Isaiah 2:4
Great Texts of the Bible
The Transformation of the Sword

And he shall judge between the nations, and shall reprove many peoples and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.—Isaiah 2:4.

It is a great vision that the prophet sees—of a world transformed by religion and common sense. The nations which are now ready to fly at each other’s throats will one day, he sees, be willing to take their cases to Zion for arbitration; as we should say to-day, they will submit them to Jesus, to have them decided by the principles of justice and humanity, which are identified with Him more than with any other force in the world. And then, so reasonable and satisfactory will the decision be, that they will transform their weapons of war into instruments of peace, and men will be brothers the world over.


Why should the Nations learn War no more?

1. Because it is so costly

The cost of war is simply appalling. We cannot possibly have any adequate idea of what all the wars of the world have cost. The late Henry Richard, Secretary of the Peace Society, said, “Give me the money which has been spent in war, and I will purchase every foot of land on the globe. I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens would be proud; I will build a schoolhouse on every hillside and in every valley over the whole earth; I will build an academy in every town and endow it, a college in every State, and will fill it with able professors; I will crown every hill with a place of worship consecrated to the promulgation of the gospel of peace; I will support in every pulpit an able teacher of righteousness, so that on every Sabbath morning the chime on one hill should answer the chime on another round the world’s wide circumference, and the voice of prayer and the song of praise should ascend like a universal offering to heaven.”

According to reliable calculations, in less than three hundred years there has been spent in the game of human slaughter £1,500,000,000, drawn in taxes from the hard earnings of the workers of the country. The world’s wars during the nineteenth century amounted to nearly £4,000,000,000. About 16s. in every £1 raised in taxes has to be paid for existing armaments, and for interest on the National Debt, £788,000,000, incurred mainly by previous wars. All the European States are groaning under the taxation required to maintain their armaments. Some of them are almost crushed by a debt which borders on bankruptcy. The wealth, the strength, the skill which should be devoted to schools, orphanages, hospitals, the better housing of the poor, and old age pensions, are year by year more and more absorbed by the most gigantic preparations for warfare which the world has ever seen.1 [Note: D. S. Govett.]

Take some few points connected with the war in South Africa, remembering that the losses on the Boer side were at least equal to the British: killed in action, 2657; died of wounds in South Africa, 670; died of disease, 4337—total deaths, 7810; total wounded, 12,209; invalids sent home, 19,277. Add to these the death of some 400,000 horses and mules, together with a debt of £250,000,000; besides £20,000,000 a year ever since the war in increased taxation.

Take next the awful slaughter of Russians and Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war, which is unparalleled in the history of the world. Of the Japanese there were killed and wounded, 218,429, besides of their sick, 221,326; total, 439,755 sufferers. Add to these the Russian losses, and the number will be nearly a million wrecked and injured men in this one war. Arbitration would have prevented this awful catastrophe.

Or take the Crimean War, which started from a trifling quarrel over the protection of holy places in Palestine, and was developed by Napoleon III. mainly for the selfish purpose of establishing his own dynasty by means of a great European war. That war cost the Western Powers 428,000 men, and the Russians 325,000. It cost England, moreover, £69,000,000 directly, and £63,000,000 indirectly. The whole of that war was sheer and useless waste of life and money, and no satisfactory object was gained.

“My heart is broken,” wrote Wellington on the morrow of Waterloo, “by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions, and my poor soldiers. Believe me,” he said, “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Vereschagin, the greatest military painter of the nineteenth century, has expressed himself upon the subject of war in these terms: “I am not a military painter at all. I paint war scenes because they are very interesting. War is the loss of all human sense; under its influence men become animals entirely. The artist looks always for passion, and passion is seen at its height on the battlefield. This is why war attracts me, as it must always attract artists and authors too. Every hour brings something new, something never seen before, something outside the range of ordinary human life; it is the reversal of Christianity, and for the artist, the author, and the philosopher it must always have a supreme interest. But what a foolish game it is Here, men are being shot down like cattle; there, sisters of mercy are picking them up and trying to heal their wounds. A man no sooner falls than he is taken into the hospital, where men with broken limbs lie in hundreds or thousands; and while gentle women are tenderly caring for them, assuaging their agony, and lessening, as much as they can, their almost unbearable pain, men are falling like rain not far away. What nonsense. How stupid to wound a man to heal his wound again. The savages are the only logical warriors I know. They kill their enemies and eat them.”

