Isaiah is a special read in the Advent season. The book offers a spiritual GPS or Satnav in a world with muddled moral maps. It sets out a reassuring bigger picture of life: in the end everyone will get to a proper destination.
Amid job losses, Brexit votes, uncertain elections, crumbling social values, broken marriages, monster storms, and other earth-rumbling realities of life, Isaiah promises the faithful that all will end well. When every story ends, God is still God.
“For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Is. 11:9-10).
Isaiah is realistic. The sloshing outflow of human spiritual autonomy will regularly wash up on the shorefronts of God’s faithful followers. So things may be rough for now, but a day of reckoning lies ahead for all who despise the living God.
In Isaiah’s day, for instance, there were some really bad actors: the Assyrians and Chaldeans, with the Medes and Persians in the wings. There were also a host of lesser threats to Israel and Judah—God’s chosen people—including the Syrians of Damascus, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and even Cush. Isaiah lived in a rough neighborhood during a very scary era. Some things never seem to change.
The problem for Judah and her northern sibling, Israel, is that they also liked to cuddle with evil. Sin, after all, is a stimulant—a very toxic stimulant—but it can seem like a safe option. Especially when friends and neighbors sin freely and still seem to avoid serious consequences. So if sin works, and it feels good, why not?
But this near-term view is actually a messy moral gamble. A fear of the Lord—a God-oriented refusal to embrace evil—is where certainty lies. So for some Isaiah might seem misleading. If we focus on his ultimate optimism—about how the story ends—we may miss the near-term warnings. The prophet is writing to “the remnant”: to those who love God and stayed faithful even in hard times. It’s not a blanket blessing.
Many of the people in Israel and Judah were not part of that remnant. Isaiah promised everyone in his audience a set of invasions and a national captivity. Only then would the “root of Jesse” arrive and his own people be identified.
Earlier in the chapter the prophet pointed to this sequence with the metaphor of a tree. The nation would be reduced to a stump—cut down to the ground. But a sprout—David’s royal lineage, signaled by a reference to his father Jesse—would survive to become a living branch. No matter how desperate the scene the promised Messiah would still come and bear fruit.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”
Isaiah’s theme of hope set within scenes of disaster carries on through the book and arrives at the portrayal of God’s suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Jesse’s offspring, the Messiah, would be crushed by God for the sake of God’s beloved people. So this suffering is the basis both for the Messiah’s coming and his dying. In Isaiah 25 the prophet hinted that the Messiah was coming to swallow death on behalf of his people.
The promise of the branch was Isaiah’s joy. The branch was anticipated by the naming of one of Isaiah’s son’s as “God with us.” And the prophet’s focus on the Messiah touched, especially, on his character as our divine companion and ruler. The focus was on the “who” of who was coming.
Earlier in Isaiah, in chapter nine, there was a setup for this. The Prince of Peace would come in the context of warfare—with bloody garments being collected and burned. He would overcome all his enemies when his day finally came.
“For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
We’re reassured, then, that God’s zeal for what is good and right stands behind the Advent. His righteous rule is coming: don’t be discouraged. The King will come and reign in righteousness and all will be well for those of us who love him—as his remnant people we can rest under the branch that grew out of the stump. Rest and rejoice accordingly!