Having been raised in a rural suburb of a small Southwestern town, I have seen and done some things that many city folk may never see or do. Growing up, it was my chore to take out the trash and separate the metal and glass into one oil drum and the paper into another. Then I had to burn the paper regularly. I have raised rabbits and goats, and ridden the neighbors’ horses. I have had a garden snake slither across my bare foot, and faced down rattlesnakes on hikes in the hills. I have collected tadpoles from the horse pond. I have beaten centipedes and tarantulas into nothingness. And I have seen plowshares and pruning hooks.
Some city dwellers may read of those implements in the prophets, and just pass over the unfamiliar implements. Others may look them up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia. I have actually seen them, and even used a pruning hook.
The most ancient plows were straight sticks. Eventually the blade was supplemented by metal to make it last longer (and sometimes cut the earth more efficiently). It was not until about 200 years after Jesus that the Romans developed the plow that could turn the earth rather than just scratch a shallow ditch in the earth. So in the period of the prophets who mention plows and pruning hooks, the plow blade was a straight piece of metal which may or may not have a sharpened edge. The pruning hook, then as now, consisted of a long handle with a curved blade that could saw or chop branches as high as the implement could reach. Modern pruning shears may have a hook and blade system operated by pulling a rope, which allows cutting as with a scissor.
Three prophets made reference to modifying these implements. Joel uniquely gives God’s command for the gentiles to “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears.” (Joel 3:10) This was part of a promise that Israel would be restored from captivity. (It is unclear whether this was the Babylonian captivity or a much earlier one, perhaps in the period of the judges.) This turning of farm implements into weapons of war implied that Israel would avenge their captivity on the surrounding nations. These nations were to prepare for war, although it would do them no good.
Isaiah and Micah, on the other hand, tell Israel to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.” (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3) These prophecies, which are identical in wording over several of what we designate as verses, were about the “last days.” In prophet-speak, that is the messianic age in which we now live and which began with the coming of Jesus. In the last days, the straight sword could be attached to a board and used as a plow. The long-handled spear could be modified into a pruning hook. This was because “neither shall they learn war anymore.” This was to be an era of peace, in which God’s people no longer needed physical weapons.
Some might say that we have not achieved that era of peace, yet. When you look at the merely physical, that may be true. But Paul said, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph 6:12) He also spoke of “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” keeping our hearts and minds.
Although we are engaged in a spiritual warfare, nevertheless we know we have won. We can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. That is, if you know what those things are.