The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
One of my favorite paintings hangs at the Dallas Museum of Art — “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks. The museum also used to have a special, life-size 3D version of the painting in their children’s section, in which the animals featured in the piece are separate pieces. You could literally enter the painting; you could walk in and around the elements of the artwork.
This used to be one of my own favorite Advent exercises — to practice walking around in God’s peaceable kingdom.
Hicks was a Quaker from Pennsylvania born in 1780. In his lifetime he painted over a hundred versions of this same scenario, which is based on Isaiah 11:1-9. Each one of his paintings is a commentary on that text; you might say that Hicks’ entire body of work was an ongoing attempt to understand Isaiah’s vision. This passage illustrates the concept of the kingdom of God, which Jesus came to inaugurate. And the heart of the kingdom is “shalom,” the Hebrew word for “peace.”
The word “shalom” doesn’t appear in this passage, but the entire text is a word-picture of what shalom looks like. Shalom doesn’t simply mean the absence of conflict. When shalom is present, there is wellbeing, health, prosperity, justice, friendship, rest, and security.
In the picture, animals which are normally considered predators are found sitting, lying, relaxing — even playing! — with animals which are normally considered their prey. A child frolics among dangerous creatures. There is no violence, no harm, no destruction.
In fact, what makes this picture so compelling is the complete and utter innocence of it all. There’s simply no fear in the picture.
It’s hard to imagine a world without fear. Our politics is driven by it; our military strategies are determined by it; our economy is motivated by it. It is almost impossible to imagine a world that is not fueled by the fear of something or someone.
Yet Isaiah is convinced that a day of no-fear is coming. The hope of shalom is centered in a coming person who will be gifted with the spirit of God and empowered to bring justice into the world.
Our entire Advent hope is crystallized in these verses. This is the hope that cries out for realization every Christmas. It is the hope that tears at our heart and begs for fulfillment. We crave shalom.
And Hicks is convinced that that day had come, that shalom was already present in the world through Jesus Christ. He believed, in other words, that peace was possible — even between nations. He even included it in his painting.
On the left side of the picture, near the tree, is a picture of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, making a peace treaty with native Americans. This scene happened a century before Hicks, but Hicks believed that Penn’s respectful treatment of American Indians was a concrete example of shalom between nations. The treaty which Penn made with Delaware tribes in 1701 was a peaceful agreement, a treaty that Penn never broke. His policies helped make Pennsylvania the last, safe asylum for native Americans.
Shalom is possible even now. Why not practice walking around in it a little?
Links of the day: Despite Hicks’ depiction of Penn’s peace treaty, the natives of North America have experienced very little shalom over the last four hundred years. Their culture is constantly ridiculed, their wellbeing is threatened, and they know little peace. Read the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and question whether this vision of shalom has been realized in America yet.
Prayer: God of shalom, we confess that we don’t see peace in our world, particularly between nations. Put our own hearts right, that we might be icons of peace for the rest of the world. Amen.