“What’s Right with the World?” – The question of G. K. Chesterton


1 Kings 4:20 Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. 21 Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from theEuphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life. 22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. 24 For he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates. And he had peace on all sides around him. 25 And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon. (English Standard Version)

The above text from the book of 1 Kings shows the life Judah and Israel had when Solomon was King. The picture was one of safety, prosperity and peace. The passage gives many details portraying this including the numeric growth of the people “as the sand by the sea,” the extent of the borders of the kingdom, and the magnitude of the provisions. But it seems as though the statement  “every man under his vine and under his fig tree,” a statement portraying life at the familial setting, is what is meant to most poignantly portray the blessings of that time.

“The shade of the fig-tree is the natural summer-house or arbour under which Eastern families delight to take their meals or their mid-day rest.” (Marcus Dods, The Gospel of John, Expositors Bible, 1891)

What is implied in the text is the whole complex of conditions that enables a man to live “under his vine and under his fig tree.” For instance,

“At its most basic level the fig tree is viewed as a wonderful part of settled life. It symbolized the good life, and to live under one’s fig tree stood for a life of settledness (fig trees took several years of difficult labor to establish), joy, peace, and prosperity.” (Fig, Fig Tree, in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: IVP, 1998, p.283.)

This image was thus established as a symbol in the Old Testament that implied the whole complex of conditions that enabled Israel to know safety, settledness, prosperity and peace.

Many years later Israel and Judah were divided and went in stages into captivity under the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The prophets had foretold of this and had also prophesied of a day of return  to encourage the Jewish people that they would once again have safety, settledness, prosperity and peace:

3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
4 but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
5 For all the peoples walk
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God
forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5 ESV)

Micah was a contemporary of the great prophets Isaiah and Amos and verse 3 above is also found in Isaiah 2:4. Most biblical scholars believe that the complete fulfillment of this prediction is still future. Of course the prediction is also found on the UN sculpture in the North Garden at the UN in New York City.

It is truly an amazing thing that what the prophets of Israel predicted as the necessary conditions needed for the return of their peace were conditions that needed to be fulfilled on a universal scale. The prophets did not proclaim a privatized peace. But they also proclaimed that public peace could not come if the sanctity of any individual was violated. In that sense they were no “social revolutionists.”

In 1910 G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called “What’s Wrong with the World.” In it he lamented the political and social attempts of his day to fix the world. He said “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” He said that what was wrong with the world is that we cannot agree on an ideal, but we aim to fix the problem. Oh our infinite wisdom! Sadly, we no longer know what is good. (See note below)

But I believe that we can say that “what’s right with the world” is a simple scene, become symbol, become prophecy, via the biblical prophets of: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree.”

BMC 2/03/12

“Thus Did Job Continuously” 

llustrations from the Book of Job” – William Blake – 1823

Note: To demonstrate our modern sociopolitical loss of the “ideal” of “what is right with the world,” the following excerpt is very helpful:

“Marxist manuals of philosophy refer to all philosophies that deal with the human subject as forms of “irrationality.” Their rationalism, of course, consists in technical intelligence, in the power over things (and over men considered simply as things); and this exalting of the technical intelligence over every other human attribute becomes demoniacal in action, as recent history has shown. Behind the problem of politics, in the present age, lies the problem of man, and this is what makes all thinking about contemporary problems so thorny and difficult…anyone who wishes to meddle in politics today had better come to some prior conclusions as to what man is and what, in the end, human life is all about. I say “in the end” deliberately because the neglect of first and of last things does not-as so called “practical” people hope-go unpunished, but has a disastrous way of coming in the back door and upsetting everything.” (William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958, p.243) William Barrett:Irrational Man

(I stumbled on this statement five days after I wrote the above post, after I rediscovered this excellent book that I had forgotten about and stored in the basement – it has now been exalted to my “top shelf.” -BMC 2/08/12)

By the way – do you think our modern “neglect of first and last things” has brought enough “punishment” yet?

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