Covenant in Isaiah, Part 2

This post and those to follow are extracts from a draft chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 (forthcoming, d.v.). Read the series.

Isaiah 11

A great monarch, called the “Branch” (Isa. 11:1. Cf. 4:2) will be possessed of the Holy Spirit (11:2). His wisdom and justice will be equal to Yahweh (11:2-4). Already Isaiah has taught us that this person will be miraculously conceived by a virgin (7:14 cf. Gen. 3:15), and no wonder, because He will be “Immanuel”—God with us.

Now we understand more clearly the import of Micah’s words about the coming One, “Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2), and our thoughts are turned to “the one who breaks open” of Micah 2:13. In Isaiah chapter 9 we come across an extraordinary personage “called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6). He is of Davidic origin (9:7), just as this mighty and benevolent king in Isaiah 11:1 (cf. the Ruler from Bethlehem in Micah 5:2). The details are clamoring for attention: the Prophets speak together of a great Potentate who will hail from Judah (Gen. 49:10; Mic.5:2), from David’s line (1 Chron. 17:12-14; Isa. 9:7). He will rule in wisdom and righteousness and equity, aided by God’s Spirit (Isa.11:2, 4-5). As Dumbrell indicates, His concern with righteousness and faithfulness (Isa. 11:5) shows His allegiance to God’s covenants.1

The Gift and Names of a King

But this person will be more than just an ideal human king. His ancient provenance (Mic. 5:2), and special titles (Isa.7:14; 9:6) show Him to have close affinities with Yahweh Himself. He will be “wonderful,” like no other ruler in human history. Isaiah 9:6 refers to Him as “mighty God” (El Gibbor).2 Whoever this person of Isaiah 2 and 11 is then, even from the prophet’s perspective, He is very possibly divine! By “everlasting Father” or “Father of eternity” is probably meant “protector of the people,” although He will remain so in perpetuity.3 The verse ought never to be misconstrued as equating this king with God the Father. Although the description of Him as “everlasting” points to His divinity, the name “Father” does not.4

The first three names of Isaiah 9:6, along with the promise of the virgin born “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14,5 could easily lead someone to the conclusion that God Himself will be this promised Ruler, this “great light” (Isa. 9:2). Who else could preside over a world where the reaper could overtake the sower? (Amos 9:13). Or bring about shalom among men and among the animal kingdom? (Hos. 2:18). And if one is making connections with previous revelation, then who else could vanquish Satan (Gen. 3:15)? The Psalmist had spoken about an individual so exalted that He was seated at God’s right hand until the kingdom was given to Him (Psa. 110:1).6 In fact Psalm 45:6 alluded both to His divine nature and the “scepter of righteousness” that He would wield (cf. Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17; Psa. 2:8-12).

The fourth name of Isaiah 9:6 is “Prince of peace.” This peace is what Micah 4, Isaiah 2 and 32 envisage. The Prince of peace doesn’t negotiate peace, He exudes peace! His shalom influences the coming New covenant Kingdom which He is present in.

The early chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy bring many strands of hope together, and they all coalesce around one man, whom the prophet speaks of variously as the Branch, Immanuel, the Servant. Further on in the Book more information will be added, although some of it will be perplexing in light of what has been said (i.e. Isa. 53). Yet it will not be contradictory. But the strong kingdom promises within the great covenants (Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic), require a special key to unlock them. That key is salvation from sin.

There is no kingdom or participation in the kingdom without atonement.7

Will atonement too be accomplished by this Divine Ruler? And if so, how will He accomplish it?

The Man who is the “Branch”

The answer to these questions lies ahead of us. The reintroduction of the “Branch” from the Davidic line alludes to a kingly figure who will rule, not only over Israel, but the whole created order.8 As such the person of the “Branch” is a king par excellence.9 But in the setting of Isaiah 11 there are more extraordinary things of which to make mention.

After the opening description of the Branch of verses 1-5 there comes an enthralling description of a transformation of the instinct and temperament of the wild beasts of the earth:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

The language is poetic, but ought not to drive us to conclude that it is not literal; that poetry cannot describe reality. The passage is in full agreement with what we have already read in Hosea. If one is going to reject a plain sense interpretation of these verses and instead force them, in the name of prophetic imagery, to refer to the eternal state, or to inward psychological composure, the whole kingdom picture as these prophets have described it starts to dissolve in the acid waters of ecclesial tradition and theological interpretation.10 For our part though, we embrace them, along with all their depictions of Edenic restoration (see esp. Isa. 51:3). Why would the Woman’s Seed of Genesis 3:15 not restore the same world that sin had ruined? Where have we yet encountered any hint of typological or spiritual fulfillment? More than this, it is the covenants themselves that supply the interpretation of these passages. It is safer to follow them rather than those who would persuade us that it is all symbolic because they read the Bible backwards.11

The key reason given for the quelling of carnivorous and rapacious activity among the animals is found in Isaiah 11:9: “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In place of the knowledge of God resulting in the pacification of human violence (as in Isa. 2), here the focus is upon the animal kingdom. In that realm too the presence of the one called the “Branch” is the crucial factor in the renovation of the physical world and the change in animal inclinations. There will be a deep lying constraint upon the dispositions of creatures that will assure that they “will not hurt nor destroy” in the coming kingdom.

