Opening The Old Testament
Wolves and Lambs and Leopards, Oh My! Reflections on Isaiah 11:1-10 (Advent 2)
Echoing that psalm, Isaiah promises that "his delight will be (only) in the awe of YHWH," (because) "he will not judge by what his eyes see or decide by the hearing of his ears; (instead) with righteousness he will judge the poor and decide uprightly for the meek of the earth" (Is. 11:3-4a). This new king will not rely on traditional ways of judgment, but will go far beyond his predecessors, bending over backward on behalf of the poor and the meek, making certain that justice is offered to them, despite those who would deny it to them. Plainly, Isaiah claims that kings too often have offered so-called justice to those who, like them, are rich and powerful. This new king will be different in every way.
And his strength will be displayed in a much different way, too. "He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath (spirit) of his lips he will kill the wicked" (Is. 11:4b). This new king will not come with sword and shield but with words whose great strength and truth will be more than enough to tame and make ineffective any who would stand in his way, a way motivated entirely by "righteousness and faithfulness," both of which are said to encircle him like a belt (Is. 11:5).
And with the coming of the new king, the creation itself will be transformed. The animals that are natural enemies—wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion—will crouch down together in peace and contentment, all tended and lead by a tiny child (Is. 11:6). Portraits of this scene are ubiquitous in the iconography of Christianity as wild and domesticated creatures laze against one another while a child gambols about them all. It is of course all too good to be true and runs the deep risk of drowning in a dewy eyed misty gauze of romance.
We need to resist such a romantic picture with all of our might, because that is far from Isaiah's intent. When YHWH's king comes, and he surely will come, the universe will change. The first peace of creation, outlined in Genesis 1-2, will be restored, as both lion and ox will eat straw (see Gen. 1:30 where all beasts are vegetarian!) and a nursing child will play with the deadly adder. Lovely portrait that this is, Isaiah does not want us to wash it in a candle-lighted glow. He wants to say that God's plan for the cosmos is precisely this: peace and harmony and beauty. Make no mistake! God is bringing this about again and again.
Where and when, we rightly ask? When thousands die in a Philippine typhoon, when death in Iraq and Syria is a daily event, so common that we can hardly summon the emotion to care anymore, when so many of our fellow U.S. citizens are poor and becoming ever poorer, how can anyone imagine in their wildest fancies that wolf will ever lie down with lamb? It seems nothing more than a cruel joke. Yet, so Isaiah, echoing the call of his God, proclaims.
This season we simply cannot give up the reality of this bold dream. It is this conviction, this certainty of God's desire for the cosmos that lures us onward into joining the journey toward that reality. This is the reason for Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter, and the whole Christian thing. God has plans for us, and we are asked to join in. The new king is coming, and he will usher in a new cosmos. May we hope for it, work for it, pray for it, for without that dream we indeed will perish.
Author's Note: Here is another reminder about the upcoming tour of the Baltic Sea, a journey on which I will be lecturing on the book of Job, and we will be visiting some of the world's greatest cities: Berlin, Copenhagen, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm. We depart September 3, 2014. Visit www.eo.travel for details. I hope to meet you there.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.