Today’s reading continues a theme from last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson. As we look toward Christmas, we anticipate not only the birth of a baby with its accompanying wonder and joy, but the coming to fruition of God’s new creation. In Advent, we prepare not just for Christmas, but for the feast of the reign of Christ, and the fullness of our hopes in God’s kingdom. The beginning of the Christian year anticipates its end, while its end and the celebration of Christ’s reign over all, can only be fully understood as we reflect on the nature of the incarnation of Christ, his death, and resurrection etc.
Isaiah 11:1-10 looks toward the rule of one whose life is shaped by the ‘spirit of the Lord’ (vv. 1-5). It envisages a world in which peace, spoken of in political and national terms last week (Isa 2:4), will be experienced also in the world of nature (vv. 6-9).
The passage falls into two sections. Verses 1-5 use the metaphor of the shoot coming from the stump of the tree to speak of the continuance of the royal dynasty of David in Jerusalem. After the disappointments of the rule of king Ahaz (see Isa 7:1-9), the prophet’s words are put together to stress that hope in a just and faithful rule by a descendant of David is not in vain (cf. also Isa 7:10-17; 9:2-7). However, that hope will not be fulfilled without an element of judgement upon the present exercise of power and rule. The image of the tree stump carries the idea of removing what is corrupt and getting back to secure beginnings (cf. Isa 6:13; 9: 14, 18). This future ruler will be guided by the spirit of the Lord, just as Yahweh’s spirit or breath descended on chosen individuals in the early monarchy (see 1 Sam 11:6; 16:13, 14).
The gifts of the spirit are spelled out in terms of the royal domain. They include wisdom and understanding (v. 2; cf. 9:6), a gift thought given to Egyptian and Babylonians kings by the gods as well as to Israel’s kings (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kgs 3-4). The king, who had chief responsibility for the judicial system, was to judge not only with equity and fairness (v. 3) but with a concern for what we would call social policy and welfare. In other words, the law was not just there to settle disputes fairly, but to address the social and economic inequities in society (cf. the psalm for this week, Ps 72:1-4, 12-14; cf. Jer 22:15-17). While this king possessed power (‘might’ in v. 2), he is not described here as a battlefield hero or world conqueror, as most ancient Near Eastern kings wished to be known. What will drive this king, and what is his utmost delight, is the ‘fear of the Lord’ (vv. 2-3). In contrast to king Ahaz (see Isa 7:9), faith in Yahweh is to be at the heart of this king’s actions. His garb will not be that of power, or wealth or battle, but that of faith (v. 5). This type of messiah (‘anointed one’) is similar to the one found in Micah 5:2-5.
There are points of both difference and continuity as we move to the second section, vv. 6-9. This idyllic picture of peace and harmony seems almost not to require one who will rule and ensure equity is established. In this ideal scene all the earth will now be filled with that which enlivens the king in vv. 1-5, namely the ‘knowledge of the Lord’ (vv. 2, 9). Peace in the animal world is described by a series of scenes wherein ‘natural’ enemies dwell side by side, and a young child, powerless, vulnerable and at risk in normal understanding, leads them. Verse 8, with the child playing over hole of a snake, reverses the curse of Gen 3:15 with its notion of enmity between the offspring of the woman and the snake. For other notions of peace in the animal world as the ideal see Hos 2:18 and Isa 65:25.
The reference to ‘Yahweh’s holy mountain’ in v. 9 helps broaden the image. While this phrase would normally refer to Mt Zion, i.e. Jerusalem with its temple, the fact that it is parallel to ‘the earth’ presses this image beyond that of Israel. The Davidic dynasty ruled Judah and Jerusalem for about four centuries. The idyllic image of vv. 6-9 is however, one for the whole earth. This is underlined in v. 10 and connected back to the metaphor at the beginning of the passage by mention of ‘the root of Jesse’. The messiah described in vv. 1-5 is a messiah for all peoples, just as the image of peace is one for all the earth. The interpreter’s interest in v. 10 is, thus, wider than just Israel. The messiah in this passage is not seen as a victor or oppressor of the nations, but as an advisor or mediator. This messiah is not one concerned for glory or power, but in the removal of all evil.
This passage contributes to the New Testament’s idea of the messiah, as seen in Jesus Christ. See, for example, Rom 15:12 (part of today’s Epistle reading), 2 Thess 2:8, Rev 5:5-6 and 19:11, 15. This development, however, is not a simple one and will come only via Jewish apocalyptic writings. The gifts of the Spirit, which in Isa 11:1-5 are given to the messiah, are later seen as promised to all believers in Christ (Eph 6:14, 17; 1 Peter 4:14).
Isa 11:1-9 points us to a vision of an ideal world, in both political and natural terms. It stands in sharp contrast to the image of a young family, with a new born child, forced to make do in an animal pen behind an inn. Yet, the images are not unrelated. Isaiah speaks of equity for the meek, justice for the poor, of righteousness and faithfulness, of the overcoming of the destructiveness of power and might, and the ascendency of what is powerless and vulnerable. All these things are embodied in the story of the birth of Jesus, to which we look in Advent. On the other hand, in our anticipation of the birth of Jesus, with all its earthiness and inclusion of what is commonplace, we also anticipate the coming of the fullness of the kingdom of God, with all its glory and hope for what is ‘uncommon’ in our world – peace, justice, equity and security in both the worlds of human society and nature.
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