ESSAY
Branch and Root
POSTED
October 7, 2013

Through the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh threatens to send Assyria to Judah and Israel.  He will swing Assyria as an ax to lop down the proud trees of Judah (10:33-34). He is going to lop off the branches of the trees, and cut down the tall trees. Trees are people, and tall strong trees are tall, strong, influential people. But the Lord is going to cut them all down.  Even a man who is as tall as a cedar, who spreads out his branches wide, is going to fall before the Lord, who holds Assyria as an axe in His hand.

The axe is coming against the Davidic king himself.  And not just an individual Davidic king, but against the entire dynasty. That’s why there’s a surprising reference to Jesse here. Outside a very passing reference in the Psalms, Jesse is never mentioned outside the historical books. This is the  only place in the prophetic books of the Bible where Jesse’s name is used. Yahweh’s axe will cut deeply into the Davidic dynasty. It won’t cut down to David. Yahweh threatens to cut past David, all the way down to Jesse. He cuts the tree of David down to its very roots, down to the lowest stump, all the way to the ground. When He’s done chopping, it will be as if there were never a David or a Davidic dynasty at all.

The Assyrians invaded during the reign of Hezekiah. They got as far as Jerusalem, but then the Lord broke the siege. They never chopped at the thicket of the temple, or the cedar walls of the temple. Hezekiah was threatened, but he wasn’t chopped down. When the Assyrians slunk back home, the Davidic king was still safe in Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty lasted another century and more. Isaiah blurs together the Assyrian invasion that will take place in his lifetime with the more devastating invasion and conquest by the Babylonians. When the Babylonians are done, the thicket of the temple was destroyed, chopped to bits. When the Babylonians are done, the temple will be in ruins, burned to the ground. And there will be no Davidic king on the throne in Jerusalem.  There will only be the stump of Jesse, smoldering among the ruins. There was no sign there had ever been a Davidic king.

Yahweh shows His glory to the Assyrians by sending them packing, but it’s not enough for Him to preserve David. Yahweh will do a greater work, a more excellent thing, something that will bring even more awe from the nations. And so He brings in the Babylonians, who destroy the temple, and cut down the tree, and they actually do destroy the Davidic dynasty.  And when that happens, Yahweh has Judah exactly where He wants them.

When enemies besiege us, we look for a way of escape, and now! Where is that Angel of death who is going to devastate my enemies? When is the Lord going to come and rescue me from the deep waters, from the mire and clay, from my deadly enemies? He doesn’t come. We cry out.  Still He doesn’t come. How long, Lord? Where are you? Still He doesn’t come.

And He keeps chopping off branches, then another branch, then another and another. He keeps chopping, and we say, “Lord, pretty soon there’s not going to be any tree left. Pretty soon, I’m going to be a stump. Are you cutting me down to the roots?” And the Lord doesn’t answer, and He doesn’t come, and He doesn’t deliver. He just keeps chopping, chopping, chopping.

When there’s nothing left, no fruit, no branches, no trunk, just a low stump and mangled roots; when there’s nothing but a dry and devastated stump, then the Lord has us just where He wants us.  He’s cut away all we gloried in, and brings us to the point where we have no hope, no hope whatever, except in the Lord. He brings us to the dust of death, down to the grave, drowns us, and wants us to cling to Him and cry out to Him from the grave.

And then He answers, and He acts. The Branch that springs from the stump is more than just another Davidic king; He is David redivivus. But then Isaiah repeats the name “Jesse,” and that sets us up for another surprise. The Branch is not just “branch” but “root” (v. 10), not merely the descendant of Jesse, but the root from which Jesse springs. He is Alpha as well as Omega.

The Branch-Root will become fruitful by the Spirit, used four times (v. 2), but the fourfold Spirit is also sevenfold: He is the Spirit of Yahweh, who brings wisdom, understand, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of Yahweh (v. 2). These are the attributes of a ruler, a wise judge, a skillful warrior. When Judah has been cut to nothing, then the Lord will raise up a new David, who will rule them as a king should. The rod of His mouth strikes the earth, and the breath (“spirit”) of His mouth blows away the wicked.

The rod of Assyria has beaten down Judah, and the axe of Babylon is coming to destroy the temple and remove the Davidic dynasty, but the Branch has a rod too, and He’ll beat back the wicked. The Branch breathes out deadly breath, His living word, to slay the wicked.

By doing justice, He will restore Edenic peace on Yahweh’s holy mountain of Zion (v. 9). Adams, fresh as toddlers, will lead the animals (vv. 6, 8; cf. 1 Kings 3:7). The lamb will welcome the wolf as a resident alien in its home (v. 6), and all the other animals who have been enemies are reconciled. The wolf becomes a “resident alien” in the land of the Lamb. They lie down together.

This is more than a restored Eden. It’s a fulfilled and glorified Eden. Adam was the little child who led the beasts at the beginning, but when the serpent came, he froze and cowered behind Eve and disobeyed God. Adam had not grown up to be a child who could play by the hole of the cobra or put his hand in the viper’s den. When the Branch is finished, that’s the world He will leave behind. He will bring in the true Sabbath, and His resting place, His place of Sabbath enthronement, will be glorious.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of His life, the multitudes came out to greet Him with palm branches. Jesus came to Jerusalem as the Davidic king. “Hosanna” to the Son of David, the people cried out: “Lord, Save!” In Jesus, they saw the revival of the Davidic dynasty. They saw the Branch, and they came out with branches. They saw that Jesus was the new tree of David, and they wanted to be branches on that tree. Jesus rides into Jerusalem as if riding through a grove, an orchard, a garden, surrounded by green leaves. Jesus came into the city a fruitful, lush tree, surrounded by green palm branches, riding over the palms.

But those same people who greeted him with branches turned against Him during the following week. They laid down their branches, and moment by moment Jesus was stripped of the branches. Judas went to the priests and offered to betray Jesus. Chop! There goes one of the lofty branches. In the garden, the rest of the disciples forsook Him and fled. Chop! There go the other lofty branches. Peter is bold enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s court, but there he denies that he even knows Jesus. Chop! The crowds turned against Jesus. Manipulated by the priests and Pharisees, they turned from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.”  Jesus was no longer the Davidic tree.  The branches were laid down and stripped away, and instead of a lush green tree, Jesus was stripped down. They no longer recognized Him as the son of David, their king.  We have no king but Caesar. Chop! Chop! Chop!

All His glory, all His covering, all is stripped away. By the end of the week, the branches of Palm Sunday are gone. Jesus is no longer a lush and fruitful Davidic tree. He is a bare trunk, nailed to a bare trunk.

It’s counter-intuitive, but this is precisely what proves that Jesus is the true Israel and the true David. This proves that He is the tree that is stripped down, now by the axe of Israel herself, His lofty branches lopped off, his trunk cut. Jesus endures this with patient faith because He knows His Father, and He knows that if He is being stripped of His branches, if He is being cut down to a dry stump, it is only so that the Father can raise up a new Branch from the dead stump. Israel is chopped down to one man; the Davidic king is chopped to the ground, to Jesse, but the root of Jesse springs up, a Branch from Jesse’s dead stump.  

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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