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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 11, or, The Worldwide Remnant

Hello everyone,

This week's translation and essay are below. They can be read happily on their own, but for the full historical context you may wish to refer back to the entry on Chapter 7. Recordings can be found above and below, as always.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 11

1. Then a shoot emerges from Jesse's Stump – a twig from his roots.

2. And above him will hover the spirit of God:
The spirit of wisdom and inspired understanding;
The mentor's spirit; the hero’s breath;
The spirit of knowledge; the fear of God.

3. He’ll relish the fear of God.
He won’t judge by what his eyes see,
Or make verdicts based on what his ears hear.

4. No, he’ll judge the needy in righteousness;
He’ll give fair verdicts to those impoverished on Earth.
He’ll pound the earth with a sceptre, his mouth,
And with breath from his lips he’ll bring death to the wicked.

5. Then it happens: righteousness becomes his loincloth,
And the cloth of trust is wrapped secure around his waist.

6. The wolf and the lamb will be fellow travelers;
The leopard and the goat will lie side by side;
The calf and the young lion and the fat-fed ox will be together,
With a little boy leading them on.

7. The wild donkey and the bear will share pasture —
Their young will nestle together,
And the lion will eat hay like the ox.

8. A tender child will amuse himself by the cobra’s lair,
And a boy in the flower of youth will reach his hands into the adder’s burrow.

9. They’ll do no wrong or violence to one another,
All over my Sacred Mountain,
Because Earth will be filled with the knowledge of God,
Like the waters that that engulf the ocean floor.

10. And it happens On That Day: there is the Root of Jesse, standing firm as a flag for all peoples to see.
Other nations will come to seek him out, and his refuge will be majestic.

11. And it happens On That Day: my Master lifts his hand again a second time,
Fierce with desire to claim the survivors of his people, the stragglers still left —
From Assyria and from Egypt, from Pathros, from Kush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, from the islands in the ocean.

12. Then he lifts up a flag for the nations,
And gathers up Israel’s outcasts,
And assembles Judah’s scattered survivors
From the four furthest wingtips of the Earth.

13. Then Ephraim’s fierce grudge is clean gone,
And Judah’s oppressors will be cut down.
Ephraim will bear no grudge against Judah,
And Judah won’t oppress Ephraim.

14. Instead they’ll soar to the sea on the shoulders of Philistines
As one united front they’ll prey upon the sons of the East, sending forth their hands onto Edom and Moab, while the sons of Ammon listen to their commands.

15. Then God rips out the tongue from Egypt’s ocean, and with an exhalation of his mighty spirit he shakes his fist over its river —
He pounds its seven channels and lets people journey over it with dry shoes.

16. And there is a route forward for the survivors of his people, the stragglers still left, out of Assyria,
Just like there was for Israel on the day they rose up out of Egypt’s land.

King Ahaz of Southern Israel refused to heed the words of God’s prophet Isaiah. And from that moment on, there were two Jerusalems.

There was Jerusalem the political entity — the capital of Israel. This city was now careening towards its downfall, ineptly governed by a faithless leader whose stratagems were merely human and so doomed to fail. Nothing was left for that Jerusalem except to be conquered and enslaved (see Isaiah 10:4).

But within the walls of the very same city, there were some who kept the faith. A few ‘stragglers’ — a countable number — believed in spite of everything that their God would see them through this nightmare. The ‘remnant’ was a people within a people, a subculture holding out hope that though their human king had failed them, heaven’s king would not. They were the true Jerusalem, and it was to them that Isaiah spoke (see Isaiah 4:3, 10:19-20, 11:11, etc.).

Not that he knew who they were. To him, it must have felt like he was shouting into the void, crying out in desperate futility to a human race intent on pleasure at the expense of righteousness. Intent, in the end, on self-destruction.

But God assured Isaiah: the faithful few are out there. They are silent, but they are listening. Though nothing sets them apart in your human eyes, said God, I see more deeply than you and I know each one of them by name. Speak, Isaiah: they need to hear you. They need to hear me (cf. Isaiah 11:3 with 1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Kings 19:18).

Here is the miraculous thing. On the surface, this crisis seems to reduce the number of the faithful: suddenly not everyone within the political borders of Jerusalem will be saved, but only this small remnant. Actually, though, what this means is that faith is not bound to geography at all. Isaiah learns in this moment to define faith internally, invisibly: the saved are not those who live in a particular place. They are those who trust in their hearts that God is good, even if the walls of his temple come crashing down.

And so perhaps others outside of God’s promised land may believe as well. Perhaps there are some in other nations who can worship God ‘in spirit and in truth,’ as Jesus would later put it (John 4:21-4). When God called Isaiah, he told the prophet that he would cut his people down like trees until only stumps remained, because ‘their stump is the sacred seed’ (Isaiah 6:13). And sure enough, by reducing Jerusalem to this tiny remnant, God has opened up a path for the whole human race to know him. For these few scattered seeds to grow into a worldwide forest.

The thought is almost too shocking, too beautiful to utter. And yet Isaiah does utter it. ‘The nations will all come flooding’ to worship God, he proclaims (Isaiah 2:2-3). All the peoples of the world will gather around the flag God plants for them to see upon Zion (11:10-12). We who live in pluralist societies today can hardly imagine how daring it was for Jerusalem’s prophet to insist that the divine saviour would gather not only Jews, but gentiles too, out of darkness into light.

In Chapter 11, Isaiah pictures the remnant pouring back into Jerusalem from the foreign lands where they will have been exiled. Verse 11: they will come from Assyria and Pathros, from Elam and Babylon. Only Isaiah doesn’t call it Babylon, but Shinar. This was an outdated name even in the 7th century BC, but the prophet uses it for a reason. Because Shinar is also the name of the place where all humanity, united in one single nation, tried to build a tower to heaven. The famous ‘Tower of Babel’ is so named because in Shinar God thwarted our plans to usurp him by scattering mankind into different nations with different languages. After that moment, Shinar’s name was changed to ‘Babel,’ or ‘Babylon’ (Genesis 11:1-9).

Now Isaiah invokes the time before Babel, when all people were one in Shinar. In doing so, the prophet hints that those many nations will at last come back together – not because they will climb up to God, but because God will descend to be with them. The conquerors will lay down their arms and be forgiven, while the conquered will return at last in triumph to Jerusalem. They will be united, not by a common language or heritage, but by a shared love of the one God who has rescued them all from sin.

There is no nation on this fallen planet which does not suffer from imperfect leadership or grievous injustice. But neither is there any race or individual that cannot hear God speaking even in the midst of that chaos. Though the world may go hopelessly astray, the remnant is still out there, all over the globe and in your home town. They are listening. Before you speak, or decide not to, remember: it matters what words they hear.

Rejoice evermore,

PS: For more on the remnant, let me recommend a wonderful essay by Albert Jay Knock from The Atlantic Monthly (with thanks to Michael Knowles for the recommendation).

PPS: The Christian theology of the remnant is perhaps most beautifully and fulsomely articulated by St Paul at Romans 11. This chapter, incidentally, reads to me like a quite fatal rebuke to the fallacious notion of ‘replacement theology’ (the idea that Christians have replaced the Jews as God's people). Paul instead argues that the Jewish remnant is the means of ingress whereby the chosen gentiles, and ultimately all of Israel, will be ‘grafted on’ to share in the original faith and inheritance of Abraham. I am grateful to Joshua Herr for his insight here.