1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
There’s been a lot of speculation through the years about how exactly the world will come to an end. Some look to the terrifying images from Book of Revelation, others to serene passages like this one in Isaiah. Some look to science and the possibility of a devastating asteroid impact, or simply the passage of time and growing entropy in the universe.
All of those things are wrong, of course. The true end of the world will actually come to pass when someone flips a wooden lever in the middle of a remote state highway located deep in the Ozark national forest in Arkansas.
This lever is clearly labelled “Do not touch until the end of the world” but there have been some close calls in recent times. Like the time when Nate the worm decided to crawl across the highway. Now, of course an earthworm doesn’t have the physical strength to pull a lever, so there was never any real risk of Nate himself causing the end of the world…but when Nate was about a quarter of the way across the road (it took him about two hours to get that far) an 18-wheeler came barrelling down the state highway at about 75 miles per hour right at him. This is a two-lane highway, and Nate was right in the middle of one lane…while the lever to end the world was right in the middle of the next. By the time the truck driver saw them both–Nate the worm and the lever to end the world–it was too late to stop, and so it was clear that the driver had a difficult choice to make.
I regret to inform you that Nate the worm died that day, repeatedly smooshed flat into the state highway pavement by at least 9 of those 18 wheels, tragically cut short in his quest to see the other side of the road. But what can you do? After all, like the truck driver, we know that in the end, the moral of this story was always going to be . . . better Nate than lever.
For the past several weeks we’ve been talking about prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, and this week we come to our final sermon in the series, on Isaiah 11. This is perhaps the most iconic and familiar vision of peace in the entire Bible, and has been the subject of music, art, poetry, and literature.
We read this passage every year around Christmastime, most likely because of the words “and a little child shall lead them” which we tend to associate with the Christ-child lying in the manger, surrounded by peaceful animals like the ones described in this passage.
We also associate Jesus with the shoot that shall come out of the stump of Jesse. You’ll remember that Jesse, in the Old Testament, was the father of David, and both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to connect the family tree of Jesus all the way back to David and Jesse.
So like most of the other passages we’ve read from Isaiah, we see this as a prophecy–a prediction of things to come in the future. Some parts of the passage seem to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, and other parts, well, we’re still waiting on. There is still plenty of violence and war in our world today, and most of us don’t encourage our children to play with poisonous snakes. As Woody Allen famously put it, “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” When we hear this passage, we generally think, “oh that sounds nice, heavenly, even. Maybe it describes the happy ending at the end of the world, or if not in this life, then maybe in the one to come.”
But I don’t think this was ever intended to be a prediction about the future, a description of heaven or the end of the world. As I’ve said a few times already, that’s not exactly how prophecy was understood or worked in Ancient Israel. Prophets, as God’s spokespeople, were far more interested in influencing and changing the present than in predicting the future. They spoke in terms of possibilities and consequences, but always with a purpose for drawing the people closer to God and to each other.
In this light, I see three things that Isaiah is trying to accomplish here, three different audiences he’s speaking to which are all highly relevant to his context in the 8th Century BCE, and to a somewhat lesser extent, to our present-day context. So let’s look at those:
The first part of his message, verses 1-5, is a coronation address to the new king in Isaiah’s time: Young King Hezekiah. It’s a reminder of what qualities God and God’s people expect from a good leader: wisdom and understanding; power and might, too, but only after listening to good counsel and seeking out all available knowledge. Don’t judge people on the basis of what you see or hear, but instead on the basis of righteousness. Take care of the poor and meek. Save your harshest condemnations (the breath of your lips) for the wicked. These are still the things God expects (and that we should expect) of our leaders today.
If verses 1-5 are addressed to the King, then verses 6-9 are addressed to the people. As cute as this scene of animals hanging out together is, I think it’s a metaphor. Verse 9 refers to “my holy mountain” and in the Old Testament, that’s almost always shorthand for Mount Zion, the city of Jerusalem and the home of the Jewish temple.
And Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s time, is becoming a true cosmopolitan city, bursting at the seams with immigrants from every nation and ethnicity–some of whom had been bitter enemies just a few years ago. So Isaiah is saying to all these diverse people, you need to get along. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
The little child (referenced several times in these verses) is probably Jerusalem, a young city, innocent and sometimes naive, but willing to take risks, willing to play with snakes if necessary in order to advance the peace and prosperity of all its residents. The cow and the bear shall graze and their young shall lie down together: Farmers from this tribe and that tribe are going to work side by side, plowing the earth together, and what’s more your kids are probably going to intermarry with each other–get used to it.
What’s the one thing that has the power to hold all of them together? Shared knowledge of the same Lord, Yahweh, which covers the earth like the water covers the sea. In today’s world, we often see religious belief as a source of division and discord, but it also has great power to unite people across ethnic, cultural, and economic barriers.
In the final two verses, Isaiah addresses an even wider audience: the other nations, and all the people of Israel and Judah who are dispersed throughout the world in captivity–people enslaved in Assyria, Egypt, Africa and beyond–and gives them hope: You are not forgotten, you are not abandoned, and when you see this sign (the shoot of Jesse, the King in Jerusalem) it will be a symbol to you of all that holds us together across the miles. So, here again, Isaiah is trying to unite and bring people together.
It begins with just one person–the king, the wise and righteous leader; then spreads to the people of the nation, who are encouraged to trust each other, to be tolerant of each other despite their differences and diversity; then it spreads again to people in other lands, people who are far away or in captivity. There is hope enough for everyone, says God, through Isaiah.
It is a beautiful, inclusive vision, and I don’t think Isaiah intends for people to just sit back and say, “yeah that would be nice, when’s it going to come true?” I think he’s painting a picture of a world worth creating, a world worth rolling up our sleeves and working for. That is, I believe, the function of divine prophecy–not something that God will magically poof into existence, but rather something that will inspire us to be God’s agents in the world, God’s hands and feet working for a better, more divine existence.
I want to wrap up this sermon series with a few words about prophecy. I wanted to preach a sermon series on prophecy because it’s a pretty popular thing to do these days. There’s no shortage of anxiety about the future, and therefore no shortage of interest in anyone or anything that claims to be able to give you “six simple steps to interpreting biblical prophecy,” or “how to understand the future with the Bible.” Unfortunately for you, I’m not that kind of pastor. When it boils down to it, most so-called Biblical prophecies really aren’t. And there’s a good reason for that.
We desperately want to know what the future holds in store for us, so we can avoid catastrophe and always make the “right” decision that will benefit us most. But if you could do that; if you could predict the future and always act accordingly on the basis of that information, do you know what your life would be? By definition, that would make your life…predictable.
And somehow, I don’t think it’s what we really want out of life. For it to be predictable. Because human beings are at their best–we really shine–when we are faced with unpredictability–when we experience and react to surprise and wonder and amazement. When we rise to the challenge of catastrophes and tragedies and respond with grit, determination, compassion, and love. That’s what it is to be human–to have no idea what the future holds, but to face each new day, each new year with hope and courage. The future is not a hidden picture waiting to be uncovered, revealed. It’s a blank canvas waiting to be painted, written, designed, and shared.
So happy new year, church! I won’t predict what 2019 has in store for you, but I will pray that with God’s help, you will face it with joy and conviction, that you will roll up your sleeves, jump right into it, and make it a year to remember for yourself and everyone you meet.
And like the shoot that comes forth out of the stump of Jesse, may your life stand as a sign and signal to all people of God’s faithfulness and love. And may the knowledge of the Lord fill your life as the water covers the seas.