2. Because it is so cruel

How incredibly brutal it all is! The passionate fury of the fight, how terrible its power! How it lays hold of us! Who dares, in cold blood, to bring before his imagination the horror of the battle-scene? No one can believe it as he really tries to think it out. The pictures of the illustrated papers in war-time, the brilliant descriptions of correspondents, these turn us sick at the first look; and then we get used to them—get used to them just because we cannot present such hideous cruelties to our imagination in real flesh and blood. As we read the wearisome repetitions of wounds and death, it becomes to us like some bad dream, some nightmare—it cannot be really happening. We do not believe it. I shall never forget how this incredibility of it all came upon me once, when I passed out of the door of a panorama of the battle of Wörth, at Cologne—a panorama where everything was given, in terrific vigour, that could sicken and stun; where you positively felt the agony of the biting shells as they tore their way into the flesh, the crunching of the bones under the wheels of the artillery, the shrieks and yells of stricken men and terrified horses, the glare of relentless hate in the eyes of those who stabbed at wounded men on the ground—wounded men who, writhing in the pangs of death, had spent their last gasp of ebbing strength in a treacherous shot into the back of the foe. There it all was, a scene of fierce madness, in which men seemed to have drunk of some hell-broth and become frenzied with the cruelty of fiends. Ah! to think that that should be the last sight of mother-earth which the memories of dying men should bear away with them into the far world beyond death! To think of the souls, flung hot from this savage roar or rage straight into the eternal silence, straight before the awful judgment throne of God! And then outside, as you passed into the pleasant Cologne gardens, there sat in crowds the soldiers of Germany—the very men who had maddened in that horrible fray—quietly taking their ease in the sun, subdued and gentle; men with friendly faces and kindly eyes, strolling under the trees, and watching the merry children dance and play, surrendered to the sweet homeliness of household peace. And, as you looked at them, it seemed absolutely impossible to put the two contrasted scenes together. There was nothing in these men to suggest that it was conceivable that they actually could have ever been hotly engaged in deeds so barbarous and so bloody; that within them somewhere lay latent the fires that could blaze out in such frenzied violence, in the lust of slaughter, in the reckless ferocity of killing and being killed.1 [Note: Canon Scott Holland.]


The Moral Value of War

Such is war itself, as a visible fact. And all the concentrated skilfulness of science has but intensified this, its horrid aspect of hate and cruelty and hideousness. As our nerves grow ever more sensitive, and our instruments of slaughter ever more heartless and excruciating and far-reaching and wholesale, the horror ever grows in intensity and in range. And then, as we recognise this, there breaks in upon us the contrast which so surprised Plato. Somehow, who can deny it?—out of this debasing and intolerable carnage there rises before us a moral character which startles us by its beauty—the character of the perfect soldier. Whence has it sprung? What strange efficacy is there in this dark soil to breed such fair flowers? We can discern a reason, perhaps, for this steadiness of will, this trained and firm nerve, this disciplined obedience; but how has there been added to them this nobility of reserve, this delicacy of honour, this courteous deference, this quiet gentleness? Even in its rougher forms, we cannot but realise the value of the character built up under the training of the barracks. We see the rawest material, which defies all other methods of education, taken up by this disciplinary system and endowed with the instincts of confederated honour, and with the brotherly heart that comes from responsibilities shared in common. This in the very roughest. And, in its finer examples, it touches the very heights of the spiritual life; it becomes typical of all that is most serene, and high-strung, and controlled, and tender; it can pass up to the very glories of Christian saintliness. We in England know that type well, for we have had it portrayed for us in its most captivating and exquisite reality by the pen of Thackeray, in the pathetic figure of Colonel Newcome. And we have its entire secret faultlessly disclosed to us in the immortal lines of our highest master-poet, “On the Character of the Happy Warrior.” He—

Who, if he be called upon to face

Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined

Great issues, good or bad for human kind,

Is happy as a Lover, and attired

With sudden brightness like a Man inspired,

And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law

In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw;

Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth

For ever, and to noble deeds give birth,

Or he must go to dust without his fame,

And leave a dead unprofitable name—

Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

This is the happy Warrior—this is He

That every Man in arms should wish to be.

