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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

It is foolishness to find our moment too easily in Scripture, as though the great matters that weighed upon prophets’ hearts melt away to reveal only the towering mountain that is us. It is another kind of folly to ignore patterns of divine and human conduct that might instruct us, nudge us from our ignorance onto a slight rise from which one can see more clearly.

In an era different from our own, an exasperated YHWH released his people to their own devices. One effect was that capable people withdrew from the pains of leadership. Only children stepped up.

For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable.

For a man will take hold of his brother in the house of his father, saying: ‘You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule’; in that day he will speak out, saying: ‘I will not be a healer; in my house there is neither bread nor cloak; you shall not make me leader of the people.

For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.

Isaiah 3:1-8 ESV

If we are too often led by children in the grown-up bodies of women and men—and we are—then we ought to ask about causes. Where are the adults? Where are the discerning, the skilled? Where are the clear-eyed, the truth-stewarding, the level heads who know whispered conspiracy from fact and how to call a spade a spade? Where are those with the cojones properly to despise a fool in the good old way because fools spit on things that have taken generations to nourish?

They are on their couches.

Leadership is hard and largely uncompensated. One leads for others, largely at the cost of oneself. This is simply how things are. There’s no crying in leadership.

When a community or a nation is no longer inspired by large ambitions, those who should lead do not. We abdicate.

Children take over. We elect them, we anoint them, we hand precious things over to them.

We ought perhaps to ask whether YHWH’s hand—now, as then—has turned against us, allowed us our ease, subjected us to infants and imbeciles.

Then we ought to repair the great breach that has opened up, or at least summon the courage to make a beginning.

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There is drama enough in YHWH’s role as Israel’s father, sufficient for the angst that is seen both in children and in their father when passages like Isaiah’s sixty-second chapter come under our study.

Indeed, the book’s earliest translator has been joined by commentators ever since in airbrushing or arm-twisting divine pathos out of this passage and its similars in favor of an impassive deity who metes out justice serenely, untroubled. But this is not Isaiah’s YHWH, if one may use the possessive in that way.

The chapter is anguished almost to the point of over-wrought. An awful something hangs in the air. It is not the moment for this prophet’s customary and ironic light brush.

The chapter’s beginning is blood-spattered. YHWH, the warrior, strides into view with the stains of battle defiling his robes. To modern sensibilities, the scene does not make for pleasant reading and we ought not too quickly suppose that ancient preferences were very different. YHWH was found no one to join him in his execution of justice. The reiterated claims to that effect make this text the closest exposition of divine loneliness that we find in this book and perhaps in the Hebrew Bible itself.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.  I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.

Isaiah 63:3-6 ESV, emphasis added

But the divine suffering—again, I am aware that I am following Isaiah into language to which most theologizing is unreceptive—does not end with the solitude of heroic battle. It moves forward into the almost deranged disillusionment of a father to which the children have proven traitorous.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.’ And he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

Isaiah 63:8-10 ESV

The chapter pivots immediately after this extract, no longer profiling a jilted father but occupying itself with the children’s accusation against a now passive father.

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.  For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

 O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Your holy people held possession for a little while; our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.

 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name.

Isaiah 63:15-19 ESV

Saccharine emotivity about ‘life with God’ knows nothing of such family drama and withers when brought near to its heat. Or should do.

A Christian reader like this one finds that it is not his compeers among followers of Jesus who wrestle best with such texts, but rather Jewish interpreters whose long journey with YHWH carves out a space for, may one say it, Shoah.

Estrangement between a divine father and the human children whom he longs to gather happily around the family hearth finds too large a space in the Bible’s witness to be easily dismissed. Creation itself aches in its light. We are rightly undone.

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We long for permanence.

Much of humanity does or has done, anyway. It may be that the tyranny of the immediate has dulled this appetite in us moderns. We cremate instead of bury. We watch our population rates decline. We think only a little about the past and perhaps even less about the future.

If this is a fair description, then we have become impoverished. Now and here are important, but so is where we can from. So is where we’re going. So is that other day, the one we will not, cannot see.

The rambunctious hilarity of restored Israel’s joy, as it is splashed across the canvas of Isaiah 61 at any rate, spares a thought for the future. For longevity. For the stubborn lingering of fame. For offspring.

