Note: this sermon was originally preached at Grace Church Elizabethtown (PCA) in Elizabethtown, KY on March 8, 2020. It does not reflect most recent data on the spread of COVID-19.
I suspect that most if not all of us have likely heard about the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. If you go to the main page of any news website, you will likely see an article or two on the novel Coronavirus. Last Friday, governor Andy Beshear called for a state of emergency after Kentucky’s first case of novel Coronavirus was confirmed in Lexington.
According to the Center for Disease Control, over 90 countries have confirmed cases of the virus, and over 30 U.S. states have at least one confirmed case of this virus.
In the majority of cases this virus has minor effects, but in some cases it causes severe illness and even death. The fatality rate can be hard to estimate because there are so many variables that need to be controlled for, but the received consensus is that the actual case fatality rate is somewhere between 0.5% and 2%, though this percentage is higher for the elderly and those with previous severe medical conditions.
The risk that this virus poses compounds with the greater spread of the virus. The CDC warns that widespread transmission of this virus within the U.S. may occur, and notes some of the effects that this would have:
Widespread transmission of COVID-19 would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, childcare centers, and workplaces, may experience more absenteeism. Mass gatherings may be sparsely attended or postponed. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and sectors of the transportation industry may also be affected. Healthcare providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed. At this time, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and no medications approved to treat it.
The Coronavirus outbreak has surfaced many of our cultural anxieties. Many of those who hear about it are not just concerned, but worried, fearful, and panicked.
I have two questions for you this morning. First, what is this world coming to? That’s what many people wonder in the face of a threat like the Coronavirus, or mass shootings, or global acts of terrorism, or wars and rumors of wars. When these things happen, this is what we ask ourselves and so I am asking you to really think about how you would answer this question: what is this world coming to?
And my second question for you is: where is your hope?
These are the questions that the prophet Isaiah addresses in Isaiah 11. Chapters 7–12 form a literary unit, and here Isaiah is addresses the southern kingdom of Judah in their historical situation and offers them comfort and encouragement.
They were not afraid due to a virus but due to foreign invasion. Isaiah 7:2 says that when the house of David was told about the threat, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
So there you have it: cultural anxieties and fears. Their hearts shook like the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
By the time we get to chapter 10, this foreign threat is from Assyria. Assyria at this point has conquered Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. Now they have their sites set on Jerusalem. In a dramatic description in 10:28–32, the invaders are described as getting closer and closer to Jerusalem. Listen to this, keeping in mind that each city gets closer and closer to Jerusalem:
He has come to Aiath;
he has passed through Migron;
at Michmash he stores his baggage;
29 they have crossed over the pass;
at Geba they lodge for the night;
Gibeah of Saul has fled.
30 Cry aloud, O daughter of Gallim!
Give attention, O Laishah!
O poor Anathoth!
31 Madmenah is in flight;
the inhabitants of Gebim flee for safety.
32 This very day he will halt at Nob;
he will shake his fist
at the mount of the daughter of Zion,
the hill of Jerusalem.
What happens next? In verses 33–34 Isaiah foretells the future overthrow of Assyria. He likens them to a forest of trees, and Yahweh wields his axe: “Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One.”
This then leads right into Isaiah 11:1, which says:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Jesse was the father of David—King David, the one to whom God gave a promise that one of his descendants would reign on the throne of Israel forever (2 Sam 7). This shoot from the stump of Jesse, then, this branch from his roots is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Note the contrast here with the tall Assyrian forest at the end of chapter 10. The Assyrian forest looks so tall and strong and lofty, you might think, “Surely this is where the world is heading! They’re going to come down and conquer us and that will be that. They’re the next big thing.” But in fact, in a very short amount of time, the Lord will swing his axe and that entire forest will be hewn down. Assyria will be thwarted and destroyed from being a nation.
No, if you want to see where things are heading, if you want to see what’s coming: look at the stump of Jesse. It doesn’t look like much. It too has been cut down by God’s judgment, and only a remnant remains. Though the Davidic line may seem small, weak, and negligible, it is this coming shoot, this future branch, this root that will “stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire” (v. 10).
Isaiah doesn’t just comfort the people by saying that the invasion will be unsuccessful. Instead, he points ahead to Jesus, the root of Jesse.
Isaiah is here in verse 2–10 going to paint us a picture of this branch’s future reign.
1. The Spirit of the Branch (v. 2–3a)
2 And 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 the fear of the LORD.
3a And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
The first thing Isaiah tells us about the Messiah is that the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. In the OT the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out upon all the people of God. The Spirit is not described as resting on every one of God’s people; rather, the Spirit would come upon particular individuals to equip them for certain tasks. The craftsmen and builders of the tabernacle were filled with the Spirit, the Spirit would rush upon the judges to prepare them for war, the Spirit dwells in prophets, and the Spirit came upon Saul and David. Moses said, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29).
