Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah preaches hope in a time of terror and justice in a time of oppression.

December 5, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Isaiah preaches hope in a time of terror and justice in a time of oppression.

Isaiah 11:1-10 answers fear of Assyrian armies with fear of God. Assyria’s false wisdom–arts of plunder and destruction (10:13)–cedes to true wisdom, discernment, and counsel (11:2). Isaiah declares that Assyria’s tree will be cut down (10:17-18, 33-34), while a new tree will grow in Judah and bear fruit (11:1). Shoulders stooped under the yoke (10:27) will stand tall (11:10). Captivity will give way to rest, and shame to glory (11:10).

The visions of 11:1-10 are characterized by a remarkable dynamism that is at the same time the mark and guarantee of stability and peace. In the visions, the order of nature, political and social life, and the common life of humans and animals are organically linked and woven together.

The first vision begins with the metaphor of new growth, giving a trampled people gazing on a trampled land the power to imagine a different polity and a transformed world. The Hebrew word for “shoot” (11:1) can also mean “rod” or “scepter.” Wordplay here links the promise of new growth and life with that of a new ruler. The image of a branch from the roots of Jesse links future with past, with Judah’s history with God, a history of election and favor. It also links the stability of this chosen dynasty with chosen place, and promises that this land is still good; its soil still watered and fertile. The branch will flower and bear fruit: it will flourish in order to provide protection and nourishment for the people of Judah.

The next image promises rest, security, stability. The Spirit of the Lord, wind and breath, dynamic, ever-moving force of life, will rest and settle on this fruit-bearing branch (11:2). This animating Spirit confers on the ruler six qualities, each presented in pairs that culminate with fear of God: wisdom and discernment; counsel and might; knowledge and fear of the Lord. The pairs operate together and empower the ruler for the work of governance.

A ruler mediates God’s care for creation, and holds power over life and death that mirrors God’s own. Just rule must therefore proceed from fear of God. That fear is paired with relational and covenantal knowledge of God. This knowledge of God is not the sole possession of the ruler. The ruler will strike the earth with the staff of his mouth. That is, he will reorder creation by speaking. The spirit of his lips–wise and righteous speech–brings death to a wicked one (11:4), but also fills the earth with knowledge of the Lord, until it is like the water of the ocean, creation’s great reservoir and beginning of life (11:9).

The six-fold spirit empowers the ruler for judgment. It is common for people to judge by what they see and make decisions based on what they hear. But Isaiah knows that eyes can be lifted up by pride (2:11). Ears can be deceived by lying speech (32:6-7). They can also be sealed shut (6:10; 29:10). These faculties prove unreliable. Instead, this ruler will judge the poor, lowly, and weak by righteousness. By uprightness he will decide for the meek and humble of the earth (11:4). His own body will be bound by righteousness and faithfulness; they will wrap, encircle, and support him at his very center (11:5).

The scene now shifts. We no longer look upon a tree but upon a pasture. And here, in the land of the lambs, a wolf now resides, a welcomed stranger in their midst (11:6). Imagine for a moment your congregation of lambs offering hospitality to the one-time predator. Or dare to imagine the roles reversed. How would you preach this vision? Mother bear and cow graze as their children stretch out together. Look past the charming image to perceive how reckless it is for the flocks and cattle to let their guard down while the lion, nearby, eats straw like an ox (11:7).

More reckless still: see the human children. A small boy shepherds the contented herd of lions, leopards, bears, and wolves, sheep, goats, and cows (11:6). An infant, still sucking at his mother’s breast, makes a game at the door of a snake’s den. A toddler, now weaned, stretches her hand over the hole in the ground where a viper has made its nest (11:8). None will do evil. None will destroy (11:9).

This is the mountain of God’s holiness. This is the promise, the glorious, abundant resting place where the root of Jesse stands. This is the vision of security. The shoot will grow tall and become a visible sign for the nations. Not a battle standard, but a standard of peace.

Preach the vision of peace. Preach the hope. Identify the fears, the armies, the trampled land and people. Teach a congregation to see and hear with more than eyes and ears. Then preach righteousness that fills the earth the way waters cover the ocean. Preach it for the nations, for the earth and its animals, and for the children who will lead and play. Preach it with a spirit of wisdom and discernment, in the conviction that God calls all the earth to knowledge, discernment, and worship.