Even safely ensconced in a motel in Wildwood, Florida, we had some idea of the devastation Hurricane Georges had done to our yard. A friend who had sat out the windstorm in the Keys drove by our property and phoned us with a basic report. We knew some of our trees were down but we were happy that the house was relatively unscathed. However, actually seeing the damage done to our trees was hard. One had fallen right across our driveway and would have to be cut up before we could even park on our property. A few more had snapped or split. They had to be sawn into pieces and hauled out to the street for pick up. That became my early morning task before work every day for a week. We wrote off all of those trees. But come spring we were surprised to see a stump in our backyard was sending out a riot of small green shoots. They replaced the missing part of the trunk with a bouquet of branches and foliage. The stump we thought dead was not only resurrected but was more robust than ever.
A similar image opens our passage from Isaiah 11. The previous chapter uses the image of trees being cut down as a metaphor for God’s judgment on the nations. One of the countries judged is Israel for its bad treatment of the poor. It says in Isaiah 10: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!” This is one of God’s primary criteria for acceptable moral behavior. In Matthew 25, Jesus puts it this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me.” God’s Son didn’t just defend the poor; he identified with them. So this weighs heavily in God’s judgment, even when it comes to God’s own people.
But after that, the stump, the remnant of Israel, will bring forth life. A shoot will come out of it, specifically out of Jesse, King David’s father. Quite frankly, not all of David’s descendants were good or even wise kings. So Isaiah is saying that one just as good as David, one from the same stock that brought forth the shepherd-king, is coming. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.
Initially, being anointed with the Spirit of the Lord was a qualification to be king in Israel. It was true of Saul and David and Solomon. But that soon ceased to be a consideration. Israel and Judah split. In Judah, the main criterion for a king was descent from David. In Israel, dynasties would be set up, run a while and then be bloodily overthrown. The days when the king was a man after God’s own heart were long gone. Here God is reassuring his people that a king like that, a king greater than that, will rule again.
It is interesting that the nature of the Spirit of God is spelled out. The Spirit is one of wisdom and understanding. The word for wisdom could equally be translated “common sense.” Unlike the so-called spiritual wisdom that many peddle, God’s wisdom isn’t that esoteric. The Book of Proverbs, one of the Bible’s books of wisdom literature, is very direct and practical. The thing that makes God’s wisdom hard for the world to understand are its values. It prizes substance over appearance, justice over the status quo, and truth over propriety. And it factors eternal life into moral equations, making what we do in this life extremely important while paradoxically telling us that we should not do whatever it takes to hold onto our earthly life.
At bible.org, the Net Bible, pointing out that wisdom and understanding are synonyms, translates this phrase “a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom.” This is also linked, in the footnotes, with verse 11:3 about this future king dispensing justice fairly. So the wisdom here is specifically to be used in carrying out justice towards those who have neither the power or wealth to influence the court. Remember that you had no independent judiciary at that time. Tribal leaders also judged disputes and matters of law. The king was the final judge. If they were corrupt, you couldn’t appeal or go to the media. If your dispute was with one of the elders, you were screwed. God assures us that this promised king will be truly just.
Then we are told that this king will be anointed with the spirit of counsel and strength. Again the Net Bible combines these into the phrase “a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans.” Many leaders have the power to get things done but their plans aren’t the wisest. Others have great plans but can’t seem to get them implemented. But this king will not only have excellent plans but will be able to see that they become reality. He will be wise and strong.
This promised king will be anointed with a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Because of the parallelism we are not talking general knowledge here but knowledge of God. And fear of the Lord doesn’t mean an attitude of abject terror as if he were a movie villain prone to killing his underlings for the slightest error. Rather it is a healthy respect of God and his authority. Recently President Obama was playing basketball with some friends and aides when one of them clipped him and split his lip to the extent that stitches were necessary. I’m sure that (a) it wasn’t done deliberately and (b) that the person who did so didn’t treat it as nothing. I’ll bet he was mortified at spilling the blood of his commander in chief, despite the fact that he was not in danger of being shot for it. It’s a matter of respecting the office. It’s the same with the fear of God.
Once more I like how the Net Bible translates this phrase: “a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord.” In the case of God, it’s not just his position that one respects but his nature: just but forgiving, loving but firm in his principles. To know God is not simply to respect him but to trust him and love him and be faithful to him. This delights God’s promised king, as the first part of verse 3 reminds us. And respect for God leads to obedience to him, something even modern Christians forget.
The rest of verse 3 emphasizes the justice of this king. As the Net Bible renders it: “ he will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay.” Sadly, as the brother says in the independent film “Little Miss Sunshine,” much of life is a beauty contest. Studies have shown that good looking people tend to get better treatment from authorities and the legal system. In addition, people would be more likely to attribute a crime to a poor person than a middle or upper class one. But God is not fooled; he looks at the heart, as will this promised king. And unlike the world, he will not listen to hearsay but judge on the facts alone.
The king’s judgment is the subject of next couple of verses. Not only will he judge the poor fairly, he will not let the wicked get away with their deeds.
And then the focus of the passage changes. We are given images of predators and prey, the deadly and the harmless, living together in harmony. The result of justice, of everyone truly getting what they deserve, should be peace. In this world it is not easy to reconcile the two. Go for strict justice, punish all wrongdoing, and you can destroy chances for peace. Make peace paramount and you might have to ignore injustice. But in God’s kingdom, through the forgiveness only the rightful judge of all the earth can grant, justice and peace kiss each other. As the Net Bible puts it, “they will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain.” Right now, the Muslims worship at the Dome of the Rock on the top of Mount Zion, once the site of Jerusalem's Temple, and the Jews worship at the Wailing Wall below, the only extant ruins of the Temple. The wrong person in the wrong place doing the wrong thing could cause a riot. But when the rightful king, promised by God, comes to claim his inheritance, Zion will be ground zero for the peace of God. And it will spread over the earth as the waters cover the seas.
God’s promised king is, of course, his son, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed one. And the culmination of his kingdom is what we look for in anticipation. But we are not just to sit and wait. We are to start spreading the word, planting the seeds, laying the foundation, recruiting citizens, making disciples and working for justice and peace. And we live in a unique time. When the Bible was written, the average person could do little to affect society as a whole. All power resided with the rich and the rulers. They couldn’t be voted out. They couldn’t be impeached. They couldn’t be pressured by the media. Whereas the average person could be arrested, tortured, and executed pretty much at the will of those in power. So people looked forward to the promise of the Messiah, who would bring about the kingdom of God.
We can, however, affect those in power. We can do things that can spread at the speed of the internet all around the world. And I’m not just talking about politics. I’m talking about starting and joining ministries and programs. I’m talking about taking action as individuals and as groups. I’m talking about beginning discussions on needs and injustices. We shall not see the complete kingdom of God until Jesus returns, but we can plant the seeds, we can pull the weeds, we can water and nurture and protect what grows, knowing that the largest of trees started out as a tender shoot, just as the greatest king ever to live started out as a baby.