Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Lop off boughs...lofty trees will be felled...cut down the forest with an ax...
A shoot will come up from the Stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
Isaiah 11 continues the incredible imagery that this book of the Bible is famous for. Trees are again a favorite theme. Writers know the importance of a good segue, and Isaiah is masterful here. He ends the previous chapter with dark predictions of the forests of Israel being cut down, and then opens in chapter 11 with great hope: a shoot from the kingly line of David will arise out of what was left as a stump.
I'm a wanna-be gardener, and have pretty much no knowledge of forestry outside of growing up in the woods of Pennsylvania-- navigating "cricks," building forts out of fallen logs, and trying to keep invasive plants out of hard-fought bushwacked paths. According to Nelson Tree Specialist (https://nelsontreespecialist.com/):
"As hard as it is to believe, a tree stump can eventually grow back into a full-sized tree. That’s because the roots are still there. The only difference is that the roots are no longer active. There might be enough nutrients left in the root system to cause sprouts to poke out of the ground."
And this is exactly what Isaiah confirms--it's from the roots of the stump of Jesse (King David's father) that the Branch comes up and bears fruit.
It's such a beautiful image of hope, for a people who seemingly have no hope. This hope is a Person. In this Messianic chapter, there is no dark turn in store at the end. In this chapter, we move from hope to perfect peace and full restoration of the world as it was always meant to be.
And the fulness of God is shown here, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
The Spirit (ruah) of the Lord (Yahweh) will rest on him (Messiah)-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord-
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
I have concerns these days that Christians are forgetting and losing the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than go into a major defense of it, I just want to ponder the relational beauty of what is shown here. Gregory of Nyssa (and his siblings Macrina and Basil--an impressive Turkish family, the males of whom were part of the Cappadocian Fathers) affirmed the unity of the Godhead, insisting that God's power and goodness are all one. We see that here. God--in three Persons--is wise and powerful.
As an older sister, I have a special affinity for Macrina who, while not as famous as her younger brothers, had a profound influence on their spiritual journey and views...to the point that brother Gregory wrote the book, "Life of Macrina," based on her life. A great example to younger brothers who feel inspired to write books about their sisters! Ahem. I digress...
The trouble in modern times with the doctrine of the Trinity is the temptation to parse out hyper-specific roles and responsibilities in an attempt to get everything straight and just right. It's a problem of the Western mind, to insist on precision (which, ironically, often seems to get lost when one attempts to over-explain) when the better response would be awe and worship at the amazing mystery presented here. The poetic passage does end with "the fear of the Lord," after all.
Following this Trinitarian passage is the heart of what the Messiah will do, starting with:
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice, he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
At first glance, this seems to go against the very character of Jesus. Wasn't he "for" the poor? Wasn't he always encouraging his disciples to give away what they possess to the poor, in Gospel passages that much of the modern church conveniently sidesteps with a "this is not for everybody" explanation? (That may be, but presumably, it is for somebody??)
The problem is with the word "judge," which often connotes the idea of punishment in our modern ears. But righteous judgement has to do with making things right. Bible scholar N.T. Wright says, regarding this passage,
"Yes, judgment and justice, because this glorious future state of affairs doesn’t come about by accident. It comes about by a great act of judgment. Isaiah’s vision of a world flooded with the knowledge of God comes about through the judgment, the deciding, the setting-to-rights, which will be performed by the Messiah...
And this coming great judge will be equipped to do all this, to perform that utterly righteous and totally faithful act of final judgment, final putting-to-rights of all things, because he will be equipped, endowed, with the Spirit of the Lord himself: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. ‘Judgment’, as you all know well, is not simply the condemnation of the wicked. It is a matter of restoring a balance to the world, bringing things back as they should be. Without it, communities reel and stagger this way and that. Where people suspect that justice is not done, they are at once tempted, as we say, to take the law into their own hands. Isaiah offers the great sigh of relief: justice will be done at last, and will be seen and known to be done. Isaiah declares that the Coming One will perform that act of judgment on a cosmic scale, resulting in a world set right at last." (https://ntwrightpage.com/2016/03/30/full-of-the-knowledge-of-the-lord/)
I love this, and Wright's point that if we don't fully believe this, we may be tempted to take matters into our own hands. This can look like trying to help the poor...without connecting to their Maker. Terrific programs can be created by people who inwardly sneer at the religious beliefs of those they help, and condescendingly view their own vaguely deistic or atheistic approach as the more enlightened one. Or, we may claim to be connected to the Creator but actually ensure that every daily decision, every tweeted word, every vote is ultimately serving oneself or, by extension, a group of selves who look shockingly like oneself in every way.
Thankfully, justice for the poor is coming. The Bible makes frequent reference to it. We collaborate with God in this holy activity if we join Him in this endeavor, doing it for His glory.
The ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 11, however, is likely far in the future. In a scenario that our vegan friends are already anticipating, we see:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox...They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
N.T. Wright is on a personal mission to show that most of our ideas about heaven come from Plato rather than the Bible. No fluffy clouds and harps. Instead, "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
At the dawn of creation, "the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2).
Isaiah shows us a return to the Creation story; the universe and humankind will be re-created. Here we see references to the Eden, only perfected (and, sorry, Ron Swanson-types, we are all vegans, based on the diet of that lion. Let's just imagine that those grains are really, really yummy). That is heaven--perfect peace, harmony, and coexistence with all of creation. No violence. The knowledge of God. Despite what we may think we want--all the extra little things that really aren't necessities--I'm convinced that anyone with any spark of the Lord in their hearts actually wants this:
To live in perfect harmony with everyone around you. Nobody says or does anything that causes rifts or misunderstandings. It's just peaceful and easy.
No need for fear. I don't typically live in constant fear for my life (like so many--which is one reason this pandemic year is so challenging), but many do. All of that will cease. Total peace. No harm.
Really knowing the Lord--the earth will be full of this knowledge. No guessing, no fighting to support half-truths about God. We will all just know Him and reality as it truly is.
Yet again (you'll see this as a theme in this blog) we see fiction depict this better than most theology tomes. Here's an excerpt from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, as we enter into his view of what heaven will likely really be like:
"It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time there were somehow different — deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.
The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”