“The HOUSE OF JUDAH shall again take root”
Whatever messianic hopes were later read into Isaiah’s message, the image of the ‘stump of Jesse,’ in its original time and original context, did not foretell the death of their righteous king but was a picture of Jerusalem’s current crisis. Though the ‘godless’ nation to the north, the Kingdom of Israel, had already been destroyed by Assyria and it’s ‘root’ dried up, and though their own nation, the southern Kingdom of Judah, was also now besieged and cut-off, Isaiah assured the king and people that Jerusalem would survive – their ‘root’ was still alive! The ‘sprouting stump’ reassured them that the remnant of Judah, Jerusalem itself, would survive Assyria’s siege. They could still become the nation God had hoped for them.
Interpreting the ‘stump’ metaphor is complicated for some interpreters today by knowledge of later events. But hearing this sermon as Isaiah intended is made easier by two things:
- First, we have a clear picture of his historical setting, including
three different biblical views of the battle scene, plus Isaiah’s
sermon itself. As we’d expect, Isaiah’s message perfectly reflects
the events of his own lifetime and his stated hopes for the nation’s
- And second, and very helpfully, Isaiah’s sermon is preserved
in the Bible in two forms: a long version, which includes the ‘stump
of Jesse’ metaphor, in the Book of Isaiah; and a short version,
which makes the same point differently, in the historical narratives
in 2 Kings and later in Isaiah. The idea behind the
‘stump’ metaphor is therefore expressed in three or four different
ways, none of which suggest Davidic kingship.
Historical Setting: the Assyrian Siege of 701 BCE
Over about 20 years the voracious Neo-Assyrian Empire had diminished and then conquered the once-wealthy northern Kingdom of Israel, reducing it to rubble. After taking Samaria, Israel’s capital city, in 722 BCE, Assyria deported a large portion of Israel’s population. Refugees, just a ‘remnant’ of Israel (aka the 'House of Jacob'), fled to the southern Kingdom of Judah which was still independent, though as a tributary vassal state of the Empire. The prophet Hosea described the ‘root’ of the former kingdom as “dried up”, never to bear fruit again (Hos.9:16).
The story varies in its telling in Kings, Isaiah, and Chronicles, but a few years later the pious King Hezekiah of Judah – after strengthening Jerusalem’s defenses and allying with his neighbors – stopped paying tribute to Assyria. King Sennacherib responded by crushing the coastal allies, defeating Egypt, and marching on Judah. On the way to Jerusalem Sennacherib destroyed 46 Judean towns and fortified cities and took over 200,000 prisoners. In 701 BCE Assyrian army generals reached Jerusalem’s doorstep and began taunting the people inside for their reliance on YHWH, demanding their surrender. The people were terrorized, and the king was trapped “like a bird in a cage,” Sennacherib later wrote. Hezekiah turned to Isaiah.
Isaiah told the king that the Lord had heard Assyria’s taunts, but it was the Lord who had used Assyria as an instrument of his judgment, on Israel and now on Judah and Jerusalem. But the Lord would now turn Assyria back; the enemy would not shoot even one arrow into the city. Though the kingdom had suffered, Judah would live:
The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root
downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go
out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of
hosts will do this. (2Ki.19:30-31, RSV, emphasis added)
And so it was: either because Sennacherib was satisfied by the ransom Hezekiah paid (18:14-16), he was distracted by another battle (19:7-8), or 185,000 of his soldiers were killed overnight by an angel (19:35-36), Sennacherib left Jerusalem unscathed. And Judah recovered, prospering as a vassal state – and independently for a time – under Davidic kings for another century.
The longer version of Isaiah’s three-part message of courage and hope – including the image of rebirth from “the stump of Jesse” – is in Isaiah 10:5-12:6.
- Part I: Assyria against Israel (10:5-23). Isaiah declares that God
had sent Assyria to effect God’s judgment against the people of the
‘godless’ northern kingdom, “to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to
trample them down like mud in the streets” (10:6, NIV). One day,
after prideful Assyria has grown fat on Israel’s riches, God will
turn against him (Assyria is repeatedly referred to in the masculine,
singular form). Isaiah envisions a ‘wasting sickness’ and a fire
that consumes his wealth, forests and fields, leaving the mighty
Assyria like only a few ‘trees’ (10:19; cf. 2Ki.19:23). The
Israelites who survive, the ‘remnant’ of the house of Jacob, will
then no longer rely on Assyria but return to the Lord (10:20).
- Part II: Assyria against Judah (10:24-34). But now the Kingdom of
Judah is also beaten and enslaved (10:24); Judah’s shoulders are
weighed down, and his neck is yoked (10:24-27). And Assyria, gorging
on the riches of Israel, looks to the south and gloats, “Shall I not
deal with Jerusalem ... as I dealt with Samaria?” (10:11). Isaiah
says, No, the Lord will defend Jerusalem. Though Assyria boasts of
destroying all of Judah’s cities and stands as tall as Lebanon’s
cedars on the next hill, “the Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with
terrifying power ... He will cut down the thickets of the forest with
an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (10:33-34,
- Part III: The Liberated Kingdoms (11:1-12:6). With God’s judgment
satisfied and Assyria vanquished, Isaiah then imagines a rebirth.
Unlike the ‘trees’ of Assyria who will be cut down – and unlike
conquered nations whose ‘root’ is ‘dried up’ (Hos.9:16), “rotten”
(Is.5:24), or dead (Is.14:30; Amo.2:9; Mal.4:1) – in Judah “a shoot
will grow from the stump of Jesse / and a branch from his roots will
bear fruit” (Is.11:1, HCSB). Isaiah declares, Judah will survive.
In sharp contrast to the ungodliness of the former Israel and the
arrogance of the cut-off Assyria (10:6-11, 13-15), this new ‘branch’
will exhibit the wisdom, might, and justice of the Lord (11:2-6).
The “root of Jesse” will stand, Isaiah announces (11:10), and it will
be a sign to the nations that the Lord is recovering “the remnant
which is left of his people ... the outcasts of Israel and ... the
dispersed of Judah” (Is.11:10-12, JPS). Even those long ago deported
will be reunited (11:18). “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of
Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6).
Even as Assyria bangs on the door, Isaiah declares the city is safe, and he imagines the rebirth of a unified kingdom, of Israel and Judah reunited against their old foes and recovering all that was lost. He rekindles the vision of the ‘peaceable kingdom’ as God originally intended, a people for whom “the Lord, the LORD himself,” would be their strength and might (12:2; cf. Is.33:22).
The 'Stump of Jesse'
The image of the ‘sprouting stump’ and ‘branching root’ is therefore a picture of survival for a king and people under imminent threat. Isaiah uses the ‘tree’ metaphor first to symbolize Assyria’s current strength and future cutting-down and then to symbolize Judah’s apparent death but future rebirth. The long version’s “shoot from the stump of Jesse / and branch from his root” (Is.11:1,10) exactly mirrors the short version’s “surviving remnant of the house of Judah takes root” / “from Jerusalem a remnant goes out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors” (2Ki.19:30-31; cf. Is.37:31-32). In both cases this is the ‘sign’ that follows Assyria’s withdrawal (Is.11:10,12; 2Ki.19:29). For Isaiah and his first audience, the ‘stump of Jesse’ was the surviving ‘house of Judah.’
And why Jesse? Who better to serve as the figurative patriarch of the southern kingdom, even of Jerusalem, the City of David, itself. Within the sermon, Jesse is to Judah what Jacob is to Israel. Though never kings themselves, their sons founded nations.