Isaiah 4: The Branch and the Stump
Updated: May 5
If I had been in charge of numbering the Scriptures, I think I would have included verse one of chapter 4 at the end of chapter 3. But maybe this odd numbering can serve as a good reminder of what Isaiah had prophesied just before he prophesied the promises in the rest of chapter 4. Right turn ahead.
So then, verse 1: “In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, “We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!”
This is probably as good a time as any to dive into the use of the phrase “in that day.” According to people who have more time than I do to count such things, the phrase “in that day” occurs some 89 times in the Bible, and 40 of those are in the book of Isaiah. When you read them it's quite clear that the “that day” Isaiah is talking about is not a 24-hour period, but a period of time in which some special purpose will be accomplished. It's kind of like an era but the term “era” is applied once the era is over, once we’ve had a chance to look back and identify some distinctive characteristic of the period. The “era of modern medicine“or “the Big Band Era” or the “era of the Roman occupation.” Eras are defined once they are over because when you're in the middle of an era, nothing seems very distinctive. “It is what it is.”
“In that day” refers to a period of time in the future when something of significance will be accomplished. It's identified before it happens. In verse 1, Isaiah is identifying a time when the same women who were self-seeking and arrogant will become self-seeking and not-so-arrogant. Those who were on top of the world will be reduced to begging. Something significant is going to happen.
In verse 2, “that day” is a time defined by beauty and glory and fruitfulness. Again, something significant is going to happen, but is the significant event of verse 1 the same significant event of verse 2? In the Lord’s eyes: yes.
What do you suppose that looked like in the eyes of Isaiah? The best way I can explain what it looks like is this, and I think my sister would agree: When you are standing on a mountain with a 40-lb pack on your back, it may look like the peak beyond is just a day's hike away. But oh no it’s not. You can’t see all the space in between the peaks until you get to the top, look down into that big valley ahead, and say, “Oh #*@$%! If you show the picture you took before you started the trek to those back home, they will have no clue what you are whining about. They will see in 2D what you experienced in 3D.
That’s what it was like for Isaiah. Standing where he was, he saw a vision of what “that day” was going to look like. It would be grisly and bloody and terrifying and beautiful and glorious and magnificent all at the same time. Something significant was going to happen. The LORD would have His day. What Isaiah may not have realized, and what the others who came after him didn’t realize, and what we don’t realize, even today, is how long “that day” will be. Our vision of the Scriptures is, for the most part, 2D.
Another little complication when trying to identify where we are on the timeline is the nature of prophecy: it can have a dual-fulfillment or a triple-fulfillment or a we-just-don’t-know-how-many fulfillments. In other words, throughout Scripture we can see the same prophecy being fulfilled over and over again, in different places, in different phases, in different measures, and in different contexts. There is a natural fulfillment (at least one) and then a spiritual fulfillment. For example, Babylon was a real place, a powerful kingdom in the past, but is also a symbol for the corrupt political, religious, and financial systems of the present and the future. Mount Zion is a real hill in Israel, the place where David placed the tabernacle, but it’s also a picture of the church, the dwelling place of God, both now and in the future. God uses types and shadows and themes over and over again, hoping that maybe this time we’ll get it. (That’s kind of a joke. God knows which time we will get it. The amazing thing is how many chances He gives us before we do get it. Obviously we still don't get it because here we are, scratching our heads, trying to make sense of Isaiah.)
All of this makes it really difficult to talk about prophecy. Some of it has been fulfilled, some of it is being fulfilled, and some will be fulfilled in the future. So my apologies to the English teachers out there if I use the wrong tense! We now know that the “that day” of Isaiah 4:1 has been fulfilled and the “that day” of Isaiah 4:2 hasn't. We know that the church enjoys the firstfruits of the Kingdom of God now, but the children of Israel are still waiting.
The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem mocked Isaiah because they didn't know Babylonia was coming. Babylonia wasn't even on their radar. We now know that the Babylonians came and carried God's people away. While God's people were in exile, most of them gave up on ever seeing home again. We now know that their exile ended and they were restored to their land. Once they were back home they were certain their Messiah was coming soon. We now know they waited 400 years while the prophets were silent. We also know that in the midst of the Roman occupation, their Messiah was born. But very few knew it was Him. So they were still waiting for their deliverer as they watched their temple and their city and their nation destroyed.
We now know that in the thousands of years they waited, they came under the control of one superpower after another: the Persians, the Greek Hellenists, the Roman and Byzantine Empires. They suffered horrific degradation by Islamic and Christian crusaders, and they lost their identity under the Ottomans and the British. Generation after generation passed by until only a remnant still believed the Messiah would come. We now know that the beautiful picture Isaiah painted of Zion dwelling in safety would be preceded by, at this writing, more than 2400 years of heartache while their place in the Kingdom is being prepared. We now know that their God became our God when He grafted us into the olive tree that was Israel. But guard against arrogance, Church, because the Lord has not forgotten His promise to them. (See Romans 11:11-31)
It's impossible to know where we are on the timeline, how many generations will come and go before “that day” will fully arrive. I don't even try to figure it out. I need to know only one thing: God in His grace has made me a part of His kingdom, and in His kingdom, I am safe.