The sight is quite beautiful, coming as it does in this text from YHWH’s unseen mouth and developed in two small, lyrical movements.

First, this:

Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.

Isaiah 61:9 ESV

The biblical tradition is jealous for longevity, even when it lacks the language for ‘life after death’, to which religious readers naturally resort. If something is real, one holds it heavy in the hand, where it makes a little dent in soft flesh. It lasts. Endures. Does not ‘pass away’.

So with blessing, so with people who have known blessing. One expects the thing to last a good while, even forever. One anticipates that the melody will persist through multiple stanzas, that the variations will have their way with the theme, but that the theme will remain recognizable in each of them.

YHWH’s declaration then, if it is strange, is strange only in its extremity. Otherwise it maps naturally over the longing of Israel’s mothers and fathers. Yet it expands, noisily it expands. It moves beyond permanence and reaches for fame, in the way that the dynamic of crescendo ceaselessly does in this long, soulish work called Isaiah. The world will be visited, even saturated by these sons, these granddaughters, these ‘offspring’ as they can be abbreviated into the singular. They’ll be everywhere, and famously so. YHWH’s blessing, resting lightly upon their over-achieving shoulders, will be undeniable. Indeed, ‘all who see them shall acknowledge them.’

Then, this:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.

Isaiah 61:10-11 ESV

It is the second of these two verses that concerns us here, its lapse into horticultural metaphor simply another way of talking about people. It is a native dialect for this prophet and the interpreters and preachers of his legacy. There will be both YHWH-action and organic development in the vibrating, bodacious, fecund longevity of Israel’s offspring. Where they roam, their ‘righteousness’ and ‘praise’ will grow up like beautiful weeds, like an exuberant wildflower garden before spectating nations.

You’ll grow old, the text seems to concede to the redeemed generation, the stink of Babylon still stuck to their feet but freedom in their gaze. This will not last, it too will have its conclusion as it has known too its genesis in your days. But they, your own, will live on gloriously. Publicly. Like stubbornly beautiful flowers they will push through dirt and soil and rock and display their beautiful heads, while nations startle and wonder.

They’ll hang around, these heirs, these blessed ones, these children aborning, even this grand- and great-grandchildren whom your rescued arms will not cradle. I am not finished with you.

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The book called Isaiah is impatient with the rigidities that so easily install themselves in the minds and practice of religious people. Isaianic faith is disquieting, disruptive, and disturbing, all for the sake of fidelity to the nature of Israel’s God and the good future to which that deity is committed. This faith is clear-eyed about the prominence of suffering in the pursuit of that good future. It reckons with YHWH’s compulsion for accomplishing worthy aims in, for, and by a deeply compromised people

Religious thinking and religious practice, by contrast, are often conservative, static, preservative, committed to the stability of the status quo rather than its supplanting by something better. This thinking and practice are repelled by suffering, as by the notion that suffering should become the lot of good people. It assumes that good things happen to good people.

These disparities show their face in the substructure of the soaring rhetoric that comes to us in the book’s forty-third chapter. Arguably, the trajectory of this unquiet language culminates in verses 18 and 19, with their summons to forget the former things and perceive YHWH’s new thing. This divine novelty, still unclear as to its shape and dimensions, lies either just over the horizon or is already finding its form under the community’s very feet.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’

Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true. ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God. Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?’

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘For your sake I send to Babylon and bring them all down as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice. I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’ Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

 ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…’

Isaiah 43:1-19 RSV)

Let us start at the end of the three rigidities I’ve mentioned and then find our way back to the beginning. It is the wider context rather than the specifics of this text that speak to the matter, this third of three inflexible assumptions: Good things happen to good people.

The prophet’s declaration comes in the passage before us to a profoundly compromised, indeed, helpless and hypocritical people. We know this not so much by virtue of this chapter, but rather by the context in which this passage is framed. That wider context sketches the people with an ‘as if’ hypothetical in the terms of deep and genuine piety, only to turn that description on its head and reveal that YHWH’s people in point of fact exhibit none of the named virtues.

Yet, in spite of the stunning absence of virtue cum credentials, YHWH is here heard to describe his people as created, formed, redeemed, named, ransomed, honored, and precious. The derelict community that peers over the cliff into the abyss of assimilation in Babylon that will be its extinction is here pictured aspirationally. It is as though YHWH looks at this people and sees what they shall become rather than what they are.

