The Reign of the Branch
Text: Isaiah 11:1-10
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
Last week we mentioned that Advent is a time when the church commemorates the coming of Jesus as the messiah and looks forward to His second coming at the end of history. In that sermon, we made the point that a good many of the Old Testament prophecies about the messiah and His work were fulfilled in the first century, in the first coming of Christ and in the creation of the church.
This week we are going to continue with that theme, and we are going to do so by looking at one specific prophecy, Isaiah 11. We will see how Isaiah 11 predicts that the messiah will restore Israel from its fallen condition. But this prophecy says that the messiah will do much more than that. The messiah will judge the whole earth. This does mean that He will punish evildoers. But it also means that He will establish true justice on the earth, and by the end of His work, He will establish worldwide peace. All men will live together in harmony, and Isaiah even gives us a picture of the animal kingdom restored to its original Edenic state.
Now, this quite obviously did not all happen with the messiah’s first advent. We have not yet overcome war, violence, and death, and the Earth is not yet “full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” But, as we will see, the New Testament does claim that some of these verses were indeed fulfilled in Christ’s first coming. We’ll look at that this morning, and we will see both the “already” and the “not yet” of this prophecy’s fulfillment. Both come together in the person of Jesus Christ, beginning in the 1st century and continuing to unfold until He comes again.
Brief Overview of Isaiah
Isaiah is a big book—a really big book, actually—and so it might be helpful to summarize it briefly. Isaiah prophesies near the end of the kingdom of Judah, but not quite the final end. He lives during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Is. 1:1), and if Jewish rabbinical tradition is to be believed, Isaiah lived into the time of Manasseh, who eventually put him to death. This means that Isaiah lived during the time when the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, but before Judah was conquered by Babylon and taken off into captivity.
Isaiah is a close counselor of King Hezekiah, and the center of the book of Isaiah depicts the narrative of Hezekiah’s showdown with and miraculous victory over Sennacherib (Is. 36-39). This same scene appears in 2 Kings 19 and 20 in more detail. Isaiah knows that this is only temporary, however, and so the second half of the book of Isaiah predicts that Babylon will come next and that they will defeat Judah. Isaiah is even able to see into the time of the Persians, and he mentions Cyrus the Great by name. This is about 200 years before Cyrus defeats the Babylonians, and so Isaiah’s prophecies address events that will happen in his own lifetime and events that will come after a few generations.
But Isaiah also gives pictures of complete worldwide restoration, and he says that this will happen when the messiah comes. He mentions the messiah all throughout his prophecy. Some appear in the early chapters. Some in the latter chapters. In fact, the first 12 chapters actually summarize the entire prophecy, beginning with the imminent judgment that is to come upon Israel and taking us all the way to the final consummation of all things, worldwide catastrophe but also worldwide restoration, all finally accomplished by a miraculously-born child who grows up to become king and to restore the kingdom of David and inherit all of the nations.
The Reign of the Branch
Our text this morning comes at the end of those first chapters. It tells of the situation after God has brought judgment and destruction, and then it predicts how God will bring redemption. This redemption is not only a national restoration of Israel. It is worldwide salvation, and it even includes the animal kingdom. Verses 6-8 are vivid and earthy. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb… the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
Many commentators state that this is symbolic language, and that’s fine to a point. But why are the symbols meaningful and appropriate? It’s because they send a message of peace and, even more than that, the absence of suffering and agony. Eventually, as we confess, the Christian view of salvation achieves the absence of death. We will have everlasting life, and the picture at the end of the Bible is a new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 21:1). Whatever is symbolic in the presentation, the big idea has to still be there. All that was lost by Adam is restored by the Messiah.
Now why is he called a branch? Why use the language of a mere root putting forth a tiny shoot that eventually grows into something mighty? This is picking up on an image that has already been in use. God often describes His people as a garden, a bush, or a tree. And He has done this already in Isaiah. Look back at Is. 10:16-19, “He will kindle a burning like the burning of a fire… It will burn and devour His thorns and his briers in one day. And it will consume the glory of his forest and of his fruitful field.”
