An ancient Christmas: The branch

In the previous article in this series, we considered Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin. The background to that prophecy will prove helpful here, too, for Isaiah delivered this prophecy likely during the reign of the same king: Ahaz.

As we noted previously, Isaiah ministered to Judah, and Ahaz ruled Judah, at a time when Jerusalem faced the ongoing threat of foreign invasion—particularly from Israel and Syria. At one point, Judah forged an alliance with Assyria to counter the threat of a Syrian-Israeli invasion. The challenge that Isaiah set before the people was, whom would they trust? Would they trust Yahweh or would they trust man? Would they persist in idolatry or turn in repentance to God?

Sadly, the answer seemed to be that Judah would trust men rather than God. Specifically, Judah’s hope was in Assyria to deliver it from its enemies. In Isaiah 10:5, the prophet begins a scathing prophecy against Assyria. In vv. 33–34, in particular, Assyria is portrayed as a forest that would be levelled: “Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One.” Assyria, in whom Judah placed its trust, would not last. Judah’s source of hope would be laid bare. It’s a pretty doleful scene—a once-flourishing forest laid bare to a wasteland of mere stumps—but in the midst of it, there is a sign of hope and of life: “There shall come forth a shoot” (11:1). Where the forest had been destroyed, a small sign of life would spring as a token of divine rescue.

Perhaps, as you picture it in your mind, it doesn’t seem all that hopeful: a single little sprig in a decimated forest. But as the prophecy unfolds, it grows into a far more impressive scene. Notice four things about the Branch prophecy as it is given in 11:1–10.

First, notice the Branch’s ancestry (v. 1): He would rise “from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse, of course, was David’s father, and David was the famed king of Israel. Judah was, at this point in history, looking to outside sources for hope. They trusted in Assyria, particularly, but the ultimate Saviour would be one of their own.

Second, notice something about the Branch’s rule (vv. 2–5). Unlike the wicked king of Judah under whom Isaiah ministered, the Branch would see “the Spirit of the LORD … rest upon him.” His rule would therefore be characterised by “wisdom and understanding,” “counsel and might,” “knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” Ahaz, we saw previously, was a godless king who did not trust in the Lord. He ruled foolishly and oppressed those under his rule. The Branch would be different. He would wear righteousness and faithfulness like a belt.

Third, consider the Branch’s world (vv. 6–9). The Branch would restore paradise. Wolves lying with lambs and lions goats reminds us of Eden before sin entered the world. The Branch would restore paradise by dealing with the sin that first ruined paradise. What a wonderful promise!

Fourth, notice the Branch’s reach (v. 10). He would bring hope, not only for Judah, but for “the peoples” and for “the nations.” His concern would be a missionary concern for all peoples. Paul quotes this verse in Romans 15:12 when he describes his missionary zeal to the unreached.

These four prophecies of the ancient Christmas were perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He was a descendant of King David (Matthew 1:1), rising “from the stump of Jesse.” At his baptism, the Spirit of the Lord rested on him (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22), so that he carried out his ministry with wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. Christ indeed dealt fully with sin so as to restore the hope of paradise—a hope that will one day, at his return, be fully realised. And his ministry zeal was far wider than only Israel—he came to draw all peoples to himself.

But notice how all of this began: with a single shoot growing from a stump in a decimated forest. It’s not a very exciting picture, is it? But in God’s hands, even a single shoot in a decimated forest can bring about eternal good for his people.

As you think about this prophecy of a single shoot in a decimated forest, consider the history surrounding the first Christmas. Was Jesus’ arrival not as seemingly insignificant as that little shoot?

Jesus, the King of Israel, was born to poor parents. When they presented him in the temple in obedience to the law, all Joseph and Mary could afford were “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). Those were the most meagre of sacrifices that could be offered to the Lord when a firstborn child was consecrated to him (Leviticus 13:1–8).

Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace, was a tiny, backwater little town about 10km south of Jerusalem. It was hardly the place one would expect a king to be born. Furthermore, when Jesus was born, Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). The word translated “inn” was generally used of a spare room in a house. (It’s not very a likely that there even was a commercial inn in a tiny village like Bethlehem.) Probably, the sceptical family in Bethlehem wouldn’t allow Joseph and his pregnant fiancée—the scandal!—to use the spare room, and so relegated them to outside where the animals were kept. A feeding trough was hardly a bed fit for a king!

A few years later, Jesus’ parents relocated to Nazareth, another insignificant village in ancient Israel. He was known as a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23), which was hardly fitting for a king. Even Nathanael scoffingly declared that nothing good could come from Nazareth (John 1:46).

Jesus was raised by a carpenter and was therefore expected to enter into carpentry as a trade. When he returned to Nazareth after beginning his public ministry, the townsfolk were offended that “the carpenter” had taken on the role of a rabbi.

Jesus was a poor carpenter, born in a backward village south of Jerusalem, and raised in a town that was routinely ridiculed by the general Israelite population. Is this where God’s Messiah would come from? Surely there was a better way to do things? And yet those humble beginnings are exactly what Isaiah prophesied concerning the Branch.

The ancient Christmas Branch prophecy is one in which a Messiah who didn’t appear to be much would become God’s greatest ruler with worldwide saving influence. And that is precisely who Jesus was. There was nothing remarkable about Jesus’ physical appearance. He came in lowliness and poverty. He came in the weakness of human flesh. And yet he came to save his people from their sins, to set up God’s eternal kingdom, and to draw all peoples to himself.

The Branch prophecy reminds us that God works in the most surprising ways—that he tends to bring about his purposes in ways we would never anticipate. We are tempted to look to external experiences and appearances, to consider our challenges and derive our hope from things we can see and touch. The Branch prophecy reminds us to trust in God’s strange promises, because what appears to be a little sprout in a decimated forest has the potential, by the power of God, to change the world—just as the Nazarene did two thousand years ago.

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