Listen also to John Piper’s seminar at The Gospel Coalition 2015, “What Jesus Demands from the World.”
The book of Isaiah begins, “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1). So the prophecies of Isaiah are mainly concerning the southern kingdom of Judah from about 740 to 700 BC. Looming on the horizon is the massive empire to the east, Assyria huffing and puffing with threats against Jerusalem.
Isaiah hears Assyria in 10:13 boasting, “By the strength of my hand I have done it. . . . Like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.” But God has already made clear in 10:5 that this huffing and puffing Assyria is a mere tool in his hand: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger.” So when Assyria boasts that they have cut down the great, God says in 10:15, “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it?” And when God has done his work with this tool, Isaiah says in 10:12, “he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.”
Then the word of judgment on Assyria comes to climax in 10:33–34:
Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One.
So with a picture in front of us of a vast forest of nothing but jagged stumps that God has made by hewing down the power of Assyria, Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah as a shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1). “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jesse was the father of king David. So we know that Isaiah is prophesying the fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7, that a son of David — a new shoot of Jesse — will come and rule the people of Israel and rule the world. All of chapter 11 is a description of that Son of David — that shoot, that branch — and the kingdom he will rule.
And what is so typical of the prophets, and so mystifying to us, is that chapter 10 flows into chapter 11 seamlessly, as if chapter 10 would happen on Monday and chapter 11 would happen on Tuesday. Read it again without the chapter division: 10:34, “[God] will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One. There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Not the slightest indication that there might be 700 or 2,700 years separating these events.
When I was cutting my teeth on the prophetic books in seminary, one of the really helpful things I was taught was that the way prophets looked at the future was the way we may look at a mountain range with distant mountains and nearer mountains in the one mountain range, all of them looking like one mountain. For example, to the north of our home in Pasadena was Mount Wilson. From where we stood on East Orange Grove Boulevard, it looked like one mountain. But in fact, if you started hiking, or driving, you found quickly that it was not merely one mountain, but a series of ever-higher ridges with valleys in between, about five of them.
We called that the “prophetic perspective.” From where Isaiah stood, God granted him to see the Mount Wilson of the future. Some of the nearer ridges of Sennacharib’s comings and goings he knew were very near and when they would happen (e.g., 37:29). But beyond that there were other events he saw on Mount Wilson with no clear idea about how distant they were. So repeatedly in the prophetic books you read of an immanent attack or deliverance from an enemy, and the next moment you read about an event in the distant future, with no indication of how much time is in between.
The apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 1:10–11, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” In other words, when the Spirit moved the prophets to write, he did not answer all their questions about how the pieces fit together. Which means as we read the prophets, not all our questions may be answered either.
However, we do have some advantages over the prophets — which may sound strange, since they were inspired by God, and we are not. 1) We have all the prophets so we can compare them with each other, 2) we have the New Testament use of the prophecies, and 3) we have the perspective of 2,700 years to see what has happened. So, strange as it may sound, we may understand the timing and the relationships of some things more clearly than they did.
Which leads me to insert an exhortation and prophecy of my own here. Many in my generation of evangelicals have held dispensational eschatological chart-drawing in such derision that we have been virtually paralyzed in our study of prophecy. For two generations, perhaps, we have failed to study prophecy with anything like the rigor that it deserves. We have been so afraid of being viewed as one of those Zionist, right-wing, antichrist-sniffing, culture-denying, alarmist left-overs from the Scofield, prophecy conference era that we give hardly any energy to putting the prophetic pieces together — at least not in public.
So my prophecy is that younger evangelicals who take the Bible seriously will start to feel like the paralysis of my generation was an overreaction to prophetic studies; Chris Tomlin and others will write more worship songs about the second coming; and younger scholars will not be embarrassed to write doctrinal dissertations on Daniel 9 and Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2, unintimidated by the academic scorn of futuristic possibilities.
And my exhortation is: Go for it! But in the process don’t lose any of the real gains of the last 60 years — like the chastening of our abilities to predict the end, and the full-blooded engagement with the challenges of this present day. If anything is clear from the prophets, it is that their prophecies were meant to empower present, God-centered righteousness and sacrifice for the relief of all suffering, and we know now, especially, eternal suffering.
So as we walk through Isaiah 11 we will not be able to avoid some of these prophetic perplexities and controversies. But O, the riches that are here and are clear.
Chapter 11 has four parts, as I see it. First, verses 1–5 give a description of the Son of David and the way he rules his kingdom. Second, verses 6–9 give a description of the peace of that global kingdom where the knowledge of God fills the earth and the wolf lies down with the lamb (v. 9). Third, verse 10 says that the nations of the world come to the Messiah and find rest in his glory. And fourth, verses 11–16 show the gathering of the remnant of Israel “from the four corners of the earth” (v. 12).
Part One: Isaiah 11:1–5: The character of the Shoot of Jesse, the Son of David, and how he rules
Verse 1: “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.” This is very similar to Isaiah 61 which Jesus applied to himself in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” And so Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy. He was the shoot from the stump of Jesse.
