By Christopher Centrella
The purpose of this paper is to give a commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9, first in a literal sense, and then in a spiritual sense. In order to do this, the previous few chapters in Isaiah will be briefly discussed, analyzing the historical and cultural backgrounds of the oracles, in order to determine the context in which these chapters were written. Next, the general structure of the passage will be examined, followed by a verse-by-verse commentary. Lastly, this paper will provide a summary based on the literal sense of the passage, expounded upon by the spiritual sense, taken from the Living Tradition of the Church.
This oracle was written during the reign of King Ahaz, who was King of Judah from circa 735-715 BC. During this time, Judah was engaged in the Syrio-Ephremaic War with Syria and Israel, who had united together in an attempt to overthrow the king. Not relying on the power of God, King Ahaz wanted to seek help from the Assyrians. In order to assure the king that the Lord would be with him, God promised to grant whichever sign he requested. When Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, the Lord Himself gives him one: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name, Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14).
During this time, there was much oppression of the poor in Judah. The community leaders would impose harsh laws and deprive the poor, the widowed, and the orphans of any chance of survival. Furthermore, there was must idolatry and immorality in Judah; she had forgotten her God. (cf. Isaiah 8:19-20). Although Israel and Syria will be destroyed, the Lord tells Ahaz that Judah will be conquered by Assyria, since Ahaz has not trusted in the Lord; he will see the consequences of his evil deeds, and Judah will be forced to undergo oppression.
It is in the midst of foretelling destruction for Judah, that the Lord gives a beacon of hope for His people. Despite their infidelity and distrust in Him, in a little while, war will be over. (cf. Isaiah 10:24-25). The Lord again foretells the Messiah, now telling the people that He will come from the line of David: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.” (Isaiah 9:7).
The prophecy of the Messiah is further developed in Isaiah 11:1-9, where the Messiah and his reign are described in greater detail. The main structure of chapter 11 is chiastic; that is, the parts are repeated in reverse sequence. The passage discussed here, Isaiah 11:1-9, covers the first part of that structure; the second half is given in the next seven verses. There is also much parallelism within these two halves.
The passage begins by reiterating that the Messiah will be related to David: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” (Isaiah 11:1a). Immediately following is the statement, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1b). Here, the author uses synonymous parallelism, restating his words in the next clause, but in a slightly different way. Next, the author describes what kind of person the Messiah will be. He will be anointed by God–“the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” (Isaiah 11:2). The next verse says that, “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:3a). Here, we have synonymous parallelism again.
Verse 3 continues, by showing what this means: Since He will be anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, the Messiah “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” (Isaiah 11:3b). Rather, unlike King Ahaz, he shall reign with justice and do what is right: “But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:4). Here, the author employs a different type of parallelism, antithetic parallelism, whereby the second statement reiterates what is in the first, but by contrast.
The passage continues by employing synonymous parallelism, yet again. “Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.” (Isaiah 11:5). Here, the justice of this Man is restated in similar words by describing his faithfulness.
The last several verses of this passage describe the reign of the Chosen One, one characterized by peace and unity. Verse 6 states, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6). Verses 7 and 8 expound upon this, giving similar comparisons to describe the reign of peace: “The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:7-8).
Lastly, the author develops the ideal reign of the Messiah, by speaking of the fear of the Lord and humanity’s new relationship with Him. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). Here, the passage uses an additional form of parallelism, that of synthetic parallelism. In synthetic parallelism, the idea from one verse is expounded upon and developed further in another; in addition to bringing peace and unity, the Messiah will help all men and women to fear God, and to know Him in a deeper way.
What follows in verses 10-16 is a repetition of the previous verses, stated in a slightly different way; it is the second part of the chiastic structure. Verse 10 restates that the Messiah will come from the line of Jesse. “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10). The next verses explain what the Lord will do, through His Anointed One. “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people…He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:11-12). Lastly, the author reiterates the peace and unity that will surround the kingdom of the Messiah; the Lord will destroy their enemies and unite Judah and Israel again. (cf. Isaiah 11:13-16).
