You turn on the news and you find out that there’s been another horrific school shooting or a natural disaster across the country. The next story is about a deadly attack by some militant group you hadn’t heard of until just now in a city all the way across the world that you didn’t know about until just now. Then there’s breaking news. Tensions are escalating with North Korea and all of a sudden you find yourself seriously contemplating what might happen if there really is a nuclear war, something that people haven’t had to seriously worry about for a few decades. They switch over to the local news and it’s not much better; they recount what seems like an endless stream of burglaries, arsons, and murders, some of which aren’t too far from where you live or work.
You turn off the news and try to forget about it all, wondering why you even bothered turning it on in the first place. But you can’t get away from the hopelessness; you can’t escape the despair that seems to follow you around like a dark shadow. Of course, sometimes this shadow is hidden. Maybe even most of the time. But it’s never something you can completely rid yourself of for good. It always seems to come back. Maybe you have a conflict with a family member or friend, you keep fighting and fighting with them and no matter what happens, no matter what you try, nothing gets better. Or maybe it’s more subtle. Maybe you just don’t talk to them anymore.
For a reason.
You avoid it like the plague.
But you know what? You’re not alone. The Old Testament people of God often felt the same way. And while that in itself might not exactly be comforting for you, you can at the very least commiserate with them, for what it’s worth.
Now, they might not have had news shows or newspapers to cause them anxiety around the clock, but they had just as much to worry about, if not more. The Old Testament people of God were a small nation surrounded by numerous other nations who were all much bigger and much more powerful. It felt like they were surrounded by enemies. Wherever they turned and looked, there was another nation waiting to destroy them. And one day that’s exactly what happens to them.
The big superpower of the day, Babylon, comes and destroys the city, reducing it to a burning pile of ruin. The people are taken and bound in chains and shipped off to a far away country with a strange language and strange gods. It was a horrifying and hopeless experience. Reflecting on this exile, the author of Lamentations writes:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people
How like a widow has she become,
She who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave
She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks (1:1–2a)
But this wasn’t merely an issue of the city being destroyed and having to go away to a far away land. The temple of God, the place where God was present for his people, was destroyed by the Babylonians. The presence of God left the temple and I’m sure the people felt horribly and unspeakably alone.
I’m sure they wondered to themselves things like, “If only we had been more faithful about following God’s law. If only we had made sure we were all walking in the paths of Yahweh. If only we hadn’t have gone after all those other gods. If only the Babylonians hadn’t have come. If only they hadn’t destroyed the temple.”
As the people marched away from the city, they would’ve been able to see a long line of prisoners stretching away into the horizon, trudging their way to Babylon. They would’ve been able to hear their chains clinking as they walked. They could’ve turned around and seen the smoke coming up from the city of Jerusalem and the temple burning there on the top of Mt. Zion. But there would’ve been no hope in sight. This is the way things go. Bigger nations destroy the weaker ones. Nothing lasts. Everything turns to ruin.
And this is part of the reason why Isaiah’s prophecy found in Isaiah 2:1–5 has been preserved for the people of God. He had originally prophesied it well before the people were taken away into exile by Babylon. In fact, Isaiah was long dead by the time that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. But all of his prophecy had the exile in view and his words would’ve been particularly meaningful for the people of God who were being taken away into exile.
While all they could see was the hopelessness of their situation. These words from Isaiah gave them a new hope. It gives them the promise that one day God will flip the whole world upside-down:
1The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz say concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills and all the nations shall flow to it, 3and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
In verse 2 God promises that he will make the mountain of the house of the Lord, that is, Mt. Zion where the temple was built, where the temple would later be destroyed, God’s going to make that mountain more honored the all the other mountains. You see, all the other nations surrounding Israel worshipped their own gods on their own mountains. Many of these false gods probably had more people worshipping them at their own mountain temples than the God of Israel at Zion, but God is saying that one day all the nations are going to reject their own self-made gods and come to the one God who made heaven and earth. As God says later through Isaiah’s prophecy, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (45:23).
