Sermon, Nov. 13

Image of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Edward Hicks. A child sands surrounded by animals, with its arm around a leopard's neck. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

That’s the end of today’s Isaiah text. By an oddity of the lectionary, in just three weeks we’ll hear something very similar in Isaiah chapter 11, on the second Sunday of Advent: 

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.

Today’s text, Isaiah 65, is referring back to this part of Isaiah 11. These passages are 54 chapters and perhaps 200 years apart. The original Isaiah was a prophet, someone who speaks God’s words to the people, living in the eighth century before Jesus. Isaiah 11 falls in the midst of prophecies, oracles, about invasion, conquest, destruction and loss – and promises that a faithful remnant of God‘s people will survive and be able to rebuild. 

This famous passage in chapter 11 moves from the historical to the eschatological. Eschatological texts are concerned with the end, or rather the fulfillment, of history. They’re about things that will happened in God’s time, not human time; and by God‘s power, not human power.

Isaiah 65 is alluding back to Isaiah 11, almost as a kind of shorthand –  from a very different historical moment. This writer is often called Second Isaiah or Exilic Isaiah. The consensus of scholars is that there are at least two, maybe three, main voices in the Book of Isaiah – but these later voices are so deeply steeped in the language and vision of First Isaiah that it really is all one book. 

By the time of Isaiah 65, God’s people Israel have been through invasion and conquest, destruction and loss.  Many have been killed; many have been dragged into exile in Babylon. Two generations later, the new boss of the world, Cyrus of Persia, allows them to return to their homeland and even funds their rebuilding.

This period is fascinating to me. The returnees were so full of hope, and of idealized visions of what Judea and Jerusalem were like in their grandparents’ day. But they had to deal with the reality that you can’t just recreate the past – and the past you’re trying to recreate may never have existed anyway. There were conflicting priorities and identity struggles and disappointment and disillusionment. 

Isaiah 65 was probably written when the great Temple in Jerusalem was at least partly rebuilt. God speaks through this prophet to call God’s people to a bigger vision than just getting back to some approximation of what they had before. 

Another text from this part of the book that may be familiar is Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! Nations shall stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your glory!” We often sing this text in the season of Epiphany.  It’s a vision of Jerusalem as much more than the capital of an independent nation, but as the holy heart of the whole world. 

Isaiah 65 pushes this vision even farther into eschatology: God says, For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth! This isn’t just rebuilt Jerusalem, this is cosmically renewed Jerusalem. 

How would this have sounded to the rebuilding generation? Maybe it was a word of comfort: God’s power and God’s faithfulness are equal to the challenges of this time. Maybe it was a word of challenge: God has bigger plans for you than you have for yourselves. Either way, this prophet is intentionally bringing back – and building upon – the vision of Isaiah 11, of a promised realm of peace. Holding up this hopeful image, so that perhaps struggle and disillusionment may alchemize into a new determination to keep on building what is just and good and holy. 

Isaiah 11 is famous for its imagery – often called the Peaceable Kingdom. And it’s associated closely with the work of the artist Edward Hicks. 

Hicks was an American folk painter, and a minister and writer in the Society of Friends – better known as the Quakers. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1780. As a young man he learned the trade of painting coaches – and discovered that he had a knack for artistic or decorative painting as well. 

But at the age of 23 he became a Quaker, and married a Quaker woman. His new faith carried with it a strong commitment to simplicity and plainness in all things. The decorative arts were viewed with suspicion as worldly distractions. 

Though Hicks’ painting business was making good money and helping support his growing family, in 1815 he gave it up and attempted to support his family by farming.  

This was an unmitigated disaster.

In 1816 a friend approached him and convinced him to save his family from starvation by returning to painting. 

Hicks later wrote about this period in his life:  “I quit the only business I understood, and for which I had a capacity, painting, for the business of a farmer, which I did not understand, and for which I had no qualifications whatever. I verily thought then, and still think, farming more consistent with the Christian, and was willing to sacrifice all my fondness for painting. But it would not do, for notwithstanding I worked hard, I went behind hand daily. The cruel moth of usury was eating up my outward garment, soon to expose me a poor naked bankrupt.”

He continues:  “If the Christian world was in the real spirit of Christ, I do not believe there would be such thing as a fine painter in christendom. It appears clearly to me to be one of those trifling, insignificant arts, which has never been of any substantial advantage to mankind [but has been] the inseparable companion of voluptuousness and pride.” 