Moving now from context and coming to our text itself, we observe its dismissal of any notion that their special valuation by YHWH exonerates them from the experience of suffering that is common to all humanity. Indeed, if we understand the world of metaphor in which it traffics, the text addresses suffering in its extremity:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Isaiah 43:2 ESV

The promissory note is strong and impossible to mistake. Yet it would be wrong-headed in the wider context of exile, redemption, and return to read this promise as assuring an evasion of suffering. It is rather a preservation of the people in the midst of endangerment and the stresses it brings with it.

The waters that drown, the rivers that overwhelm, the fire that consumes are the anticipated lot of a people that will dare to depart the hell it has known for the unknown bright future to which it is summoned. Yet, they are instructed, YHWH shall accompany them amid those threats and carry them through.

This is very far from the ideology of security that is too easily the byproduct of religious faith.

This brings us to the next item in the roster of ideological deformities that I have offered up: Religious faith functions often as the guardian of a broken status quo to which a people has accommodated itself and in which it has learned to make its unsatisfying home. But Isaianic faith, particularly in moments like the one into which this text invites us, looks audaciously forward to a good and dangerous future that will require renunciation of present circumstances rather than a faith-based clinging to them.

Here the verses I have claimed as the passage’s culminating declaration come to the fore.

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV

Because this passage flirts with the stuff of inspiring sloganeering, we too easily uproot it from its native soil and so both misread and misrepresent.

The former things, the old things, the matters now to be forgotten are not exclusively, perhaps not even principally, bad things. On the contrary, they include Israel’s finest moments, though it must be understood that they embrace as well YHWH’s just decision to tear his petulant children from the land to which he had brought them and exile them—no, better, accompany them—across the desert to the infidel’s turf. But these episodes from the people’s formative past are no longer to serve as the people’s point of preference, as though history had somehow ended on that calendar date, as though YHWH’s purpose had somehow met its culminating if unsatisfactory moment and the rest were merely a matter of playing out upon an unmoving table the hand the community had been dealt. Not a riveting experience, perhaps, but better than nothing.

This is not the Isaianic vision.

Rather, whatever the aesthetic pleasure, the warm nostalgia, or the aching sense that YHWH had been just, the people are now instructed to forget all that. We ought not to over-psychologize the point as though what were at play here is a scraping clean of the human memory by force of will. Rather, the Judaean captives are to understand—the language of perception flourishes in these context—that past events are no longer determinative for a people caught up in purposeful YHWH’s hand.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19 ESV

The Great Days, Judah is asked to understand, are but prologue, no longer strictly necessary for understanding who one is, who this people must become, what YHWH has up his no longer irritatingly unmoving sleeve.

Isaianic faith—indeed all faith that looks to the invisible God’s declared intentions as its taproot—is not safe, conservative, or nice.

It adopts, redeems, disrupts, endangers, protects, forgets, and perceives.

None of this is possible if the deity is the umbrella shielding a just bearable status quo from inclement historical weather. That deity is not found in the Hebrew Bible, not even recognizable to Isaianic eyes. That little, convenient deity is an invisible god that bears no resemblance to God Invisible.

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The book of Isaiah manages both to deride idolatry and to analyze it with a deft scalpel. At times, the two forms of protest merge almost without seam.

In chapter 46, it is Babylonian religion—presumably endowed for Jewish captives with all the pomp and appeal of the established faith—that was likely the attractive alternative to YHWH-religion and so now the target of the prophet’s derision. That sarcasm finds the accoutrements of such religion to be a burden that wearies both its practitioners and any beast of burden unfortunate enough to find itself under their rod.

By subtle contrast, YHWH is presented as the God who has always carried his sons and daughters, always borne them up.

So the text presents a jarring, two-ways analysis:

Weighed down by the inert, accumulated detritus of religion. Or carried along by YHWH’s invisible hands. This is the alternative the prophet’s message presents in its attempt to cut through the social and ideological fog to shed a piercing light on what is really going on here.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry (נשא) are borne (עמס) as burdens (משא, a form derived from נשא) on weary beasts.

They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden (משא), but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne (ֹעמס) by me from before your birth, carried (נשא) from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry (סבל) you. I have made, and I will bear (נשא); I will carry (סבל) and will save.

