The Jewish magazine Moment asked a number of Jewish writers, professors, rabbis, artists, and actors the following question: “What does the concept of the Messiah mean today?” Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer responded: “Years ago, a popular evangelical bumper sticker read, ‘I found it.’ The Jewish version would read, ‘I’m still looking for it.’”
There was also a Jewish bumper sticker back in the 1970s saying: “We never lost it!”
There are many different ideas among Jewish people today about the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah, living 2700 years ago, was one among many Hebrew writers to talk about the Messiah. Let us listen to what he has to say from Isaiah 11:1-10….
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
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 around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling 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 asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
This passage is all about The Hope of the Messiah, the Advent Hope. Furthermore, in this passage Isaiah tells us three major things about the coming Messiah. He tells us something about the Messiah’s fitness to rule, something about the character of his rule, and thirdly he tells us something about the result of his rule.
First, let us look at the Messiah’s fitness to rule in verses one through three.
Isaiah prophesies that the Messiah to come will be fit to rule for three reasons. First, he will be fit to rule because he will be like a shoot out of the stump of Jesse. The Messiah will be the rightful heir of King David. However, he will also be of humble origin; he will bypass all the ostentation of the Davidic house as it subsequently developed.
This image “a shoot out of the stump of Jesse” is an interesting one. As we saw last week, King Ahaz brought disaster on the southern kingdom of Judah because he chose to trust in a man, Tiglath Pileser, rather than trust in the Lord. However, as Deborah J. Winters points out, “God gives Judah the assurance that total destruction, seen in the imagery of a clear-cut forest with only tree stumps remaining, will not be the last word. God always has the last word and it is one of hope.” New life will grow from the stump of Jesse, the new life of the Messiah.
Matthew and Luke write much about this new life. They are at pains to point out that Jesus is the one who brings this new life to us; Jesus was indeed a descendant of King David. However, the Gospels also show Jesus as one of humble origin. He is, first, a carpenter’s son, from Galilee, and then a traveling preacher, dependent upon his heavenly Father, and the kindness of strangers, for his daily sustenance.
Followers of Jesus have the same marks as their master. They are a royal priesthood, but they are also a humble people.
It is said that Queen Victoria, who reigned over England for over 63 years said, “I wish Jesus would come back in my lifetime. I would lay my crown at his feet.” That is what each of us need to do every day. Rather than be kings and queens of our own lives, we need to lay our crowns at the feet of the only one who has the right to rule our lives: King Jesus.
The second reason Isaiah says the Messiah will be fit to rule is because he will be endowed with the Spirit, giving him true wisdom, grounded in the fear of the Lord. Isaiah draws a contrast between the Messiah to come and the current kings of his age who, like Ahaz, have a false wisdom arising from a fear of men rather than God (7:2).
Cornelius Plantinga once wrote,
[Part] of the equipment we need for life in a secular setting is the ability to discern spirits. It takes advanced Christian training to learn to tell the difference between, say, patriotism and chauvinism, between piety that is superficial and piety that is profound, between the mind of humanism and the mind of Christ. Trying to do this in a secular college is like trying to diet at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Our contemporary culture does not really offer us much in the way of wisdom. Lots of information, yes, but little if any wisdom is on offer. For wisdom, we must turn to the one on whom the Spirit rests, King Jesus.
The third reason Isaiah says the Messiah will be fit to rule is because: “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord”. N. T. Wright points out that the Hebrew word for “delight” actually means “smell”.
This may be just a metaphor, borrowed perhaps from the cultic contexts in which God delights in the pleasing odour of sacrifices, but the reason for taking it thus is our modern, Western downgrading of the sense of smell as the most accurate judge of situations and people. It may sound absurd to us, but to this day in several cultures there are people who stand at the doors of churches, and for that matter mosques, and refuse people admission on the grounds that they carry with them a scent of evil. Some animals, of course, can arrive at accurate judgements of people on similar grounds.
