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Christ the “ensign for the nations”

June 3, 2011

Joseph Addison Alexander (1809-1860) was a Presbyterian minister, a professor at Princeton University, a Hebrew scholar, and the author of a commentary on Isaiah. He wrote, in his introductory comments on Isaiah chapter 11: [1]

Joseph Addison Alexander

Joseph Addison Alexander

This chapter is occupied with promises of restoration and deliverance, external safety and internal peace, to God’s own people, as contrasted with the ruin previously threatened to their enemies. Borrowing his imagery from the fall of the Assyrian forest, just before predicted, the Prophet represents a shoot as springing from the prostrate trunk of Jesse, or rather from his roots, and invested by the Spirit of Jehovah with all the necessary attributes of a righteous judge and ruler, vs. 1-4. The pacific effect of the Messiah’s reign is then described by the beautiful figure of wild and domestic animals dwelling and feeding together, and of children unhurt by the most venomous reptiles; to which is added an express prediction that all mutual injuries shall cease in consequence of the universal prevalence of the knowledge of Jehovah, vs. 5-9. To these figures borrowed from the animal creation, the Prophet now adds others from the history of Israel, but intended to express the same idea. The Messiah is here represented as a signal set up to the nations, gathering the outcasts of his people from all quarters, and uniting them again into one undivided body, free from all sectional and party animosities, vs. 10-13. Under figures of the same kind, the triumph of the church is then represented as a conquest over the old enemies of Israel, especially those nearest to the Holy Land; while the interposition of God’s power to effect this and the preceding promises is vividly described as a division of the Red Sea and Euphrates, and a deliverance from Egypt and Assyria, vs. 14-16. The evidently figurative character of some parts of this chapter seems to furnish a sufficient key to the interpretation of those parts which in themselves would be more doubtful.

Alexander understood the prophecy to be referring to the Messiah, Jesus, and about the Gentiles seeking God, and Jews returning to their homeland. That the Messiah is meant is evident in the first five verses of the chapter:

Isaiah 11:1-5
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The root of Jesse in Isaiah 11 clearly refers to Christ, a descendant of Jesse, the father of David.

The “rest” of Christ was typified by Israel taking possession of Canaan under Joshua. The literal land belongs among the shadows of the Old Covenant. The reality that those things represent is spiritual, and unseen. Christ promised his disciples that the Spirit will guide them into all truth.

Isaiah’s depiction of animals whose natures are changed, lions that eat straw like an ox, and children playing with deadly snakes, without being harmed, may well be a poetic description of true Christian living, and behavior. It is certainly not meant to be understood literally.

Isaiah 11:9
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

In verse 11 the prophet again refers to Christ, who was the offspring and descendant of Jesse, the father of David.

In his article The Jews in End Time Bible Prophecy, dispensationalist David R. Reagan cited Isaiah 11:11-12 as an example of prophecies being fulfilled. Reagan’s idea is that those verses apply to unbelieving Jews. The phenomenon of Jews migrating to Palestine in the modern era, because of the holocaust, and encouraged and often financed by American dispensationalists and Zionists, impresses many people. But it is not the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, as some think. Reagan wrote: [1]

We are living in exciting times when we can witness Bible prophecy being fulfilled before our very eyes. Many of these prophecies relate to the Jewish people and their nation. Below is a summary of prophecies concerning the Jews that are currently being fulfilled and those that are yet to be fulfilled.

Prophecies Currently Being Fulfilled

1. The Jewish people will be regathered in unbelief from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:11-12). Fulfillment: 20th Century and continuing.

2. The state of Israel will be re-established (Isaiah 66:7-8 & Ezekiel 37:21-22). Fulfillment: May 14, 1948.

Reagan gave other examples of “prophecies currently being fulfilled,” but my discussion will focus on just these two. In his first example, Reagan cited Isaiah 11:11-12. But taken in context, surely those verse apply to the Christian church, rather than to the Jews. Reagan’s interpretation does not withstand scrutiny, because Christ is the “ensign for the nations.”

