First, by way of structural background, within our OT we have these hopes being expressed by the various biblical authors, promises made by God himself for the salvation of humanity which had separated itself from God in “the Fall” of Ge 3. As such, within the OT we have numerous mentions of seven different primary expectations that were part of the plan of God’s coming kingdom and reign: the new Exodus, the new covenant, the Davidic kingship, the resurrection of the dead, the hope of the renewal and restoration of all Creation, the coming of YHWH to Zion and the inclusion of the nations.
These wonderful and various promises cascade through the many oracles (divine revelations / promises) of the prophets. We read about them all through the Psalms. In short, we see them all through the OT (the time of promise) just as we see all of them coming to fulfillment in the NT (the time of fulfillment). And, as we move through the OT, we see that eventually all of the promises we read about in the OT are gathered together into one of two major streams of expectation. In other words, within all of these different expectations in our Hebrew Bible (our OT) there were two key, dominant, major streams of expectation, streams into which all of the various rivulets of all of the other expectations run. All of these rivulets (prophetic promises) converged and flowed into one or the other of these two key streams, that of the Davidic Messiah and that of the coming of YHWH to Zion (God himself coming to be with his people).
Next, and while all of these expectations within the OT story were important, some of them were more important than others. One of them, in fact, constituted the ultimate expectation of the OT story – the coming of YHWH to Zion. In text after text in the OT the one stream of expectation that is always primary is that of the coming of YHWH to Zion.
Therefore, in summary, the people of Israel understood:
1. The messianic (human) king would come (the promise of “the human” Davidic Messiah) and
2. YHWH (God) himself would come (the promise of the coming of “the divine” YHWH to Zion).
Thus, the people of Israel were waiting for both a human Davidic king and for their own divine God YHWH to come, however that was going to work itself out in God’s plan of salvation. And, of the two expectations, to the people of Israel the central, more important expectation by far was the coming of YHWH to Zion.
Additionally and importantly, these two streams of expectation were, of course, connected but they were also separate and distinct from one another in ancient Jewish thought. Ancient Israelites did not confuse or conflate these two streams of expectation. They were separate and distinct!!! The ancient Israelites kept them separate because they viewed them as being distinctly different and separate streams of expectation! One was human and the other was divine so there was no way that these two streams could be anything but different. Little did they know about how God would one day fulfill both streams ineffably magnificently in the Incarnation.
Unfortunately, many people get these two different streams of expectation confused and therefore miss the real excitement and grandeur of the story being told in Hebrew scriptures. Some mistakenly think that the Messiah was at the heart of everything. Sure, it’s very true that the Messiah was an important hope in the OT but the messianic hope ALWAYS took second place to the central hope – the coming of YHWH to Zion. We see that in text after text in the OT – and in the NT as well for that matter.
Secondly, by way of structure, we also have these various “figures” that appear in OT history who were integral to the whole of the OT story of salvation history. Initially, all of these figures were distinct from one another in history but, as the OT progressed, some of these figures began to merge with others, and, in the end – with the sole exception of the fulfillment-time Elijah which was fulfilled by John the Baptist – eventually all other hopes and promises of the OT were fulfilled by none other than that baby in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth, God come to us in the flesh, God incarnate, Jesus, both fully human and fully divine, the Incarnation. That’s the season of the Church in which we now find ourselves.
So as we read our OT alongside these two key streams of expectation we will also see other figures and mysteries unfold, people and things who are lesser than the Messiah figure but yet who are still expected as a part of this fulfillment time. For example, we will learn about:
1. the ultimate Davidic king figure, the Messiah of the four messianic (royal) oracles of Is as found in Is 9, 11, 16 and 32.
2. the servant figure of the four servant songs of Is 42, 49, 50 and 53.
3. the Son of Man figure of Dn 7, Ek 2, 17, & Enoch.
4. the prophet-like-Moses figure of Dt 18 15
5. the priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek of Ps 110 1-4, Ge 14 17-20 and [He 7] 6. the messenger figure (fulfillment-time Elijah) of Ma 3 and 4 (the eschatological Elijah) as it echoes Is 40 3.
Next, just as the OT story leads into the NT story, so also this talk about streams of expectation and OT figures leads into the gospel message of the NT. We actually have the word gospel itself being first used in Is 40 9.
