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THE CONTEXT: JUDGMENT ON ISRAEL AND ASSYRIA
Isaiah prophesied the Assyrian invasion (8:1-15) and judgment on Israel (9:8 – 10:4). He also prophesied the demise of Assyria (10:5-19). Then he said:
“It will come to pass in that day
that the remnant of Israel,
and those who have escaped from the house of Jacob
will no more again lean on him who struck them,
but shall lean on Yahweh,
the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (10:20).
And he promised:
“A remnant will return,
even the remnant of Jacob,
to the mighty God” (10:21).
He counseled Israel not to fear Assyria, because
“He will consume the glory of (Assyria’s) forest,
and of his fruitful field,
both soul and body.
It will be as when a standard bearer faints” (10:18).
And he promised that a remnant of Israel would once again “lean on Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel” (10:20).
However, before that takes place, Israel will experience judgment. Yahweh “shakes his hand at the mountain of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.” He “will will lop the boughs with terror. The tall will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon will fall by the Mighty One” (10:33-34). The poet, then, “anticipates the devastation of the Holy City” (Brueggemann, WBC, 98).
But this devastation, this lopping and hacking, will prepare the way for new life to emerge (see 11:1).
The question that demands consideration as we move to the text itself is whether the shoot that shall come out from the stump of Jesse (v. 1) refers to an earthly king in the Davidic line, the messiah, or both.
Paul clearly interprets it as related to the messiah when he quotes this verse in Romans 15:12. Also, the book of Revelation quotes Jesus as saying, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify these things to you for the assemblies. I am the root and the offspring of David; the Bright and Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).
However, “The context calls for a near fulfillment of these promises. The Assyrian threats in 734-32, 728, and 724-21 B.C.E. had finally destroyed Samaria and northern Israel. Ahaz is on the throne. This section assures the continuation of the Davidic dynasty beyond the Assyrian crisis. This was later fulfilled: Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah, and others were yet to occupy the throne” (Watts, 212).
So we should consider this passage as having valid application both in Israel’s near-term history and as a messianic prophecy.
ISAIAH 11:1. A SHOOT SHALL COME OUT OF THE STOCK OF JESSE
1A shoot (Hebrew: hoter) will come out of the stock of Jesse,
and a branch out of his roots will bear fruit.
“The ‘shoot’ (hoter) is a symbol of hope and a clear contrast to the hopelessness of Ahaz’s policies, which nearly destroyed the nation and its Davidic line of rulers (the stump)” (Smith, 271).
This verse brings to mind Isaiah’s earlier promise,
“In that day, Yahweh’s branch will be beautiful and glorious,
and the fruit of the land will be the beauty and glory
of the survivors of Israel” (4:2).
Jesse, of course, was David’s father (1 Samuel 16). Jesse was a simple farmer and sheep owner who is remembered today for one thing—that he was the father of the great King David. Jesse’s son became king, not because of Jesse’s strength or brilliance, but by the grace of God.
It bears remembering here that the prophet Samuel told Jesse that God had decided to make one of his sons king, and asked Jesse to bring his sons so that Samuel could see which one the Lord had chosen. Jesse brought them one by one—one fine specimen after another—but the Lord rejected each in turn, saying,
“Don’t look on his face, or on the height of his stature;
because I have rejected him:
for I see not as man sees;
for man looks at the outward appearance,
but Yahweh looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Finally, Samuel had to ask Jesse, “Are all your children here (1 Samuel 16:11), and Jesse scratched his head and remembered that his youngest (and least likely) son was out in the fields tending the sheep. Samuel told Jesse to bring this youngest son to him, and it was this youngest son—this lease likely son—whom God chose to be king.
To summarize, God chose to raise up as king the least likely son of an unlikely father. That way, when David became great, people couldn’t say, “He comes from good stock!”—or “He has good genes.” They would have to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in this enterprise.
Now, following in that tradition, Isaiah doesn’t proclaim that the glories of King David’s mighty kingdom will be reestablished. In fact, he doesn’t mention David at all. Instead, he goes back one generation to the simple farmer, Jesse, and says that a shoot (a form of life so modest that it is likely to escape notice) will come out of the stump (an unattractive form that appears to be devoid of life) of Jesse (a man so modest that we hardly know him). It is from these modest beginnings that God will bring life to Israel once more.
But any good Jew reading Isaiah’s words would know who Jesse was—would know that Jesse was David’s father—would remember the covenant that Yahweh established with David (2 Samuel 23:5; 1 Chronicles 17:11)—and would know that Yahweh was being faithful to that covenant by bringing life out of the stump of Jesse.
