The Rod of Jesse, a Banner for the Nations (Isaiah 11:1-16)
This is the fifth in a short series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you will want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here). My goal in this eschatological adventure is two-fold. First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord. Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church. In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP. Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
We must examine this OTKP at length, seeing that it is likely the single most popular OT bastion of premillennialism. Scofield asserts, “This chapter is a prophetic picture of the glory of the future kingdom, which will be set up when David’s Son returns in glory.” Walvoord agrees, saying, “Isaiah 11 paints the graphic picture of the reign of Christ on earth, a scene which cannot be confused with the present age, the intermediate state (i.e., heaven), or the eternal state, if interpreted in any normal literal sense.” Grudem advances the same argument, observing, “It does seem, therefore, that (here in Isaiah 11) the eternal state has not begun, yet the reversal of nature far exceeds anything that will happen in this present age. Does this not indicate a future millennial kingdom?” The answer to Grudem’s question is, “Yes, it might indicate a millennial kingdom, if Isaiah had said anything at all about one thousand years; if the NT had given us liberty to interpret this Kingdom prophecy in ‘any normal literal sense;’ and if we were not under strict NT orders to recognize that the true sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP is the New Covenant in Christ, the two-staged Kingdom it introduces, and the Church that it creates. Let us therefore once again take in hand the NCH, and let us see once again how illuminating and uplifting this approach can be for the NT people of God. To begin with, it is important to understand that Isaiah 11 is actually a string of four related, but distinct, OTKP’s: Isaiah 11:1-5, 6-9, 10, 11-16. This is clear not only from the unique substance of each prophecy, but also from that fact that two of them are introduced by the expression “In that Day,” a phrase that signals the beginning of a new Kingdom promise. We must, then, not conflate the four OTKP’s into a single prophecy, as our premillennarian brothers do, but recognize that their eschatological spheres of fulfillment may differ, with some looking ahead to the Kingdom of the Son, others to the Kingdom of the Father, and others still to both.
Isaiah 11:1-4 might be entitled The Reign of Israel’s Messiah. Its purpose is briefly to reveal the design, course, and universal impact of his kingship. The NT tells us that this prophecy is fulfilled in the Person and Work of Christ, especially in his heavenly mediatorial reign. Born to Joseph and Mary (both descendants of David), Jesus is a shoot springing up from the (seemingly dead) stump of Jesse, David’s father. He is the one whom God has appointed to restore the eschatological Davidic dynasty (i.e., the Church), spiritually reviving it, ruling over it, and making it into an eternally fruitful royal family (v. 1, Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32, Acts 15:12-21, 1 Peter. 2:9, Rev. 22:16). In order that he might have wisdom and power to do so, the Father anoints him with the Holy Spirit (v.2). This first occurs at the river Jordan (Mt. 3:16, John 1:32), where Jesus is equipped for his earthly ministry; but then again, in still fuller measure, at the Father’s own right hand, where he how receives all authority in heaven and earth, so as to spearhead the advance of the Gospel in the earth below (v.2, Mt. 28:18, John 5:19-29, Acts 2:33, Rev. 5:6-7). Henceforth, with a perfect justice not displayed in Israel’s former kings, he “decides with fairness for the poor,” granting eternal life to all who, by God’s grace, recognize their own poverty of spirit, and so decide for him and the Gospel (vv. 3-4a, Mt. 5:3, Luke 18:9-14, 1 Cor. 1:26-31). When at last the Era of Proclamation and Probation draws to a close, he comes again in power and glory to judge the world righteousness, gathering his resurrected Church safely to his side in the air, but striking the earth itself with the rod of his mouth, and slaying the impenitent wicked with the breath of his lips (vv. 4b-5, 1 Thess. 4:13ff, 2 Thess. 2:8, 2 Peter 3, Rev. 19:5). With this, the Days of the Messiah’s heavenly reign come to an end, and the World to Come is about to begin.