Lastly, while some scholars argue that Isaiah 10:33-34 should be placed as the beginning of chapter 11, this is improbable, since Isaiah 11 has such near-perfect chiastic structure. Placing 10:33-34 would begin with, “Behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low.” (Isaiah 10:33). This would disturb the chiastic structure, which begins with the root of Jesse. Furthermore, while verse 33 could begin the reign of the Messiah, it would make much more sense to place it at the end of the previous section, particularly because it mentions the Lord humbling the exalted. In fact, verse 34 states that God will, “cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” (Isaiah 10:34). Since Lebanon refers to the “pride of peoples,” it would make perfect sense to place this passage at the end of chapter 10, which describes the destruction of Judah. Immediately following this passage, comes the oracle of hope, the hope that sees beyond the fall of Lebanon.
To summarize, all of these features help contribute to a literal reading of the passage. The author begins by asserting that the Lord will be with His people, that He shall send One who will be full of His Spirit. Consequently, this Man will follow the Lord, doing what is right in all His actions. In so doing, this Anointed One will bring true peace and unity to the People of God, a peace that can only be found in doing what God commands. (cf. Isaiah 48:22). Each of these points leads to the next, contributing to a synthetic parallelism, which is then restated in the second part of the chiasm. By employing these techniques, the author emphasizes the importance of the passage.
Building on the general structure of the passage, what follows is now a verse-by-verse commentary, explaining the passage in detail. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow, out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1). Here, the author begins his oracle by reminding the people of Judah about the Messiah and that he will be related to the Davidic line. The second part of this passage, “a branch shall grow,” implies that this Anointed One will have many descendants; God’s people will be restored.
“And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding; the spirit of counsel and might; the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2). Why is “spirit” mentioned so many times? According to Monsignor Edward J. Kissane, the many gifts mentioned refer to the “Spirit of God,” containing spiritual gifts, (e.g. gift of prophecy), intellectual gifts (e.g. knowledge), and practical gifts (e.g. prudence). In fact, most of our Christian theology about the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit comes from this passage.
Now, what does the phrase, “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,” mean? Firstly, “Spirit of the Lord” represents God’s very life, which can be communicated to human beings. In the beginning, the “Spirit of God was moving upon the waters.” (Gen 1:2). When God created man, he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). In both of these cases, it was the Spirit of God that brought life; in fact, our Christian theology tells us that the Spirit of God is God’s life within us, when we are in His grace. (cf. Romans 8:9). Now that Christ has come, each of us is invited to live this life of God, as He is the Life (cf. John 14:6).
However, the passage says, “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” This probably refers to being anointed with the Holy Spirit or filled with the Holy Spirit. In Christian terms, we could call this, “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” (cf. Matthew 3:11). In essence, this means a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God comes upon Samuel, he prophesies. (cf. 1 Samuel 10:10). When the Spirit of God comes upon Saul and his messengers, they too prophesy. (cf. 1 Samuel 19:20-24). Most likely, this passage means that the Chosen One will be anointed with the Holy Spirit, able to do what is right and to establish the Kingdom of God.
Next, the author tells us that, “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” (Isaiah 11:3). In the NABRE translation, it says, “not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide.” In other words, this Messiah, filled with the Holy Spirit, will do what is right in the eyes of God, and will not walk in the way of the world; He will judge not according to outward actions, but filled with God’s Spirit, will judge according to the heart.
He will not judge by appearance and popularity, “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” (Isaiah 11:4). Since the poor were being so oppressed, the Lord was reminding His people that they would not be forgotten; when the Messiah came, He would give them their due. The second part says, “and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Could this be hinting at justice and hope for all peoples, not only the Jews? He shall slay the wicked, by a simple breath; this again implies how spirit-filled this man will be; His entire being will be animated by the Spirit of God. Just as a simple breath of God brought life to humanity, so this man will slay the wicked, by a simple breath.
“Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.” (Isaiah 11:5). This verse reiterates what was said in the last two; this man will live according to the law of the Lord. Rather than judging by appearances or trying to be popular in the eyes of the world, this man will truly be pleasing in the sight of God.