We learn from Isaiah's prophecy that Jerusalem, along with the rest of the world, will be in total disarray when deliverance fully comes. The turnaround will be astounding. Just one word from the LORD Almighty and everything will change.
“Contrary to all expectation there follows a message about glory and survival, holiness and life, cleansing, new creation and divine indwelling and an open shelter. How truly surprising is the saving work of the Lord!
Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 64. InterVarsity Press
The Branch of the Lord
The kingdom of David had been the great hope of Israel. For forty years he reigned, and for those who put their faith in military maneuvers and conquest, it was good, really good. It’s now known as the “Golden Age of Israel.” God told Nathan the prophet to tell David that his kingdom would endure and that his throne would be established forever. (2 Samuel 7) Yet not long after he said it, the kingdom of David fell. Hard. His family, his legacy, the “golden age” of Israel, started to fall apart before he died, and once he did, it totally fell to pieces. First his son Absalom and then his son Adonijah rebelled and tried to take his throne. By the time his appointed heir, Solomon, took the throne, the writing was on the wall: after Solomon's promised 40-year reign, the kingdom of David was going down. And it did. All kinds of chaos ensued. By the time of Isaiah, the kingdom of David was not just fallen, it was lifeless, decayed. It appeared it would never be restored. For the children of Jacob, aside from a remnant that never lost hope, the “forever” kingdom of David was just one more unfulfilled prophecy.
Four hundred years later, Isaiah stepped onto the scene and spoke life over the promise. "In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel." Isaiah 4:2 The Hebrew word for ‘branch’ comes from a word that means “to sprout, to spring up.” This branch is not one of those dry branches you break up for the bonfire. This branch is a vibrant sign of life springing up from something long thought dead. Isaiah calls it “the Branch of the Lord.” So here is the Lord’s Branch, something divine, springing up from a dead stump—something earthly, something decayed. The Branch, the Messiah, from the long-dead kingdom of David, will be born of a long line of descendants from the flawed family of David. From the 2D perspective of the world, He sure wouldn't look like a King.
So God called on Isaiah to remind His people of His promise to David, With beautiful pictures and eloquent language, Isaiah attempted to plant hope in a people beyond hope, a people who had traded the promises of God for a comfortable lie. Isaiah takes them to task, warns them of coming destruction, then invites them to see what he sees. Here’s how The VOICE translation says it: “Then, oh then, a tiny shoot cultivated and nurtured by the Eternal will emerge new and green, promising beauty and glory. Everything that comes from the earth will offer itself, lovely and magnificent, to those who escaped Israel’s demise.”
Verse 3: Those who survived in precious Zion, all who remain in that special city, Jerusalem, will be called holy. They are destined to be alive, these remaining few, in Jerusalem.
That word, “holy”, is one of those divine words of power and promise. I think if we truly understood it, we would be irreversibly changed. Ask a dictionary what “holy” means and it says, “sacred.” That doesn’t help much. “Consecrated”? Better, but not much. Ah, there it is: “set apart.” Those who remain in Zion, the remnant He rescued, will be set apart for God. And what was once a ruined city will be a special city, a precious city, a city “destined to be alive.” I love that—destined to be alive.
What will make the New Jerusalem special? All that opposes God will be swept away. That is what we have to look forward to, too: a kingdom where all that opposes God will be swept away. There, I am destined to be alive—fully alive.
Verse 4: Then the Lord will wash away the filth that clung to the daughters of Zion and clean up the blood that stained Jerusalem’s streets with a spirit of justice and a spirit of fire. Three things jump out at me here. First of all, some of the daughters of Zion will make it! The haughty, gaudy women of chapter 3 will be cleansed. Those who were begging for husbands will be…well, we’ll talk about that in a minute. Second, a spirit of justice will prevail. Our idea of justice—someone getting what they deserve—is replaced with the Lord’s idea of justice: everyone getting what He has provided. Figuring out who should get what will no longer be an issue. His elect will be there and if He elected them, all other issues have been settled. The spirit of justice at work will be, as Matthew Henry says, “enlightening the mind, convincing the conscience.” Third, the spirit of fire will be working alongside the spirit of justice to remove every trace of sin and death. There, the fire is not for destroying, but for cleansing. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Verse 5: And the Eternal will create wonders over the whole of Mount Zion and those who gather there—cloud and smoke to dim the day, bright shining fire to light the night, all billowing over Zion’s glory like a satin canopy. Does any of this sound familiar? Yeah – it’s Exodus all over again: God revealing Himself to His people. He will be a cloud by day and a fire by night. It's God doing what He’s always determined to do: lead them and protect them. The two are really the same. If you follow where He leads, you are safe.
Over this will be a canopy of glory. Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof? A quirky procession escorts the bride and groom to an open-sided tent. That open-sided tent is a chuppah—a canopy under which a Jewish couple stands as they say their wedding vows. Here, Isaiah draws us a picture of that special place, where the remnant of Israel will enter into a new covenant with their God.
Verse 6: And it will be a resting place, protected from the heat of the day, a place of shelter and retreat amid storms and rain. This is what the remnant of Israel probably needs the most: rest. All the trials and testings, do-overs and disasters, pains and persecutions will be over. Something, that one thing, will be accomplished. God will have made His kingdom their kingdom, and in His presence, they will be safe. Forever.