Isaiah tells us that the coming Davidic Ruler would be one on whom the Spirit rests in a special manner. See, the Spirit is described as coming upon or rushing upon kings and judges. But the Spirit “rests” on the Messiah.
Isaiah gives us three pairs of descriptors for what this Spirit gives: first, “wisdom and understanding.” Wisdom and understand is needed in order for one to lead and govern well. Second, “counsel and might.” The Messiah will know what course of action is best and will have the strength and power to enforce it and put it into action. Third, and finally, he will have a Spirit of “knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, Proverbs tells us. This is no Machiavellian prince. He does not do only what is most expedient to himself. For him, knowledge is not divorced from uprightness, but he knows and fears the Lord. Indeed, as the first part of verse 3 says, his delight is to fear the Lord.
Application: This is clearly fulfilled in Jesus. All four gospels record how the Spirit descended on him at baptism. In Luke 4 Jesus quotes a similar text, Isaiah 61:1–2, and applies it to himself, saying:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
John says that to the Son the Father “gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34).
And what does he do with this Spirit? He shares him.
On the day of Pentecost the full number of those who believed were together, and the Spirit descended on all of them, and Peter declares that Jesus, “being … exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).
This means that this Spirit that we read about here is the Spirit that we ourselves have as well. The Spirit of Christ has been poured out on his people.
So if you lack knowledge, wisdom, strength, fear of God, or any other fruit and benefit of the Spirit, come to Christ in faith. Christ is the anointed one, he has been given the Spirit without measure. Come to him, and he will fill you with his Holy Spirit. He will fill us with every good thing, all that we need.
2. The Righteous Reign of the Branch (v. 3b–5)
3b He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
Here Isaiah begins to give us a picture of his kingly reign. He states that he shall not judge by what his eyes see or what his ears hear, but instead he will judge with righteousness and with equity. Our eyes and ears can often deceive us. Appearances can deceive us.
A good illustration of this is the 1957 movie, 12 Angry Men. In the movie there are twelve jurors who have to determine whether a young man is guilty of murdering his father by stabbing him with a knife. At the beginning of the movie, the evidence seems to be pretty strongly against him and a guilty verdict warranted. But at the end of the movie, things are not so clear. It is a fantastic movie that shows how prejudice, laziness, and a tendency make hasty judgments based on appearances can obstruct justice.
Nothing fools Jesus Christ. As we have seen earlier, he has a spirit of wisdom and understanding and of knowledge. He is the true and better Solomon, who rules with wisdom and is therefore able to administer true justice.
Continuing on in verse 4:
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
The “rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips” refer to his word. In Rev 1:16 it says of Christ that “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” Later on in Rev 19:15: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” Jesus strikes with his word. Jesus kills with his word.
Most ultimately, this will be fulfilled at the final judgment, but throughout history Christ acts in judgment in acts of providence as well.
In another way, it is also true that the preaching of the word of the gospel—which is the word of Christ—has this sort of effect. Preaching kills–in one of two ways: you can either die with Christ, dying to self in repentance, and putting your old man and sinful nature to death, and then rise again with Christ as a new man and with a new spirit, or you can die in your sin that has been even more increased for rejecting Christ. To some the gospel is only a fragrance of death to death, 2 Corinthians 2:16 tells us.
Last, verse 5:
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
Righteousness and faithfulness are what will characterize this king, so much so that he wears it. He does what is right, and he is dependable, faithful, trustworthy.
Let’s think now for a bit about what this section has to teach us about the concept of positive judgment. Back in verse 4, Isaiah says: “with righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” In this context, it is a good thing to be judged. We tend to think of judgment as a bad thing: we are wicked, and we don’t want God to judge us. That’s true in a sense. If God were to judge us purely on the basis of our own merits, there is no hope for us. “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps 143:2). There is a negative judgment, in this sense. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
But the gospel is that Jesus Christ came and lived the perfect life that we should have lived. He was the righteous king, who fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of his sinful people. And then in his death, he died the death that we should have died, satisfying God’s justice and wrath against us in our sin. And through faith in his name, we can be counted righteous in Christ, our sins can be forgiven, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We are justified by grace, through faith in his blood.
But here’s the thing—to be justified means to be declared righteous. As believers, that is our legal status before God. We are righteous in his eyes because of Christ, and so, like the poor here in Isaiah 11:4, we can rest assured in his judgment, and his judgment can be a comfort to us. God has graciously judged in our favor in Christ, and so we can be confident that God will judge for us, he will side with us and against our persecutors. He will condemn Satan, sin, death, and all men who oppose us and oppose Christ. We can rejoice in God’s judgment.