If we turn to the poetic literature in which all nations have expressed their first consciousness of the ideal element in life, we find that exaltation of heroism in battle forms one of its two most prominent themes. Poetry always seeks for its object in something that has an ideal meaning, something that shows an elevation of man’s spirit above his merely physical existence; still it seeks this, not by breaking away from that existence, but rather by casting a new light upon it. If it tends to liberate man’s soul from the contracted cares and fears of his natural life, it is not by setting the higher against the lower, the spirit against the flesh, but rather by lifting the latter, so far as may be, to the level of the former. Poetry seeks to turn the common bread of life into sacramental food, and its water into wine. Hence it attaches itself most often to those first and simplest manifestations of man’s social and individual nature in which he shows that he is something higher than an animal; it attaches itself to the love which is the natural root of all the affections of the family, and the first expression of that capacity of living for others, of which the highest Christian charity is but the purified and extended manifestation; and it attaches itself in like manner to the valour of the soldier, which, as it rises above mere animal rage and deliberately faces and overcomes the fear of death—especially if it does so not merely in defence of the honour of the individual, but of some wider interest of family or nation—seems to give evidence of a nature that is above time and change. Hence it is that the simple tale of love and battle has such undying interest for us, and seems to encircle it with a halo of imagination and romance which is seldom associated with higher and less equivocal manifestations of man’s moral nature. It is as if the earliest throb of the higher life in us had in its spontaneity a kind of attractiveness which is wanting to its later, more deliberate and self-conscious manifestations.

Let me in illustration take one slight incident which I find quoted from the account of Sir Charles Napier’s war against the robber tribes of Northern Scinde: “A detachment of troops were marching along a valley, the cliffs overhanging which were crested by the enemy. A sergeant with eleven men chanced to become separated from the rest by taking the wrong side of a ravine, which they expected soon to terminate, but which suddenly deepened into an impassable chasm. The officer in command signalled to the party an order to return. They mistook the signal for a command to charge; the brave fellows answered with a cheer and charged. At the summit of the steep mountain was a triangular platform, defended by a breastwork, behind which were seventy of the foe. On they went, charging up one of these fearful paths, eleven against seventy. The contest could not long be doubtful with such odds. One after another they fell; six upon the spot, the remainder hurled backwards; but not till they had slain nearly twice their own number. There is a custom, we are told, among the hillmen, that when a great chieftain of their own falls in battle his wrist is bound with a thread of red or green, the red denoting the highest rank. According to custom they stripped the dead, and threw their bodies over the precipice. When their comrades came up, they found their corpses stark and gashed; but round the wrist of every British soldier was twined the red thread of honour.”1 [Note: E. Caird.]


How are we to abolish War and preserve its Moral Value?

We can throw off the horror and wickedness of war only by releasing from out this embroilment of blood, the moral qualities, the spiritual character, which have hitherto found their meaning and discipline under the conditions of war. Those qualities are too precious and rare for society to afford to lose them. They have on them the stamp of nobility—the ideal beauty that belongs to the high excellences of obedience, of restraint, of self-sacrifice. They keep alive in us the sense of causes and of creeds for which it is a light thing to lay down our lives. They sustain that moral fibre, that fine and nervous temperament, which wealth, and ease, and the weight of crowds, and the irresolution of infinite debate, and the tumult of wordy talk, are but too apt to disannul. We cannot spare these virtues—we, least of all we English, who are so slack to recognise ideal motives, and so suspicious of all that is not practical and profitable. Yes; the world is right in its dim consciousness that, if by abolishing war it dropped these moral characteristics of the happy warrior, it would pay too high a price. It would be morally retrograding. This is why the poets, who are our idealists, have so often disappointed us by the zeal with which they have sounded the trumpet for war as against industry, just because they have felt sorely the depressing conviction that an industrial era of peace meant too surely the dearth of those finer moral elements that have somehow, as yet, shone in their brightest and fairest through the smoke and heat of the battle.

