I once worked for a college program that focused on developing students’ leadership skills. We used the wilderness as our classroom. In the fall semester students were encouraged to spend 24 hours camping alone. After the experience was over we would gather together and talk about how things went. Most students described about grappling with fear or loneliness. The silence bothered some. I remember one student, who wasn’t particularly anxious going into the experience, sharing how he woke up in the morning to find his campsite circled by the tracks of a mountain lion. There is something unnerving about that thought: it’s the switch from thinking about the food chain to thinking of ourselves within it. It’s a very basic, very primitive feeling of vulnerability.
Two Sundays ago our Old Testament reading came the first part of the book of Isaiah. It was the eleventh chapter, to be precise. The week before we had a reading from the second chapter. The historical context for both readings is that of the divided kingdom, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, with a nearby empire, Assyria, beginning to flex its muscle. Isaiah had the unenviable task of telling both Israel and Judah that they would be overtaken by their enemies. It is a consequence for their unfaithfulness and their division.
In Ezekiel 10 we read that the cost for this unfaithfulness and division were not only the loss of political autonomy. Ezekiel describes how the very glory of God left the temple. Think of that, God’s clear and identifiable presence departing. The aim wasn’t to leave Israel and Judah for another people (younger and better looking); it was to prompt their repentance. There is a parallel here to the present situation of the divided church, but that will have to wait for another time. What’s important for us today is how Isaiah speaks of the hope for God’s unifying work in the midst of division and violence.
It’s in this context of impending destruction that Isaiah speaks of a new hope. Isaiah 11 speaks of restoration and the end of hostilities between Judah and Israel. The chapter just previous speaks of the return of exiles. All this is the context for the marvelous phrases we’ve heard so many times:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Notice that Isaiah turns the shoot into a person, calling it ‘he’. And so it is that New Testament writers would suggest that this prophesy was not about a restored nation at all, but about a nation’s role fulfilled by one person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is he, they understood, who would ultimately rule with justice and fairness. And it is he who would dispatch the intransigent oppressors with his breath.
As much as the situation of the church today mirrors that of the divided kingdom—we hope as they did. Lord, let us see this green branch.
Looking further into our passage it appears Isaiah isn’t very confident that his audience will really get what he’s saying. To magnify the impression he pulls in a set of images from the natural world. Isaiah is challenging his readers, and us with them, to bring the things forward that we really think we know about living creatures. He wants us to test our deepest assumptions about the natural order against the rule of the green branch.
Isaiah’s audience knew just as we know that some animals need to kill to live. If you have been in the presence of these magnificent animals you know what this means. It means you might end up in the crockpot. It isn’t that they could be trained to live differently, to eat tofu or something. Their teeth are made for eating flesh. Their digestive systems are tuned to it. And so we know that carnivores will tear into vulnerable animals if given the chance. It’s how they ingest the energy of the sun and the minerals of the soil: wolves eat lambs, leopards eat goats and lions eat calves. We’re talking about apex predators. They sit atop the food chain.
So Isaiah picks up this aspect of ‘the way things are’ and undoes it. He says that this is not the way things will be. This is not the future. The shoot from the stump will gentle the wolf.
The future Isaiah sees is different than the one where the strong do what they want with the week. The predator and the young of grass-eaters will graze together. Those with canines and claws will no longer be a threat to the ones whose only defense is to run.
No doubt we hear these verses and we say, “That’s impossible. This would require the total rebuilding of nature itself. It is unrealistic.” But that, to be sure, is the perlocutionary force of the picture. Your response—your sense that “this is unrealistic”—is what Isaiah wants you to feel. He is not trying to give you precise information about the workings of some future ecosystem: he wants you to see that God is going to change things. Dramatically!
Think of it this way. We often use the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe how our world works. The phrase was first used by an early reader of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was applied immediately to economics and later to just about any situation where we could discern some semblance of competition. Business—survival of the fittest. Graduate school—survival of the fittest. Upper-level hockey—survival of the fittest. Churches—survival of the fittest (maybe).
Isaiah encourages us to rethink this idea. That which survives in the era when the shoot from the stump of Jesse rules is not the strongest, the most violent or the one who can best exploit the weaknesses of the other. What survives are the things that fit with God’s order. Through Isaiah’s eyes we are encouraged to judge what will last, not according to what gets us ahead today, but what will flourish in a context of God’s shalom.