Appropriately enough, The World to Come is the theme of Isaiah’s next OTKP, 11:6-9. Here we have, not a photograph, but a covenantally conditioned picture of life in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Recalling both the original peace of Eden, and also God’s promise in the Law that he would protect his obedient people from the wild animals of Canaan (Lev. 26:21-22), the prophet uses OT language and imagery to give us a glimpse and foretaste of the perfect harmony of the Church (here represented as the children of God) and nature in the glorious World to Come (vv.6-8). Will such a world actually include animals, animals from which Christ, at the resurrection of the dead, has lifted every burden of the curse? Romans 8:18-25 certainly suggests it. That this is the correct interpretation of vv. 6-8 is seen from v. 9, a capstone for the entire prophecy. It too describes the World to Come, only this time under different imagery. Now it has become God’s holy mountain, for it is the place of his eternal rest, just as Zion, in OT times, was the place of his temporary rest (2 Chron. 132:13-14, Psalm 132:13-14). Note carefully that in those days the earth will be fully filled with the knowledge of the LORD, even as the waters fully cover the sea. This is no Millennium, where good and evil, life and death, and saints and sinners mingle together. No, this is the New Heavens and the New Earth, whose true nature is here seen dimly, as in a mirror, but in the NT, “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12, 2 Cor. 3:12-18, Rev. 21-22).
In verse 10 we have Isaiah’s third OTKP. This one is fulfilled in both stages of the Kingdom, though because of its close association with 11:11-16, it seems fair to say that the accent falls primarily on the Kingdom of the Son. In the days of his heavenly reign, the nations will resort to the (divine) root of Jesse. How? The NT answer is clear: The Church, through her preaching of the Gospel, will lift up Christ, just like an army that lifts up its standard (John 12:32). The result will be that “nations” of believers from every tribe, tongue, and people flow to him for salvation (Rev. 7:9). In those days, says Isaiah, Christ’s resting place will be glory. This could mean that his place of rest is heaven, where also believers who trust in his finished work are resting with him by faith (Eph. 1:20, 2:6, Heb. 4:3). Or it could mean that his preferred place of rest is his Church, which, by his Spirit, has received his glory (John 14:15-18, 17:22). Perhaps it means both. This prophecy will also be fulfilled in the Kingdom of the Father; for once having resorted to Christ for salvation, it is certain that the worshiping nations of the redeemed will resort to him ever after, giving continual thanks to the One Mediator between God and man, who so graciously and everlastingly has secured their home, with him, in a glorious new world to come (Eph. 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:5, Rev. 5:8-14, 7:9-17, 22:2).
The fourth and final prophecy, Isaiah 11:11-16, may be called Israel’s Second Exodus. Its sphere of fulfillment is the first phase of the Kingdom, the Era of Gospel Proclamation and Probation, in which God rescues his eschatological people from spiritual Egypt (i.e., the Domain of Darkness) and leads them into the Promised Land of his Kingdom. In v. 11, the Spirit speaks of the regathering of God’s remnant. While this may indeed allude to the Jewish restoration under Cyrus, the true focus is upon eschatological Israel: the Church, the elect remnant of humanity. The Father will draw her to Christ out of many (i.e., all) nations, for her members are scattered throughout the four corners of the earth (v. 12, John 6:44, Rev. 7:1ff). In verses 12-13, God promises that as they gather together in faith beneath his exalted Banner (i.e., Christ), the nations of the redeemed—long exiled from the primordial unity of Eden—will find that former enmities and divisions such as those that troubled Judah and Ephraim are miraculously dissolved in the oneness of the Body of Christ and in the unity of the Holy Spirit (Gen. Gen. 3:24, John 17: 20-23, 1 Cor. 12:12-3, Eph. 2:11-22, 4:1-6, Col. 3:15). Verse 14 uses concrete OT imagery to depict the eschatological triumph of the Church over the hostile world system: Just as ancient Israel swooped down victoriously upon her enemies to the North, South, East, and West, so the Church will triumph over her foes worldwide —whether by evangelistic success or in a final administration of divine retribution (2 Cor. 2:14-16, Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:2). Again alluding to the exodus event, verses 15-16 bring the prophecy to a close by promising a latter day Red Sea crossing; indeed, many such crossings, by which God’s far-flung people may walk safe, sound, and “dry shod” upon a highway of holiness straight into the Promised Land (Isaiah 55:8, 40:3-5, 57:14). The highway is the Person and Work of Christ, and the Promised Land is the spiritual Kingdom into which he effectually calls the New Covenant Israel of God (John 10:16, 14:6, Col. 1:13). What a joy to see how the NCH rescues Isaiah 11 from a distant, fictitious future, and brings it home into the hearts and lives of all who even now love and serve the High King of Heaven!