Isaiah 46:1-4 (ESV)

In the citation, I have italicized and provided the Hebrew root of the three words deployed both in the descriptions of Babylonian religion’s wearisome failure and on the canvas of YHWH’s bearing up of his own in the past, the present, and the promised future. The irony is thick and its constituent elements deployed with remarkable agility. Helpless Bel and Nebo weary those who would serve them. YHWH bears his along in invisible arms.

I have also placed in bold the double employment of a different verb, this time מלט, with its strong connotations of rescue, even of salvation. When describing the poor beasts who carry the leaden burden of Babylonian gods, the text credits them with the inability to ‘save the burden’, almost certainly utilizing an ordinary expression that would have been known to the handlers of mules. By way of contrast, YHWH claims at the end of this passage that he will carry ‘and will save’. In both cases, the same Hebrew term comes to bear, though with meanings that inhabit very different planes.

The passage is both bleak in its analysis of religious futility and resonant with hope, the latter by way of its assertion that YHWH acts on behalf of his own rather than wearying them with the responsibility of his care, even of his transportation.

Two religious experiences could hardly be more starkly contrasted.

There is a further resonance in this text that I will mention but not develop in this short post: collateral damage.

The prophet who paints this vivid picture of religious subjects and objects brings those suffering animals into the picture in a way that might seem purely circumstantial. That is, oxen and mules are needed to make the metaphor work, but they lack pertinence beyond that workmanlike function.

In fact, more than this is going on. In the scenes in which Zion’s far-flung sons and daughters return with joy to glorified Jerusalem that anchor the book’s development from this point forward, the returnees are served by certain attendants. In point of detail, they are carried, a matter of narrative the utilizes the same verbs we have seen in the passage before us. Those who carry these returnees are not brute beasts but—surprisingly—gentile human beings, who both serve and benefit from their unanticipated role as transport. Indeed, these unexpected protagonists are called to rejoice with Jerusalem and in the final verses of the book are commissioned to return temporarily whence they came to declare there the glory of YHWH where it has heretofore not been known. Though they never quite shed their subservient status, they become at the same time sharers in and contributors to Jerusalem’s bounty. In point of fact, it is the very cultural legacy of the nations these people represent that beautifies suddenly cosmopolitan Zion.

If such highway narratives can speak, as 46.1-2 does, of collateral damage they also anticipate collateral benefit, in this case for those who bear long-lost Jewish exiles back home. YHWH’s empowering habits, his burden-bearing instincts are in a sense contagious in a way that is the exact opposite of the dreadful contagion of unbearable weariness that is the product of Babylonian religion as it is here presented.

These intersecting ironic threads, where subject becomes object and one verb or a collection of them winds its way through differing contexts to make similar but not identical points, represents the very warp and woof of the book of Isaiah. Here, Bel and Nebo absorb the brunt of the text’s rhetorical violence, while the reader is invited alongside his ancient counterpart to consider that YHWH has been near all along, not to pressure, obligate, needle, or demand.

Rather, to carry. Rather, to rescue. Rather, to save

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A sermon delivered at Faith Church, Mansourieh, Lebanon

26 January 2020

 

If you begin to type into Google, ‘Are there snakes in Lebanon?’, the computer will complete the sentence for you by the time you get to the letter ‘L’.

That means lots of people have wanted to know the answer to that question.

But by the time you’ve arrived at the letter ‘e’ of ‘Lebanon’, Google will also show you that lots of people have asked ‘Are there snakes in Lesotho?’ and ‘Are there snakes in ‘Lefkada’?’ and ‘Are there snakes in…’ several state parks in my country that begin with the letter ‘L’.

Lots of people are afraid of snakes, it seems. I have an intense interest in natural ecosystems and have several bookshelves groaning under the weight of books about the birds, the animals, and the trees and plants in the places I have lived. But even I must confess that I share a fear of snakes.

One of the most fearful moments of my life occurred many years ago as I stood in the surf off a beach in Costa Rica, where I lived, with one of my two small boys in my arms. I watched in horror as my younger son—just a toddler—walked on the beach towards where I could see a snake moving about the sand. Johnny was surrounded by many adults who could have rescued him—and eventually did—but none of them was paying attention. I watched, terrified by what I was watching as though in slow motion from out in the sea, too far away to get anyone’s attention, fearing for the life of my little boy.

