U.S. inaugurations abound with references to the Bible and Christianity, from the oath-of-office taken with a hand on the Bible to the prayers offered from various clergy. The 2021 ceremony inaugurating President Biden was no different. Garth Brooks invited everyone to unite “as one” by singing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” In his inaugural address, President Biden referenced Saint Augustine and quoted Psalm 30:5, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” The closing prayer, given by Reverend Silvester Beaman, included an impassioned vision of Christ who “frees the captive, heals the sick, and loves the enemy.” But for many watching the inauguration ceremony, it was 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman who really took us to church.
Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” contained many scriptural references. Combined with her captivating delivery, the poem had the effect of a rousing sermon. Some of Gorman’s scriptural references were subtle. Her allusion to “the belly of the beast” recalls the Biblical story of Jonah, and her closing call to “be the light” echoes Christ’s words to “let your light shine before men.” The structure of the line “we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us” parallels the line from the Apostle Paul, “we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen.” All these subtle references created the uplifting tone of a sermon.
But the one overt scripture reference in her poem, “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid,” also carried the most potential for unifying her diverse audience.
The many meanings of a vine and fig tree
The reference to a “vine and fig tree” appears many times throughout Scripture, but the most famous is probably from Micah 4:4. Here’s the verse in context (emphasis mine):
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.
Like many visions of the Old Testament prophets, this passage has both a historical context and an eternal one. The part Gorman quotes, “each man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree” was a common expression symbolizing peace and prosperity. In Micah’s local context, the phrase connotes enjoyment of individual wealth and property without the fear of any abuses of foreign or local powers. But the phrase “in the last days” signals that this passage is also a Messianic prediction — a prophecy of the glories of God’s coming kingdom. Like Martin Luther King Jr. quoting Isaiah 40, a passage with a similar dual interpretation, Gorman uses this vision of a peaceful eternity to cast the vision of a peaceful America.
Micah 4:4 has more than just these Biblical contexts lending the reference unique rhetorical power. Musical theatre fans know the phrase from Washington’s farewell speech in the hit musical, Hamilton. In the context of the show, Washington uses the phrase to explain his need for rest and retirement. Reportedly, the real George Washington loved the phrase so much that it appears around fifty times in his personal correspondence. He used the phrase in reference to his own home, Mount Vernon, as well as to America in general, a place where the average man could freely enjoy the fruit of his labor without fear of oppression. According to George Tsakiridis, the phrase was also “connected to tolerance of immigration to America.”
Where people on the left side of the political spectrum might emphasize the phrase’s connection to America opening its arms to immigrants or even to the concept of redistributing wealth for the peace and safety of all, right-leaning Americans might hear the phrase as a defense of small government and free trade. According to Hugh Whelchel, writing for the Institue for Faith, Work & Economics, Washington connected the phrase to economic freedom, a concept that Whelchel says includes conservative values such as small government, rule of law, free trade, and limited regulations.
Therefore, Micah 4:4 symbolizes a shared American value: the belief that all people deserve the right to enjoy the fruit of their labor and live peacefully, without fear of oppression. Though the left and right may have differing philosophies for how to obtain that outcome, both sides agree on this vision and have used Micah 4:4 to promote it.
The Hill We Climb Together
So, how does Amanda Gorman use the passage? She uses it to set up the title phrase of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Let’s look at it in context:
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we’ve made,
that is the promised glade,
the hill we climb.
When she transitions from the scripture reference to the statement that “victory won’t lie in the blade,” she is alluding to the verse that directly precedes Micah 4:4: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
The old Negro spiritual, “Down by the Riverside,” makes this same reference to beating swords into plowshares when it joyously repeats, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” In the spiritual, that peaceful vision is one of the sweet by-and-by, but as with many spirituals, it is also a call for social justice in the bitter now. The prosperous vision of Micah 4:4 is possible only through the hard work of making peace — of turning blades into bridges. Only then can we enjoy “the promised glade,” for that is “the hill we climb.”
Amanda Gorman’s choice to reference Micah 4:4 for President Biden’s inauguration testifies to the power of poetry to communicate on multiple levels at once. From fans of Hamilton to fans of old spirituals, from champions of limited government to champions of more open immigration, from those who hope for Christ’s coming Kingdom, to those who hope for a more perfect earthly one, Micah 4:4 speaks to a wide array of Americans. And in so doing, that single scripture reference builds a bridge of its own.