The point of this surprising comment in Isaiah is that the Messiah, when he comes, will judge with fine-honed accuracy. Eyes may deceive; ears may listen to powerful voices; but the Messiah’s justice will have a sense of smell, attuned by the fear of the Lord, through which wickedness will be identified and dealt with. Out of this sharp-edged judgement, cutting through the fuzzy half-truths with which so much of our human discourse is saturated, will come the time of peace, of harmony, of wolves lying down with lambs, of the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
The second major thing Isaiah tells us about the Messiah in this passage is something about the character of his rule in verses three through five.
The fundamental characteristic of the rule of the Messiah will be righteousness. The manner in which this will be manifested is in justice for the poor and the meek. Again, Isaiah draws a contrast with the current kings of his day who failed to provide justice (3:12-15).
The Messiah, again by contrast, will be able to provide perfect justice because of his perfect knowledge, a perfect smell of what is right, as N. T. Wright has pointed out for us.
There is a strong suggestion in this, and in the power of the Messiah’s word, that he will be more than an ordinary mortal. There is something of the air and the smell of the divine about him.
In his book, Simply Christian, N. T. Wright begins his chapter entitled “Putting the World to Rights” with the following personal story:
I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing is that I can’t remember what it was about. I had a flash of it as I woke up, enough to make me think how extraordinary and meaningful it was; and then it was gone…. Our passion for justice often seems like that. We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse, for a moment, a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently…. and then we wake up and come back to reality.
According to Wright, our longing for justice “comes with the kit of being human.” Unfortunately, although we all strive for justice, we often fail to achieve it. As Wright says,
You fall off your bicycle and break your leg. You go to the hospital and they fix it. You stagger around on crutches for awhile. Then, rather gingerly, you start to walk normally again…. There is such a thing as putting something to rights, as in fixing it, as getting it back on track. You can fix a broken leg, a broken toy, a broken television. So why can’t we fix injustice. It isn’t for lack of trying.
And yet, in spite of failures to fix injustice, we keep dreaming that one day all broken things will be set right. Wright contends, “Christians believe this is so because all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live [with a dream for justice]. And [followers of Christ] believe that in Jesus that voice became human and did what had to be done to bring it about.”
The third major thing Isaiah tells us about the Messiah in this passage is something about the ideal state of affairs that will result from the Messiah’s rule in verses six through ten.
The effect of the rule of the Messiah will be, as we saw last week, universal peace. Isaiah’s language recalls the paradise of Eden. The entire creation will be set to rights. The whole earth, not merely Jerusalem or Zion, will become the Lord’s holy mountain. The Messiah’s reign will be experienced everywhere. Isaiah looks beyond the disappointments of his own time to the coming of an ideal state of affairs that we now know will only be realized with the Second Coming of Christ. We are given a more complete picture of the coming glorious dwelling of the Messiah at the end of the book of Revelation.
However, as I pointed out last week, the Messiah’s universal rule of peace is not simply something we should hope for in the future, it is also something we need to work toward now. Deborah Winter asks some very pertinent questions in this regard:
Can Jews and Palestinians learn to live together? Can Muslims and Christians and Jews coexist free of hatred? Or persons of faith and atheists? Or, heaven forbid, spouses and their in-laws? Can any two groups of people who traditionally can’t stand each other really learn to live together in peace?
That is Isaiah’s vision. That is the vision that Jesus lived out on this earth. That is the vision Jesus wants his church to be known by.
Deborah Winter finds it interesting that the same vision of hope is evoked in our cultural Christmas stories told at this time of year. In the television program, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the dreaded abominable snowman is ready to eat Rudolf and his parents. However, with the help of the misfit elf dentist, Hermey, the abominable snowman chooses friendship, and he uses his gift of height to help rather than harm others when he puts the star atop the community Christmas tree.
Deborah Winter concludes that if even the cultural Christmas stories we tell our children convey something of the hope of Advent, then maybe, as we follow the little child who came as Prince of Peace, his vision of peace and hope can be realized in our church and in our world.