Isaiah is not so much the herald of unlikely beginnings as he is the prophet of unpromising re-starts.
His signature is not the tale of origins, but rather the anticipation of dead things springing quietly to life. In chapter 11 of the book that bears Isaiah’s name, the prophet assumes the destruction of the Davidic monarchy. Having done so, this compelling oracle goes back to Jesse, the father of David, the shepherdly antecedent to kings and kingdoms. It is as though a fresh start requires a radical retreat to the moment before the long trajectory of Israelite disappointment in its kings had set off upon its tortuous arc.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1–5 ESV)
This unnamed scion of the house of Jesse emerges from a dead tree, cut down to stump and left to rot amid the leveled forest of kingdoms that did not pan out.
His intimacy with YHWH is breathtaking. In this closest of relationships lies his capacity. Indeed, he is saturated with YHWH’s enabling Spirit, which rests upon him in the way a dense fog takes virtual possession of the valley upon which it descends. In consequence, this new David—if that is how we are to understand this Jesse’s son—is not hobbled by Israel’s eventual blindness and deafness. He sees and listens through appearances, through posturing, through the national hypocrisies which make claims to rightness and inevitability that fool all but the most perceptive watcher.
As a result, justice rather than sham manipulations of the powerless by the powerful takes its life-generating place at the core of the nation’s shared life.
As so often in this long book, we are moved to deep yearning by such lines. And then left to ask in something close to interpretive exasperation …
But who is this … ?