We have got to make human society aware that it can secure and retain and develop, under conditions of unbroken peace, all those precious qualities which now go to make the highest type of soldierly excellence. We shall never fully succeed in that object until we make it evident to the spiritual element in us that it does not need war in order to survive; that it can, without the ugly necessity of killing and being killed, still find vent for all that is in it of chivalry and of valour, for the heroism of self-devotion, and for the splendour of courage. We must educate these very qualities themselves to shrink in disgust from the barbarism of battle, to hunger for an exercise that will be free from cruelty and hate. If the soldier-spirit itself once learned the sensitiveness which would feel the moral hideousness of the scene in which it has to display its gift, then we might hope to see the beginning of the end. Then, and then only, could we genuinely look for the day when the very implements with which we fight should be turned to happier uses; when the very temper out of which wars are bred should devote itself to the labours of peace; when the very “swords should be turned into ploughshares, and the spears into pruninghooks.”

I remember being deeply struck by an illustration of this truth, given in some words of Johnson, the noble-hearted missionary on Lake Nyassa, when, some years ago, he was pleading for a steamer, which at this moment is running up and down the waters of the lake carrying peace and goodwill amid villagers that once never met except to fight. He showed us how the difficulty of ending the slave trade lay in this—that the slave caravan was the only outlet for energy, the one spot of active motion that ever shook the stagnation of the blind African land. Into it, therefore, poured all that was vigorous and alert; those who took no part in its vile work were those who had no craving to move and live and act. The material that went now to work the slave trade was the best stuff in Africa; and you could never make anything of your civilisation there unless you could divert this excellent material into some new channel, where its energy would discover a fitter outlet than it could find in the old wickedness of enslaving. Therefore it was that he needed this steamer, in order that he might offer a field for the spirit of active adventure, which might thus be drawn off and purified and redeemed.1 [Note: Canon Scott Holland.]

In the work of covering the waste lands of vast colonies with ordered homes; in the wards of hospitals, where so much is offered to doctor and nurses that calls out the finest nerve, the steadfast resolution, the clearest self-sacrifice; in efforts spent in the task of winning to happiness and love the thousands who stagger down to degradation under the clouded misery of our foul and hideous slums;—in all these directions the way is open for high endeavour, for heroic devotion, without the stain of blood, without the curse of cruelty. Gordon found in the alleys of Woolwich work more congenial and more bracing than the long agony of the fight round Khartoum.2 [Note: Ibid.]

Christianity introduced mankind to a new kind of courage; the courage which is shown, not in resisting or gaining the victory over enemies, but in a love that refused to count any man an enemy, and that sought to conquer by patient endurance of every wrong, and even of death itself. For this new spirit the highest honour possible to man was not the prize of victory in battle, but the crown of martyrdom. This type of fortitude was for a time so exclusively honoured, that by many Christians the life of a soldier, even of one who fought for the best of causes, was regarded as profane and unholy. “How,” asks Tertullian, “shall Christians go to war whom Christ has disarmed? In taking the sword from St. Peter, Christ has disarmed all soldiers.”

In the year 1746, the Jacobites, or adherents of the Stuarts, inspired by the charming personality of the Young Pretender, made a determined attempt to defeat the Royalists, but were unsuccessful. A conflict which had lasted half a century was brought to an end on the battlefield of Culloden; for Parliament immediately took steps to break the power of the Highland chiefs and the clan system, by abolishing their authority, and parcelling out their lands among the officers and favourites of the victorious Royalist cause. Disappointed but undaunted, some of the chiefs, accompanied by members of their clans, emigrated to Canada, arrived in the province now known as Nova Scotia, and founded the county of Picton. Here they were inspired by two men of great mind and heart, Dr. MacGregor, a member of the famous fighting clan of MacGregor, and Dr. M‘Culloch, the former the greatest minister Nova Scotia has seen, the latter, its greatest educationist. Mainly through the efforts of these leaders, who had seen God, and had had their minds trained in His school, the Highland chiefs and their followers proceeded to make use of those same qualities which they had in the old land manifested in their determined fighting, in the cause of agriculture, education, and religion. The church, the school, and the home became the three greatest institutions in the new land, and have had that place till now. To-day, the descendants of these men, who still delight in the name “Scotchman,” are prouder by far of their habits of industry, their high intelligence, their Christian principle, than they ever were of their fighting. The instruments of war have been converted into weapons of peace, and Canada stands as the glorious result.

