God’s judgment comes with a righteous judge, an heir of David, for whom the faithful hope and answer the call to repentance.
The prophetic reading for the second Sunday of Advent is a companion piece to last Sunday’s vision about Zion. Last Sunday spoke of the judgment of God that would be available to the peoples in Zion, a judgment that would lead the peoples to peace. Today’s reading is about the special royal figure through whom such judgment for the peoples is rendered. This prophecy is a vision of a New David through whom the spirit of the Lord will speak and act.
We hear of a new thing, not simply of a continuation of what has been. There is an old “stump” in the ground, cut off in a time of troubles. But from it there will grow a “shoot” that will become a “branch.” The original David was cut off, but from his line will come a new figure with impressive qualifications.
Those qualifications are endowed by God’s spirit. It is “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, / the spirit of counsel and might, / the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (verse 2, NRSV). These qualities are the ones needed by the perfect judge. In the Deuteronomistic History, Solomon was offered whatever he wanted from God, and Solomon had the good sense to ask for wisdom. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people [without divine guidance]?” (I Kings 3:9, NRSV). The qualifications granted by the Spirit of God are those of a wise and perfect judge.
Given these qualifications, he will judge supremely well. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, / or decide by what his ears hear” (verse 3). His insight will be deeper. He will penetrate the underlying motives and devious plans of those who come before him. The Deuteronomistic historians gave the story of Solomon’s judgment of the two prostitutes (I Kings 3:16-28) as a model of a self-validating judgment such as a wise judge would devise. Each of the two women claimed to be the mother of the surviving baby. The king ordered that the baby be cut in half so they could share it. The woman who then cried out to give the baby to the other woman was manifestly the real mother, the king said. There is a clarity, a self-evident rightness to this judgment that would characterize all the judgments of one led by the spirit of God. That Branch of Jesse would be such a one. “…[W]ith righteousness he shall judge the poor, / and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (verse 4).
When the vision goes on to say, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” it means that his supremely wise pronouncements will punish the guilty as well as vindicate the innocent. Also, his very garments will look to the people like bearers of righteousness and integrity: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, / and faithfulness the belt around his loins” (verse 5).
The passage then leaps to a new level of harmony in the created world (verses 6-9). Righteousness and kindness will become so pervasive that the animal world will also reflect it. The wolf and lamb will be buddies, similarly the lion and the calf. The bear and the cow will graze together, and the lion will learn to eat grass instead of creatures higher on the food chain. Finally, small children will play with (formerly) poisonous snakes, and in general “they will not hurt or destroy / on all my holy mountain” (verse 9). This unique natural utopia is a remarkable element of the vision, expressing a profound sympathy between the natural and the human worlds.
Our reading, however, goes back to the main thrust that links it to last week’s vision. “The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (verse 10). That is the supreme vision of the one who will reign from God’s holy city.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
The psalm reading is a direct response to such a prophetic vision. This is one of only two psalms assigned to Solomon (the other is 127), the son of David. It is a powerful prayer—actually uttered not by Solomon but by the people who are dependent on his wise judgment. It prays fervently for the things promised in the prophetic passage. Let’s just listen to it in the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak translation.
O God, endow the king with Your judgments,
the king’s son with Your righteousness;
that he may judge Your people rightly,
Your lowly ones, justly.
Let the mountains produce well-being for the people,
the hills, the reward of justice.
Let him champion the lowly among the people,
deliver the needy folk,
and crush those who wrong them.
Let him be like rain that falls on a mown field,
like a downpour of rain on the ground,
that the righteous may flourish in his time,
and well-being abound, till the moon is no more. (verses 1-7, NJPSV)
[The last two verses of the reading, 72:18-19, are not really the conclusion of the psalm, but the benediction for the Second Book of the Psalms (psalms 42-72). The whole Scroll of Psalms is divided into five “books,” corresponding to the five scrolls of the Torah, as is usually thought.]
The Epistle reading makes explicit what the earlier readings have implied: hope, and especially hope for the nations. (Throughout this passage, “Gentiles” should always be read as “nations.” Gentiles is a Latin word left over by lazy translators that hides the meaning of Hebrew goiim and Greek ethnē.)
The apostle refers to the scriptures as providing hope, and prays “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another…” (verse 5, NRSV). Writing to the Christians in Rome, this is an allusion to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians living in harmony. They are urged to welcome each other, as Christ welcomed them both. Christ is here viewed as fulfilling the role of the Root of Jesse. He is the Davidic king (Romans 1:3) through whom the peoples are judged and brought to peace.
Christ was the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (verse 8). But even more, Christ is the fulfillment of the promises to the nations, and Paul quotes three scripture passages that call upon the Nations to rejoice in God’s salvation for them (verses 9-11). He then caps off the point by quoting our Isaiah passage (in its Greek version): “The root of Jesse shall come, / the one who rises to rule the [nations]; / in him the [nations] shall hope” (verse 12, NRSV modified).
His final prayer in this passage is for the hope and peace (read, “ethnic harmony”) of the Christians in Rome, which they may expect from the Holy Spirit.
In all the Gospel presentations of the beginning of Jesus’ activity, John the Baptist appears announcing the coming of God’s judgment. The beginning of the gospel is the word of judgment. Thus our Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of John’s message.
In this Gospel, John’s opening words are identical to those Jesus proclaims when he begins his ministry (compare Matthew 3:3 with 4:17). “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (RSV). This beginning assumes in the background the visions of the exaltation of Zion and the peace it provides, as well as the visions of a descendant of David who will judge the peoples with justice and equity. If the reign of God is at hand, then in some way the content of these visions, about God’s judgment and the benefits for the nations, is what’s coming.
John appears as an Elijah-type figure from the wilderness, reflecting both his place as the “voice” crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (verse 3) and his role as the returned Elijah who precedes the great judgment. (“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” Malachi 4:5 [Heb. 3:23], NRSV.) John carries forward this preparing of the way by baptizing people who confessed their sins.
But there are also established religious types who come to see John, and the rough man of the wilderness takes them on. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (verse 7, NRSV). This is a Jewish audience, and one of the things John does is undermine the status claim that they may suppose they have as descendants of Abraham. God can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones on the ground. These religious people are not rejected; they are told how serious the time of judgment is. That time is at hand. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (verse 9).
John is not himself the Judge; he only goes before the great figure. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (verse 11). (Among John’s own followers, the Coming One was God. When John’s disciples became followers of Jesus they learned a different meaning of their former master’s words, and the Coming One became Jesus, the Servant of the Lord.)
However, this great one also comes in judgment! While John baptizes in water, this coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit [wind] and fire. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (verse 12).
This widespread imagery of a winnowing judgment comes from the threshing floors of Palestine. The sheaves are brought from the fields to the high place, which has a breeze blowing over it. There the sheaves are trampled over to shake the grains from the dry husks and stalks. Then scoops of the mass are taken up in a winnowing fork and tossed into the air. The breeze blows the small pieces of chaff off to the side and lets the grains fall into a pile. When all the mass is winnowed, the grain is gathered for storage and the heaps of chaff off to the side are burned in a big bonfire.
Here it is explicit that the one coming with the Holy Spirit will judge the wicked as well as the righteous. We may not have heard the last word about any hope that may remain for these wicked, but the near judgment for all is very clear, and is announced as the beginning of what, nevertheless, is Good News.