And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And His resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

The “Root of Jesse” is the same individual as the Branch (Isa. 11:1). But this name designates him as Davidic. It is a descendant of David to whom Israel will look for full restoration and prosperity. But not Israel alone. The Gentile nations will also look to Him (11:12b). His “resting place” (i.e. His place of repose) will be so glorious that it will attract all peoples to it. It will be the center of the great kingdom. The prophet Amos had already included the Gentiles in the end time kingdom at the close of his book (Amos 9:12).12 Isaiah follows suit here in showing that the blessed influence of the Davidic King will not only affect Israel. This is of course in line with the third main feature of the Abrahamic covenant; the blessing upon all nations (Gen. 12:3; 22:18).

Now the question that naturally arises is, if this tranquility is restricted to the holy mountain of the Lord or if it is felt worldwide.13 In the first place, the “holy mountain” in the passage is the source of the blessing because it is the source of the transforming knowledge. But Isaiah indicates that the knowledge itself is widespread, the analogy of the waters covering the sea leaving the distinct impression that it will pervade the whole creation.

As Isaiah 11 moves on the prophet speaks of a second exodus; one from the various parts of the Middle East (11:11). This second exodus is not, as is often suggested by supersessionists, purely literary. It is an actual, literal, migration.14

But as well as facilitating Israel’s return, God will see to it that their oppressors are summarily dealt with (Isa. 11:14-15). Even some premillennial interpreters have difficulty explaining how such aggressive actions fit within the envisioned serenity of the Branch’s reign. I think the answer is that the prophetic viewpoint can speak to more than one reference point within the same basic time-frame. The prophets will often sandwich together things that occur in and around the onset of the new era under Christ, and this will frequently mean that the time that will come to be known as “Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer. 30:5) will be included within the same context as descriptions of the golden age. Sometimes accompanying these two events of tribulation and peaceful reign there is this third feature; that of the rescued remnant of Israel turning upon their persecutors and subordinating them (cf. Deut. 30:1-8).15

The final prediction of the chapter involves a major geographical change:

There will be a highway for the remnant of His people who will be left from Assyria, as it was for Israel in the day that he came up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:16)

The Lord—probably Christ at His second coming (cf. Mal. 4:1-2)—will make a physical path from Egypt by forming seven navigable channels. This reminds us of the Exodus, but, as the next verse shows, it is not confined to Egypt. Despite the temptation to discover types and motifs, nothing typological is said to be occurring. The Jews need to get back to Israel, and this is the way the Lord facilitates that return. Their arrival and restoration causes the remnant to break into national thanksgiving (Isa. 12:4-6).

Notes

1 William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 92

2 This same name is used to refer to Yahweh in the following chapter (Isa. 10:21), as well as in Jeremiah 32:18.

3 “In connection with Yahweh, the king is indeed the “son” but, in the relationship with the people, he is the “father” in approximately the same way one might speak of “city fathers” in English.”—Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 404-405. Cf. E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament, 1.450-451.

4 Derek Thomas, God Delivers: Isaiah Simply Explained (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 1991), 95

5 I do think that on its own, within its historical setting, the full import of this prophecy may not have been appreciated. But the fact that the Lord gave king Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a sign, “without any restriction” (Hengstenberg, 1.406) meant that there was more significance to the “sign” than might have been appreciated. This is also a good example of human freewill and divine determination working concurrently in history.

6 “When God, according to Psalm 110, says to the Davidic king: “Sit at my right hand”… [a]nd when Yahweh is able to address the Davidic king as his son [Psa.2:7. Cf. Isa. 9:6], then it is not a very big step for him to openly be called a divine being.”— Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12, 408

7 Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 156

8 “Isaiah 9:1-7 and Isaiah 11 make it abundantly clear that the Davidic ruler is an extension of God’s own plan and work.”—Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom, 125

9 The “Branch” then, whenever He is brought up in Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Zechariah is associated with the Davidic kingly office.

10 It is worth the student’s time to examine the treatments of these “kingdom passages” in the works of those who would whisk them away to the metaphorical safe-havens where they cannot speak against their theology. Such works usually fight shy of explicating the words of these texts in their Hebrew OT contexts, preferring to corral them together under the objection of how taking them at face value is absurd.

11 The unspoken assumption is always that these men have gotten the interpretation of the NT right!

12 This is why James uses it in speaking of Gentile salvation. See Acts 15:15-18

13 Advocates of the “inhospitable wilderness beyond Eden” thesis in Genesis 2 and 3 might find a parallel here, where again tranquil Edenic conditions are restricted to one particular sacred space. But I think other passages encourage us in the opposite direction.

14 Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 505

15 Yet a fourth aspect which could be named is the repentance of defeated foes. See, for example, Isaiah 27:12-13.

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