In God’s shalom the weak will not be taken advantage of and the naïve will not be at risk.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
That image should make you shiver. The vulnerable life of a child in the presence of death, and just beyond the reach of our hand. It’s like a toddler wondering into the street chasing her ball. This is the stuff of a caregiver’s nightmare. In the new regime it is nothing at all. In the new regime peace goes that deep. The asp may as well be a toy and the adder a Hawkins Cheezie. There is no more risk than that.
We are well habituated to nod our heads here. When we describe peace as a goal our heads go up and down. And yet my hunch is that if you talked to people who used to be a part of a church, especially a Mennonite one, and aren’t anymore, it wouldn’t be long until someone said, “Mennonites talk a lot about peace, but they don’t practice it.” Now, we would be right to take this with a grain of salt. Every community with a history is vulnerable to critiques like this. If you want to be a part of a community with nothing regrettable in its past then you’ll have to start it—and then end it pretty quick. We needn’t grovel to our imaginary conversation partner, but, still, we should be open to the interrogation of our love for peace.
We can easily congratulate ourselves on being lovers of peace for simply mumbling disapproving things about war or joining a protest against some obvious form of violence. The question we need to sit with is this: How can we actually be peaceful? Or to put it in other terms, how can we—disagreeable, selfish we—become the sort of people that will be the fittest for God’s future?
There are a couple of clues in this passage from Isaiah. There’s the word ‘meekness’ and the image of children in harm’s way. We can supplement this with a glance to the New Testament. Paul gives us a pretty clear idea in his letter to the Ephesians. Here’s the first three verses of the fourth chapter of that text:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
It’s the word ‘gentleness’ that stands out to me. I don’t want to discount humility, patience and love, but there’s something about gentleness that seems to fit with the images from Isaiah. A lion and a calf together being led by a child. A leopard lying down with the young goat. To me those are images of gentleness.
As I understand it, our modern English word ‘gentle’ comes from French. The original connotation was of someone who came from a good family or someone who was noble. That’s what we mean when we talk about “ladies and gentlemen.” That’s not quite what Paul has in mind in Ephesians.
Older English translations of the passage use the word ‘meek’ instead of gentle. That word shows up in our reading from Isaiah. Someone who is meek isn’t aggressive. They are kind. They consider others. Here’s another way to get at gentleness. Picture a horse, one of those big beer-commercial horses, who is immensely powerful but who is under control. Someone has said that gentleness is just that, “power under control.” So, if peace and unity is what we seek, then gentleness is one of the things that will get us there.
Gentleness is not being weak. It is not having no opinion. It is not always letting someone else win. It is not being a doormat. Gentleness isn’t particularly churchy either.
Gentleness is a powerful lion together with a calf.
Gentleness is the parent who teaches patiently instead of yelling.
Gentleness is the friend that can carefully but clearly tell you how you need to grow up.
Gentleness is the spouse conscious of the other’s needs.
Gentleness is a strong leopard snoozing with a goat.
Gentleness is two companions helping each other get sober.
Gentleness is the patient not demanding more of caregivers than can be provided.
Gentleness is the supervisor considering an employee’s well-being, instead of quickly firing them.
Gentleness is a young bear and cow grazing together.
Gentleness is the reviewer who tries to understand before critiquing.
Gentleness is the architect appreciating a neighbourhood instead building out of ego.
Gentleness is the researcher who refuses to reduce lives to data.
Gentleness is a cunning wolf living with a lamb.
I’ll end on this note: my wife and I were hiking out West on morning when we heard a scrambling in the brush just out of sight. We saw two brown bear cubs pulling themselves up a tree. They tore the pine bark loose with their claws and they climbed. We could hear their mother below them. It was either their mother or a dinosaur. I’ll admit that fear shot through me. It was the kind of fear that takes an hour to dissipate.
Isaiah asks us to imagine a future where we respond differently, not just to animals but to the whole swirl of life around us. The future of the bear and wolf is gentleness. It is our future too. Gentleness is the All-powerful Creator born in the vulnerable flesh of an infant, flesh that could be torn by a splinter or a nail. One way to imagine the Christian way of life is to say that we endeavor to live the future now. The future—under God’s reign—is characterized by gentleness.