Let’s listen together as our brother Rabih reads our Bible passage for today, Isaiah 11.1-9. Listen carefully for good news about snakes.

وَيَخْرُجُ قَضِيبٌ مِنْ جِذْعِ يَسَّى، وَيَنْبُتُ غُصْنٌ مِنْ أُصُولِهِ،وَيَحُلُّ عَلَيْهِ رُوحُ ٱلرَّبِّ، رُوحُ ٱلْحِكْمَةِ وَٱلْفَهْمِ، رُوحُ ٱلْمَشُورَةِ وَٱلْقُوَّةِ، رُوحُ ٱلْمَعْرِفَةِ وَمَخَافَةِ ٱلرَّبِّ.وَلَذَّتُهُ تَكُونُ فِي مَخَافَةِ ٱلرَّبِّ، فَلاَ يَقْضِي بِحَسَبِ نَظَرِ عَيْنَيْهِ، وَلاَ يَحْكُمُ بِحَسَبِ سَمْعِ أُذُنَيْهِ،بَلْ يَقْضِي بِالْعَدْلِ لِلْمَسَاكِينِ، وَيَحْكُمُ بِالإِنْصَافِ لِبَائِسِي ٱلْأَرْضِ، وَيَضْرِبُ ٱلْأَرْضَ بِقَضِيبِ فَمِهِ، وَيُمِيتُ ٱلْمُنَافِقَ بِنَفْخَةِ شَفَتَيْهِ.وَيَكُونُ ٱلْبِرُّ مِنْطَقَهَ مَتْنَيْهِ، وَٱلْأَمَانَةُ مِنْطَقَةَ حَقْوَيْهِ.

فَيَسْكُنُ ٱلذِّئْبُ مَعَ ٱلْخَرُوفِ، وَيَرْبُضُ ٱلنَّمِرُ مَعَ ٱلْجَدْيِ، وَٱلْعِجْلُ وَٱلشِّبْلُ وَٱلْمُسَمَّنُ مَعًا، وَصَبِيٌّ صَغِيرٌ يَسُوقُهَا.وَٱلْبَقَرَةُ وَٱلدُّبَّةُ تَرْعَيَانِ. تَرْبُضُ أَوْلاَدُهُمَا مَعًا، وَٱلْأَسَدُ كَالْبَقَرِ يَأْكُلُ تِبْنًا.وَيَلْعَبُ ٱلرَّضِيعُ عَلَى سَرَبِ ٱلصِّلِّ، وَيَمُدُّ ٱلْفَطِيمُ يَدَهُ عَلَى جُحْرِ ٱلْأُفْعُوَانِ.لاَ يَسُوؤُونَ وَلاَ يُفْسِدُونَ فِي كُلِّ جَبَلِ قُدْسِي، لأَنَّ ٱلْأَرْضَ تَمْتَلِئُ مِنْ

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.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1–9 ESV)

Scripture presents Jesus to us in many ways.

Here, the Old Testament prophet, writing eight centuries before angels would announce Jesus’ birth, glimpses Jesus ahead of time.

Now I’m convinced that he doesn’t yet see Jesus with the clarity of those of us who are privileged to live on this side of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But he sees him, nonetheless.

The prophet sees Jesus as a ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots’. Did you hear that in verse 1 of Rabih’s reading?

Jesse was David’s father. David of course has been dead for two hundred years when the prophet writes these words. Worse yet, Isaiah knows that David’s royal line will very soon be cut off. What little remains of ancient Israel will be king-less and lost in Babylonian exile.

Their whole world will have ended, and all the promises of God—apparently—will have been lost along with their land, their temple, and their king.

Isaiah writes from close proximity to this tragedy. Yet the prophet also sees that, out of that cut-down towering tree that was David, a little shoot—a tiny branch—will surprise us by emerging.

This will be an unexpected new son of David, the one we know—although Isaiah did not yet know him by name—as our Savior, Jesus.

With a beautiful poetic touch, Isaiah describes him in three way: First, by his endowment. Second, by his conduct. Third, by the results of his rule.

First, let’s look at Jesus endowment … his magnificent saturation with the Spirit of God.

