Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Advent 2 – Isaiah 11:1-10

One of the things I use in my teaching is the klaxon sound from the ‘General  Ignorance’ section of TV quiz QI. Contestants are asked questions to which the answers seem obvious, but when they (invariably) get them wrong the screen flashes with their wrong answers and a loud klaxon announces their stupidity, to the audience’s collective delight. I often use this device in my lecturing work, and today’s passage provides a classic example of its application. If I were to ask you to whom the prophet is referring in talking about the shoot from Jesse’s stump, I suspect you would immediately answer ‘Jesus!’  Well at that point the klaxon would go mad!

Last week we thought about the situation into which Isaiah was writing. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians who had to all intents and purposes wiped the nation out. Now they  had turned their attention southwards, and Jerusalem had been besieged. It was a desperately scary time in Judah’s history, yet the prophet could speak out a vision of what lay beyond the present troubles. He paints what we might be tempted to call a somewhat fanciful picture of the peace and harmony which was to come, when even the natural enemies of the animal kingdom would live together without feeling the need to eat one another. And, as we mentioned last week, the foreign nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem to learn from the God of the Jews. All this was going to come through a new king, from the Davidic line, who, as a Spirit-filled leader would rule with wisdom, justice and equity. So as Christians today we naturally think ‘Jesus’. Isaiah’s contemporaries, however, would hear him very differently.

A new king, Hezekiah, had recently come to the throne, and the nation’s hopes lay in him. He had set out on a series of reforms, attempting to rid the nation of idolatry, renewing the worship through the priestly and Levitical ministries, calling the rich influencers back to the true worship of God, and restoring the welcome to outsiders at Judah’s worship festivals. These policies appeared to be going down well, and the more spiritually-minded Jews welcomed even more of the same, which would help them to achieve Isaiah’s dream. His words must have been heard as a prediction for the continuation of Hezekiah’s just reign.

Yet ultimately this was not to happen, and Hezekiah failed to provide the magic bullet which would bring in this idyllic existence. His reign ended not in total disaster, but in some less that helpful ways, and the nation’s decline was not ultimately halted. Rather than the remaining stragglers from the North finding a home in Judah,  Jerusalem was destroyed and the people went into exile in Babylon. Whatever good he might have achieved, Hezekiah did not turn out to be the Saviour of the Universe for whom the people had hoped. Still today we are waiting for this glorious state of affairs to become reality, but with the benefit of hindsight we now do believe that only king Jesus, when his reign is fully manifested. So maybe no klaxon after all.

During Advent we focus on that future reign of Jesus, and the glorious life of the world to come, but this passage gives us a profound and vital message as we too live through a period of great threat and crisis. In particular it warns us against pinning our hopes onto any human leader, a trait which has been common in our culture since the 17th century. Now that we have scientists, we can easily believe that in their hands lies the healthy future of our planet. Or we can pin our hopes onto the next leader, whether red, yellow or green, who will get rid of this evil lot and turn our fortunes. The more a nation lets go of God, the more human solutions are the only options. Yet like Hezekiah all of them will ultimately fail, because like all of us they have feet of clay.

Advent, then, provides for us a healthy reminder that no human being is up to the job of being Saviour of the Universe. It reminds us of our need of a Saviour with more than merely human power and authority. It reminds us to look not to human resources, but to God’s throne in heaven from where he will ultimately come and reign in the new heavens and new earth. Yes, we pray for our human leaders, but above all we pray for the reign of God to be manifest among us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. Our hope is in nothing less.

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