But at the same time, he admits, “there is something of importance in the example of the primitive Christians… to mind their calling or business, and work with their own hands at such business as they are capable of, avoiding idleness.” (Thanks, Edward, for tying in that difficult Epistle for me…) 

We may not share Hicks’ view of the decorative arts as inconsistent true Christian faithfulness. To a significant degree, Hicks’ Quaker faith was defining itself against our faith heritage as Anglicans, with our worldly fondness for beautiful buildings, stained glass windows, fine wines, and all that sort of thing. 

But I hope we can hear that this was a genuine conflict of conscience for Hicks… and respect his decision to use his God-given gift, rather than starving as a farmer. 

Having, in his own words, “been unsuccessful in every attempt to make an honest an honorable living,” Hicks settles in to be a painter for the remainder of his life. He does a variety of types of decorative painting – signage, landscapes, historical scenes. 

But he also starts creating art that expresses his faith convictions. As a Quaker, Hicks was deeply committed to peace and reconciliation. The Quaker tradition places a strong value on non-violence – and so these Isaiah passages – They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain! – are particularly meaningful. 

In 1820, at the age of 40, Hicks paints his first Peaceable Kingdom painting, an artistic rendering of Isaiah 11. Over the remaining 29 years of his life, he paints 62 versions of this scene. But close observers of his work point out that he wasn’t simply repeating himself. 

Hicks’ early Kingdom paintings had a naïveté and simplicity. Often in the background he would include a stylized depiction of some historical event that seemed to him to be a fulfillment of Quaker ideals about peacemaking – such as William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape tribe. 

However, in the 1820s, there was rising conflict among Quakers in the Northeast, leading to a schism in 1827. Hicks’ older cousin Elias Hicks was one of the core leaders of that struggle. 

This was very painful for Edward Hicks and other Quakers. Their religious movement, with reconciliation and peace as core values, couldn’t even work through its own internal conflicts. It must have felt like a profound failure of faithfulness and witness. 

Holland Cotter, art critic at the New York Times, observes that in this period – from 1827 into the 1830s – Hicks’ kingdom paintings become more expressive and strange. Cotter writes, “Additional children and animals crowd in. The carnivorous beasts — lions, leopards, wolves — grow in size. Where once they had cast their eyes docilely to the ground, they now stare out, alert, aggressive, challenging, even rabidly agitated… Occasionally animals are in conflict. But even when they aren’t, the assemblies have a jumbled, restive feeling. The ground beneath them is eroding…”

But then, Cotter observes, around 1840, when Hicks turned sixty, the mood of the paintings shifts again. Hicks accepts that the ideological battle will remain unresolved; the ideals at the heart of his faith and his life will not be fulfilled in his lifetime, and perhaps not in this world. The animals in his paintings start to look aged and weary. Sadder but wiser, perhaps.

Victoria Emily Jones writes, “Although Edward was initially hopeful about [humankind’s’ ability to establish peace on earth by simply exercising biblical principles, over time he became more and more cynical… The animals in many of his middle- and late-period paintings are tense or exhausted… Hicks wrote later in life that all the intrafaith dissension he witnessed had destroyed his hope of ever seeing established in the here and now a kingdom like the one Isaiah envisioned. But that realization only caused him to cling to Christ all the more tightly.”

Hicks never stopped painting Peaceable Kingdoms, despite struggle and disillusionment. He was still working on his final Peaceable Kingdom painting, a gift for his daughter, when he died in 1849. 

I really love Hicks’ Kingdom paintings. Their strangeness; their simplicity and complexity. The emotions that seem to swim within them – hope, yearning, ambivalence, frustration, a kind of wry humor. 

I wonder how Hicks’ contemporaries – his friends, his enemies – received these images of improbable peace. I wonder how we receive them. Maybe there’s comfort here: God’s power and God’s faithfulness are equal to the challenges of this time. 

Maybe there’s challenge: God has bigger plans for us than we have for ourselves. 

Either way, Hicks’ art makes him yet another Prophet Isaiah, carrying forward that eschatological vision of a realm of peace. Holding up this hopeful image for a new generation, and generations to come – so that perhaps, again, struggle and disillusionment may alchemize into a new determination to keep building what is just and good and holy. 


SOURCES – Victoria Emily Jones – Holland Cotter