وَيَحُلُّ عَلَيْهِ رُوحُ ٱلرَّبِّ، رُوحُ ٱلْحِكْمَةِ وَٱلْفَهْمِ، رُوحُ ٱلْمَشُورَةِ وَٱلْقُوَّةِ، رُوحُ ٱلْمَعْرِفَةِ وَمَخَافَةِ ٱلرَّبِّ.وَلَذَّتُهُ تَكُونُ فِي مَخَافَةِ ٱلرَّبِّ، فَلاَ يَقْضِي بِحَسَبِ

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. (Isaiah 11:2–3 ESV)

The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon this ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’. The expression in the language of Isaiah is a rich one. It speaks of the kind of resting that saturates a location. We could think of the way thick, billowy clouds sometimes roll over your Lebanese mountains and come to cover … to rest upon … the valleys in between those magnificent ridges.

When the Spirit rests upon a person in this way, there can be no shortage … no deficit … no need of more of the Spirit.

Isaiah counts seven aspects of this Spirit, drawing upon words that have become famous in the Old Testament for intelligence, perception, and strength. This new son of David will be supremely endowed with these qualities. He’ll see correctly … he’ll perceive accurately … and he will act effectively. There’s no distracting him, no confusing him, and no stopping him.

You can almost hear Isaiah’s ancient listeners, their kings taken from them, crying ‘Hallelujah!’ when they anticipate this new root, sprung from the stump of Jesse. I hope it makes you say ‘Hallelujah!’ as you consider this Jesus who now rules over us.

Second, the Spirit will make this ruler one who is not deceived by appearances. Let’s hear again, in Arabic, verses 3-5:

وَلَذَّتُهُ تَكُونُ فِي مَخَافَةِ ٱلرَّبِّ، فَلاَ يَقْضِي بِحَسَبِ نَظَرِ عَيْنَيْهِ، وَلاَ يَحْكُمُ بِحَسَبِ سَمْعِ أُذُنَيْهِ،بَلْ يَقْضِي بِالْعَدْلِ لِلْمَسَاكِينِ، وَيَحْكُمُ بِالإِنْصَافِ لِبَائِسِي ٱلْأَرْضِ، وَيَضْرِبُ ٱلْأَرْضَ بِقَضِيبِ فَمِهِ، وَيُمِيتُ ٱلْمُنَافِقَ بِنَفْخَةِ شَفَتَيْهِ.وَيَكُونُ ٱلْبِرُّ مِنْطَقَهَ مَتْنَيْهِ، وَٱلْأَمَانَةُ مِنْطَقَةَ حَقْوَيْهِ.

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 11:3–5 ESV)

You know what the problem with rulers is, in your country as well as in Colombia and the United States, where I live? They are driven by appearances rather than by reality.

They cater to the well-dressed and the well-scented. They are misled by the open wounds of the poor, the smell their clothes and body accumulate from living in the street, the unshaven cheeks of the fathers and the sunken eyes of the mothers as they struggle to care for their children.

But not this ruler.

His insight penetrates appearances and goes right to the heart of the matter. As a result, he restores relationships among those whom he rules according to the reality of the thing. When he strikes, he strikes the truly wicked who resist his rule. When he uplifts, he uplifts with righteousness and faithfulness, those who truly need his restorative touch.

This ruler cannot be corrupted. His judgements are always true and right. This is why those who have been rescued by his gracious rule can only praise him with gratitude in their hearts. With gratitude in our hearts.

Finally, let’s come back around to snakes. I’ll ask Rabih to read verses 6-9, where we learn the results of Jesus’ rule:

فَيَسْكُنُ ٱلذِّئْبُ مَعَ ٱلْخَرُوفِ، وَيَرْبُضُ ٱلنَّمِرُ مَعَ ٱلْجَدْيِ، وَٱلْعِجْلُ وَٱلشِّبْلُ وَٱلْمُسَمَّنُ مَعًا، وَصَبِيٌّ صَغِيرٌ يَسُوقُهَا.وَٱلْبَقَرَةُ وَٱلدُّبَّةُ تَرْعَيَانِ. تَرْبُضُ أَوْلاَدُهُمَا مَعًا، وَٱلْأَسَدُ كَالْبَقَرِ يَأْكُلُ تِبْنًا.وَيَلْعَبُ ٱلرَّضِيعُ عَلَى سَرَبِ ٱلصِّلِّ، وَيَمُدُّ ٱلْفَطِيمُ يَدَهُ عَلَى جُحْرِ ٱلْأُفْعُوَانِ.لاَ يَسُوؤُونَ وَلاَ يُفْسِدُونَ فِي كُلِّ جَبَلِ قُدْسِي، لأَنَّ ٱلْأَرْضَ تَمْتَلِئُ مِنْ

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6–9 ESV)

A passage like this takes us back to the garden of Eden, before humanity’s rebellion against our maker. But there is a twist that tells us that we are not truly being taken back to Eden but rather forward to a time when Jesus’ rule will have become complete.

