Connections 09.04.2016: Dystopian Visions and Utopian Prophecies

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Isaiah 11:1-9

Two books I read during my high school years (and yes, I read more than two!) that influenced me significantly were Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984.

Fahrenheit 451 portrays a nightmarish future in which reading is outlawed. 1984 imagines a world in which independent thinking is prohibited, war is perpetual, and Big Brother is always watching.

Both books offer a dystopian vision of the future. That means they picture a world that is negative and oppressive. In these two books, society has become socially, politically, and intellectually degraded. The plots revolve around characters that try to resist the dehumanizing totalitarianism that pervades people’s existence.

There are more recent popular dystopian works. The Hunger Games and Divergent books and films fall in that category, as do the Mad Max movies.

Utopia is the opposite of dystopia. A utopian vision is one in which everything is ideal. Literary and cinematic utopias usually end up having a dark side, though. It’s as if we can’t let ourselves contemplate the possibility that everything could be all right some day. Our first-hand knowledge of the human condition gets in the way. Our self-awareness saps our hope.

Dystopian visions seem much more popular than utopian ones these days. Maybe they always have been. Or maybe it’s a reflection of the fears and anxieties that come with living in a world in which people have such advanced weaponry but can be driven by such primitive impulses.

The vision of Isaiah 11 is certainly not dystopian. In fact, we might be tempted to label it as utopian. After all, Isaiah looks forward to a time when a ruler will govern with perfect wisdom and justice. He envisions an era when all of creation is at peace, so that even animals accustomed to being prey can chill out with their natural pursuers.

We can only imagine how children in Aleppo, Syria must long for a time when “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (v. 8), especially when the vipers have bombs and missiles.

Biblical writers sometimes use hyperbole to great effect in describing the reign of a new king. However effective a king was, though, no ruler of Judah ever brought about a restoration of Eden. That’s one reason that Isaiah 11 eventually came to be seen as a prophecy of the messiah who would come from David’s royal line.

Christians believe that Jesus was that Messiah. And yet we still wait for a reality that fits Isaiah’s description. We affirm that it will come in God’s time.

We know that only God can bring about a utopia.

But doesn’t it seem that, in the meantime, God’s people should do everything we can to help the world avoid slipping toward dystopia?

Discussion

1. Why do you think Isaiah and other prophets hold out a seemingly utopian vision?
2. Rewrite Isaiah’s vision of the coming era (vv. 6-9) in your own words. What do you find hopeful about the vision? Do you have reactions other than hope to it? If so, what are they? Why do you have them?
3. What characteristics does Isaiah say the ideal king has (vv. 1-5)? Why are they essential for God’s ideal ruler to have?
4. Why do you think Isaiah uses the imagery of “a shoot” that comes “out from the stump of Jesse” (v. 1)? What is he trying to communicate with those pictures?

Reference Shelf

Wild predators are juxtaposed one after another with domestic animals and humans, especially their smallest and most vulnerable, as they are seen sleeping, grazing, and playing harmoniously together. Here it is not that the tables will be turned. Rather, the cycle itself is broken. Aggression has gone so out of style that even the animals have reverted to eating vegetation as they did before the flood (Gen 1:30; 9:3). In v. 2, knowledge had characterized the king, but in v. 9, knowledge of God fills the entire land. Verse 1 had drawn an analogy from the natural world as it is; vv. 6-9 extends the hope of human peace to the natural world not as it is but as it can be imagined. All this occurs on God’s “holy mountain,” a term for Mount Zion found deep in Judah’s worship—especially in royal and Zion psalms (see Pss 2:6; 3:4 [Heb. v. 5]; 15:1; 43:3; 48:1; 99:9)—a term that seems to have become a favorite in postexilic portions of Isaiah (Isa 56:7; 57:13; 65:11, 25; 66:20).

Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1–39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 231-32.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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