Isaiah's Christmas Children: The Stump of Jesse

Isaiah 10:24-11:9
Romans 3:19-31
Charles G. Dennison

Many in the church throughout the centuries have found the prophets hard plowing. As a result, some have tended to avoid the prophets—to avoid them altogether. In the last century, a number of godly people committed to the Word of God, well-intentioned in themselves because of this phenomenon of avoiding the prophets, were attracted to Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism claimed that it would make the prophets intelligible—easily accessible once more. This claim by the Dispensationalists continues to have great impact upon our present century.

But we of the Reformed faith have maintained that the prophets are in fact penetrable apart from the schemes of the Dispensationalist—those schemes which essentially and in the most superficial manner separate the Old Testament from the New Testament, the law from the gospel, and, when it comes to the prophets specifically, ethnic and territorial Israel from the church. At base, the Dispensationalist refuses to allow the prophets' promises to ethnic and territorial Israel to be fulfilled in the church. Thus the Dispensationalist contends that all such promises in the prophets must have in view a future literal fulfillment for the Jews in the geographical land of Palestine. It is for this reason that Dispensationalists show great interest in the events in the Middle East and in Israeli politics. And this is why they tend to be apocalyptic alarmists and pretty much pre-occupied with Zionist theology.

The Reformed faith historically has not been impressed by these things. At its best, it has insisted upon the essential unity of God's covenant as God's revelation moves from the older administration into the newer administration. The Reformed faith has insisted that the law and the prophets as a whole intentionally serve the gospel (Rom. 3:21). The implication, again made explicit by the New Testament, is that Israel finds her destiny in the church of Jesus Christ, not apart from it. Without us—without the church—Israel is not made perfect, to paraphrase words from the epistle to the Hebrews.

But having said this doesn't make our reading or our hearing of the prophets any easier. The prophets are truly full of complexities: difficult constructions and images; oblique historical and geographical references; rapid changes in mood and emotional direction. One moment the prophet is speaking about the most severe gloom and in the bat of an eye, in the next breath, he is speaking in the most startling fashion about the appearance and the importance of grace. But beyond these matters, the prophets are also full of what seems to be at times the most baffling audience shifts, so that we are not always clear about whom the prophet is speaking.

For example in what we read this morning, is it clear to you who is in view in Isaiah 10:33-34? Who are the boughs the Lord will lop off, the tall and lofty cut down and abased? Who is the thicket of the forest wasted by the ax? Who is this Lebanon felled by the Mighty One? Some like E. J. Young and Derek Kidner, building upon exegetes like J. A. Alexander, find here in these verses clear and unambiguous reference to the Assyrians. But others like the British critical scholar, A. S. Herbert, believe these verses refer to the Jews. He is uncertain as to whether they refer to the ten northern tribes or to the two southern tribes, but he appears to be convinced that they refer to the Jews. Who is right? Is E. J. Young right or is A. S. Herbert right?

Our immediate inclination of course is to side with Young, Kidner and Alexander. After all, these individuals are Reformed in their orientation. They are conservative and evangelical men and many of us have come to trust them in their exegesis. Our theological prejudice is enough to move us to their side of the argument. The discussion is over and the case is closed. Besides Herbert sees Isaiah 10, at least verses 16-34 of that chapter, as nothing less than a collection of independent oracles brought together artificially from various sources and backgrounds, although not without some internal logical cohesion.

Herbert is obviously a theological and exegetical liberal, so why would we even bother with him? On the narrow issue of who is being addressed, Herbert may very well be right—or at least he may be, shall we say, more right than our stalwart conservative and Reformed friends. By this I mean that Herbert may be preserving something in verses 33-34 of Isaiah 10 that is completely lost from view in the exegesis of our tried and true friends.