Isaiah 11:11-12
And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.
And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

Assyria, though prominent in Isaiah’s time, has disappeared from the earth; but there is no doubt about what the “ensign” referred to in verse 12 represents. It is clearly a reference to the “root of Jesse” of verses 1 and 10, which is Jesus Christ. But, how is Christ an “ensign,” to people who deny his claims and his gospel, and reject his rule?

“His rest shall be glorious” in verse 11 must refer to the “rest” promised to the saints, and spoken of in Hebrews 3:6-4:11. For the author of Hebrews, the promised land of Canaan, and the sabbath day, were types, representing the spiritual inheritance of the saints.

Perhaps Isaiah’s prophecy describes the gathering of the saints, who are being gathered from out of all the confusion of the world, and from flawed interpretations, to understand the truth, represented by the promised land. The saints inherit a heavenly country, that is, something spiritual. The literal Canaan was a type and a shadow of it.

J. A. Alexander commented on verse 11: [3]

The countries mentioned are put for all in which the Jews should be scattered. There is no importance to be attached to the order in which they are enumerated, nor is the precise extent of each material. Assyria and Egypt are named first and together, as the two great foreign powers, with which the Jews were best acquainted. Pathros is Thebais or Upper Egypt, as appears not only from Scriptural usage, but also from the Egyptian etymology of the name, as denoting the region of the south. Cush is not merely Ethiopia proper, but Ethiopia, perhaps including part of Arabia, from which it appears to have been settled. Shinar is properly the plain in which Babylon was built, thence put for Babylonia. Elam is Elymais, a province of Persia, contiguous to Media, sometimes put for the whole country. Hamath is a city of Syria on the Orontes (see above, ch. 10:9). Islands of the sea, not merely islands in the strict sense, but the shores of the Mediterranean, whether insular or continental, and substantially equivalent to Europe, meaning the part of it then known, and here put last, as being the most important. This prophecy does not relate to the Gentiles or the Christian church, but to the Jews. The dispersions spoken of are not merely such as had already taken place at the date of the prediction but others then still future, including not only the Babylonish exile but the present dispersion. The prophecy was not fulfilled in the return of the refugees after Sennacherib’s discomfiture, nor in the return from Babylon, and but partially in the preaching of the gospel to the Jews. The complete fulfilment is to be expected when all Israel shall be saved. The prediction must be figuratively understood, because the nations mentioned in this verse have long ceased to exist. The event prefigured is, according to some, the return of the Jews to Palestine; but according to others, their admission to Christ’s kingdom on repentance and reception of the Christian faith.

Those of the nations who seek Christ, and receive his Spirit become the seed of Abraham, Paul said. Isaiah described the saints coming to the knowledge of the truth under the figure of the people of Israel who were scattered in many places returning to their homeland.

In the second example presented by Reagan, he declared that the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 fulfilled Isaiah 66:7-8 and Ezekiel 37:21-22, but neither of those two scripture references actually support his claim.

Isaiah 66:7-8 could hardly apply to the founding of the Zionist Jewish state; rather, it is a prophecy about the Church, which is the heavenly Jerusalem, and Mount Zion. Jesus is the man child in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah 66:7-8
Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child.
Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things?
Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.

Obviously, Isaiah 66:7 refers to Christ. He is the man child who was brought forth before Zion travailed. Compare Isaiah’s prophecy with Revelation 12:5, “And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.”

What is meant by the earth bringing forth in one day? Perhaps the earth refers to the land of promise, which is a type of the spiritual inheritance of the saints. Truth is one of its fruits; “Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” [Psalm 85:11]

Ezekiel 37:21-22
And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all.

The children of Israel who are to be brought back to their own land are the spiritual children of Abraham, those having faith in Christ. Their land is a heavenly, or spiritual one. “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” [Hebrews 11:16]

References

1. Joseph Addison Alexander. Isaiah Translated and Explained. 1851.

2. David R. Reagan. The Jews in End Time Bible Prophecy – A Summary.

3. Joseph Addison Alexander. Op. Cit.

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