Isaiah is the great prophet of Advent. Advent, from the Latin, adventus, which means coming, is about the motions of God’s Word coming to us as light in the darkness of the wilderness of our hearts and world. This is concentrated for us in the great pageant of the Advent and Christmas Services of Nine Lessons and Carols. An important feature of that pageant are readings from Isaiah. This week in Chapel, one of those readings was highlighted and commented upon, Isaiah 11.1-3a, 4a, 6-9.
It provides a twofold reflection upon the Messianic King and the idea of Paradise Restored. The passage has had an enormous influence upon the theological understanding of our humanity and upon the idea of Creation as Paradise as well as contributing to the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. The idea of the Messianic King is associated with King David. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,” it begins, recalling us to the family tree or lineage of King David, the King who united the unruly tribes of Israel in the worship of God centered in Jerusalem, Zion.
In Isaiah’s vision, “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” The Holy Spirit of God conveys the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit upon the Messiah, the anointed one who is thought of as the saviour of the world. The gifts are spiritual principles that speak to the integrity of our humanity, to the unity of heart and mind, and which are properties or qualities of the Messiah in us. The Hebrew text as we have it from a much later period than the Greek translation of it, called the Septuagint, names six gifts but the Septuagint itself speaks of the seven gifts of the Spirit.
But what are these so-called gifts, these qualities of the soul that participate or share in the divine nature itself? “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The Septuagint, probably out of sense of the rhetorical patterns of the Greek language, couples “piety” or devotion with knowledge and makes “the fear of the Lord” a kind of concluding principle. The fear of the Lord refers to honouring or worshipping God.
They are all intellectual and spiritual gifts that come from God and speak to heart and mind. That is significant with respect to theological anthropology, namely, how we understand our humanity in the sight of God. Critical to that theological understanding is the idea of the integration of heart and mind, suggested in the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit. That these gifts are directly associated with the Messiah signifies that these gifts ultimately derive from the Word and the Spirit of God and unite us with God. In other words, these spiritual gifts are principles that come from God to us and that speak to the greater dignity and truth of our humanity as seen in the sight of God.
The theme of the righteousness of the Messianic reign carries over into the picture of Paradise Restored. We are given a vision of what that righteousness looks like. It is imaged in terms of the harmony of the natural world and the harmony of humanity and nature but ultimately as dependent upon God’s harmony with his creation restored to truth and righteousness. The sequence of images is powerful and suggestive. Harmony reigns in place of “nature red in tooth and claw,” to use Tennyson’s great phrase, the dog-eat-dog world of division and dominion. Instead, as Isaiah envisions, the wolf shall dwell with the lamb rather than eat the lamb! This passage provoked the modern prophet of Atheism, Frederick Nietzsche, to heights of rhetorical excess influenced by his reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. He emphasizes the will to power over the struggle for survival. The wolf shall devour the lamb; not dwell with the lamb in peace and harmony. It is a different vision that leads to abuse and destruction, to darkness and despair, to a world of will without reason.
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” Isaiah concludes, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” It is a different vision and one that challenges us and counters the divisions in our hearts and world. It is a contemplative vision that recalls us to the goodness of creation and of our humanity within that order. In the motions of God’s Word coming to us, we are awakened to hope and peace, to joy and love that are found in God. Such is the redemption of human desire and the hope of the redemption of the world.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy