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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 11

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse . . .—We enter on another great Messianic prophecy developing that of Isaiah 9:6-7. More specifically than before the true King is named as springing from the house of David, and His reign is painted as the return of a golden age, almost as one of the “new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). The figure with which the section opens is carried on from the close of Isaiah 10:0. The cedar of Lebanon, the symbol of the Assyrian power, was to be cut down, and being of the pine genus, which sends forth no suckers, its fall was irretrievable. But the oak, the symbol of Israel, and of the monarchy of the house of David (Isaiah 6:13), had a life remaining in it after it had been cut down, and the rod or sucker that was to spring from its roots should flourish once again in greater glory than before. (Comp. Ezekiel 17:22.) In the Branch (Heb. netzer) we have the word which suggested St. Matthew’s generalisation of the prophecies of this type in the words, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (see Note on Matthew 2:23), and which corresponds, in idea though not in words, to the great prophecies which speak of the Messiah as the Branch (Heb. Zemach) in Jeremiah 23:5, and Zechariah 3:8, and in which Isaiah himself had led the way in Isaiah 4:2. In identifying the future King with a representative of the house of David, Isaiah was following in the track of Micah 5:2. It is obvious here, as in Isaiah 9:6-7, that he is not speaking of Hezekiah as the actual sovereign of Judah, or of any prince then within the horizon of his earthly vision, though we may legitimately think of the virtues of that king as having been welcomed by him as a pledge and earnest of the ideal future.

Verse 2

(2) And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him . . .—The words throw us at once back upon the memories of the past, and forwards upon the hopes of the future. It was the “spirit of the Lord” that had made men true heroes and judges in the days of old (Judges 11:29; Judges 13:25). It was in the “spirit of the Lord” descending on Jesus of Nazareth and abiding on Him (John 1:33) that men were taught to see the token that He was the Christ of God. And in this case the spirit was to give more than the heroic daring which had characterised Jephthah and Samson. The future King was to be as a David and Solomon in one, pre-eminent, chiefly, as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:7), in the wisdom and counsel which had been the glory of the latter. “Wisdom,” in its highest form, as implying the comprehension of the secret things of God; “understanding,” as the sagacity which discerned the right thing to do and the right word to say (Hebrews 5:14) in all human relationships; these formed the first link in the chain of supernatural gifts. With these there was to be the “spirit of counsel and might,” the clear purpose and strength which fits a king for the right exercise of sovereignty; and lastly, as at once the crown and source of all, the “spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord,” the reverence and faith which is “the beginning of all wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). The copious use of the vocabulary of the Book of Proverbs is interesting as showing the part which that book played in the prophet’s education. (See Introduction.)

Verse 3

(3) And shall make him of quick understanding . . .—Better, he shall draw his breath in the fear of the Lord. It shall be, as it were, the very air in which he lives and breathes. Some commentators, however, interpret he shall find a sweet savour. The Hebrew word rendered “understanding” means primarily, as the margin shows, “scent” or “smell,” either as the organ or the object of perception.

He shall not judge after the sight of his eyes . . .—Earthly kings are apt to judge “according to the appearance” (John 7:24), and the reports of interested or corrupt advisers, but the true King shall “know what is in man” (John 2:25), and judge righteous judgment.

Verse 4

(4) With righteousness shall he judge the poor . . .—The picture which Isaiah had drawn of the corrupt judges of his time gives point to the contrast (Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 2:14-15; Isaiah 10:1-2). The poor whom they trampled on should be the special objects of the care of the true King (Matthew 11:5).

He shall smite the earth . . .—The “earth” stands here, if we accept the reading, for the rulers who are for the time supreme in it. A slight alteration of the Hebrew gives shall smite the tyrant, which forms a better parallelism with the “ungodly” of the next clause. The phrase “the sceptre of his mouth” is significant. The word which the Messiah-King speaks shall be as the sceptre which is the symbol of authority. So in Revelation 1:16, “a sharp two-edged sword” comes forth from the mouth of the Christ of St. John’s vision. The latter clause, “with the breath of his lips shall he slay . . . ,”has a parallel in Hosea 6:5.

Verse 5

(5) Righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins . . .—The image of clothing as the symbol of habit or character was already familiar (Psalms 109:18-19). The repetition of “girdle” has needlessly offended some fastidious critics, but the emphasis of iteration is quite after Isaiah’s manner (Isaiah 15:8; Isaiah 16:7; Isaiah 17:12-13). It perhaps implies an upper and a lower girdle as the symbol of complete equipment. In the “loins girt about with truth” of Ephesians 6:14, we may probably trace an allusive reference. The armour of the followers of Christ was to be like that of Christ Himself.