When Yahweh struck down Assyria in 609 B.C., that was the end of Assyria. No green shoot emerged from Assyria’s stump. That will not be the case with Israel (Oswalt, 278).
ISAIAH 11:2-3a. THE SPIRIT OF YAHWEH WILL REST ON HIM
2The Spirit of Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh – Yahweh) will rest on him:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh.
3a His delight will be in the fear of Yahweh.
“The Spirit of Yahweh (yhwh) will rest on him” (v. 2a). The shoot that comes out of the root of Jesse will not be dependent on his own strength and wisdom, because the spirit of the Lord will rest on him. He will be empowered to be and to do more than could be expected of a mere mortal. He will be Yahweh-powered.
“the spirit of wisdom and understanding” (v. 2b). Unlike Solomon, who was celebrated for his wisdom in his younger years (1 Kings 3, 10), but who fell into error as he grew older (1 Kings 11), the spirit of wisdom shall rest on the shoot of Jesse.
Unlike the king of Assyria, who said, “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I have understanding” (10:13), the shoot of Jesse will find his strength, wisdom, and understanding through the spirit of the Lord.
This spirit of wisdom and understanding will enable the shoot of Jesse to deal effectively with the practical issues of ruling—to solve the knotty problems that come with power.
“the spirit of counsel and might” (v. 2c). This brings to mind Isaiah’s earlier warning to the far countries, “Take counsel together, and it will be brought to nothing” (8:10). It also brings to mind Isaiah’s earlier promise, “For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
The wise actions of this shoot of Jesse will stand “in contrast to Ahaz (2 Chr 28; Isa 7:1-13) and the Assyrian king (10:5-14), who made arrogant and unwise plans with the main purpose of surviving militarily rather than honoring God by trusting in his power” (Smith, 272).
“the spirit of knowledge” (v. 2d). Earlier, the prophet warned that the people would “go into exile without knowledge” (5:13). This lack of knowledge is not a deficiency of facts but of faith. It is not rudimentary information that these people lack, but knowledge of the Lord. This will be corrected when the shoot comes out of the stump of Jesse. That shoot will be blessed with “the spirit of knowledge”—not mere facts, but knowledge of Yahweh.
“and the fear of Yahweh” (v. 2e). This brings to mind Yahweh’s counsel:
“My people who dwell in Zion,
don’t be afraid of the Assyrian,
though he strike you with the rod,
and lift up his staff against you, as Egypt did.
For yet a very little while,
and the indignation against you will be accomplished,
and my anger will be directed to his destruction” (10:24-25).
So the Israelites should not fear Assyria, but should instead fear the Lord. However, this is a different kind of fear. “Fear of the Lord” suggests holy awe in the presence of the Almighty—the one who created the heavens and the earth—the one who gives life—the one who determines whether or not we will draw our next breath. While it is true that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), it is nevertheless appropriate to stand in awe in the presence of awesome power.
“His delight will be in the fear of Yahweh” (v. 3a). Those who fear the Lord do so out of an understanding of the Lord’s holiness and power. They seek to obey the Lord and to align themselves with the Lord. Living in Lord’s presence, they need fear no one except the Lord. Living in the Lord’s presence, they are so solidly rooted that they find delight in their God-given rootedness.
We all know people who fit this description—people whose rock-solid faith sees them through thick and thin—people who fear “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing,” because they are convinced that nothing “will be able to separate (them) from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus (their) Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). We admire them and envy their God-given strength.
ISAIAH 11:3b-5: WITH RIGHTEOUSNESS HE WILL JUDGE THE POOR
3b He will not judge by the sight of his eyes,
neither decide by the hearing of his ears;
4but with righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the humble of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5Righteousness will be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his waist.
“He will not judge by the sight of his eyes, neither decide by the hearing of his ears”
(v. 3b). We typically judge based on what our eyes see or our ears hear. We seek evidence that can be verified and scientific experiments that can be replicated. This scientific approach is quite powerful, and has led to enormous advances in every field that is touched by science or technology. It has not, however, done much to change human hearts. It has simply placed great power for good in the hands of good people and great power for treachery in the hands of bad people.
And we must acknowledge a tentative quality—an inexactness—to our scientific observations (what eyes see and ears hear). The science that I learned as a teenager is now hopelessly out of date, and we can expect that the science that our children are learning today will be hopelessly out of date within a decade or two. While it is true that we are moving in the direction of increased understanding, it is also true that the truth that eludes us remains nearly infinite.