Verse 2: “The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” Wisdom and understanding are the foundation for being able to give good counsel and rule well with might. And the aim of all counsel and power is to know the Lord and to fear the Lord, and to fill the earth with the knowledge and the fear of the Lord. So the shoot of Jesse has everything he needs to bring God’s world back from its rebellion to the knowledge of God and the fear of the Lord.
Verse 3: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” What a statement! It’s so contrary to the emotions of the world. His joy is to stand in awe of God. His joy is to tremble at the terrible prospect of displeasing God. This makes him utterly reliable in his judgments among men. Verses 3–5: “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.” His judgments are not based on the appearance or the opinions of others. His joy is in the fear of the Lord, not the fear of man.
So his rule will be just. The righteous oppressed will be vindicated, and the wicked will be killed. Paul uses these final words of verse 4 (“with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”) in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, where he says, “Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth.” That’s a reference to the second coming of Christ. Which means that Isaiah 11:1–5 includes descriptions of Jesus in his first coming and his second coming with no hint of any time lapse. This is a Mount Wilson glimpse of king Jesus as he is in his first coming and as he is in his second coming, viewed as one great mountain range of Christ’s rule. Only subsequent events and further revelation reveal how it works out.
Part Two: Isaiah 11:6–9: The peace of Christ’s global kingdom
Verse 6: “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.”
This is a picture of something radically new. The summary of the point is given in verse 9, first negatively, then positively. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Hurting forces and destructive forces that touch animals and children will be gone. How? Amazingly, Isaiah gives this reason (and it really is a ground clause in Hebrew) in verse 9b: “because the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” So it is a global kingdom. And in it is an earthly kingdom with animals. And the animals will behave according to the knowledge of God. Where the earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and no longer suppressed (as in Romans 1:18), changes even in nature are profound and pervasive. The spirit of the king — the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord — is so present and powerful that it fills the earth with the knowledge of God, and changes everything.
When will this happen? In Isaiah 65:25 these very words are repeated almost exactly. “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD” (=Isaiah 11:6, 9). And that is the climax of a paragraph in Isaiah 65 that begins, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). So we are reading a description of the new heavens and the new earth when we read of the wolf and the lamb grazing together and the child playing on the hole of the cobra.
Only there’s a glitch in the timing. In the middle of that description of the new heavens and the new earth in Isaiah 65:17–25, verse 20 says that the child that plays with the cobra, unharmed, grows up and dies in ripe old age. “No more shall there be in it [in the Jerusalem of the new earth] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.”
So here we have the new earth described as a place where animals don’t kill each other, and where children don’t die in infancy. Instead they live a long life, full of the knowledge of the Lord and then at least some of them die in very old age. And mingled with them are sinners who also live long lives, and then are cursed (65:20).
What are we to make of this — new earth with death and sin in it? One solution (the most common solution of amillennialism) is to say that these words are metaphorical, the reference really is to the final state where there is not death and no sin. Another solution (the solution of premillennialism) is to say that this is one more higher ridge in the mountain range of redemptive history where the wolf and the lamb will lie together, infant mortality will be overcome, but death and sin will not yet be completely removed.
I have read again the efforts of the best expositors I know to explain how a young man dying a hundred years old is an effective metaphor for people never dying. I haven’t been able to see it. One of the best scholars on Isaiah says, “What we have no capacity to understand can be grasped only through what we know. . . . We are dealing with metaphor.” The problem with that is: We do have a capacity to understand what it means if Isaiah said, “A young man will never die.” That is not beyond our capacity to understand. And I am not helped to grasp the perfect idea that death will be no more by the so-called metaphor that says, “The young man shall die a hundred years old.” That doesn’t seem to me like an effective metaphor of never dying.
So my suggestion is that when Isaiah 65:17 says, “Behold, I am creating (בֹורֵ֛א–qal participle) new heavens and a new earth,” he means I am creating it in stages. Its newness does not appear all at once. The first coming of the Messiah opens the first stage of the final redemption. The second coming of the Messiah opens another stage described in Isaiah 65:17–25, and at the end of that period, the final state of sinless, deathless perfection in creation will come.
To be fair, it might be true to say that historic premillennialists, like me, sometimes use fanciful speculations about how to make the conditions in the millennium work, and amillennialists sometimes use fanciful exegesis to make texts work to show there is no millennium after the second coming. Which is why, among other reasons, The Gospel Coalition does not include millennial views in its founding and defining documents — a decision that I think was a very good one. While we may not all agree how many mountain ridges there are on the way to the top of Mount Wilson, we are thrilled to agree that when the history of redemption is done, there will be no death, there will be no sin, the lion will lie down with the lamb in the new earth, and Jesus will be King.
Part Three: Isaiah 11:10: The nations of the world come to the Messiah and find rest in his glory
Verse 10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious (literally glory).” Paul quotes this verse in Romans 15:12 as something that is coming true in his own mission to the Gentiles. God means for the nations of the world to be part of the kingdom of the Messiah. The root of Jesse is a signal to all the nations of the world: Come, seek the Messiah. His rest is glory. He will welcome you. Join him.
Finally, Part Four: Isaiah 11:11–16: The gathering of the remnant of Israel from the four corners of the earth
I won’t deal with this section verse by verse, just because of time, but notice the focus on the remnant of Israel scattered among the nations. Verse 11: “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people.” The second time probably refers back to the Exodus since that’s referred to in verse 16 and because the word for “recover” is obtain by purchase which is used (in Exodus 15:16) of how God purchased Israel at the Exodus.
Verse 12: “He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” Not only are the nations to come themselves to the signal of the Messiah, but they should rejoice in the return of Israel and provide no obstacle. O, how I would love to talk with you about how this relates to Romans 11, but alas, we have already bitten off more than we can chew.
Verses 15 and 16: The Lord will make a way from Egypt and from Assyria the two greatest powers — to illustrate that no earthly power will hinder the final purposes for the world.
I come to a close with three applications.
1. Jesus Christ, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, is God’s saving signal to the nations even today. Lift it up.
Isaiah 11:10, “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples — to him shall the nations will seek” (my translation). When Paul gives an account of his calling to the nations where Christ is not named, he says in Romans 15:8–9, “Christ (the Messiah) became a servant to the circumcised . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” And then he quoted (with others) Isaiah 11:10 from the Septuagint: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:12). This is the central meaning of our time. Christ reigns to reach the nations.
The twentieth century was the century of the greatest expansion of the Christian church in the history of the world. While Europe and Canada and Australia experienced dramatic losses through secularization, South America, Africa, and Asia exploded in unprecedented ways. Whether America will follow the other Western powers into the irrelevance of total secularization and fall away from God’s great purpose for the nations, I don’t know. God owes us nothing.
But this I do know, that while the church in America has any strength at all, we should pour ourselves out for the nations — the unreached peoples of the world. We are in the days of a great prophetic fulfillment. The signal of the shoot of Jesse — Jesus Christ, crucified and risen — is being lifted up among the nations and they are streaming to the Savior of the world. I pray that you will be among the those who with their last ounce of energy will lift up the signal for the nations (Isaiah 11:10).
2. The shoot of Jesse judges with truth and calls his people to be a people of righteousness and truth.
Isaiah 11:3 says that the shoot of Jesse “shall not judge by what his eyes see,” but with righteousness he shall judge. Jesus uses these words in John 7:24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” In other words, Jesus takes a prophecy spoken about the kind of person he would be and applies it to the kind of persons we should be. Paul does the same kind of thing in Ephesians 6:14. The belt of right judgment that the shoot of Jesse wears in Isaiah 11:5 becomes the belt of truth that we should wear.
God is calling us, by the shoot of Jesse, to be people of radical truthfulness and righteousness. We do not judge by appearances. Racial differences do not make a person guilty or innocent. High standing in the corporate world or wearing a police uniform does not privilege a person before the law.
The shoot of Jesse calls us to be people of unimpeachable integrity — people of truth. People who go the extra mile in all their dealings and all their promotions and advertising to avoid giving any misleading impressions whatsoever. He is calling us to be a people who put our names on what we have written. And what others have helped us write, their names go on it too. We do not follow the dishonest ways of the world to make a buck or save a soul.
And we will get our facts right before we make judgments about other people. We will be slow to trust our first condemning impressions. We will write to people and call them, and ask if these things are so. We follow the shoot of Jesse: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he judges” (Isaiah 11:3–4). Because he is the truth and we are the people of truth. The belt of truth holds everything together.
And how was the root of Jesse so free from the craven need for human approval that he didn’t care about human appearances or rumors? Isaiah 11:3 says, “His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” That’s why. Therefore he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear. Human appearances and opinions did not intimidate him or entice him. He was free to live in absolute abandon to the truth. “His delight was in the fear of the LORD,” not the face of man. He didn’t need the vain approval of others. He had found full and lasting satisfaction by standing in awe of God. That is the key to being a radically truthful person.
3. The glory of Jesus Christ is our final home.
How did Jesus in the book of Revelation draw out the truth of Isaiah 11? He took his identity from verse 1 (“a shoot from the stump of Jesse”) and his identity from verse 10 (“the root of Jesse”) and put it like this in Revelation 22:16, “I, Jesus . . . am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Not just descendant — the shoot and branch of Isaiah 11:1, but also root of David (Isaiah 11:10). I am his source and his offspring. I am his father and his son. I am the beginning and the end.
This is how Jesus stumped the Pharisees with his own identity: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:45). Pre-existence (“Before Abraham was, I am,” John 8:58) and incarnation as the son of David (Luke 1:32).
And what is the destiny of this God-man? Isaiah 11:10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples — of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glory” (my translation). When all his work of judgment and salvation is done, he will enter his rest, his final home, and one word will describe him and it: glory. This glory is the sum of all the beauties of his person — all his wisdom and understanding and counsel and might and delight and righteousness and mercy. And this glory is the sum of all the beauties of his work — nations gathered, Israel restored, curse removed, new heaven, new earth, no harm, no destruction any more. This is his resting place. Its name will be “glory” and he will be the center. And for all who have come to the signal, every sorrow will be past and every joy imaginable will be satisfied in him. We will be home. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus.