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A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Isiah 11:1 (NIV)

Question 1: What does this "stump" refer to?

Question 2: I think it is referring to that the trunk of the Messianic line from David was detrunciated. But that happens later, during the Babylonian captivity. If the stump is referring to what I believe, how come that Isaiah is talking about it as detrunciated when it really is not (at least not yet)?

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4 Answers 4

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Judgment and remnant

Isaiah has been prophesying about judgment coming upon Israel as a result of her wickedness. Dr. Constable has this to say:

The prophet had just described Assyria cut down like a forest of trees (10:15-19, 33-34). Likewise, Israel would have only a remnant left after God finished judging her (10:20-23; cf. 6:11-13). Now he pictured a shoot (Heb. nezer) sprouting from one of the stumps left after Israel's harvesting (cf. 4:2; 6:13; 53:1-3; Job 14:7). A shoot would sprout from Jesse's family tree stump.

Isaiah has been prophesying that Israel would be judged, but that a remnant would survive it. By using the imagery of a chopped tree to describe Jesse, the author relates the judgment coming upon Israel to that coming upon Assyria.

Assyria

The first wave of the judgment would come at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah's audience would experience that in very short time, hence his focus on Assyria as God's instrument, and the judgment coming upon Assyria as a result of their evil.

Hope

Isaiah does not simply leave his audience with a promise of judgment, and then judgment of the instrument of judgment. He (like a good prophet) goes on to prophesy about Israel's Messianic hope.

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
Isaiah 11:1

The language that follows makes it clear that this "shoot" / "branch" is the Messiah.

Summary

As God's mouthpiece, Isaiah wants his audience to know that judgment is coming upon Israel, and they (the audience) would experience it at the hands of the Assyrians. With that said, they should rest assured that the Assyrians would get what was coming to them, and the Messiah would one day come through Jesse's line. He would come after the judgment, which should remind them of the hope they had from God of a remnant surviving the judgment.

The focus is on the judgment coming upon Israel, and specifically, that which Isaiah's audience would experience. The reason Jesse's stump is mentioned here (when the Babylonian oppression wouldn't take place until much later) is that it is linked to the post-judgment Messianic hope.

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Shouldn’t an interpretation first make sense of the passage in its original, historical setting? One can add prophetic layers later, if your theology allows that sort of thing. But due consideration must first be given the text as given. Your answer presupposes an historical setting quite at odds with that described in Isaiah 36-37 (cf. 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32), even contradicting Isaiah outright. How do you imagine Isaiah and his first hearers understood his message? –  Schuh yesterday

“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 future.
  • 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.

Isaiah’s Sermon

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, JPS).
  • 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.

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Not sure about the conclusion, but it's a worthwhile analysis! You might be interested to compare with discussion by H.G.M. Williamson, "Messianic Texts in Isaiah 1-39", in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. by J. Day (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 238-71, see pp. 262-264 - or 262 - 263 - 264. –  Davïd 19 hours ago
1  
Williamson looks good. For this short study I didn't discuss redaction issues, but I think he's right that one would have to deny Isaianic authorship -- and place it centuries after its purported setting -- to suppose 11:1 refers to the fall of Davidic monarchy. I also think the Assyrian deportation of Israel and siege of Judah produced enough exiles to prompt Isaiah's hope for a regathering (11:10-12) without waiting for Babylon. Like Williamson, I think Isaiah's 'new society' fits within a historical, rather than eschatological, continuum. Thanks, @David, for the supporting link! –  Schuh 16 hours ago

As to question 1: to John Wesley, the Hebrew word (גֶּזַע, geza) that you see as "stump" in the NIV figuratively refers to a tree stump. That Hebrew word implies:

"the Messiah should be born of the royal house of David, at that time when it was in a most forlorn condition, like a tree cut down, and whereof nothing is left but a stump or root under ground"[1].

As to question 2: Christians orthodoxly believe the writer of the Matthew Gospel had an image of a sprouting twig[2] in mind when he penned that:

  1. "Jesus fulfilled prophecy by being called a Nazarene" (Matt. 2:23), and
  2. "Messiah[3] would be another David, not just a son of David [or some other Davidic (David-like) character] when Messiah appeared. Other prophets referred to the coming ideal Davidic king as 'David' [or "the coming king of Israel," and the like], picturing him as the second coming of David, so to speak....." (cp. Constable, Expository Notes, 2012, ibid.)

Does this info help to answer your concern about "the Messianic line from David was detrunciated"?


1: see John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible entry at Isa. 11:1; cp. G. Campbell Morgan, Exposition on the Whole Bible, 2010, ibid; Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge (TSK) entry at Isa. 11:1.

2: i.e., sprouting from one of the stumps remaining after Israel's "harvesting" (Constable, loc. cit.) by the Assyrians.

3: the Messiah promised to be sent to Israel by YHVH-JeHoVaH.

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Actually I think your answer to question 1 is better in answering also the second one ;) John Wesley says "at the time when..." which suggest that Isaiah is not only foreseeing the coming of Messiah, he is also forseeing the ruination of the Davidic kingdom which goes before it. This is pretty much the answer I would have given myself, but I was curious on if I was right and if there were other interpretations :) –  Niclas Nilsson Dec 18 '13 at 7:15

The stump of Jesse and the mention of the nazarene are both talking about the Christians . the esseens talk about this in the dead sea scrolls and Jesus was an esseens. They are prophesizing about a time in which the ego can be destroyed . that will happen when there's an equitable system of governance that has the general welfare of people and the planet as its purpose . were supposed to have 1000 years of peace after . the prophecy is playing out . the economic negotiations could fulfill the war scroll prophecy and isaiahs as well . it means the ego oriented abrahamic faith people elk have evolved the material world to a point at which we no linger need the ego , we can manifest our natural self . There's supposed to be 6 years in the final battle .Jesus said there would be two at a handmilk then suddenly one . two people dint run a handmilk one person does and his talking about labor . the load will be halved , the person will no longer waste their lives living g to enrich others . they will work for eachother as theirselves . its the merging of east and west and the matter and spirit individual and cilkective. Its the return of the great infinity the end to the cycle of suffering unconsciously

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Dawn - thank you for your approach and robust explanation. The downvotes appear to come because the tone and content are more in line with what you and I would discuss over coffee at Starbucks. We want to delve into the passages and try to correlate passages with passages to align parallel meaning(s). In other words, your opinion is very valuable but only in the context of where and how you help to connect the dots. If you do not show the dots and how they connect, then I am no farther along that if I bought you coffee and we chatted for several minutes at Starbucks to catch up. Thanks! –  Joseph Mar 23 at 0:27

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