We must also acknowledge a tentative quality—an inexactness—in our judicial processes—processes that depend on evidence (what eyes see and ears hear). Bright people spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to convict those who are guilty and to exonerate those who are innocent. We demand that these bright people observe rules of evidence (what eyes see and ears hear) to insure that they reach a just verdict. However, there is no such thing as “beyond the shadow of a doubt” in such proceedings. Those who can afford good lawyers are more likely to avoid conviction than those who can’t—irrespective of guilt or innocence. Much depends on which judge oversees the case. Even when convictions are just, there is great disparity in sentences.
But the shoot that grows out of the stump of Jesse will not be bound by these limitations—by rules of evidence or recollections of witnesses or lab analysis results—by what eyes see and ears hear. He will see our hearts and know our innermost thoughts. His judgments will be sure. A glib tongue will not sway him. Nobody will be unjustly exonerated because of a legal technicality, and nobody will be unjustly condemned.
“but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the humble of the earth” (v. 4a). The rich and powerful can depend on lawyers and politicians to protect them, but the poor and meek are dependent on an impartial judicial system and a ruler committed to ruling justly. At best, systems and rulers are imperfect, and at worst they are absolutely corrupt. Even good rulers are inclined to devise systems to protect their own power, to reward their friends, and to punish their enemies. Bad rulers run roughshod over everyone—especially the poor and meek.
But Yahweh has a special place in his heart for those in need. He requires rulers to “judge the people with righteous judgment” and not to distort justice, show partiality, or accept bribes (Deuteronomy 16:18-19; Psalm 83:3; Jeremiah 22:3). He promises to execute justice for widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 10:18) and to punish those who abuse widows or orphans (Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 27:19). Jewish law contains a number of provisions to protect those in need (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:17-21; 25:5-8). Humanly speaking, those provisions are honored imperfectly if at all—but the shoot that grows out of the stump of Jesse will judge the poor and meek righteously and with equity.
“He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked” (v. 4b). These parallel phrases, typical of Hebrew poetry, express in two different ways a single reality—that the shoot that emerges from the stump of Jesse will enforce royal decrees that will bring an end to wickedness.
“Righteousness will be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his waist”
(v. 5). Righteousness and faithfulness are two of the chief characteristics of Yahweh—and are qualities that Yahweh prizes in people. Righteousness and faithfulness are closely related. We can depend on a righteous person to do the right thing—and on a faithful person to act dependably to do the right thing.
A belt appears to be a minor piece of clothing. We speak of belts as accessories, a term that minimizes their importance. However, in our day a belt holds up one’s pants—hardly unimportant. In that day, it held the tunic closed—again, hardly unimportant. A belt was also where a man would keep his money and hang his sword—his money and his sword being symbols of his power. The shoot of Jesse will find its power in righteousness and faithfulness.
ISAIAH 11:6-9. THE WOLF WILL LIVE WITH THE LAMB
6The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them.
7The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young ones will lie down together.
The lion will eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child will play near a cobra’s hole,
and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
9They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh,
as the waters cover the sea.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together” (v. 6a). These are three unlikely pairings: The wolf and the lamb (a young sheep); the leopard and the kid (a young goat); the lion and the fatling (the calf of a cow or an ox). In our experience, a wolf that lies down with a lamb usually has the lamb inside the wolf rather than beside it. But Isaiah pictures a peaceable kingdom where predators will cease their predation and their prey will lose their fear.
If we interpret this image literally, God will have to modify the digestive systems of predators, which are God-designed to process flesh and bone rather than vegetation—and verse 7 suggests that that might be the intent here. However, it is also possible that the poet, Isaiah, is using these animals in a poetic way, as symbols of natural enemies that represent the hostilities that exist among people—that he is not saying that God will reconfigure all of nature so that no animal feeds on another—that he, instead, intends us to picture a world where people live at peace with each other—a world where sin no longer creates hostilities that separate one person or tribe or nation from another—a world where people are able to acknowledge one another as friends, neighbors, brothers, and sisters—a world where there is no longer any such thing as enemies or enmities.
“and a little child shall lead them” (v. 6b). In Vietnam, I would often see a child riding atop a huge water buffalo, guiding the animal as it pulled a plow or performed some other task. It was fascinating to watch them, because the child would appear to be so small and young, while the water buffalo would stand 5-6 feet (1.5 – 1.8 m.) tall and weigh well in excess of a thousand pounds (450 kg.). It was hard to imagine how the child could even mount the animal, much less control it. The picture was further enhanced by the water buffalo’s massive horns, capable of killing a person with a single thrust.