τό εαγγέλιov, euaggelion translated as gospel meaning, among other things, good news
From this we can better understand that the key to understanding the gospel narrative, the gospel story of our NT, is to understand that this gospel story is beginning in the middle of another story, the story of Israel, the story we call the story behind the Story – the OT biblical story which I discuss at length in what I call “the story behind the Story” class. Understanding this story behind the Story will open up the meaning of the gospel narratives more than you can imagine. The more one understands the story behind the Story of our OT, the more the NT will open up in ways you never thought even possible. But that’s just one of the wonderful characteristics of God’s Scripture. Simply put, one cannot fully understand the true central story of the NT unless they know the story behind the Story.
This next brings us to Isaiah and the book by his name in our OT. Isaiah in Christian tradition is particularly important because the book is quoted, or alluded to in the NT far more often than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures (with the, possible exception of Psalms). The book was so highly esteemed by the church fathers that, by the 4th century, the Christian church father and translator Jerome could write, “He [Isaiah] should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come”.
Indeed, the Church fathers even came to refer to Isaiah as their “fifth gospel” because it contained so many prophecies of Christ, because it contained so much about Christ – including talk about the Virgin birth, about the Incarnation, the season of the Church year in which we currently find ourselves. In fact, we see “gospel” all through the book of Is (as well as law).
Scholars agree that there is a wonderful structure to Is in its final redacted form. Is is divided into two halves:
Is 1-39 (First Isaiah) focuses on the coming judgment to come, the coming Exile, given to an Israel. Israel was called upon to turn back to God but had refused. First Isaiah is filled with warnings of exile if the people did not turn back to God. Mixed in with these warnings were also wonderful prophecies of salvation and deliverance after the Exile which was going to happen through this new Exodus.
Is 1-39 is further dominated by 4 messianic oracles (royal oracles) in 9, 11, 16 and 32. These are famous passages looking forward to the coming of the ultimate Davidic king figure (Hence, they are also called royal oracles.). Messianic oracles are about the Davidic king, the Davidic covenant and the ultimate Davidic king, the Messiah. They tell us that the Davidic covenant would be fulfilled through the eternal reign of a coming (human) Messiah, however God would work that out.
Is 40-66 (Second Isaiah) is helpfully broken into two parts.
Isaiah 40-55 has no warnings of Exile because here the people are envisioned as being in Exile already. The judgment has already happened. This portion of Is presupposes an Israelite audience living in Babylon toward the end of the Exile 597-538. The whole of this portion of Is focuses on oracles of renewal, restoration, the new Exodus, the coming of the kingdom and reign of God. It includes this promise of salvation to Israel in the time of Exile.
Isaiah 56-66 envisions the people as being back in the land. And when the new Exodus had not yet come, it envisions this time of puzzling delay. So Third Isaiah is marked by this promise of salvation to Israel in this time of puzzling delay. Even though the people had physically returned from Exile, because the new Exodus had not yet happened, all Israel believed they were still in Exile. All of the last books of the OT talk about Israel as still in Exile.
While there are no messianic oracles in Second Isaiah, still Second Isaiah is dominated by 4 servant songs (poems) in 42, 49, 50 and 53 [Is 52 13 – 53 12]. The servant songs have a wonderful united structure in which each song provides new information about this servant figure. The servant is almost unhearable and just slightly there in the first song but it becomes a little more audible as each song proceeds. Each song builds on the previous song so by the fourth and climactic servant song, Is 53, it becomes a crescendo. As such, Is 53 is known as the famous climaxing suffering servant song. Is 53 is all about the sufferings of this servant.
This second messianic oracle of ideal kingship here in Is 11 prophesied about a time when the people were envisioned as already being in Exile and about a time when the Davidic king was no more. Not only were the people in Exile and no longer in their “promised land”, but God’s promise of an everlasting Davidic king seemed to have gone by the wayside. The words of this messianic oracle were clearly messianic and eschatological.
Is 11 1 a little sprig (shoot) will spring from the stump of Jesse, a branch from (out of) his roots will bear fruit.
Here the prophet described the ideal ruler, the ideal Davidic king, who would come in the future as a green shoot springing from the dead stump (David’s royal line) of Jesse (David’s father). The reign of this monarch would be experienced as paradise regained. Therefore, we see the messianic aspect of hope. The Davidic covenant would be fulfilled through the eternal reign of a coming Messiah!
So what’s going on in our OT lectionary reading for today?
