Today’s reading from Isaiah 11:10-12:2 skips the first half of chapter 11, which is rather strange. Perhaps because it’s one of the readings of the Christmas Vespers? While the Flood narrative continues in Genesis, I’d like to focus on the whole of chapter 11 of Isaiah. The shoot from the root of Jesse has always been interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus Christ and has provided much imagery for the Advent season. Indeed, the first ten verses of chapter 11 of Isaiah present a vision of peace and righteousness. Christians have no difficulty associating these images with the coming of Jesus Christ and the message he brought to the world.
“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” is how Isaiah 11:2 describes the one who comes from the root of Jesse. This is a Davidic prophecy. Jesse was the father of David, so clearly the one who comes from the root of Jesse is from the house of David. Every prophecy of the Messiah insists that the Messiah will be from the house of David. This permeates the entire Old Testament, and informed the New Testament understanding of Jesus in a big way. Jesus himself, when he began his public ministry (Luke 4:16-19) quoted from Isaiah – not this passage, but from chapter 61 of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The spirit of the Lord rests upon the Messiah, just as it rested on (or hovered above) Jesus at his baptism. The Messiah is anointed – the word Messiah means “the anointed one” – to bring good news (remember, “gospel” means “good news”!) and freedom for all who are oppressed. The focus of Jesus’ ministry was always the poor, the outcasts, and those oppressed by illness, demon possession and religious and ethnic prejudice. “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). Jesus spoke blessings: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). There is no doubt that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s expectation of the Messiah.
The kingdom of the Messiah is a kingdom of righteousness, faithfulness and peace: “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… for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” This is a universal vision of peace. But it is also a vision that excludes different conceptions of God. The knowledge of the Lord means knowing and acknowledging only one God, the God of Israel.
It is very important to remember that when the Old Testament speaks of peace it’s always on God’s terms. Peace indeed – but also war and destruction. The one anointed by the spirit of the Lord will nevertheless “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4). Peace for Israel (11:12-13); for all other nations, war, destruction and subjugation (11:14-15). And this is mild, much milder than the language of destruction elsewhere in the writings of Isaiah and the other prophets – not to mention the narratives of Israel’s conquest of the “promised land.”
War and peace are two sides of the same coin in the language of the prophets, including this Isaiah, the most elevated of the prophets! And because war and peace were both associated with the identity of the Messiah, it is no wonder that there was so much confusion concerning the ministry of Jesus Christ. “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Messiah” – so when we say Jesus Christ we mean Jesus the Christ (Jesus the Messiah). Χριστός in Greek means the same as מָשִׁ֫יחַ (mashiach) in Hebrew: the anointed one.
Jesus himself and the early Christian tradition preferred to see the Christ in the image of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53 rather than the military leader of popular expectations. For me, a follower of Jesus, the message of Isaiah chapter 11 is to provide a vocabulary for my journey through Lent, a vocabulary of powerful words of spiritual transformation: spirit, wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fear of the Lord, delight, righteousness, poor, equity, meek, faithfulness, dwelling, glorious, gather, highway, remnant. No better group of meaningful words to describe what the Lenten journey is all about in all its aspects.