A Festival of 9 Lessons & Carols
The Lord's Day Evening
December 11, 2005
“The Gospel According to Isaiah”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
We begin tonight exactly where Derek left off this morning. If you’ll remember the third “D” in the outline this morning, it was Dominion. And this passage picks up with dominion, but let me remind you of what Derek has already told us.
From at least Isaiah 7 on for a number of chapters, the context is King Ahaz and his plan to rescue Judah from the opposition that has come from the combination of the King of Syria to the north and the King of Israel. And his plan is to go to Assyria (not to be confused with Syria). Assyria is the 800 pound gorilla on the block. Assyria is a great empire, and the idea is simply this: If we're threatened by the Northern Kingdom and by their ally, Syria, we’ll go get a bigger ally to help with us.
But God had already sent Isaiah the prophet to say to Ahaz ‘Don't make that alliance. You don't need the Assyrians. God will provide you the defense you need. He will be the source of your help and strength. Assyria is not the answer.’
Ahaz wasn't listening, though, and so God in His mercy in Isaiah 7 tells Isaiah to go to Ahaz and say ‘God is offering you a sign. Pick a sign, any sign! Pick a miracle, any miracle! I’ll do that miracle to prove to you that God means business, that you do not need to get into this entangling alliance which is going to mean disaster for the people of God.’ But you remember how Ahaz responds: ‘Oh, who am I to ask God to do a miracle for me?’
Now that sounds pious but it wasn't, because Ahaz has no intention of listening to the word of God; and no matter how pious it seems, someone who won't listen to the word of God is not pious. In fact, Calvin comments on that passage, “When God offers you a sign, you need a sign.” When He offers you baptism and the Lord's Supper, you need those signs for your growth and your assurance. When God offers us a sign, we need a sign, and so there's nothing pious about Ahaz saying ‘Oh, no! I don't need that sign. Heaven forbid! Who am I to ask the Lord to do a sign for me?’
And you remember that Isaiah's response is ‘Therefore, since you have not asked for a sign, the Lord's going to give you a sign anyway.’ It comes in Isaiah 7:14, doesn't it? “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” And this whole section of Isaiah has to do with this struggle that is going on in the land of the people of God: an unfaithful and unrighteous king is leading them down the primrose path to disaster, and yet even in that God is working His plan.
So that's the background of this story that we're going to be looking at tonight. Now let me just point out a couple of things on the outline that you have. Look at the back side, where it says Lessons and Carols. I just wanted you to see–many of you will remember this maybe almost perfectly in your memories from the King James Version, this beautiful section of Isaiah–and of course the text for the Lessons and Carols read at King's College every year are read out of that King James Version, and so I want you have the headings for The Fourth Lesson that are provided in that Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and I wanted you to see the text in the King James, which you hear us read every Christmas here at First Presbyterian Church, because this is one of those Lessons that we carry over in the Seven Scriptures and Carols that we do as a part of our music of Christmas each year. And then I've given you just a little bit of background on the service itself, but if you look on the front side of your outline you will see that the passage that we're going to read is Isaiah 11:1-9.
We’re going to look at it in three parts:
The first part has to do with the source of our help. The second part, in verses 3-5, has to do with the king after God's own heart, and the third part has to do, in verses 6-9, with a world under God's hand of blessing. So before we read God's word and hear it proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help.
Lord God, we come to You tonight thanking You for Your word and asking You to open our eyes to behold the wonderful truth of Your word. It is filled, O God, with encouragement and promise and hope, but also with warning and admonition and wise guidance. So we pray that we would receive Your word as from Your lips and heart, and that our hearts would add our own ‘Amen, so be it’ to the reading, hearing, and proclamation of Your word so that in our lives we look to You for help alone. We long for the coming King and His glorious kingdom. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, and He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;
And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.
Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins,
And faithfulness the belt about His waist.
“And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together;
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den.
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It's a happy convergence of The Catechism and the songs we've been singing tonight. Did you notice what the catechism was about tonight? It was about Jesus’ kingly office. And what is this passage about? It's about Jesus’ kingly office. It's about His dominion. This whole passage is about the coming Messiah King. It tells us about His ancestry and His character. It tells us about His having a heart after God. It tells us of the kind of dominion that He is going to establish in the world and so it inspires us to hope, but it also warns us from the seduction of finding our satisfaction and our hope and rest in this world and apart from Him.
I want to look at the passage together with you tonight in these three parts, first beginning in verses 1-3 where we see this surprising source of help. And in order to understand the passage, we really need to move back to the end of chapter 10, and all you need to do is look at verses 33 and 34. Really, the whole section from 24 on gives a picture of how God is going to judge Assyria, but the final picture is very important for understanding verse 1. You remember what we said before we read the text tonight, that Ahaz is tempted to look to Assyria, the 800 pound gorilla on the block of nations, for help. Assyria was going to be the answer to Judah's problems. Assyria was going to be the source of aid against the enemies of the people of God, and Isaiah has warned Ahaz, ‘No! Trust in God. Don't trust in Assyria.’ But because Isaiah is not listened to, because Ahaz won't hear the message of God through Isaiah, God then makes it clear that since he's going to look to Assyria for help, God is going to use Assyria as His axe to judge the people of God. So Assyria goes from being the help to being the instrument of God's judgment against this unfaithful king and the straying people of God.
But Isaiah wants us to see something else, and he shows it to you in verses 33 and 34. Assyria is pictured as this strong nation, through this picture of a forest of trees–big trees, strong trees, lofty trees. Mighty Assyria, unassailable, strong… (think Tolkien, think Fangorn Forest — mighty trees that scare even the dwarf, Gimli)…and here's the picture of those mighty trees after God has dealt with them. Look at verse 33:
“Behold, the Lord, the God of hosts, will lop off the boughs with a terrible crash;
Those also who are tall in stature will be cut down,
And those who are lofty will be abased.
He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an iron axe,
And Lebanon will fall by the Mighty One.”
This is a picture of God's laying the axe to the ones whom He is going to use as an axe on Judah. This is God's judging the instrument of His judgment…and how often do we see that in the Old Testament: God's people stray, God uses a foreign nation to bring judgment against them, that foreign nation is haughty against God, and God brings judgment against that nation. And here we see a picture of this mighty nation represented in this huge forest of trees–all we can see as far as the eyes can see now in verses 33-34, is a forest of stumps. God has brought His mighty judgment against the enemies of the people of God.
Now notice the irony of this. Ahaz's “help” has been in that which is now a forest of stumps. God had made it perfectly clear that Assyria was not going to be the source of Israel's help, and in this prophetic picture of God's future judgment on Assyria we are shown the fact that Assyria cannot be the ultimate help to the people of God.
But in the place of that once great forest of trees in whom Ahaz had put his hope, God gives another picture of hope, and here's the picture of hope: Look at verse 1:
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse….”
So go back to the picture again. All you can see as far as the eye can see are stumps — all the way down to the ground. ‘That's not your hope,’ God is saying to Ahaz, God is saying to Judah. ‘What is your hope? Well, way back over there in the corner in the midst of a hundred stumps, in the midst of a thousand stumps, in the midst of thousands of stumps, there's a little spring coming out. There's your hope.’
I. A surprising source of help.
Help, my friends, sometimes comes unexpectedly. And it comes in unexpected ways, and it comes from unexpected places, and the point of verses 1-3 is to point us to a surprising source of help. You see, from the standpoint of worldly wisdom, there may have been some sense in Ahaz looking to a strong nation to help his people be defended against their enemies, but God wants His people to see that their source of help is not from earthly might and strength, but from the Lord. And so His picture of help is the picture of this sprig coming up in the midst of this forest of stumps. It's small, it's seemingly insignificant, it's surprising, it's unexpected. You would never have guessed that scene to have any hope in it — the scene of a forest shorn down isn't where you would look for help. But here Isaiah is pointing us to the ancestry and to the character of the coming Messiah King.
Look at it in verse 1: The “…shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” In other words, the hope is going to come from the line of David. God is going to send a faithful servant from the line of David who is going to be the hope of His people. Now the interesting thing about that word of hope, my friends, is, you will remember, for five hundred years it gets worse before it gets better. This is no short-term quick fix, because not long after Isaiah will prophecy there will no longer be a descendent of David on the throne of Israel. As far as Israel knows, the Davidic line is cut off. The last ruler over Judah will watch as the enemies of the people of God kill his children and then put out his eyes and carry him into captivity so that the thing that he remembers for the rest of his life is his line being cut off. Things are going to get worse before they get better.
But half a thousand years later, the rose will bloom. We sang about it tonight:
“Isaiah it was who foretold it, the Rose I have in mind.
With Mary we behold it, born of virgin kind.
It came, a floweret bright….”
That's the Rose, that's the stem, that's the sprout, that's the branch, that's the hope! It comes from the most surprising place, God's source of help, this coming Messiah King.
And look at what He's like: look at verse 2.
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
He will delight in the fear of the Lord….”
What is Isaiah saying? For one thing, he's saying he's going to be nothing like Ahaz. Ahaz didn't delight in the fear of the Lord. People who fear the Lord listen to His word. Ahaz spurned the prophets of the Lord, the word of God. It's as if he took the pages of the Bible and ripped them out and threw them away and said, ‘I'm not going to listen to that.’
But the One who is going to be Israel's help and strength and consolation, He will have a spirit of wisdom and understanding. He will have a spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He is going to know God, and He is going to be in awe of God, and He is going to delight in the reverence of God. Utterly unlike Ahaz He will be: His character is the character of a godly man.
What do we learn from this? We learn a lot of things.
One of the things that we learn is that when we as believers in the Lord God put our hope in anything else other than God, you may expect God to deal ruthlessly with that which you put your trust in and hope in and find your satisfaction in, if it is not Him, because He loves you; because if He lets you rest in anything but Him, you’ll lose Him. You’ll lose the rest, you’ll lose your future, you’ll lose your real hope. And we see how ruthlessly He's ready to deal with Assyria. Mighty as Assyria is, He is ready to cut it to the ground for the sake of His people.
Young people, if you’re finding your delight and satisfaction in anything other than the Lord your God, if you’re God's children you may expect the Hound of Heaven to pursue you relentlessly, because He loves you; and He will kick the legs out from under you until you can only fall into His arms, because He loves you. And if you’re finding your delight and your satisfaction and your hope and your meaning and your belonging in anything else but Him, and you belong to Him, you may be sure that He will not let you stay there, because the only source of our hope is in God. That's one thing we learn, and that's an important lesson in and of itself.
But we also learn here, don't we, about how God delights in pointing us to a hope that is in something that doesn't look impressive to the world. You know, if you had lived in Ahaz's time, Assyria would have looked impressive. It would have been like Guatemala deciding that they were going to have to find an ally in the United States in their troubles with Venezuela. The United States would look very impressive. But God says that's not your hope. What looks impressive in the eyes of the world – that's not your hope. Your hope is in that stem, that branch, that twig that's growing out of Jesse. God delights to use things which look foolish in the eyes of this world to confound the wise.
You know, we gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day and we read a book that's two or three thousand years old, and we sing to a Savior that none of us have ever seen, and we listen to people preach–and who listens to people preach any more?–and the world says that's crazy. And God says that's My means of building a kingdom that will never end. It may look crazy in the eyes of the world, but it is His master stratagem to bless you eternally and to establish the kingdom of His Son, Jesus Christ. Oh, there's more we can say, but I hasten on.
II. A king after God's own heart.
Let's look at verses 3-5, because we not only see in this passage a surprising source of help when we look at the ancestry and character of the coming Messiah King, but we also see a King after God's own heart on display in verses 3-5, because these verses show us the right rule of the coming Messiah King.
“He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear.”
