The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
The magnificent promise of Isaiah 11:9 comes at the end of famous depictions of the wolf and the lamb living peacefully together, the calf safe with the lion, the cow and the bear with their calves and their cubs living as neighbours, and the small child playing with the adder and the cobra (vv.6-8).
Symbolically, in Israel’s sacrificial system the lamb and goat represent the people of Israel, and the calf and ox represent her priests. Savage wild animals symbolise gentile nations who persecute God’s people (e.g., Isa 5:29; Jer 5:6, 16-17; Dan 7:3-7, 17). Serpents, of course, symbolise Satan (Gen 3).
God promises us a world where Satan—is fully defeated and rendered impotent to harm; a world where all peoples, nations, tribes and families are perfectly safe and at peace; and, most wonderfully of all a world that is full to overflowing with the saving knowledge of God.
One day, says the LORD, the world and all its peoples will be like a zoo where it’s safe to remove all the bars and cages. We’ll no longer hurt one another. We’ll no longer need to be protected from one another. We’ll no longer need to fear the schemes of the devil. Because everyone will fully and perfectly know the God of peace, so that his peace and healing will fill our lives and our families and our nations and all our relationships.
It’s a stunning vision, but surely out of touch with what the world is really like. A world full of the knowledge of the LORD seems far removed from the nations of the West, and from our churches. So many churches are small and discouraged—and, dare I say it, rather discouraging places to be and to minister. And the grandeur of Isaiah’s vision (see also chapters 2 and 9), with its distance from the reality we experience, can add to the discouragement.
But when we pay closer attention to how God will achieve this glorious world of peace, what we find is both startling, and utterly thrilling—for even the smallest and most difficult and under-resourced places for ministry. Because Isaiah 11 begins not with a worldwide ocean, but with a little shoot (v.1).
Through Isaiah’s ministry, God had been chopping down his stubborn sinful people (Isa 6:13). In 11:1, we learn that Judah’s kings had been so bad that God has chopped back David’s family tree, right back to the stump of Jesse (cf. 1 Sam 16). God is going back to the beginning to start all over again.
But from the stump of Jesse, will come a little shoot, who is also Jesse’s Divine root (v. 10). It’s such a small beginning! God promises never ending world peace. But you have to walk into a clearing of felled trees, and look really closely at one stump in order to see that anything at all has changed.
God’s plan for world peace starts as small as a baby lying in a manger. But as God’s eternal Son (the Root of Jesse; v. 10) comes into the world as a baby (the shoot of Jesse; v. 1), born of a Virgin (Isa 7:14), a choir of angels sings to some shepherds. And what do they sing? ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (Lk 2:15). That’s what this child has come to bring.
How does God establish peace? Not with armies and guns and battleships and nuclear deterrents. How does God change the world? Not by gathering powerful and wealthy people to strategise and plan and make laws and issue decrees. Not by calling big meetings of international leaders and flying them all to Glasgow. Not by issuing big statements and getting people to sign up to grand targets imposed on other nations.
Instead, God has acted in his Son humbly taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. Even as he still fills heaven and earth, the Son of God added to himself a human nature and dwelt among us, so he knows from the inside what life is like for us.
And this shoot from Jesse’s stump grew, hidden and largely unobserved by men. And as he grew, he became like a root out of dry ground, without form or majesty to impress, without beauty to be desired (Isa 53:2-2). Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, he became acquainted with our griefs and bore our transgressions and punishment, cut off [lit. cut down—like a tree] out of the land of the living (53:8). In order that he might rise again to justify many, grant them portions of his inheritance, and divide the spoils with the strong (53:11-12).
The world’s future peace, our future peace is guaranteed by the Shoot in the manger, the Dry Root upon the cross.
And, within the subsequent history of the church, God continues to act a similar way. The history on earth of Christ’s Body rhymes with the history on earth of our Head.
Following his promise of worldwide peace and knowledge of the LORD, God explains his pathway to that peace. Christ will call, gather and assemble a people to himself (11:10, 12). This is simply what the Church is: the chosen, called and redeemed people of Christ gathered to him by his Word, and abiding in his Word till he returns.
And the way Christ does this is by gathering a remnant (vv. 11, 16): a small handful who remain his people. It’s extraordinary when we remember where God is going to take us: a world filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. But he starts so small, by gathering a handful of people—a little congregation here, a little congregation there.
Small churches—small congregations of ordinary people who trust and love and hope in Christ—are the main way that God works in the world. The churches we most often hear about, or admire, tend to be big and humanly impressive. But that doesn’t seem to be the way God thinks. Most churches around the world today are small. And that is not a sign of failure. It’s a beautiful sign of what will one day be. A small gathering of believers who know the Lord, is a very Christ-like sign of the glorious promise that one day, when Christ returns, the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
In comparison to the sparkling ocean of the knowledge of God that Isaiah promises, our churches can feel more like muddy puddles. But in reality, each faithful church is one of countless little tributaries around the world, flowing towards a vast ocean, whose size and beauty we can’t begin to imagine.
This is how God works. A shoot from a stump. A baby lying in a manger. A man dying alone on a cross. A remnant gathered by his Word. Small congregations of faithful people dotted around the world. This is God’s pathway to everlasting worldwide peace.
The painting is Edward Hicks, "The Peaceable Kingdom" (c.1833-34)