And the way that Isaiah presents this future reality is really surprising. He uses vivid picture language. It’s going to be as if the mountain where the temple of God is built will be lifted up higher than all the other mountains, and then the nations will be like rivers that flow upstream to the top of this mountain. Later on the nations take their swords and their spears, the very tools with which they had oppressed and attacked the Israelites, they take these weapons of war and they beat them into farming tools. Instead of destroying life, they’re going to be cultivating life. Instead of working to kill and harm other people, these nations, and their weapons are going to be used to make food, to give life to all. It seems like they’re going to participate in a new and restored Garden of Eden.
For Isaiah’s hearers as well as the generations after him, this is a crazy promise. Everything in their experience said the opposite. The nations don’t come to worship at the temple; they come to destroy the temple! The nations don’t cultivate life; they destroy it! But this is the beauty of God’s promise. God knows how the world works. He knows how things go, and he is promising to reverse everything. He’s going to flip it over and turn it upside down. And if you’re on the bottom, without hope, like the people of God being taken into exile, then this is very very good news.
Now, after about seventy years in exile, the people of Israel are allowed to go back to their home. But even then this great reversal that Isaiah had talked about didn’t fully come. Sure, things were better. But God’s promises hadn’t been completely fulfilled. It’s not until about another 500 years later when the Son of God comes into the flesh that the greatest reversal of all happens.
And I don’t know if you’ve thought about Jesus as being the one who flips the world upside-down, but when one person in the Bible heard the good news that Jesus was coming, this was her response:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent empty away
Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew that he was coming to flip the world upside-down. In a sense you could say that when Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God he was proclaiming the Upside-Down-Topsy-Turvy Kingdom of God where everything is flipped on its head. The poor are made rich with good news. Those in captivity to the power of sin, death, and oppression are set free. Those who are blind are given sight. Those who are deaf are made to hear. Those who were dead are made alive.
And if you read the Gospels you notice that the Gentiles came to Jesus in droves. There’s story after story of people from Rome, Greece, Tyre, the Decapolis, Samaria, and all sorts of other nations streaming up to Jesus. In fact, when Jesus, the presence of God with us, is crucified and lifted up on a hill outside Jerusalem, it’s a Gentile, a Roman soldier, who proclaims, “Truly this man was righteous.”
But the greatest reversal of all still hasn’t happened yet. It’s not until the third day when Jesus is raised from the dead that greatest reversal of all, really the greatest upside-down-topsy-turvy moment is accomplished. Jesus, who was rejected by men, has been raised up by his Father in heaven as an everlasting sign and promise that God has flipped the world upside down. The resurrection of Jesus is the reversal of the rule of death and the inauguration of a new rule. The reign and rule of the author of life. And nothing is the same anymore.
But what about our own anxieties, our own sources of hopelessness? We know how the world works. We know that nations go to war, that crimes will always be committed, that deep conflicts between people tend to fester and grow, that churches in America are declining and many are forced to close their doors. This is what happens in the world.
But we can never forget that through Jesus, God’s kingdom has come and is coming to turn everything upside down. God is halting and reversing the way that the world works. One day nations will no longer come together to make war, but to worship the God of the universe, the streets will not be filled with crime but with peace, estranged people will be reconciled, and all will come before the throne of God and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Now, like I said, this upside-down-topsy-turvy kingdom of God has come and is coming. Or in other words, it has come in hints and shadows and foretastes, but not yet in its fullness. Jesus raised many people from the dead during his earthly ministry, but those people died again. And all of us still die. Jesus came and demonstrated that the kingdom of God was here but not yet fully. This means that we pray for peace between nations and we work to reconcile with all of those we’re estranged from. We labor for the proclamation of the gospel as we are able to all those who need it. It doesn’t mean that we’ll necessarily be successful. Oftentimes our attempts to go against the way things go in the world will be unsuccessful. But we never lose hope that in many and various ways God is flipping the world upside down even now. And even more than that, we know that since Jesus was raised from the dead, he will come back and God will raise this whole dead and dying world to new life. And on that day all of God’s people will walk in the light of the Lord forever and ever in the new flipped-over-and-made-right-again creation.