In other words, unlike Ahaz, this Man's judgment is going to be made based upon more than external appearances. Assyria at one level may look like a good bet: they’re strong, they’re happening, they've got a great military. But this King will not judge by the eye and the ear. Now, how will He judge? With righteousness, with equity or fairness, with righteousness and faithfulness He will rule and judge. In other words, this King will have a deeper spiritual concern for the people of God than Ahaz ever thought about. Ahaz has never stopped to think about the danger that he is putting his people in religiously, spiritually, by this entangling alliance with this powerful pagan nation. But the righteous King from whom God's people's real help comes, He will have in view the spiritual well-being of the very least in the kingdom — the poor and the afflicted.
Isaiah puts it elsewhere, doesn't he, that “a bruise reed He will not break.” He won't even extinguish a “smoldering flax.” That's how concerned He will be for the well-being of all the people of God, even the least of them. You see, this is a picture of a King after God's own heart. We think about Jesus as a King, and the Catechism question tonight…doing what? “Ruling and defending His people.” You see, He's always thinking about their well-being. That's what a good king does, and that's not what Ahaz has done. So, totally unlike him, He will rule as a king after God's own heart. “Righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness…” whereas Ahaz had been unrighteous. He had not ruled in accord with the Law of God. Whereas Ahaz had been faithless (he had not been faithful to the one true God), this King will rule in righteousness and faithfulness. He will be faithful to God, and He will rule in accordance with His Law.
III. A world under god's hand of blessing.
And then finally, in verses 6-9, what's going to happen? What's the world going to be like that this King rules over? Ahaz is just trying to keep Judah on the map. What's the world going to be like under this King? It's going to be a world under God's hand of blessing. When I read those words a lot of things come into my mind (those words in verses 6-9)…Randall Thompson's wonderful piece, Peaceable Kingdom, which appeals to so many of these great texts in Isaiah and the prophets.
It's a pastoral, idyllic setting, isn't it, where dangerous animals and domestic animals dwell side by side, and the dangerous animals don't eat up the domestic animals? I mean, where in the world would you put wolves in the sheep fold and expect to have any sheep the next morning when you got up? But in this kingdom wolves will dwell with sheep, and they won't eat them. Leopards will lie down with goats and calves; lions with young cows; little children will lead these animals in the pastures. Cows and bears will co-exist. Nursing children will play with cobras; a little bit older children will put their hand on the viper's den and they won't be hurt. This is a picture of the blessed reign of the Messiah in a restored heavens and earth where the fullness of God's favor has come to rest on His people.
We have a friend who has alligators and water moccasins in her back yard, and this fascinates my wife no end, who likes to know where alligators and water moccasins are, but doesn't want to be anywhere near them while they’re alive. And we have this picture in our mind of little children going out in their back yard and being dragged down into the river by alligators or bitten by water moccasins; and here's the picture of God's kingdom: there's the twelve-month-old holding a cobra – “How do you like that, Mom? See the cobra? Mommy!” Here's the picture. What's the picture? God's restored universe where the curse of sin has been removed in this world and the original blessed state of Eden has been restored. How has it been restored? It's been restored through this King.
Now of course this passage doesn't tell us how that King goes about restoring this universe to its proper order. It reminds you, doesn't it, just a little bit of Aslan saying to Edmund and the other children…You don't know how hard this may be, because what the King is going to have to do to bring about this state of renewal and blessedness is beyond the comprehension of the human heart and mind. But He will do it, because He is righteous and faithful. And we will explore what He does on behalf of His people to bring about this Paradise in the days to come in this series of Lessons and Carols. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the coming Messiah King, who will reign in righteousness and faithfulness and who will restore the bliss of Paradise to Your people forever. As we wait for the age to come in this fickle and fallen world, grant, O God, that we would never ever look to that in this life for our full and perfect blessedness; because, O God, even if we got the best that this life had to offer, it can't begin to compare to the blessedness of the life to come. What would profit us were we to gain the whole world and lose our souls, and never taste of the blessedness that will reign in the kingdom of Jesus Christ forever and ever, world without end? O God, grant that we would not simply choose that blessedness over hell, but that we would choose that blessedness over the best that this life has to offer. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.