This oracle envisioned the time to come – a time threatened and foretold by the prophets – that the people of Israel would be cut off from God and exiled from the promised land. If Israel did not turn to God alone (demonstrating exclusive devotion to God according to Ex 20 3) and away from this sort of allegiance to God and other gods at the same time, the prophets told them that the Davidic kingship and Israel would be cut off and exiled. The prophet Isaiah was looking ahead, already having envisioned the destruction and Exile. The destruction and Exile were assumed as in place as he envisioned what was to happen in the future. That’s how prophecy works.
shoot in the text refers to new life coming from this seemingly dead stump. Shoot refers to the Davidic line, the Davidic kingship. Jesse was the father of David and therefore the ancestor of all the kings of Judah. Thus when you talk about David’s father Jesse as a stump, it’s a poetic way of talking about the Davidic line, the Davidic kingship, and the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7). So this v spoke to the emergence of a new descendant of the Davidic line. God had not failed in his promises. There would come an heir to the Davidic throne.
Remember that when God righteously brought the Exile on Israel because they had turned from God, that also seemed to be problematic theologically speaking because it seemed that God had broken all of the unconditional promises God had made to the people of Israel. There was the unconditional promise to David that God would not alter the utterance of my lips as God had said in Ps 89.
34 I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. 35 Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness– and I will not lie to David– 36 that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun; 37 it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.” Selah
That is, God had said that David’s throne was to last forever. David’s throne was to be an everlasting Davidic throne (2 Sam 7 16). But now that Davidic kingship had been cut off. The people had been forcibly removed from the promised land; they were in Babylon Exile – which is why it was here described as a stump.
tree imagery within ancient Judaism
All through these passages about the Davidic kingship in the prophets and the Psalms and so on, the Davidic kingship was very often depicted as a tree. It was understood that the Davidic kingship was to be God’s rule over his people Israel and all the nations in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. In other words, just as birds gathered under the shade of a tree and dwelled in its branches, all nations were to dwell in the shade of the Davidic kingship. branch imagery is also used in Jm 25 3; 33 15 and Zc 3 8; 6 12 in order to refer to the ideal king of the future.
But because Israel turned from God, this tree was cut off during the destruction and Exile leaving a mere stump. It’s the same as we see in Ps 89. The Davidic line had been cut off in the Exile, the great act of judgment against Israel, leaving a mere, dead, lifeless stump. The children of the Davidic king Jehoiachin had been put to death before him, and then his eyes had been put out. He was taken to Babylon in chains. That line of kings was cut down and cut off shortly after this time. The last king died in exile. All that was left now was just a dead stump.
stump is the best translation here of the Hebrew. The idea here is that the Davidic kingship was cut off and the prophets describe it now as a stump. The tree was dead and gone. There was nothing but a stump that remained. The Davidic kingship was no more; it had been destroyed and hence it was called the stump of Jesse. There was now just one rinky-dink Davidic ruler recognized by both the Babylonians and Israelites as the authentic biblical ruler but he was in chains. So the Davidic kingship appeared to be cut off and done with. This appeared to be the tragic end of everything.
The stump here in v 1 also recalls the threat of the frightening prophecy and judgment to come that we know also from the prophet Amos. The Davidic kingship would become a mere stump if you were to have the promise of Amos come true which was destruction and exile. Amos prophesied complete, utter, total and everlasting destruction for the nation of Israel and, to further drive home his point, he did so using a special poetic meter used for funeral lamentations. This fits perfectly with this whole biblical theology we’ve been tracing in which since humanity draws its life from God, then, if Israel turned from God that meant there can be nothing but death and destruction.
Amos not only preached this message of destruction but also a promise of salvation for the remnant. So v 1 connects up with Amos. This stump of Jesse is saying there was going to come a time, just as with Amos, in which you would have an exile which was the destruction of the Davidic kingdom, and yet there was this promise of salvation, just as in Amos, that a little sprig of life was going to spring forth from this stump of Jesse and a little branch from his roots will bear fruit.
As an ongoing part of God’s progressive revelation, that which was new in Is 9 6 (“a” child in the first messianic oracle) is also new here in Is 11 1 (“a” shoot).
That brings us to …
“a” shoot – singular – the ultimate Davidic king
Notice now, however, this promise of God. Through the power and working of God his promise to David of this eternal Davidic kingship would not be broken. The stump of Jesse was the line of David now cut off. Isaiah was looking ahead, envisioning the Exile to come when the Davidic kingship would be nothing but a stump. But notice that from “a” stump that “a” little sprig would spring and would bear fruit. Those were all in the singular. That is, the Davidic kingship cut off in the Exile would be restored; God would give new life. There would be a restoration of the Davidic kingship. That is, God’s promise of the Davidic covenant was still sure and certain.
