Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10
One of the reasons I love preaching from Isaiah is the depth of meanings found therein. Isaiah’s words were a cause of introspection and hope during the prophet’s life in 8th century BCE, during Jesus’ earthly life in the first century CE, and in our times as well. For me, it has been important and lifegiving to delve into why Isaiah’s messages were so impactful for the original audiences that this scroll, presumably after some heavy editing, was being intensely scrutinized centuries later at the time of Jesus’ incarnation.
The words of Isaiah 11 offer a sense of hope for a time of peace and new potential in relationships between former enemies. Indeed, even serpents and humans, destined to crush and bruise each other, seem to receive a peaceful reprieve from their destinies, though one wonders if the snakes truly welcome random babies’ arms reaching into their nests … But to what is this vision of peace responding? Is this a temporally unmoored vision for the end of time? Is this the messianic age realized in human history? Or is there something else going on here?
One of my favorite interlocutors of Scripture, an eleventh century CE French sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known by the acronym “Rashi”) insists that we read the promises of Isaiah 11 in light of the words of Isaiah 10. In the previous chapter from our lectionary readings, God has given the northern Kingdom of Israel, and many of the cities of Judah, into the murderous hands of the kings of Assyria. Why? God-through-Isaiah wants the people to know why they will be judged:
Woe to those who enact unjust statutes
And to those who constantly record harmful decisions,
So as to deprive the needy of justice
And rob the poor among My people of their rights,
So that widows may be their spoil
And that they may plunder the orphans. (Isaiah 10:1-2, NASB)
Bad governance supported the rich and powerful becoming more rich and more powerful at the expense of the already poor and marginalized. The wealth and power gap extended to such an extent that the powerful were able to codify laws to justify their injustice. God also condemned the Israelites as “a godless people” (Isaiah 10:6). God would allow the Assyrians to destroy a kingdom built on the twin sins of injustice and idolatry. But God also promised that the Assyrians would not go unpunished for their destruction of the lives of God’s people. The Assyrians too would be crushed and destroyed (Isaiah 10:12-19, 24-34).
But how is the destruction of the people who destroyed Israel and much of Judah hopeful? Sure, revenge feels good for a time. Seeing the people who hurt us being hurt in turn may satisfy some notions of justice. But God has a better hope and future in store for the whole world than just reciprocity. This is the situation into which Isaiah 11 begins to speak hope.
God promises, through the prophet, that a shoot will come from Jesse’s (and thereby, David’s) stem, and a twig will grow from his roots (Isaiah 11:1). Christians will naturally see these words as speaking of Jesus, but for centuries before the incarnation, and in Jewish interpretation afterward, these words applied to King Hezekiah of Judah. Indeed, the first section of the book of Isaiah closes with a prose interlude that reads like the climax of a novel, wondering if Hezekiah will be the one to save the people, or not. Hezekiah certainly had a lot going for him. His efforts to eliminate idolatry (2 Kings 18:3-6), reform the Levitical and priestly roles (2 Chronicles 29:5-19), rededicate the aristocracy to worshiping the God of Israel (2 Chronicles 29:20-33), and welcome back apostate Israelites to the holy festivals in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 30:1-12) were so well known, that even the enemies of Judah spoke of them (Isaiah 36:7).
Judahites and Israelites seeking asylum after the destruction of Samaria must have wondered if Hezekiah would be the one about whom Isaiah spoke. Certainly, he seemed to be guided by the Spirit of the LORD with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2-3). At a time when Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians because of a lack of justice for the poor and faithfulness to God, Hezekiah stood out because he judged the poor with righteousness and decided with fairness for the humble of the earth (Isaiah 11:4). Indeed, righteousness seemed to be the belt around his hips and faithfulness seemed to cling to him like a belt around waist (Isaiah 11:5). The words of Isaiah 11 seemed to confirm suspicions that Hezekiah would bring the world to peace and make war a thing of the past, to realize a time when the lion would lie down with the lamb. But it was not to be. Hezekiah instituted important reforms, to be sure, but did not bring an end to war and fighting.
Hundreds of years later, the Holy Community lived under the threat of a violent people, perhaps even worse than the Assyrians. The Romans had been invited to support their vassals in the Herodian family as they inflicted injustice and violence on the people. Into this milieu, into a family too poor to present the prime offering for the birth of a son (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:6-8), a child was born and grew to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven with its ways of justice and faithfulness. As in the days of Hezekiah and in the days of Jesus, we are still waiting for that dawn in which war shall cease. But if we refuse to uproot Isaiah from its context, we can see that God has always been calling the Holy Community to justice and faithfulness, and has always promised to send leaders who will show the way. It is such a leader that we, along with Isaiah, look for during this Advent.