I saw a picture the other day which was intended to represent the re-enshrinement of peace. A cannon had dropped from its battered carriage and was lying in the meadow, rusting away to ruin. A lamb was feeding at its very mouth, and round it on every side the flowers were growing. But really that is not a picture of the Golden Age. The cannon is not to rust; it is to be converted, its strength is to be transfigured. After the Franco-German war many of the cannon balls were remade into Church bells. One of our manufacturers in Birmingham told me only a week or two ago, that he was busy turning the empty cases of the shells used in the recent war into dinner-gongs.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]



The nations do not fling away their weapons, nor do they destroy them; they transform them, by beating them into pruninghooks. For every weapon of war there will be a use, even in the era of peace. The swords will not be shivered, they will be turned into ploughshares; the spears will not be snapped, they will be fashioned into pruninghooks. The instruments which desolated the world, and filled it with blood and horror, are not to disappear; they are to be turned into instruments which will make it fair and fruitful—a very house of God and gate of heaven. It is not enough that men learn war no more, they must go on to learn the higher arts of peace. The ideal life or society does not consist in negations; it deals with its material in a constructive and transforming spirit. It delights to see the pruninghook in the spear, and it hastens to transform the one into the other.

A great and far-reaching principle this! Nothing need be lost; all things may be transformed. The powers and energies which were dedicated to the cause of evil, if only they be touched and consecrated by a new sense of the meaning of life, will be equally mighty when thrown upon the side of God and good. Paul, the tireless persecutor of the Christians, becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles.

When the Lord laid hold of Zacchæus, He did not destroy his shrewdness and despoil him of his foresight and enterprise. The redeemed Zacchæus was just as shrewd as the unredeemed Zacchæus, but the shrewdness had been transformed. It was no longer a poisoned sword; it had become a ploughshare used in the general welfare of the race. When the Lord laid hold of Hugh Latimer did He draw away the power of his wit? Nay, the redeemed Hugh Latimer was just as witty, just as humorous as Hugh Latimer unredeemed, only the wit had been transformed. It was no longer a sword, but a ploughshare; no longer turning with destructive energy upon his own soul, but used in the ministry of purity, and as the happy servant of righteousness and truth.

One of the Greek philosophers wrote: “And this is the greatest stroke of art, to turn an evil into a good.” Such is the grand mission of the faith of Jesus Christ. It is the work of the devil to debase good things to vile uses; it is the task of the Spirit of grace to make of evil things vessels unto honour, fit for the Master’s use. The other day we heard of a shell found on the battlefields of South Africa being converted into the bell of a church, as the brazen serpent was lifted up to save those who were dying of the bite of venomous serpents; and in many ways things, institutions, and methods which for ages have tormented and destroyed society are being transformed into instruments of blessing.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]

The Transformation of the Sword


Alford (H.), Truth and Trust, 57.

Caird (E.), Lay Sermons and Addresses, 232.

Holland (H. S.), Pleas and Claims, 276.

Jowett (J. H.), Meditations for Quiet Moments, 94.

M‘Fadyen (J. E.), The City with Foundations, 127.

Watkinson (W. L.), Ashes of Roses, 230.

Christian World Pulpit, xxii. 18 (Walters); xxvii. 177 (Jowett); lii. 389 (Sinclair); lxi. 376 (Parker); 378 (Clifford); lxvii. 6 (Horton); lxxii. 358 (Govett).

Church of England Pulpit, xlii. 40 (Jenkins); xlv. 73 (Sinclair); lxiii. 8 (Govett).

Expository Times, iii. 272 (Huddle); 321 (Currie); v. 392 (Davidson); vi. 129.

Homiletic Review, xliv. 134 (Parker); 1. 305 (Metcalf).

Jewish Quarterly Review, vi. 583.

Treasury (New York), ix. 202.

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