A Strange Banner

Why was a banner, a flag so important in warfare before modern means of communication were available? The flag let the soldiers know where the king or the general was. You followed the flag into battle. Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to register, according to Luke 2, because he was of the line of David. Did he reflect on his ancestry as he did so? Why is it so important that the Messiah be identified in Isaiah 11:10 (and elsewhere) as the descendant of Jesse and David?

Trust the Root of Jesse. God has provided a Shoot from Jesse’s stump. Isaiah 10:43–44 had described God’s judgment in terms of his felling the forests of Assyria. Judah, too was cut down, but from the stump a shoot would grow, see Isaiah 11:1; 4:2; 53:2; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12. The root of Jesse was not dead. God would not forget his covenantal promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 nor his earlier promise to Abraham. A descriptive name takes on the status of Messianic title. It takes the eye of faith to recognize the righteous Branch. You see God’s sovereignty in the Servant passages of Isaiah 40-48. As Isaiah prophesies and celebrates the ending of Israel’s (yet future) exile, he describes Cyrus, by name 100 years before his time, as God’s servant, Isaiah 45:1ff. But in a deeper sense, Israel is God’s servant, Isaiah 43:1; 44:1. Yet neither the people of Israel nor the king of Persia are fully qualified to be the Servant of the Lord. Thus Isaiah sings of a greater Servant, Isaiah 42:1–9 and Isaiah 52:13–53:12. This Branch is none less than the Son of God. The eternal Son was sent by the Father. When did the Son of God begin to be? He did not begin to be at Christmas. He is Son from all eternity. He is Creator, John 1:1-3. He is fully God, Romans 9:5. He was born of a woman. God sent his own Son. The persons of the Trinity cooperate in the incarnation. His birth was like your birth, like any human birth. “The incarnation is the central fact of history and of the church’s confession: ‘Great in­deed, we confess, is the mys­tery of godli­ness. He was mani­fested in the flesh’ (1 Tim. 3:16). Even be­fore the the Fall, God eternally decided that the Son should as­sume a human nature, consisting of a body and soul. As the eternal Son who has no beginning and no end, he has always known that he would become the incar­nate one (i.e. ‘the en­fleshed one’).” (Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, p. 26).

Enter his kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace. His righteousness, justice, and faithfulness characterize his rule and his kingdom, verses 3–5. He strikes his enemy with the rod of his mouth. The belt of righteousness, verse 5, is a metaphor taken from wrestling. The result of this righteous rule is peace, verses 6–9. “[Isaiah] describes the future state as the restored paradise of the days of creation (11:6–9 in a Messianic context; 65:17–25). Here the supernaturalizing of the entire state of existence is implied…. [I]n Scripture things come permanently to rest in the consummation of the end…. In Chapter 11… the emphasis is thrown on the equipment of the Messiah for his functions by the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit of Jehovah ‘rests’ upon Him. What He enjoys is not a temporary visitation of the Spirit, but his abiding influence (cpr. 61:1–3).” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, pages 316 & 317) The coming Messiah would be equipped by the Spirit for his work. Isaiah describes the peace of the Messianic kingdom by picturing the predators and domesticated animals lying side-by-side. The peace was there in an initial sense as Judah returned from captivity. But it became more explicit as the angels outside Bethlehem cried, “Glory to God, and on earth, peace. . . .” It is there in measure wherever the kingdom of God rules in the hearts and lives of men. That peace should be there in the covenant homes of this church, in your relationship with your husband, your wife, your parents, your children. It should be there in your dealings with those around you, especially your fellow believers. (Read Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker for help.) But its fullness comes when the kingdom is consummated at the return of the Messiah.

Rally to the banner. The Lord draws his people to himself. Normally you look for roots underground. But this one serves as a banner, a military ensign. It calls you to rally around it. The Root of Jesse can serve as a banner only by being lifted up. This may have been one of the passages which form the backdrop for Jesus’ words in John 3:14; 12:32. The people had not yet been scattered (with some exceptions) in Isaiah’s day. Assyria was the primary enemy which would carry the people into exile, but Egypt and others are mentioned as well. He has in view, on an initial level, the return for God’s people from exile. More is involved here than just Israel returning to the Lord. The real fulfillment looks forward to the incarnation, the public ministry of Christ, his death and resurrection, Pentecost, the proclaiming of the gospel, and the response of the Gentiles. This is God’s people gathering to serve their King. Notice where the return ends — in glory. “His place of rest, where He has settled down to rule and to live, is glory itself. How forceful Isaiah’s language is! Glory! Instead of saying glorious, the prophet merely employs the noun. ‘His resting place is glory.’ Here indeed is a vivid emphasis.” (Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 1, NICOT, p. 394)

Join the new Exodus. The sovereign Lord stretches out his arm for the second time. Once it had been extended to bring the plagues on Egypt and to deliver his people. Now it is extended with the same power, but this time to bring restoration to his own. The miracles of the first Exodus are repeated. The tongue of the Red Sea and the Euphrates River would be dried up to allow his people free return, verse 15. The track from Assyria would become a highway, verse 16. But this banner is raised, not only for the sons of Abraham after the flesh, but for the nations. God’s coming in salvation is news too great to be confined to one people. Your coming to Christ in faith sets you on this highway to Jerusalem. Only now, the destination is not a city in the Middle East, but the heavenly Jerusalem. To you, the church of Jesus Christ, has been given the task of proclaiming the gospel so that many more may join in that great pilgrimage.

The lowly root of Jesse becomes the ensign to which the nations stream. He invites you to rally to that banner, and, through the Spirit of counsel and power, to lift it so that many more will find refuge in him.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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