Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 11

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-16



ABOUT 720 B.C.

BENEATH the crash of the Assyrian with which the tenth chapter closes, we pass out into the eleventh upon a glorious prospect of Israel’s future. The Assyrian when he falls shall fall forever like the cedars of Lebanon, that send no fresh sprout forth from their broken stumps. But out of the trunk of the Judaean oak, also brought down by these terrible storms, Isaiah sees springing a fair and powerful Branch. Assyria, he would tell us. has no future. Judah has a future, and at first the prophet sees it in a scion of her royal house. The nation shall be almost exterminated, the dynasty of David hewn to a stump; "yet there shall spring a shoot from the stock of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit."

The picture of this future, which fills the eleventh chapter, is one of the most extensive that Isaiah has drawn. Three great prospects are unfolded in it: a prospect of mind, a prospect of nature, and a prospect of history. To begin with, there is (Isaiah 11:2-5) the geography of a royal mind in its stretches of character, knowledge, and achievement. We have next (Isaiah 11:5-9) a vision of the restitution of nature, Paradise regained. And, thirdly (Isaiah 11:9-16), there is the geography of Israel’s redemption, the coasts and highways along which the hosts of the dispersion sweep up from captivity to a station of supremacy over the world. To this third prospect chapter 12 forms a fitting conclusion, a hymn of praise in the mouth of returning exiles. The human mind, nature, and history are the three dimensions of life, and across them all the prophet tells us that the Spirit of the Lord will fill the future with His marvels of righteousness, wisdom, and peace. He presents to us three great ideals: the perfect indwelling of our humanity by the Spirit of God; the peace and communion of all nature, covered with the knowledge of God; the traversing of all history by the Divine purposes of redemption.


{Isaiah 11:1-5}

The first form, in which Isaiah sees Israel’s longed-for future realised, is that which he so often exalts and makes glistering upon the threshold of the future-the form of a king. It is a peculiarity, which we cannot fail to remark about Isaiah’s scattered representations of this brilliant figure, that they have no connecting link.

They do not allude to one another, nor employ a common terminology, even the word king dropping out of some of them. The earliest of the series bestows a name on the Messiah, which none of the others repeat, nor does Isaiah say in any of them, This is He of whom I have spoken before. Perhaps the disconnectedness of these oracles is as strong a proof as is necessary of the view we have formed that throughout his ministry our prophet had before him no distinct, identical individual, but rather an ideal of virtue and kinghood, whose features varied according to the conditions of the time. In this chapter Isaiah recalls nothing of Immanuel, or of the Prince-of-the-Four-Names. Nevertheless (besides for the first time deriving the Messiah from the house of David), he carries his description forward to a stage which lies beyond and to some extent implies his two previous portraits. Immanuel was only a Sufferer with His people in the day of their oppression. The Prince-of-the-Four-Names was the Redeemer of his people from their captivity, and stepped to his throne not only after victory, but with the promise of a long and just government shining from the titles by which He was proclaimed. But now Isaiah not only speaks at length of this peaceful reign-a chronological advance-but describes his hero so inwardly that we also feel a certain spiritual advance. The Messiah is no more a mere experience, as Immanuel was, nor only outward deed and promise, like the Prince-of-the-Four-Names, but at last, and very strongly, a character. The second verse is the definition of this character; the third describes the atmosphere in which it lives. And there shall rest upon him the Spirit of Jehovah, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of Jehovah; and he shall draw breath in the fear of Jehovah-in other words, ripeness but also sharpness of mind; moral decision and heroic energy; piety in its two forms of knowing the will of God and feeling the constraint to perform it. We could not have a more concise summary of the strong elements of a ruling mind. But it is only as Judge and Ruler that Isaiah cares here to think of his hero. Nothing is said of the tender virtues, and we feel that the prophet still stands in the days of the need of inflexible government and purgation in Judah.

Dean Plumptre has plausibly suggested, that these verses may represent the programme which Isaiah set before his pupil Hezekiah on his accession to the charge of a nation, whom his weak predecessor had suffered to lapse into such abuse of justice and laxity of morals. The acts of government described are all of a punitive and repressive character. The hero speaks only to make the land tremble: "And He shall smite the land with the rod of His mouth" [what need, after the whispering, indecisive Ahaz!], "and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked."

This, though a fuller and more ethical picture of the Messiah than even the ninth chapter, is evidently wanting in many of the traits of a perfect man. Isaiah has to grow in his conception of his Hero, and will grow as the years go on, in tenderness. His thirty-second chapter is a much richer, a more gracious and humane picture of the Messiah. There the Victor of the ninth and righteous Judge of the eleventh chapters is represented as a Man, who shall not only punish but protect, and not only reign but inspire, who shall be life as well as victory and justice to His people-"a hiding-place from the wind and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

A conception so limited to the qualifications of an earthly monarch, as this of chapter 11 gives us no ground for departing from our previous conclusion, that Isaiah had not a "supernatural" personality in his view. The Christian Church, however, has not confined the application of the passage to earthly kings and magistrates, but has seen its perfect fulfilment in the indwelling of Christ’s human nature by the Holy Ghost. But it is remarkable, that for this exegesis she has not made use of the most "supernatural" of the details of character here portrayed. If the Old Testament has a phrase for sinlessness, that phrase occurs here, in the beginning of the third verse. In the authorised English version it is translated, "and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord," and in the Revised Version, "His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord," and on the margin the literal meaning of delight is given as scent. But the phrase may as well mean, "He shall draw his breath in the fear of the Lord"; and it is a great pity, that our revisers have not even on the margin given to English readers any suggestion of so picturesque, and probably so correct, a rendering. It is a most expressive definition of sinlessness-sinlessness which was the attribute of Christ alone. We, however purely intentioned we be, are compassed about by an atmosphere of sin. We cannot help breathing what now inflames our passions, now chills our warmest feelings, and makes our throats incapable of honest testimony or glorious praise. As oxygen to a dying fire, so the worldliness we breathe is to the sin within us. We cannot help it; it is the atmosphere into which we are born. But from this Christ alone of men was free. He was His own atmosphere, "drawing breath in the fear of the Lord." Of Him alone is it recorded, that, though living in the world, He was never infected with the world’s sin. The blast of no man’s cruelty ever kindled unholy wrath within His breast; nor did men’s unbelief carry to His soul its deadly chill. Not even when He was led of the devil into the atmosphere of temptation, did His heart throb with one rebellious ambition. Christ "drew breath in the fear of the Lord."

But draughts of this atmosphere are possible to us also, to whom the Holy Spirit is granted. We too, who sicken with the tainted breath of society, and see the characters of children about us fall away and the hidden evil within leap to swift flame before the blasts of the world-we too may, by Christ’s grace, "draw breath," like Him, "in the fear of the Lord." Recall some day when, leaving your close room and the smoky city, you breasted the hills of God, and into opened lungs drew deep draughts of the fresh air of heaven. What strength it gave your body, and with what a glow of happiness your mind was filled! What that is physically, Christ has made possible for us men morally. He has revealed stretches and eminences of life, where, following in His footsteps, we also shall draw for our breath the fear of God. This air is inspired up every steep hill of effort, and upon all summits of worship. In the most passion-haunted air, prayer will immediately bring this atmosphere about a man, and on the wings of praise the poorest soul may rise from the miasma of temptation, and sing forth her song into the azure with as clear a throat as the lark’s.

And what else is heaven to be, if not this? God, we are told, shall be its Sun; but its atmosphere shall be His fear, "which is clean and endureth for ever." Heaven seems most real as a moral open-air, where every breath is an inspiration, and every pulse a healthy joy, where no thoughts from within us find breath but those of obedience and praise, and all our passions and aspirations are of the will of God. He that lives near to Christ, and by Christ often seeks God in prayer, may create for himself even on earth such a heaven, "perfecting holiness in the fear of God."


{Isaiah 11:2-3}

This passage, which suggests so much of Christ, is also for Christian Theology and Art a classical passage on the Third Person of the Trinity. If the texts in the book of Revelation {Revelation 1:4; Revelation 3:1; Revelation 4:5; Revelation 5:6} upon the Seven Spirits of God were not themselves founded on this text of Isaiah, it is certain that the Church immediately began to interpret them by its details. While there are only six spirits of God named here-three pairs - yet, in order to complete the perfect number, the exegesis of early Christianity sometimes added "the Spirit of the Lord" at the beginning of Isaiah 11:2 as the central branch of a seven-branched candlestick; or sometimes "the quick understanding in the fear of the Lord" in the beginning of Isaiah 11:3 was attached as the seventh branch. {Compare Zechariah 4:6}

It is remarkable that there is almost no single text of Scripture which has more impressed itself upon Christian doctrine and symbol than this second verse of the eleventh chapter, interpreted as a definition of the Seven Spirits of God. In the theology, art, and worship of the Middle Ages it dominated the expression of the work of the Holy Ghost. First, and most native to its origin, arose the employment of this text at the coronation of kings and the fencing of tribunals of justice. What Isaiah wrote for Hezekiah of Judah became the official prayer, song, or ensample of the earliest Christian kings in Europe. It is evidently the model of that royal hymn-not by Charlemagne, as usually supposed, but by his grandson Charles the Bald-the "Veni Creator Spiritus." In a Greek miniature of the tenth century, the Holy Spirit, as a dove, is seen hovering over King David, who displays the prayer: "Give the king Thy judgments, O God, and Thy righteousness to the king’s son," while there stand on either side of him the figures of Wisdom and Prophecy. Henry III’s order of knighthood, "Du Saint Esprit," was restricted to political men, and particularly to magistrates. But perhaps the most interesting identification of the Holy Spirit with the rigorous virtues of our passage occurs in a story of St. Dunstan, who, just before mass on the day of Pentecost, discovered that three coiners, who had been sentenced to death, were being respited till the Festival of the Holy Ghost should be over. "It shall not be thus," cried the indignant saint, and gave orders for their immediate execution. There was remonstance, but he, no doubt with the eleventh of Isaiah in mind, insisted, and was obeyed. "I now hope," he said, resuming the mass, "that God will be pleased to accept the sacrifice I am about to offer." "Whereupon," says the veracious "Acts of the Saints," "a snow-white dove did, in the vision of many, descend from heaven, and until the sacrifice was completed remain above his head in silence, with wings extended and motionless." Which may be as much legend as we have the heart to make it, but nevertheless remains a sure proof of the association, by discerning mediaevals who could read their Scriptures, of the Holy Spirit with the decisiveness and rigorous justice of Isaiah’s "mirror for magistrates."

But the influence of our passage may be followed to that wider definition of the Spirit’s work, which made Him the Fountain of all intelligence. The Spirits of the Lord mentioned by Isaiah are prevailingly intellectual; and the mediaeval Church, using the details of this passage to interpret Christ’s own intimation of the Paraclete as the Spirit of truth, -remembering also the story of Pentecost, when the Spirit bestowed the gifts of tongues, and the case of Stephen, who, in the triumph of his eloquence and learning, was said to be full of the Holy Ghost, -did regard, as Gregory of Tours expressly declared, the Holy Spirit as the "God of the intellect more than of the heart." All Councils were opened by a mass to the Holy Ghost, and few, who have examined with care the windows of mediaeval churches, will have failed to be struck with the frequency with which the Dove is seen descending upon the heads of miraculously learned persons, or presiding at discussions, or hovering over groups of figures representing the sciences. To the mediaeval Church, then, the Holy Spirit was the Author of the intellect, more especially of the governing and political intellect; and there can be little doubt, after a study of the variations of this doctrine, that the first five verses of the eleventh of Isaiah formed upon it the classical text of appeal. To Christians, who have been accustomed by the use of the word Comforter to associate the Spirit only with the gentle and consoling influences of heaven, it may seem strange to find His energy identified with the stern rigour of the magistrate. But in its practical, intelligent, and reasonable uses the mediaeval doctrine is greatly to be preferred, on grounds both of Scripture and common sense, to those two comparatively modern corruptions of it, one of which emphasises the Spirit’s influence in the exclusive operation of the grace of orders, and the other, driving to an opposite extreme, dissipates it into the vaguest religiosity. It is one of the curiosities of Christian theology, that a Divine influence, asserted by Scripture and believed by the early Church to manifest itself in the successful conduct of civil offices and the fulness of intellectual learning, should in these latter days be so often set up in a sort of "supernatural" opposition to practical wisdom and the results of science. But we may go back to Isaiah for the same kind of correction on this doctrine, as he has given us on the doctrine of faith: and while we do not forget the richer meaning the New Testament bestows on the operation of the Divine Spirit, we may learn from the Hebrew prophet to seek the inspiration of the Holy Ghost in all the endeavours of science, and not to forget that it is His guidance alone which enables us to succeed in the conduct of our offices and fortunes.


{Isaiah 11:6-9}

But Isaiah will not be satisfied with the establishment of a strong government in the land and the redemption of human society from chaos. He prophesies the redemption of all nature as well. It is one of those errors, which distort both the poetry and truth of the Bible, to suppose that by the bears, lions, and reptiles which the prophet now sees tamed in the time of the regeneration, he intends the violent human characters which he so often attacks. When Isaiah here talks of the beasts, he means the beasts. The passage is not allegorical, but direct, and forms a parallel to the well-known passage in the eighth of Romans. Isaiah and Paul, chief apostles of the two covenants, both interrupt their magnificent odes upon the outpouring of the Spirit, to remind us that the benefits of this will be shared by the brute and unintelligent creation. And, perhaps, there is no finer contrast in the Scriptures than here, where beside so majestic a description of the intellectual faculties of humanity Isaiah places so charming a picture of the docility and sportfulness of wild animals, -"And a little child shall lead them."

We, who live in countries from which wild beasts have been exterminated, cannot understand the insecurity and terror that they cause in regions where they abound. A modern seer of the times of regeneration would leave the wild animals out of his vision. They do not impress any more the human conscience or imagination. But they once did so most terribly. The hostility between man and the beasts not only formed once upon a time the chief material obstacle in the progress of the race, but remains still to the religious thinker the most pathetic portion of that groaning and travailing of all creation, which is so heavy a burden on his heart. Isaiah, from his ancient point of view, is in thorough accord with the order of civilisation, when he represents the subjugation of wild animals as the first problem of man, after he has established a strong government in the land. So far from rhetorising or allegorising-above which literary forms it would appear to be impossible for the appreciation of some of his commentators to follow him-Isaiah is earnestly celebrating a very real moment in the laborious progress of mankind. Isaiah stands where Hercules stood, and Theseus, and Arthur when

"There grew great tracts of wilderness,

Wherein the beast was ever more and more,

But man was less and less till Arthur came.

And he drave

The heathen, and he slew the beast, and felled

The forest, and let in the sun, and made

Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight,

And so returned."

But Isaiah would solve the grim problem of the warfare between man and his lower fellow-creatures in a very different way from that, of which these heroes have set the example to humanity. Isaiah would not have the wild beasts exterminated, but tamed. There our Western and modern imagination may fail to follow him, especially when he includes reptiles in the regeneration, and prophesies of adders and lizards as the playthings of children. But surely there is no genial man, who has watched the varied forms of life that sport in the Southern sunshine, who will not sympathise with the prophet in his joyous vision. Upon a warm spring day in Palestine, to sit upon the grass, beside some old dyke or ruin with its face to the south, is indeed to obtain a rapturous view of the wealth of life, with which the bountiful God has blessed and. made merry man’s dwelling-place. How the lizards come and go among the grey stones, and flash like jewels in the dust! And the timid snake rippling quickly past through the grass, and the leisurely tortoise, with his shiny back, and the chameleon, shivering into new colour as he passes from twig to stone and stone to straw, -all the air the while alive with the music of the cricket and the bee! You feel that the ideal is not to destroy these pretty things as vermin. What a loss of colour the lizards alone would imply! But, as Isaiah declares, -whom we may imagine walking with his children up the steep vineyard paths, to watch the creatures come and go upon the dry dykes on either hand, -the ideal is to bring them into sympathy with ourselves, make pets of them and playthings for children, who indeed stretch out their hands in joy to the pretty toys. Why should we need to fight with, or destroy, any of the happy life the Lord has created? Why have we this loathing to it, and need to defend ourselves from it, when there is so much suffering we could cure, and so much childlikeness we could amuse and be amused by, and yet it will not let us near? To these questions there is not another answer but the answer of the Bible: that this curse of conflict and distrust between man and his fellow-creatures is due to man’s sin, and shall only be done away by man’s redemption.

Nor is this Bible answer, -of which the book of Genesis gives us the one end, and this text of Isaiah the other, -a mere pious opinion, which the true history of man’s dealing with wild beasts by extermination proves to be impracticable. We may take on scientific authority a few facts as hints from nature, that after all man is to blame for the wildness of the beasts, and that through his sanctification they may be restored to sympathy with himself. Charles Darwin says: "It deserves notice, that at an extremely ancient period, when man first entered any country the animals living there would have felt no instinctive or inherited fear of him, and would consequently have been tamed far more easily than at present." And he gives some very instructive facts in proof of this with regard to dogs, antelopes, manatees, and hawks. "Quadrupeds and birds which have seldom been disturbed by man dread him no more than do our English birds the cows or horses grazing in the fields." Darwin’s details are peculiarly pathetic in their revelation of the brutes’ utter trustfulness in man, before they get to know him. Persons, who have had to do with individual animals of a species that has never been thoroughly tamed, are aware that the difficulty of training them lies in convincing them of our sincerity and good-heartedness, and that when this is got over they will learn almost any trick, or habit. The well-known lines of Burns to the field-mouse gather up the cause of all this in a fashion very similar to the Bible’s.

"I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken nature’s social union,

And justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle

At me, thy poor earth-born companion

And fellow-mortal."

How much the appeal of suffering animals to man-the look of a wounded horse or dog with a meaning which speech would only spoil, the tales of beasts of prey that in pain have turned to man as their physician, the approach of the wildest birds in winter to our feet as their Providence - how much all these prove Paul’s saying that the "earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God." And we have other signals, than those afforded by the pain and pressure of the beasts themselves, of the time when they and man shall sympathise. The natural history of many of our breeds of domesticated animals teaches us the lesson that their growth in skill and character-no one who has enjoyed the friendship of several dogs will dispute the possibility of character in the lower animals-has been proportionate to man’s own.

Though savages are fond of keeping and taming animals, they fail to advance them to the stages of cunning and discipline, which animals reach under the influence of civilised man. "No instance is on record," says Darwin, "of such dogs as bloodhounds, spaniels, or true greyhounds having been kept by savages; they are the products of long-continued civilisation."

These facts, if few, certainly bear in the direction of Isaiah’s prophecy, that not by extermination of the beasts, but by the influence upon them of man’s greater force of character, may that warfare be brought to an end. of which man’s sin, according to the Bible, is the original cause.

The practical "uses" of such a passage of Scripture as this are plain. Some of them are the awful responsibility of man’s position as the keystone of creation, the material effects of sin, and especially the religiousness of our relation to the lower animals. More than once do the Hebrew prophets liken the Almighty’s dealings with man to merciful man’s dealings with his beasts. {Isaiah 63:13-14; Hosea 11:4} Both Isaiah and Paul virtually declare that man discharges to the lower creatures a mediatorial office. To say so will of course seem an exaggeration to some people, but not to those who, besides being grateful to remember what help in labour and cheer in dreariness we owe our humble fellow-creatures, have been fortunate enough to enjoy the affection and trust of a dumb friend. Men who abuse the lower animals sin very grievously against God; men who neglect them lose some of the religious possibilities of life. If it is our business in life to have the charge of animals, we should magnify our calling. Every coachman and carter ought to feel something of the priest about him; he should think no amount of skill and patience too heavy if it enables him to gain insight into the nature of creatures of God, all of whose hope, by Scripture and his own experience, is towards himself.

Our relation to the lower animals is one of the three great relations of our nature. For God our worship; for man our service; for the beasts our providence, and according both to Isaiah and Paul, the mediation of our holiness.


{Isaiah 11:10-16}

In passing from the second to the third part of this prophecy, we cannot but feel that we descend to a lower point of view and a less pure atmosphere of spiritual ambition. Isaiah, who has just declared peace between man and beast, finds that Judah must clear off certain scores against her neighbours before there can be peace between man and man. It is an interesting psychological study. The prophet, who has been able to shake off man’s primeval distrust and loathing of wild animals, cannot divest himself of the political tempers of his age. He admits, indeed, the reconciliation of Ephraim and Judah; but the first act of the reconciled brethren, he prophesies with exultation, will be to "swoop down upon" their cousins Edom, Moab, and Ammon, and their neighbours the Philistines. We need not longer dwell on this remarkable limitation of the prophet’s spirit, except to point out that while Isaiah clearly saw that Israel’s own purity would not be perfected except by her political debasement, he could not as yet perceive any way for the conversion of the rest of the world except through Israel’s political supremacy.

The prophet, however, is more occupied with an event preliminary to Israel’s sovereignty, namely the return from exile. His large and emphatic assertions remind the not yet captive Judah through how much captivity she has to pass before she can see the margin of the blessed future which he has been describing to her. Isaiah’s words imply a much more general captivity than had taken place by the time he spoke them, and we see that he is still keeping steadily in view that thorough reduction of his people, to the prospect of which he was forced in his inaugural vision. Judah has to be dispersed, even as Ephraim has been, before the glories of this chapter shall be realised.

We postpone further treatment of this prophecy, along with the hymn (chapter 12), which is attached to it, to a separate chapter, dealing with all the representations, which the first half of the book of Isaiah contains, of the return from exile.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 11". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".