You see, careful readers of Isaiah learn that he is not really talking about animals … about wolves, leopards, calves, lions, even about snakes. Rather, this imagery refers to peoples and to nations.

Jesus’ rule will bring to this bleeding, haunted world a time of peace when we will be free to lose our fears. Our fear of snakes, perhaps, but more importantly, our fear of violence … and conflict … and turmoil. Fear of our enemies.

Why? Well, our ancient rivalries will have become obsolete. They won’t make sense any more and we’ll gladly get rid of them. Our world will have become transformed. That last verse says it best:

لاَ يَسُوؤُونَ وَلاَ يُفْسِدُونَ فِي كُلِّ جَبَلِ قُدْسِي، لأَنَّ ٱلْأَرْضَ تَمْتَلِئُ مِنْ

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9 ESV)

Why do you think Scripture presents us with a ‘forward look’ like this?

I’m convinced it’s so that we align ourselves with Jesus’ rule of justice and peace starting from the moment in which we live. In fact, I think that by doing so we become agents of his increasing dominion over this earth.

We become more and more saturated with God’s own Spirit. We learn to see clearly, penetrating beyond appearances to the reality of those who surround us. And we lay aside our ancient anxieties and enmities and commit to doing no more harm on God’s holy mountain.

A text like this one rarely releases its grip on us before it has asked us one or two awkward questions.

Is your life aligned with Jesus’ rule in this way? Is mine?

Behold, your King. Jesus, the shoot out of the stump of Jesse.

 

 

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Isaiah’s 37th chapter puts on display the subtle interplay that is prayer in the moment of crisis.

The threatening king of Assyria may be a cartoonish villain. Nevertheless his shadow casts over little Judah the power of extermination. The Assyrian tyrant is, in a word, invincible. The carcasses of nations that once were, lying with their scorched gods by the side of empire’s highway, bear mute testimony that Assyria and its king are unstoppable.

Judah trembles for good reason, for it would seem that its final hour has come.

As soon as King Hezekiah heard (the threat of the Assyrian emissary), he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”‘

The vestige of King Hezekiah’s scrawny hope lies in two realties. First, the prophet may know what to do. There are, as they say, no atheists in foxholes. (more…)

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Perhaps the rabbis were correct to affirm that some of the ‘deeper writings’ are not suitable for untrained eyes. Or perhaps the cynical proverb that affirms that ‘school is wasted on the young’ is, after all, on to something.

Or perhaps only mothers and fathers should read such a thing as this:

Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: ‘Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.’ (Isaiah 29:22–24 ESV)

Jacob’s prodigals had not only run amok on their own terms. They had been dragged to distant lands by the powers of their day to suffer the quick extermination of our news cycle or the slow extermination of assimilation to the alien’s ways. (more…)

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Before all things, we protect our children.

The park just outside my window is frequented by parents and small children, these defenseless little tykes who would not know a leaf from a wasp. Nor do we expect them to know. So, we cradle them in our arms against all threat unseen. We swoop them low to greet the neighbor’s little doggy, though we would not have them crawl beside the four-legger, for who knows what strange ferocity might kick in suddenly in a world like ours.

We expose them gradually to our little park, one that is in the main benign but might harbor here or there a sting, a bite, a lecher too kind. (more…)

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One of the most finely crafted and resonant chapters of the biblical corpus achieves its quiet doxology via a horticultural simile, which catches this reader’s eye on the morning after hauling yet another load of subtropical greenery to our Colombian patio.

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11 ESV)

The author has in the preceding verses gone a bit crazy in the search for metaphors that capture the extravaganza of YHWH’s turning towards his people after the ‘brief moment’ of their affliction. Now, they are walls called ‘salvation’, rebellious citizens will have become ‘the righteous’, the oil of gladness will have displaced mourning, Zion’s children will have become famous throughout the world. (more…)

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