God is the one who has brought the judgment. He burned down the forest and chopped down the tree. He used human instruments to do this, and Isaiah mentions them: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. But behind it all, it was the work of God.
This judgment was deserved. It was because of Israel’s sins and idolatries. But God does not leave them in condemnation. Even though they deserve it, God still keeps His promise to be a savior. He doesn’t even start over with a new plan. He takes that same tree, stump though it may be, and He brings up a small shoot from it in order to make it something glorious. This shoot becomes a Branch, and it eventually it becomes a grand tree once again.
Of course, this is a metaphor, and the Branch is actually a person. This person will be blessed by God and given “the Spirit of the LORD” (Is. 11:2). The word lord is in all caps, and so that means that in the original Hebrew it says Yahweh. This is the covenant God of Israel, and He gives His own Spirit to this Branch to allow Him to judge.
Judgment includes decision-making and ruling on the law. But it also includes executing the judgment and bringing about justice. So we see that the Branch will “judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (vs. 4). It is precisely because the Branch defeats the bad guys and delivers the innocent that the worldwide reign of peace can be possible.
Once the Branch completes His work, we will have a restored Garden of Eden. This will be worldwide, “a banner to the people” and to “the Gentiles” (Is. 11:10). This means that God’s covenant was not only for Israel but actually reached all the way back to Adam. This Branch will be the savior of all mankind.
Who is this Branch?
Isaiah made this prophecy around the year 740 BC. The “Branch” would be someone in Isaiah’s future, though it’s hard to know how far away the original audience would have assumed that future would be. If you look for other references in the Old Testament prophets, you can see this same “Branch” prophesied in Zechariah, once in chapter 3:8 and then again in 6:12-13. He also seems to show up in Jeremiah 23 and again in 33.
Zechariah is about two hundred years after Isaiah, after the Persians conquered the Babylonians and sent the Jews back home. That was the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Jews rebuilt the temple, and Zechariah’s prophecy is all about a rebuilt temple. Listen to Zechariah 6:11-15:
Take the silver and gold, make an elaborate crown, and set it on the head of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Then speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, saying:
“Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His place He shall branch out, and He shall build the temple of the Lord; yes, He shall build the temple of the Lord. He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule on His throne; so He shall be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”’
“Now the elaborate crown shall be for a memorial in the temple of the Lord for Helem, Tobijah, Jedaiah, and Hen the son of Zephaniah. Even those from afar shall come and build the temple of the Lord. Then you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you. And this shall come to pass if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
Anyone familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy would have immediately connected it with Zechariah’s. Does this mean that Joshua the high priest is the Branch?
People have thought Joshua the high priest was the prophesied Branch while the temple was being rebuilt, but they would have figured out pretty soon that there was more to the story. After all, the Branch is supposed to judge the whole earth, bring the Gentiles into God’s covenant, and establish a restored and harmonious world. This did not happen during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and it wasn’t long until the Jews were back under foreign oppression. The Greeks and then the Romans followed after the Persians. And even that temple was never quite what it was supposed to be. If you continue reading in Zechariah’s prophecy, you can see that even there they were expecting a giant future event, the arrival of the LORD in the midst of Zion (Zech. 8:3) and the expansion of the “Holy Mountain” throughout all the earth. This didn’t happen at that time.
Another complication is that this Branch is supposed to be a king. Zechariah hints at that with the reference to sitting on a throne and wearing a crown, but it’s still a sort of priest. Perhaps it’s a priest-king, some combination of both in one office. And when we look at Jeremiah’s “Branch,” we are also told that Branch will be a king. In fact, he will be a descendent of David:
In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David a Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. …David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel (Jer. 33:15, 17)
Joshua the High Priest was not this person, and as would be plain, he did not produce heirs for David’s kingdom. Someone else would have to come later.
