This blog continues my comments on Isaiah. I am working from the Hebrew, but using the Complete Jewish Bible for the blog
11 But a branch will emerge from the stump of Yishai,
a shoot will grow from his roots.
2 The Spirit of The Lord will rest on him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and power,
the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 he will be inspired by fearing the Lord.
He will not judge by what his eyes see
or decide by what his ears hear,
4 but he will judge the impoverished justly;
he will decide fairly for the humble of the land.
He will strike the land with a rod from his mouth
and slay the wicked with a breath from his lips.
5 Justice will be the belt around his waist,
faithfulness the sash around his hips.
6 The wolf also will live with the lamb;
the leopard lie down with the kid;
calf, young lion and fattened lamb together,
And a little child shall lead them.
7 Cow and bear will feed together,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 An infant will play on a cobra’s hole,
And into a viper’s nest a toddler will put his hand.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
anywhere on my holy mountain,
for the earth will be as full
of the knowledge of The Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Here is the prophet’s heart, a passionate expression of his faith, in language which is plain, precise and so beautiful as to be heartbreaking even to the modern reader.
Yishai is the father of King David, named here as the stump and root of the Davidic dynasty, in which Isaiah never lost faith. He believed that royal power could and would one day be used for the purposes of God.
The ruler he promises is directed by the Lord’s Spirit which is said to rest upon him- that is, not as sudden inspiration but as steady guidance. And the Lord’s Spirit is not simply force, but rather wisdom, understanding, counsel and power, always informed by humility before God. Isaiah doubtless derived these from their opposites – the folly, ignorance, arrogance and weakness of some of the successors of David. Humility and reverence before God are the basis of the other qualities: the King must not imagine he rules by his own abilities.
Such a king, says Isaiah, will not judge by appearances or make policy in line with the noise of the media, but will have his own clear preferences derived from God’s teaching. He will favour the impoverished and the ordinary decent people of the land. His weapons against wrongdoers will not be swords or spears, but his wise and effective words of judgement. He will “put on the royal clothes of God”, the belt of justice and the sash of faithfulness.
How can the prophet depict the profound peace this king will bring?
In a profound movement of understanding he reminds the reader of the natural antagonisms of creation as it is, only to declare that this wise rule will disarm even these. His prophetic sympathy with the animals allows him to depict them changing their natural instincts and choosing to live in peace. God has made these creatures with their instincts but through his inspired ruler he will remake them according to the laws of his holy mountain (Zion) which forbid hurt or destruction.
The connection with humanity is made in the person of its weakest and most vulnerable representative, the human child, who will shepherd even the most savage of animals and play near the most dangerous. You can read the passsage for the fiftieth time and still be moved by this introduction of the human child into the commonwealth of gentle animals. The whole vision of course represents above all the pacification of the most savage animal of all, the human being, also a creation of God who must be remade according to the law of holiness.
By means of God’s spirit acting through his chosen ruler, the earth will be filled with the “knowledge of God” meaning the creatures’ knowledge of God’s nature, but also God’s knowledge of his creation. This full understanding between God and his creatures transforms the earth.
Translators with distressing literalness have reasoned that of course the waters don’t cover the sea, they are the sea; and therefore they change what the Hebrew says, so missing this final touch of Isaiah’s genius. He takes the sea, which is usually an image of destructive chaos in Hebrew writing, and imagines its violence as covered over by its irresistible waters. So we should leave his image as he meant it, pointing to the irresistible peace which the knowledge of God will bring to the earth.
The vision has inspired people of all times and places because it somehow embodies their own deepest longing for a peace which is more than the absence of war but includes the creatures whose evolution we share. The peaceable kingdom is an ecological as well as political utopia.