The next three verses (Isaiah 6-8) describe the ideal life that will be brought about by the reign of the Messiah. There will be so much unity that even creation itself will be united; the animals will love each other as friends, and children shall play with the animals. Once more, this seems to imply that the reign of the Messiah will bring freedom for much more than Judah; rather, the reign of the Messiah will bring freedom for all people, previously bound by sin and evil.
The passage ends by developing the reign of the Messiah. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). Besides harmony in creation and amongst each other, all men and women will fear God. Again, the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” The author once more seems to be implying that the reign of the Messiah, the kingdom of God, will be for all peoples. All people will come to know God in a deeper way; to fear Him and walk in peace and harmony.
To summarize, Judah has been unfaithful to God and has put her trust in humans, rather than in the Lord. After her destruction, however, God promises to send someone anointed by Him to restore His people. This man will be filled with His Spirit and will “delight” in the “fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:3). He shall restore justice to the people, giving the poor their due and freeing them from the oppression which they now endure. Besides being the bearer of justice, this Man will bring peace to God’s people and unite the entire earth, not just Judah; even creation will live in harmony. Furthermore, all people will fear the Lord God, and shall come to know Him in a deeper way.
Looking at this passage in the Living Tradition of the Church, it finds its fulfillment in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is our Savior and Redeemer, in the midst of our sin and brokenness. Fulfilling the love of God, who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16a), Jesus Christ became Man to save us from our sins, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16b). In fact, the Second Sunday of Advent uses this passage as the first reading, preparing us for the celebration of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Christ.
Because Christ has come into the world, the Kingdom of God is now at hand, the Holy Spirit being available to all who are open to Him. All of us are now called to be anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be baptized in His Spirit. St. Paul tells us that, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5). God has loved us so much, that now all of us can receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
Our Holy Father beautifully describes this life each Christian is called to live: “The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, transforms our hearts and enables us to enter into the perfect communion of the blessed Trinity, where all things find their unity.” In other words, the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts to be like the heart of Christ. The Holy Spirit allows us to be united with the Blessed Trinity; to commune with God Himself, where Heaven is made present to us, and the Kingdom of God is within us. (cf. Luke 17:21).
At the same time, however, the fullness of the Kingdom of God is not yet here. There is still hatred and division. There is so much pain and suffering, sin and brokenness. Even among the Body of Christ, there is so much disunity and division; violence and immorality still exist. Therefore, this prophecy will not be completely fulfilled until the second coming, when Jesus Christ, glorious and triumphant, will come again to judge the living and the dead. (cf. Apostles Creed).
Mauchline, John. Isaiah 1-39. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
Kissane, Monsignor Edward J. The Book of Isaiah. Dublin: The Richview Press, 1960.
Smith, George Adam, Sir. The Book of Isaiah: Vol. I, Isaiah 1.-XXXIX. New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1890.
Hahn, Scott, ed. Catholic Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009.
Gray, George Buchanan. The strophic division of Isaiah 21 1-10 and Isaiah 11 1-8. Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 1912.
Crook, Margaret Brackenbury. A suggested occasion for Isaiah 9:2-7 and 11:1-9. United States: Society of Biblical Literature, 1949.
“Literary structure (chiasm, chiasmus) of Book of Isaiah.” Accessed November 19, 2019. http://www.bible.literarystructure.info/bible/23_Isaiah_pericope_e.html
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USCCB Daily Readings. Accessed November 20, 2019. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120819.cfm
 Scott Hahn, Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2000).
 Sir George Adam Smith, The Book of Isaiah: Vol. I, Isaiah 1.-XXXIX (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1890), 104.
 John Mauchline, Isaiah 1-39 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 120.
 “Literary structure (chiasm, chiasmus) of Book of Isaiah,” http://www.bible.literarystructure.info/bible/23_Isaiah_pericope_e.html, (November 19, 2019.)
 Thomas B. Clarke, “What is a Chiasm (or Chiasmus)?,” https://www.bible-discernments.com/joshua/whatisachiasm.html, (November 19, 2019).
 Victor H. Matthews, The Hebrew Prophets and the Social World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 115.
 Monsignor Edward J. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah (Dublin: The Richview Press, 1960), 135.
 (Smith, 185).
 (Mauchline, 127).
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html#_ftn40, (November 20, 2019).