For all its lyric beauty and familiarity, Isaiah 11 is both striking and odd. It’s striking because of the far-reaching results that we see sketched here on account of God’s sending forth a truly righteous ruler from the stump of Jesse. It’s odd because it moves so nimbly between what you’d expect to be the main focus (namely, equity for the poor) to something that is less expected but that occupies far more space in these verses (namely, the cozying up in the animal kingdom of one-time predators and their prey). It’s obvious why the Common Lectionary pairs up these verses with Matthew 3’s fiery presentation of John the Baptist, but Isaiah 11 stands on its own as an Advent text worthy of some reflection even short of making the connection to John.
The first surprise of this passage is the line in verse 3b that the new ruler will not use his eyes and ears to decide what constitutes justice. We all know justice is supposed to be blind (we can picture the traditional image of Justice as wearing a blindfold) but is it to be deaf, too? How would any judge be able to do his or her job if no evidence could be heard or seen? Taken literally, this would not make sense. The next line in verse 4, however, helps us understand: righteousness itself will be the standard but for the needy and the poor first of all.
These are the two groups that typically get no hearing at all. They are the ones who are trampled upon by the rich and whose causes are seldom heard at the bar of justice. The rich can buy off judges or hire such a raft of lawyers in $1,000 suits as to make it impossible for the needy to come anywhere close to having their cases considered. Of course, these are also precisely the marginalized members of society for whom God has the most concern in Israelite society (at least if most of the witness of the Old Testament is to be believed). The poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the strangers from other lands were supposed to receive so many extra breaks that justice would take care of itself. That, however, did not generally happen. The context of judgment in books like Isaiah and the other prophets make it clear that Israel’s number one failing was precisely in its treatment of those on the margins of life.
But the new ruler of whom Isaiah speaks will have such a firm hold of righteousness that he won’t need to see or hear the details of any given case: all that will need to happen is that the poor and needy will be brought forward, will be brought into close proximity of the standard that just is righteousness, and then it will be plain to everyone else with eyes in their heads what needs to happen: the poor and needy must be taken care of. It’s a no-brainer. Once you see a poor person standing next to the measuring rod of righteousness, what needs to happen next will be obvious. No one will doubt that something must be done and no one will question even what needs to be done.
As someone once said, when it comes to taking care of the basic needs of our neighbors, the Bible’s instructions are not exactly rocket science.
We live in an age when the sheer number of opinion makers, idea shapers, and talking heads in the media can (and generally do) make most every problem you could think of sound so complicated and fraught with socio-political perils that it really is an open question whether anything can be done to solve our problems of poverty, unemployment, racism, and injustice. No matter what anyone says, there is always another “expert” waiting in the wings to come on camera to say, “Well not so fast—it’s not as simple as all that and my party won’t go along with thus-and-so in any event so . . .”
If only we could see the true standard of righteousness. If only we could feel the hot, burning stare of the One who embodies that righteousness. If only we could stack up our supposedly insurmountable problems before the bar of that kind of holy justice. If we could see more clearly, we might see not only that we need to do better, but that what needs doing is not nearly so complex as some would have us to believe.
What follows next, however, is very curious because there is in the text no direct connection made between the presence of this new Ruler and the shalom that descends on the non-human creation. Yes, there is direct action hinted at in terms of how the poor and needy are handled but this other stuff about wolves and lambs and leopards and such seems to just flow out naturally as a result of the presence of a great Righteousness descending on the earth. When all is made well, it really will be all that will be made well. What we see sketched here in the animal kingdom—and the lack of any form of “harm” throughout God’s holy mountain—is to be our cue already now for how we treat each other in the human realm, too.
In a scene from the chilling terror films Aliens, Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) and her companions discover that one of their colleagues had recently tried to engineer a terrible event in order that he and his company might turn a hefty profit. This man was willing to sacrifice the lives of Ripley and a little girl if that’s what it took to be able to bring back alive one of the nightmare alien creatures they were even then battling (these, as you may recall, were the aliens with a double-set of jaws, deadly acid for blood, and with a penchant for biting people’s heads off, literally). But after discovering her colleague’s attempted betrayal, Ripley at one point says in essence, “You know, I don’t know who is worse: those aliens or us people. At least you never see them betraying each other to make a few extra bucks.”
Indeed, what people do to each other is usually far worse—and far more sinister—than what can be witnessed in the animal kingdom. Animals do what they do to survive and mostly out of sheer instinct. People, on the other hand, regularly go against their better nature to destroy fellow imagebearers of God, and usually just to turn a profit.
When true righteousness comes, animals will treat each other well. Will people?
As a text at the midpoint of Advent, Isaiah 11 reminds us that for all the ways we try to downsize Christmas and make it neat and tidy and local and mono-toned (all peace, joy, and cheer for ME!), the coming of God’s Chosen Messiah is finally so much bigger than we usually imagine. It involves the poor and needy whom we do not usually see populating our churches. It involves the whole realm of nature, which we also conveniently forget about in our more human-focused moments. It’s just so much bigger than all that. It is the coming of Righteousness, and once we come into close proximity with that, everything looks different.
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Woody Allen once quipped that the day may well come when the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb isn’t going to get much sleep! Allen was being merely cheeky. But he makes a good point. In the kind of shalom that a passage such as Isaiah 11 sketches for us, it will indeed not be enough to create a showcase display window of former foes dwelling next to each other, there are going to have to be changes on the inside, at the fundamental level of the hearts of all the creatures involved. The lamb needs to be able to go to sleep secure in the knowledge that the lion has lost all appetite for anything served with a side of mint jelly. The parents of the toddler playing by the snake’s lair need to know not just that the snake is behaving itself so long as someone is there to keep an eye on it but that things have changed at so basic a level that there really is nothing to worry about whether anyone is watching or not.
So it is with the entire picture or righteousness and justice as it emerges from Isaiah 11: the poor and the needy must be treated well not just when God is looking or when the spotlight is on a given situation but at all times because all people have so thoroughly fallen in love with—and become enmeshed with—God’s better visions for the cosmos and its flourishing that the very possibility of abusing the weak will be no more.
Old enemies, in other words, need to go beyond shaking hands for photo ops. They have to wish each other well with every fiber of their being and then live consistently in ways that will make that flourishing more likely to take place, too.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2022
Isaiah 11:1-10 Commentary