Verse 6

(6) The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb . . .—It is significant of the prophet’s sympathy with the animal world that he thinks of that also as sharing in the blessings of redemption. Rapine and cruelty even there were to him signs of an imperfect order, or the consequences of a fall, even as to St. Paul they witnessed of a “bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:21). The very instincts of the brute creation should be changed in “the age to come,” and “the lion should eat straw like the ox.” Men have discussed the question whether and when the words shall receive a literal fulfilment, and the answer to that question lies behind the veil. It may be that what we call the laws of animal nature in these respects are tending to a final goal, of which the evolution that has tamed the dog, the bull, the horse, is as it were a pledge and earnest (Soph., Antig., 342-351). It may be, however, that each form of brute cruelty was to the prophet’s mind the symbol of a human evil, and the imagery admits, therefore, of an allegorical rather than a literal interpretation. The classical student will remember the striking parallelism of the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, which, in its turn, may have been a far-off echo of Isaiah’s thoughts, floating in the air or embodied in apocryphal Sibylline Oracles among the Jews of Alexandria and Rome.

Verse 8

(8) And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp . . .—The description culminates in the transformation of the brute forms which were most identified with evil. As it is, the sight of a child near the hole of the asp (the cobra) or cockatrice (better, perhaps, basilisk, the great viper), would make its mother scream with terror. There was still “enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent” (Genesis 3:15), but in the far-off reign of the Christ even that enmity should disappear, and the very symbols of evil, subtle, malignant, venomous, should be reconciled to humanity. Some critics translate the last clause, “shall stretch out his hand to the eye-ball of the basilisk as if alluding to the power of fascination commonly assigned to it.

Verse 9

(9) They shall not hurt nor destroy . . .—The pronoun may possibly refer to the evil beasts, the lion, the bear, the leopard, of the previous verses. The prophet, on this view, sees in his vision, as it were, a restored Eden, a paradise life, in which the fiercest brutes have lost their fierceness. The words admit, however, of being taken as a generalised statement: “None shall hurt nor destroy . . .” The “holy mountain “is none other than the “mountain of the Lord’s house” of Isaiah 2:2 in its future apocalyptic glory (Ezekiel 40:2; Zechariah 14:10), but may, perhaps, include the whole of the hill-country of Israel, as in Isaiah 57:13; Psalms 78:54; Exodus 15:17.

The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.—If, as some have thought, the “earth” here should be the land (i.e., as in Isaiah 9:19; Isaiah 10:23, the land of Judah), that region is represented as the paradise centre of a restored world, to which, as in Isaiah 2:2, all nations turn for light and blessing. Probably, however, the words may be taken in their wider significance. This was for the prophet the crown and consummation of the work of redemption. More than all removal of physical evil, he thought of a victory over moral and spiritual darkness. As it is, in the existing order of the world, few fear God; still fewer know Him as He should be known. But in that new earth “the knowledge of Jehovah” shall flow far and wide. Even as the waters of the Mediterranean (the sea which must have suggested the prophet’s comparison) washed the shores of the far-off isles of the Gentiles, the coasts of Chittim (Numbers 24:24), as well as those of Israel, so should the knowledge of the truth of God expand beyond the limits of the people of Israel. Hence the transition was natural to the prophecies which speak at once of the restoration of Israel and the in-gathering of the heathen. It should be remembered that in Hosea 3:5; Joel 2:28; Joel 3:17, prophecies like in kind had preceded Isaiah’s utterance. In Habakkuk 2:14 it is all but verbally reproduced.

Verse 10

(10) In that day there shall be a root of Jesse . . .—The “root,” as in Isaiah 53:2; Deuteronomy 29:18, is the same as the “rod” and “branch” growing from the root in Isaiah 11:1. The new shoot of the fallen tree of Jesse is to grow up like a stately palm, seen afar off upon the heights of the “holy mountain,” a signal round which the distant nations might rally as their centre. So the name of “the root of David” is applied to the glorified Christ in Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16. The word for “seek” implies, as in Isaiah 8:19; Isaiah 19:3; Isaiah 55:6, the special seeking for wisdom and illumination.

His rest shall be glorious.—Better, his resting-place shall be glory; i.e., he shall abide evermore in the eternal glory which is the dwelling-place of Jehovah.

Verse 11

(11) The Lord shall set his hand again the second time . . .—The “first” time, implied in the “second,” was obviously that of the Exodus. Then, as from a state of extremest misery, they had entered on their life as a nation, and what had been in the past should be reproduced yet more wonderfully in the future. The list of countries that follows rests in part on the fact of a dispersion already begun, as in 2 Kings 15:29; 2 Kings 17:6, and Isaiah 43:5-6, partly on the prophet’s prevision of the coming years. The great kingdoms by which Judah was surrounded are all enumerated:—(1) Assyria; (2) Egypt, i.e., Lower Egypt; (3) Pathros, probably the region of Upper Egypt, of which Thebes was the capital (the name has been interpreted as “Southland,” or as connected with the worship of the goddess Athor); (4) Cush, i.e., Ethiopia, higher up the valley of the Nile, governed at this time by a warlike and powerful dynasty (see Isaiah 37:9); (5) Elam, often translated Persia, but probably used, with a wider range, for the region east of the lower course of the Tigris and Euphrates; (6) Shinar, as in Genesis 11:1, the plain south of the junction of those rivers; (7) Hamath, the nearest of the hostile kingdoms (see Note on Isaiah 10:9); and, lastly, the “island” or coast regions of the Mediterranean Sea. In Zephaniah 3:10 we have traces of an Ethiopian captivity; in Ezra 2:7, of exiles in Elam.

Verse 12

(12) And he shall set up an ensign . . .—The thought of Isaiah 11:10 re-appears. The “signal” is, as before, “the root of Jesse,” and the exiles gather round it. In the Hebrew the “outcasts” are men, and the “dispersed” are women, the prophet thus implying that in the case of both Israel and Judah both sexes should alike be sharers in the blessings of restoration.

Verse 13

(13) The envy also of Ephraim shall depart . . .—The prophet’s vision of the future would not have been complete if national unity had not been included in it. He looked back on the history of the past, and saw almost from the first the deep line of cleavage between north and south, Israel and Judah. Century by century the chasm had grown deeper and wider; sub-sections of antagonism had increased its bitterness (Isaiah 9:21); but in the times of the Christ the sense of unity should be stronger than the old hostilities. The prophet’s hope connects itself with Hezekiah’s efforts after a restored unity (2 Chronicles 30:1-12). The “envy” of Ephraim “is, as the parallelism shows, that of which Ephraim was the object. By a subtle turn of thought, however, the latter half of the verse represents Ephraim as not feeling envy or ill-will against Judah, i.e., he is neither object nor subject, and Judah, free from its own adversaries, is no longer an adversary to Ephraim.

Verse 14

(14) They shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines . . .—The English version is ambiguous, and half suggests the thought that the Philistines should bear the returning Israelites as on their shoulders; so the LXX. gives, “And they shall speed their wings in the ships of the aliens.” What is meant, however, is that the returning exiles shall swoop down, as a bird of prey after its flight, “upon the shoulder of the Philistines,” that name being applied (as in Ezekiel 25:9; Joshua 15:10) to the shape of the seaward- sloping country occupied by that people. From this victorious onset in the West, they are to pass on to “the children of the East,” the generic name for the nomadic tribes that are found associated with the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33; Judges 7:12), and in Isaiah 2:6, with the Philistines themselves, and then to complete their triumph by avenging themselves on their old enemies of Edom, and Moab, and Ammon. The whole verse is singularly characteristic of what has been already spoken of as the limitation of prophetic knowledge. The seer has had revealed to him the glory of the Messianic kingdom as a restored Eden, full of the knowledge of Jehovah, the Gentiles seeking light and salvation from it. Suddenly he blends this with anticipations that belong to the feelings and complications of his own time. He sees Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, in that far future. They will be then, as they were in his own times, the persistent foes of Israel (comp. Zephaniah 2:7-9), but will be, at last, subdued.

Verse 15

(15) The tongue . . .—Better, as in Joshua 15:2; Joshua 15:5; Joshua 18:19, the “bay” or “gulf.” The “Egyptian sea” is the Gulf of Suez, and the prophet pictures to himself another marvel like the passage of the Red Sea in Exodus 14:22. The “river,” on the other hand, is the word Commonly used for the Euphrates (Genesis 31:21; Joshua 24:2), and that meaning is assigned to it here by most commentators, who refer to Isaiah 44:27 as a parallel. In Isaiah 19:5, however, it is found, as here, in parallelism with the “sea” of Egypt, and as it there refers to the Nile, that meaning may well be accepted here. The prophet describes, in language which almost excludes the thought of a merely literal fulfilment, a renewal of wonders transcending those of the Exodus, and it was natural that his description should bear the local colouring of the region. He contemplates a return from Egypt as much as from Assyria (Isaiah 11:11). On this view the words that follow, “will smite it in the seven streams,” refer naturally enough to the seven mouths that enclose and intersect the Delta of the Nile. On the other view, the words may be interpreted as meaning literally, “I will smite it [Euphrates] into seven streams,” and figuratively, “I will reduce the power of Assyria [or Babylon, as an Assyrian city] to insignificance.”

Verse 16

(16) And there shall be an highway for the remnant . . .—The “highway” is, as in Isaiah 19:23; Isaiah 49:11, and elsewhere, the raised embanked road, made by Eastern kings for the march of their armies. Such a road the prophet sees in his vision (here as in Isaiah 40:3), stretching across the great plains of Mesopotamia for the return of Israel. It was to be for that “second time” of restoration what the passage of the Red Sea had been for the “first time” of the Exodus, for the exiles in Assyria what another passage of the Egyptian sea was to be for those in Egypt.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 11". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/isaiah-11.html. 1905.
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