Now admittedly, things do not look good for Herbert at first glance. In addition to the things already mentioned, Herbert seems to miss the obvious connection between verses 33 and 34, and verses previous in the chapter (vv. 15-19). Without question, these earlier verses (vv. 15-19) refer exclusively to Assyria. In fact, Assyria is specifically mentioned in verse 5, verse 12, and verse 24. In these earlier verses, specifically in verses 15-19, you will also note that we find mention made of an ax (v. 15); of thorns and briers (v. 17); of the forest and the trees of the forest (vv. 18-19). All of these elements are in their own way mentioned again in vv. 33-34. We conclude that if verses 15-19 are about the Assyrians, then verses 33 and 34 are about the Assyrians also. Both sets of passages, both sets of verses are using the same language and the same images. Things are not looking good for Mr. Herbert.

But secondly, influencing us against Herbert it would seem, we find the flow of verses 25-32 in this tenth chapter also deciding against him. These verses begin with a call upon Zion not to fear the threat of Assyria (vv. 25-27). And then, in the most dramatic way, these verses conclude with the description of the progress of the invading army as it makes its way city by city, village by village (that's the meaning of the listing of all the names) through the territory of Benjamin. They are all Benjamite cities and villages en route to Jerusalem which is now in view—in sight of the invading army, when you come to verse 32. The natural reading, therefore, as you progress with the chapter, is that the invading army is now pictured as the loped-off boughs, the proud and vain cut down to size (v. 33), the thicket cleared by the ax, Lebanon felled by the tree (v. 34), and that the invading army is the Assyrians, as we would conclude logically from verses 5, 12 and 24. Again, the discussion is over; the case is closed.

However, as Herbert effectively points out, these last verses of chapter 10 provide a masterful introduction to the opening of chapter 11. The image of the wasted forest and the devastated land in those final verses of chapter 10 provide then the perfect setting for the appearance of the stem or the stump of Jesse out of which the shoot and branch springs (v. 1).

The picture is of the scorched earth in which Jesse's line is now but one of the felled trees. And from that stem, from that root, from that stump, that stump of a destroyed and dead tree, miraculously comes a living sprig and a vital branch. He is David's true and long-expected son, the final presentation of the child-figure in this section of Isaiah's prophecy.

But had we not said, in keeping with the Reformed and conservative exegesis of those last verses of chapter 10, that the forest and growth laid waste by the Lord in those verses are the Assyrians? How is it then that we have the picture of Judah as you begin chapter 11 as laid waste, as a broken and dead tree out of which a living sprig sprouts?

In answer to this question, we discover that Herbert after all does have something to tell us. Not because we would follow him in all of his liberal reasoning or embrace him in his attitudes about the construction of the text, but because he is laying hold of something here that is even more important than he knows. In fact, if we investigate the figure of the scorched earth, the wasted forest and the solitary tree trunk in the previous chapters of Isaiah, the results are very, very interesting. For instance in chapter 2, the language in verses 5-11 is directed against the Jews for their arrogance and vanity. These words easily slip into language about universal indictment in verses 12-22. There is a day of reckoning coming says the Lord, not just for Israel, but for the world as a whole—all who are lifted up and proud (v. 12), all the cedars of Lebanon, all the oaks of Bashan (v. 13). This is the language of trees, the language of the forest anticipating the language we read later on in chapters 10 and 11.

What we are to see then in the judgment of Israel according to chapter 2 is the judgment of the whole world. Look at Israel and the judgment that comes upon it and know that judgment is coming upon the whole world. That Israel herself is to be seen along these lines is reinforced by what we find in chapter 6:13. Here in the context of Isaiah's call, grandly described, is the Lord's relentless hostility expressed against Judah—not against the world, but against Judah. The Lord promises the preservation of a tenth portion saved through burning (v. 13). The language is beginning to sound the same, i.e., like an oak felled whose stump remains, the holy seed being the salvaged stump. Sound familiar?

As we move along, what do we make of Isaiah 9:18-21? Here the ten northern tribes of Israel, capital Samaria, are spoken about in language anticipating our passage. The wickedness of the ten northern tribes brings about burning, we are told. These tribes are like the thicket of the forests set ablaze (v. 18). The Lord's fury consumes the land; the people themselves are fuel for the fire (v. 19).

