Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10 Commentary
From the First Sunday of Advent to the Second, the imagery changes, but the message doesn’t. We move from mountains and military in Isaiah 2 to plants and animals and a little child in Isaiah 11. But both texts promise a day when there will be justice and peace on earth. Isaiah 2 was less explicitly Messianic, while Isaiah 11 is unmistakably so. But both proclaim a message that was almost unbelievable, given the situation in which God’s people were living. Sort of like today.
Israel or, more accurately, Judah was living in a tumultuous time. The northern Kingdom had been dismantled and deported. Its Assyrian conquerors were threatening Judah, though the looming power of Babylon would soon replace Assyria. Within Judah, a succession of timid and ineffective Davidic kings made a mess of things. Even a time of material prosperity did not bring a sense of well-being and security. Here in the middle of the mess stands Isaiah prophesying gloom and doom for God’s people with an occasional burst of light and hope.
In Isaiah 11 the prophet looks far ahead of the Exile that hasn’t even happened yet, ahead of that time when Israel will no longer have a descendant of David sitting on the throne, a time when the family tree of David has been cut down. From that dead stump will come a new descendant of David, not just a son of David, but a second David (conveyed by the reference to Jesse). This new Shoot or Branch will be the King whom God promised David in II Samuel 7:12-16. He would be and do what all those other Davidic kings and, for that matter, what all human leaders, failed to be and do. This One will “bear fruit,” the fruit of justice and peace for all.
That’s because this Branch will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord permanently; the Spirit “will rest on him.” One naturally thinks here of Jesus, who was filled with the Spirit at his baptism and, then, led by the Spirit set out to do his redemptive work (Luke 4:1). Contrary to the Kings of Judah in the days of Isaiah and contrary the “kings” of our contemporary world, this Royal Branch will be gifted with all the qualities that will enable him to inaugurate a kingdom of justice and peace.
“The Spirit of wisdom and understanding” will endow him with discernment to make good decisions in governing his kingdom. “The Spirit of counsel and power” will give him diplomatic and military authority to rule. “The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” will keep him close to God. The “knowledge” here is not merely intellectual correctness or assent to the truth, but an intimate relationship with God. “The fear of Lord” was at the heart of Jewish faith. This leader, contrary to all others, will be centered on Yahweh, living a life of pure piety. Indeed, more than anything else, his greatest delight will be his relationship with God. Obviously, this describes Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God; “my food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34)
Because of those 6 gifts of the Spirit, this Branch of Jesse will be able to establish a kingdom that has “liberty and justice for all.” He won’t be swayed by external appearances, whether the filthy rags of the poor or the rich robes of wealth. He “will not judge by what he sees.. or hears….” Rather, with utter righteousness he will do two things, the two things all citizens want from their leaders: tender care for the least and stern punishment for the worst. Take care of the victims and take care of the predators. The prophet answers the two questions all good citizens ask. Will the poor be neglected and will the wicked get away with it?
Of course, not all citizens will appreciate these priorities of the new King in town. Some will wonder if this emphasis on the needy and the poor isn’t a bit on the liberal side of the political agenda. But his isn’t a political agenda. It is the agenda of God found throughout the Old Testament (and continuing into the life of Jesus—see his first sermon in Luke 4). This Messianic King will use all of his righteousness (mishpat in Hebrew) and justice (tsedaqah in Hebrew) to make sure that the least and the last don’t get crushed.
Others will balk at this idea of God slaying the wicked. Isaiah 2 talked about God using his justice to settle disputes among the nations, but here the emphasis is on making sure that those who do wickedness on the earth pay for it. God is too good and too righteous to let the inveterately and unrepentantly wicked simply walk away with no consequences. The consequences are what they have always been; “the soul that sins shall die.” Unless, of course, the sinner turns from his ways and turns to the God who has provided a remedy in this righteous Branch, through whom God justifies the unrighteous.
This shoot from the stump, unimpressive in his birth and in his appearance, will be awesome in his reign, because it will be characterized by righteousness and faithfulness in all he does. The world has never seen a leader like this, but it is dying for one. Isaiah promises that such a one is coming.
When he comes, he will bring a peace that is unimaginable. To help us imagine it, Isaiah draws a word picture that has fascinated and inspired generations, the picture of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Instead of nations at peace as in Isaiah 2, we see nature at peace. No longer will nature be “red in tooth and claw;” it will be creation restored to Shalom. The survival of the fittest will be replaced by predator and prey eating and sleeping together.
Biologist may well wonder how the digestive tract of carnivores will be able to stomach a plant-based diet, but that is beside the point the prophet is making. Using this animal imagery, he is showing us a world in which little children don’t have to be afraid of anything, thus, the three-fold repetition of the child theme. The theological point is shouted in verse 9. “They shall neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” The violent death that entered the world with the fall of humans will not be part of the new world the Branch of Jesse will bring. “And death shall be no more.”
That theological point has been hotly debated by strict evolutionists who argue that death is hard-wired into nature. A world without death is impossible. But the prophet stands in the long line of Scriptural teaching that says death is an aberration caused by sin. It is, indeed, impossible to imagine a world without death, because that is all we have even seen, either in our experience or in a scientific laboratory. But the prophet says that the impossible will be done by the Lord. The full knowledge of him will cause the peace that knows no death, or this peace with no death will result in the full knowledge of him. We have never seen a world in which humans know God as God knows us, but the prophet assures us that the God beyond knowing will one day transform the whole world. That will be accomplished by this little shoot from the stump of Jesse who will make God known.
This part of the prophecy ends with verse 9, but the Lectionary adds verse 10 which is really part of the next section on the return of the remnant. However, it is a happy addition, because it assures Israel and us that God will not stop with the nation of Israel and with the animal kingdom. God will draw all nations to himself by raising a banner among the nations. The appearance of the shoot from the stump of Jesse will begin to rally the divided world to himself. That has begun to happen in a church composed of people from every nation and tribe. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:10, God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
This text will tempt many a preacher to call people to seek justice and peace, following Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous dictum, “If you want peace, work for justice.” While that is undoubtedly true, and needs to be preached and practiced, this text is not a call for action or even a criticism of injustice. These immortal lines simply present unqualified good news. In a world full of failed leaders and injustice and strife, the prophet declares that one day a leader will come who will bring a kingdom of justice and peace to the world. It seems impossible most days, but in these days of Advent, we are reminded that he came once and will come again to finish his work. Thanks be to God.
In the politically and militarily charged atmosphere of the Western world, it is clear that people are looking for a leader who will satisfy their needs. So, you can introduce this text by asking people what they are looking for in a leader. Are you looking for strength or compassion, toughness or tenderness, intellectual prowess or emotional intelligence? Will you be attracted by a fresh new platform, a set of world-changing promises, or an experienced leader who has demonstrated skills? Does age matter, or gender, or upbringing, or church membership? Will the person’s piety make a difference to you, or will you focus on political savvy? Are you looking for someone who will pursue your particular interests, or for someone who has a vision far beyond your own personal concerns? Will you vote for someone who has the right ideas or someone who is personally righteous? What are you looking for in a leader? Now compare that to what God sent in the Branch of Jesse.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!