man with other wives. Isaiah’s words were no endorsement of polygamy or multiple sexual partners; he was warning these people of the dire consequences of maintaining their evil ways. His word picture was intended to motivate the people to repentance before this sad condition befell them.
Isaiah 4:2 Some interpreters view the phrase “branch [tsemach] of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious” as a sign of the land’s fertility. They view it as a parallel to the next phrase, “the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of Israel’s survivors.” Others take the “branch of the Lord” as a messianic title based on other occurrences of the word, used in the sense of the springing forth of salvation (2 Sm 23:5) or “a horn” (Ps 132:17) for David. These passages, because they speak of the continuing line of David, carry a messianic implication. Isaiah, a prophet of Jerusalem close to the royal court, likely knew these songs. Later he called the Messiah “a shoot” (choter) that will come up from the stump of Jesse, even a “branch” (netser) that will bear fruit (Is 11:1). Jeremiah referred to the “righteous Branch” or “Branch of righteousness” from David (Jr 23:5; 33:15) and Zechariah (Zec 3:8; 6:12) used the term “Branch” with a messianic meaning.
War in the Bible—What Ancient Warfare and Arms Were Like?
Isaiah 5:12, 19 Isaiah identified a person who is blind to spiritual realities as one who cannot “perceive the Lord’s actions” or has refused to “see the work of His hands.” While claiming to welcome the Lord’s redemptive action (v. 19), they are unable to understand what He is already doing to enact His judgments. They insist on seeing the Lord at work, according to their own idea of what He is supposed to do, before they will believe in Him. Jesus rejected the idea of doing another miracle, or sign, to prove who He was (Mt 16:1–4). The people already had the Law and the Prophets (Lk 16:29–31). Isaiah understood that, eventually, God would blind the eyes of persistent unbelievers so that they would not be able to see the truth (Is 6:9–10; see Mk 4:11–12; Acts 28:27).
Isaiah 6:1, 5 In Ex 33:20 the Lord told Moses that no man could see His face and live; Jn 1:18 confirms that no one has seen God. His eternal essence is invisible (1 Tm 1:17; 6:16); He is Spirit (Jn 4:23–24). Yet Isaiah claimed to have seen “the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne … the King, the Lord of Hosts.” There are other places in Scripture where people see the Lord; for example, He revealed Himself to Moses and the elders of Israel on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:9–18), and to Ezekiel and John in glorious and mysterious visions (Ezk 1; 10; Rv 4:1–11). These “theophanies” (appearances of God) were typically accompanied by features drawn from the world of nature, such as storm or volcanic activity, and often included the manifestation of God’s “glory,” an awesome weight or radiance that both revealed and hid His presence. They could be internal visions—experiences of one person not shared by bystanders. Or they could be “literary visions,” poetic expressions of the Lord’s appearance composed in order to add force to the words of His spokesman. Isaiah’s vision occurred in the temple (Is 6:4) and was described in terms of the worship conducted there. The chanting (v. 3) of the seraphim (lit. “burning ones”) mirrored the antiphonal singing of the Levitical choirs, while the smoke of the altar (vv. 4, 6) filled the air, suggesting a sacrificial ceremony in progress. Whatever the particular nature of Isaiah’s vision, it was a pivotal event in his prophetic ministry.
Isaiah 6:9–10 The Lord summoned Isaiah to preach to the people so that they could not hear and see the truth and repent. Negating the possibility of their repentance seems to contradict Isaiah’s call for the people to repent in 1:18–20, or his appeal to Ahaz to trust God in 7:9. The prophetic summons to repent had a double function; it invited people to return to the Lord, but also exposed those who, having hardened their hearts to God’s appeal, were destined for judgment. Moses, similarly, was told to deliver his message to Pharaoh (Ex 3:1–10) although he would not listen to it (Ex 3:19). The Lord, through Isaiah, gave Ahaz the opportunity to follow His will (Is 7:3–9), but like Pharaoh, Ahaz hardened his heart and refused to follow the Lord’s instructions (Is 7:10–13). The Lord is glorified not only by the response of those who heed His call to repent, but also by the consequences that follow for those who ignore His appeal. The NT writers saw the same principle at work in the response to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mk 4:11–12; Jn 12:37–40; Acts 28:25–28).
Isaiah 7:3–9 Isaiah promised that Ahaz, king of Judah, had nothing to fear even though the armies of Rezin of Aram (Syria) and Pekah of Israel were attacking Judah. On the other hand, 2 Ch 28:5–8 indicates that Judah was defeated, losing 120,000 soldiers with 200,000 people taken captive. Isaiah’s prophecy was based on the condition that Ahaz would trust God (Is 7:9), which he failed to do. Thus the consequences of the war were more serious than what they would have been if Ahaz had acted in faith. Consideration of the Syro-Ephraimite War, on the whole, shows that while Judah lost some battles, it did not lose the war. Ahaz foolishly called on the king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III (2 Ch 28:16, 20).
Isaiah 7:14 The Hebrew word ʿalmah refers to a young woman before the age of marriage, and is sometimes translated “virgin.” Some interpreters claim that Matthew misappropriated this verse (Mt 1:23) in applying it to the birth of Jesus. They believe Isaiah was referring to a woman in the time of Ahaz—either a son born to an ʿalmah in Ahaz’s harem or a son to Isaiah’s wife (8:1–4), and that this “Immanuel” was a sign of hope for the future when “God will be with us.” Others accept this immediate application, but also view the passage as prophetic of Christ (a “double fulfillment” approach). But Ahaz’s good son Hezekiah was already born at this time; and Isaiah already had children, so his wife would not be called a “virgin” at this point in her life. Thus, many believe this prophecy only referred to the future birth of the Messiah. If so, this messianic application was expanded and verified through progressive revelation in 9:6–7, which announced that “a child will be born for us … He will reign on the throne of David.”
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)
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