So, Christians, look forward to God’s judgment! Long for the day when Christ will return to judge the world in righteousness! And when you share the gospel with others, make plain that there is a day of judgment coming. This is good news for those who repent and believe in Christ, but bad news for all who reject him.
3. The Result of his Reign: Worldwide Peace and Conversion (vv. 6–10)
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
This is a beautiful picture of the result of the Messiah’s reign. But what does it mean? Commentators disagree, so I need to make that clear. But I’m going to present my best understanding.
There are two major options here: first, you can understand vv. 6–9 as strictly literal. It is predicting that there will be no more animal violence. The second option is to take vv. 6–9 as symbolic, where the animals represent nations.
I am going to argue that the best reading is to take this as symbolic. In arguing for this, I do not mean to say that in the new heavens, new earth, after Jesus returns, that there will be animal predation. I think there are other texts of Scripture which show that will not be the case. I just don’t think Isaiah’s concern in this passage is with the animal world. Chapters 7–12 of Isaiah are focused on the political world, on national deliverance. Broader concerns about the fallenness of the natural world or animal violence are not Isaiah’s concern here.
So what does it mean?
Israel and the Nations
Think for a moment about the types of animals. On the one hand you have the wolf, leopard, lion, bear, cobra, and adder. On the other hand, we have the lamb, young goat, calf, fattened calf, cow, and ox. These are often distinguished as predatory and non-predatory. That is true, but there’s more to it than that. This is also a matter of clean vs. unclean animals. All the predatory animals are unclean, and all the non-predatory animals that are here listed are clean. This is significant because not every non-predatory animal is clean—horses, donkeys, rabbits, and pigs, for example, are non-predatory but unclean.
Even further, all of these clean animals are sacrificial animals. Again, not every clean animal is an animal used in sacrifices. (E.g., deer, antelope, and camel are all clean but cannot be used in sacrifice.) And no unclean animals can be offered as a sacrifice.
So I think what we have here is the clean, sacrificial animals represent Israel, while the unclean, predatory animals represent the Gentiles. Isaiah is picturing Israel dwelling at peace with the Gentile nations.
But it’s more than that. The nations are not just ceasing their harassment of Israel and scowling at a distance, they are befriending Israel, joining with Israel, dwelling with them, lying down with them, grazing with them, becoming like them–the lion eats straw like an ox.
More than worldwide peace, this is a picture of worldwide conversion. The nations are joining with Israel, becoming like Israel. This is a symbolic picture of what Isaiah has already prophesied in chapter 2:2–4:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
This is why verse 9 grounds the whole thing. The wolf will lie with the lamb–why? Because the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. The world will be converted, the ends of the earth will turn to Yahweh, and they will know him.
A Little Child
How will this happen? How is this possible? Following this interpretation a little further, look again at verse 6: “A little child shall lead them.” Who is this child? He appears again in verse 8: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.”
It is possible that this is just referring to a kind of generic child to drive home how safe and secure Israel will be. But I think there is more going on here. Isaiah 7–12, as I said before, forms a literary unit. This section of scripture is sometimes called “The Book of the Child.” This is because these chapters mention a regal child figure at significant junctures.
- 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall his name Immanuel.”
- 7:16: “Before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good…”
- 9:6–7: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
- And so also here, the child is the shoot from Jesse’s stump, the branch from his roots. The child is the king. The child leads Israel and the nations. The child plays over the cobra’s hole and puts his hand over the adder’s den (that ancient serpent, see Genesis 3:15). The child is Jesus.
This is further expanded in verse 10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” In that day all the nations will come to Christ and will seek wisdom and knowledge in him. Verse 10 is quoted in Rom 15:12 by Paul, showing that he viewed himself as living in the age that is here described. This means that these verses are beginning to be fulfilled now as the kingdom and church of Christ expands and grows to fill the earth.
So, to return to our questions from earlier: What’s this world coming to? “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). What’s our hope? “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (11:10).
Satan has been bound and Jesus is plundering his goods. Satan has been bound and so he cannot deceive the nations definitively; he cannot win. The gospel will go forth; the nations will be discipled (Matt 28); and the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, for his resting place is the church, and it is glorious. Christ has ascended far above the highest heaven and he is seated at the right hand of Majesty. We do not yet see all things in subjection to him, but they are, and they increasingly will be. “For he must reign until all his enemies are put under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25).
Brothers and sisters, in the face of the Coronavirus, or whatever other threats that our society or ourselves individually may face, we have an unshakeable hope and a joy that the world cannot take away from us. This does not lead us to be naive or detached. We should be concerned about such threats. We should take wise precautions and do what we can to alleviate them. But there is a great difference between concern and fear, between responsible action and having a heart that shakes as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
So, receive this charge that the Lord gives in Isaiah 8:12–14:
Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary.
Our hope is in the root of Jesse. His kingdom is forever. Amen.