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Looking Backwards and Forwards

Isaiah 11:1-10
Once, years ago, a neighbour and his son helped me cut down a large sycamore tree which was too close to the manse. Actually, they did all the cutting and I just shouted, 'Timber'. The neighbour, who had been a forestry worker in his youth, painted the stump with tar to try and kill it. But his efforts were in vain. In no time at all vigorous new shoots grew from the stump and it took me all of my time to keep them in check. In a year they could easily grow six or seven feet tall and almost too thick to prune without lopping tools.

Of course, this method of harvesting quick growing wood has been known by human beings for thousands of years. The technical terms for cutting down an old tree in order to encourage new and vigorous growth which can be easily harvested is 'coppicing'.

In their attempts to explain why God had allowed his chosen nation to be enslaved, the Bible writers seized on this image of coppicing. Israel, they believed, had become morally and spiritually bankrupt, a spent force. By cutting the nation back to its roots God had allowed new and vigorous energy to spring forth.

It's not clear whether the Prophet had a single individual in mind when he wrote about the new shoot springing from the stump of King David's father Jesse. He may have been thinking of a new line of kings, or of a reinvigorated nation which, collectively, would judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity. But Christians have seen this prophecy as an uncannily accurate description of the manner in which Jesus will rule the nations.

Nonetheless, some Christians may wonder whether parts of the description don't quite fit when we apply them to Jesus. What would it mean for Jesus to strike the earth with the rod of his mouth? Will he really kill the wicked with the breath of his lips? This would hark back to an image of the kind of God who rides on the storm, wreaking hurricane-force vengeance on wrong doers. Old Testament writers sometimes described God like this, and the Prophet is certainly suggesting in this passage that the rod of Jesse will act on God's behalf and with God's power, but can we still describe God in the same way when we know that he was crucified for sinners?

Finally, what are we to make of the very different and very striking images of the over-turning of the natural order so that peace and harmony break out even between ferocious wild animals and domestic cattle, goats and little children? The reference to a little child leading lions, leopards, kids and calves like a good shepherd guiding his flock is another startling example of the way this passage often seems to look forward to Jesus? Isn't he the little child, lying in the manger in Bethlehem, who was at the same time Lord of all creation?

However, the Prophet is just as likely to have been looking back to the very beginning of the created order when the misinformation peddled by a talking snake was responsible for unleashing human-focused knowledge into the world, with sometimes disastrous results. The Prophet is not against the spread of knowledge, but what is needed if the world is to be transformed into a peaceful place is not more human learning but more knowledge of God, otherwise our technology – no matter how promising it might seem – will only help us to destroy ourselves and our planet. In the kind of God-centred world which the Prophet imagines, the snake will no longer be cursed because of its tempting advice to go our own way. Instead, it will become a symbol of al things new, a friend even to toddlers.

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