Previous prophets had talked about an everlasting Davidic throne, presumably by a series of (human) Davidic rulers. Therefore, v 1 represents a development (progressive revelation) with the singular use of “a” when referring to both “a” stump and “a” shoot. Isaiah, for the first time, spoke not of a Davidic throne but of “a” Davidic shoot, of one ultimate Davidic king, the king of kings who would fulfill this covenant and rule over Israel! With this instance of progressive revelation Isaiah had narrowed down the promise and made it more explicit. Earlier we had a long focus on this Davidic kingship but now Isaiah had made the covenant more specific. The previous prophets spoke of an everlasting Davidic throne and now Isaiah spoke of one, everlasting, ultimate Davidic king.
Hence, this small branch was going to be this ultimate Davidic king figure who unlike and in contrast to the unfaithful and wicked kings of the Davidic dynasty – like Ahaz who was depicted so scathingly by Isaiah in this section of the book. This ultimate Davidic king would be perfectly faithful and righteous. It was this messianic expectation.
The branch which seemed to come out of a dead stump was Jesus Christ who came from the line of David. The coming of Jesus was always announced as the coming of the king and the coming of the kingdom. He was a different kind of king than they were expecting but he was still the messianic king.
John the Baptist told us the ‘kingdom of God is near.’ When Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the people shouted, “Hosannah. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. Hosannah to the king.” Hosannah to the son of David. All of those words suggest that Jesus was that promised king who grew from the seemingly dead stump Isaiah talked about in Is 11.
Next, in vv 2-5 we see this singular “he” and “him” language. Notice that Isaiah was doing something new here in his book. So far we’ve seen this promise of this Davidic kingship which is, of course, this promise of an everlasting Davidic throne which was envisioned as a series of Davidic kings, one after the other sitting on the Davidic throne – and so the throne was envisioned as everlasting in that sense, one human Davidic king after another.
But Isaiah is here talking about one individual ultimate Davidic king!!! This is new in Is and in the whole of the Bible. This is the first time this occurs in the Bible. Previous prophets spoke of an everlasting Davidic throne but here in this oracle and in succeeding oracles it’s going to talk about one, ultimate Davidic king. Isaiah was narrowing down the original promise. This was a further explanation of the original promise. Progressive revelation. It was not just going to be an everlasting Davidic throne. It was going to be one ultimate Davidic king – one figure who was going to fulfill the promise of an everlasting Davidic kingship himself by ruling and reigning on David’s throne. In this promise of the restoration of the Davidic kingship it would be something greater than they ever had in the original Davidic kingship, this ultimate Davidic king figure, this one king who will rule and reign on David’s throne, the ultimate Davidic king, the messianic king.
This is the first time chronologically that we have this ultimate Davidic king, this one, everlasting Davidic king, this messianic promise.
First, the prophets spoke of an everlasting Davidic throne, and now Isaiah for the first time said this promise of the everlasting Davidic throne would be fulfilled through ONE everlasting Davidic king. So there was this development. Progressive revelation.
Then, still later, other prophets would then follow in the stead of Isaiah and give us more information about this ultimate Davidic king but here is the first time we see it. It’s not just an everlasting throne anymore but it’s one, everlasting Davidic king, the Messiah, who would fulfill the promise of the Davidic kingship and of the Davidic covenant. That was the promise of the Davidic covenant, an everlasting Davidic throne. Here was this ultimate Davidic king who would fulfill it all.
The technical term theologians use for this concept of one, ultimate Davidic king is Messiah. Messiah is a title. It’s only used twice in the Bible at Jn 1 41 and 4 25, but the concept is everywhere in the Bible including here. This term is not used in this or the other royal oracles. Messiah means (God’s) anointed one (in the context here it means God’s anointed Davidic king) (Mashiach / Mashiah – singular) who is going to rule and reign forever on David’s throne. Notice that this was no longer just a promise of just a series of kings or of an everlasting throne, such as we had in 2 Sam 7, but it was the promise of one, ultimate Davidic king who would reign on David’s throne forever. The Messiah would be the ultimate Davidic king who was going to fulfill this promise of the Davidic covenant of an everlasting Davidic kingdom.
Therefore, Is 11 is sometimes called Isaiah’s second messianic oracle because the ultimate Davidic king would fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant of an everlasting Davidic kingship. It was no longer just an everlasting Davidic throne but it was one, ultimate Davidic king.
Notice what any Israelite leader would have thought of in hearing these verses. How could you have one Davidic king who would reign forever? Good question, but that’s what the text was saying. Everyone knew that people only lived so long but here they were being told this Messiah would live forever. How could that be, they wondered.