The language is compounding; it is mounting as you move through these early chapters of Isaiah. We return then to Isaiah 10 and 11, and the prophet's play on language achieves its end as we are led to these chapters by what has preceded. Yes, to be sure, now Assyria will be laid waste! But such judgment is not irrespective of the devastation that is coming upon God's own people—a devastation that comes upon Israel and Samaria to the north and then upon Judah and Jerusalem to the south. The fluidity of the prophet's words here ultimately plays off of a universal judgment—not one in which Israel is destroyed, but Judah is spared; not one in which Jews are laid waste, but their enemies and the nations escape untouched. No, the prophet's baffling audience shift moves from the tirade against Assyria in the opening verses of that tenth chapter imperceptibly into a general condemnation that includes Judah by the concluding verses (vv. 33-34). And why? Why is this the movement for the prophet? Because such a baffling shift of audience, like the rapid-fire mood shifts from wrath to mercy in the prophets, in the final analysis preaches the gospel. And Isaiah, like all of the prophets and the law as well, serves the gospel.

Carried along by the description of God's coming judgment against Assyria, we are tripped up by words from which we cannot exclude Judah. Do you think that you are immune, that it is only those wicked Assyrians that will get their due? What then is the impact such a baffling shift in audience intends to have upon succeeding audiences? Precisely what is later put on paper by the apostle Paul under the inspiration of the same Spirit who inspired Isaiah: that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). For all have sinned, Jews and Assyrians alike, and come short of the glory of God.

How difficult it was for the Jews of Isaiah's day to hear it, to understand it, to grasp it. How difficult it was in the days of Jesus Christ, for those who were even in his presence to grasp it. How difficult it remains for the church of Jesus Christ even into the present time to grasp it. For in preaching the gospel of sovereign grace, Paul is confronted by those who would deny that grace and preach something else altogether—a message that would leave some in a privileged position as if they had a righteousness all their own, built up in themselves by their works and an inherent merit. Seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, Isaiah was preaching the gospel.

And as you consider those statements by the apostle Paul—if you look at them in isolation, they are in fact quite devastating, are they not? Every mouth may be stopped and all the world become guilty before God; all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. But as you know in the same context, Paul is being true to the same gospel that he has embraced. He does not leave us without hope even in light of universal condemnation. For he preaches the gospel and speaks to us about being justified freely by God's grace (how else could it be?) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24), the Savior of not only the Jews but the Gentiles as well (as Romans 3:29 implies).

But you know this one whom Paul identifies as Christ Jesus, the very one who met him on the Damascus road, is the one Isaiah calls the rod out of Jesse's stem—the branch growing out of Jesse's root (11:1). And he it is who brings the universal reign of righteousness and peace—he alone. And by him, all the earth is made full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (11:9).

The messages about Isaiah's Christmas children are at an end, the rod and branch of Jesse being the last of the child figures in this glorious section of Isaiah's prophecy. Each presentation of the child—be it Shear-jashub, "a remnant shall return", in 7:3; or Immanuel, "God with us", in 7:14; or Maher-shalel-hashbaz, "swift is the booty, easy is the prey", in 8:3; or the glory-child of 9:6; or the branch now of Jesse in 11:1—each presentation of the child has conveyed its own message about the severity of God's wrath and the inexplicable wonder of his grace. Each presentation of the child figure deliberately insults human pretensions and pride, while exalting the God who perfects his power through weakness. Each presentation of the child figure then preaches the gospel, making each child-portrait a Christmas portrait. Laid within the series of child figures is the message that God himself is coming through the line of David in the interest of a universal reign of righteousness and peace. Into this reign enter those who, embracing the Lord's very own manner of coming to them, become themselves little children—in a manifest demonstration of their own weakness and need.

I said the child of 11:1 is the last child. That isn't exactly correct. The last child appears in verse 6 of the eleventh chapter—"And a little child shall lead them." "The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra; the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den" (v. 8). We children all are brought into the kingdom. We children all in manifest demonstration of our own weakness and need and utter dependence are brought into the kingdom. Are you among the children?