When we get to the New Testament, many of these themes are images are picked up. Jesus does wear a crown. He does predict the destruction and rebuilding of the temple. And we are told in Hebrews that Jesus is a priest-king, of the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5-7). The Branch is also mentioned again, in Revelation 5:5. There it says, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” The “Branch” is called “Root of Jesse” in Is. 11:10, and it is evident that the same person is in view. This means that Jesus is the Branch.
Now if Jesus is the Branch, do we believe that He actually did what the Branch was supposed to do? Are we being fair with our application? Let’s consider. We also mentioned the business about the temple. Jesus proclaimed a new temple, which we find out is His body. It is his literal and physical body, and then it is extended to His corporate body, the church. As it says in 1 Peter 2:5, Eph. 2:21-22, 1 Cor. 3:16, and Hebrews 3:6, we are now the temple of God, a holy house and dwelling place in which God lives by His Spirit.
Jesus also brought in the Gentiles. We see this in a seed form with the visitation of the wise men, but things really explode in the book of Acts and then with the ministry of Paul. It’s easy for us to forget, but the fact that Christianity is a majority “Gentile” religion today is a fulfillment of messianic prophecy. In fact, Romans 15:12 cites this very passage from Isaiah as the reason that the Gentiles are beginning to enter into the church. God was never interested in only one nation but promised to use that one nation to be the vehicle by which salvation came to the world.
There are some “not-yet” aspects to this prophecy, however. We do not have world peace yet. While Christ has “struck the nations” in many important ways, He has not fully judged all of the wicked. He has not made it to where there is no war, and we cannot say that the knowledge of the LORD has filled the earth “as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). There is still more to be done. He has given that judgment to the church, through the preaching of the gospel and discipleship of the nations, and Christ promises to make that ministry effective to bring about His promise. We are not told exactly how this will unfold, or how long it will take, and we know that it will have ebbs and flows, ups and downs. Still this is a promise of the messiah’s work that we are called to believe.
Now, have we made progress towards this end? Has the gospel gone out into the world?
A great danger for many of us is to have a short-sighted, and often self-centered, view of world history. If we are feeling up, then things are good, and if we are feeling down, then things must be going wrong. And, more often than not, we are feeling down, and so we think of everything else as being down. But God’s kingdom is much bigger than us. It’s bigger than this year or this decade, and it’s bigger than our culture and our country. We have to look at what God is going over the long-haul.
Take Israel. It was cut down to a stump, and God sent them a Messiah to build something glorious again. And from that small little band of early Christians, God began to spread the gospel. It made it to Spain, Ethiopia, and India by the end of the 1st century. It was in England by the 2nd. By the middle of the 4th, the Roman Emperor converted, and he made Christianity the dominant religion across the Mediterranean world. Throughout the Middle Ages, it spread across Northern Europe. And then with the age of discovery, the gospel came to the Americas and Australia. Today missionaries are all throughout Africa and southeast Asia, and there are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are in England. Some people have estimated that China is already home to the largest population of believers. It’s incredible to consider how that happened.
And so while there certainly are “not yet” features to Isaiah 11, which look forward to, we should notice how God has been chipping away at completing it—and making astounding progress. We aren’t all the way to a new Eden, but we are lot closer than we used to be. Notice that, and give thanks. Consider all of the blessings you have which previous generations longed for. Men lived and died trying to attain bibles in their own languages, and now we all have 30 in our pocket. We can worship freely according to our conscience, and at this church, we can do things which John Calvin wanted to do but was prevented due to his time and place. We also have the incredible opportunity of having nearly all nations right on our front step. The world has come to us. Give thanks and make the most of it!
This Advent season, I would like to ask you all to continue to long for gospel progress. Pray for it. Ask God to bring it about. And I would ask you to do your part in helping bring it about, and that means evangelism. Tell others about the messiah, and bring them into the temple of our God, the church.
Let us pray.