From my vantage point, it didn’t appear that the child had to exert much effort to guide the animal. The child and the animal were a team, accustomed to working together—with the child clearly in charge. That pastoral scene stood in vivid contrast to the war and instruments of war that more commonly occupied my field of vision. It made me long for a world where everyone would enjoy the kind of harmony exhibited by the child and the water buffalo.
The prophet assures us that it will be so. He earlier used this image of a child when said that a virgin “will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). He also said:
“For to us a child is born.
To us a son is given;
and the government will be on his shoulders.
His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6)
Now he says, “and a little child will lead them” (v. 6). It is obvious, then, that just as God chose to work through the youngest and least likely son (David) of an unlikely farmer (Jesse), now he is choosing to work through a child. It is an unlikely choice—until we stop to consider it. By working through a child, Yahweh demonstrates that it is his power that counts. Blessed by the spirit of the Lord (v. 2), this child will accomplish what strong, mature men only dream of accomplishing.
“The cow and the bear will graze. Their young ones will lie down together. The lion shall eat straw like the ox” (v. 7). This verse adds two more unlikely pairs, cow/bear and lion/ox—but the emphasis is different. The bear will graze (eat grass) like a cow, and the lion will eat straw like an ox.
“The nursing child will play near a cobra’s hole, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den” (v. 8). Humans have seen the serpent as an enemy from the beginning. A serpent contributed to the downfall of Adam and Eve that led to their expulsion from the garden (Genesis 3). When the shoot of Jesse establishes the peaceable kingdom, however, even this enmity will be set aside. The curse of Genesis 3:14-15 will be reversed. Neither the asp nor the adder, both poisonous snakes, will pose a threat to humans—even to small children.
As in verses 6-7, it is possible that Isaiah intends us to interpret what he says literally—that poisonous serpents will no longer pose a threat to humans. It is also possible that he is using poetic license to create a picture of a peaceable kingdom where people will live together in harmony. A third possibility is that both are true—that no animal or human will pose a threat to any other animal or human.
Seitz suggests that “the predator animals are symbols of nations in their devouring capacities. We heard of Assyria that ‘their roaring is like a lion…. (5:29); the Syrians on the east and Philistia on the west ‘devoured Israel with open mouth’ (9:12)…. The chief burden of (this) section is that hostility directed at Israel will cease. The hostile powers will be neutralized, such that a little child can lead them” (Seitz, 106-107).
“They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain“ (v. 9a). This is another way of expressing the reality of the peaceable kingdom.
Two mountains bear the designation “my holy mountain” in the Old Testament. The first is Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, (Exodus 3:1; 4:27; 18:5; Numbers 10:33; 1 Kings 19:8). The second is Mount Zion, the location of Jerusalem and the temple (Isaiah 2:3). Because of the reference to Zion in Isaiah 2:3, we can assume that Isaiah has Mount Zion in mind here—but it is important to remember that this is poetry. “My holy mountain” can thus be a symbol for any place where Yahweh is present —and is intended to apply to “all nations, including even the dreaded Assyrians” (Bartelt, 323).
“for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh, as the waters cover the
sea” (v. 9b). The reason that there will not be hurt or destruction (v. 9a) is that the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. Neither human diplomacy nor force of arms will achieve this peace. Both the knowledge of the Lord and the peace that it establishes will be gifts of God.
ISAIAH 11:10. IN THAT DAY
10 It will happen in that day that the nations (Hebrew: goyim) will seek the root of Jesse, who stands as a banner of the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious (Hebrew: kabod).
“It will happen in that day that the nations (goyim) will seek the root of Jesse, who stands as a banner of the peoples“ (v. 10a). Earlier, Isaiah spoke of the Lord angrily raising “a signal for a nation far away” to execute his judgment (5:26). Now the root of Jesse will help to restore “the remnant of Yahweh’s people to its land…, standing as a banner to summon the nations to help their victims go home” (Goldingay, 85; see also 11:12-13).
“the nations (goyim) shall inquire of him” (v. 10b). The goyim are Gentiles. Earlier, Isaiah prophesied that “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways” (2:3). Now he returns to that theme once again.
“and his dwelling shall be glorious” (kabod) (v. 10c). The Old Testament has much to say about God’s glory—his kabod. The kabod of the Lord (his magnificence) was like a devouring fire on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:17). Moses asked to see God’s kabod, but God denied his request because “man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The kabod of the Lord filled the tabernacle, but Moses was not permitted to see it (Exodus 40:34-35). The kabod of the Lord also filled the temple, making it impossible for the priests to do their work (1 Kings 8:10-11). Now we learn that the shoot of Jesse will be kabod.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bartelt, Andrew H., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39),The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Smith, Gary V., The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-18, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan