Amidst the devastation of the holy city and the kingdom, Isaiah has seen the enormous potential for new life in the stump of a felled tree. Whilst forests may be destroyed by fire, or flattened by hurricane and tsunami, many species can regrow and the forest can flourish again. But the sign to which he points is not the military might of King David, nor the splendour of Solomon’s court and temple. He doesn’t choose the example of a heroic patriarch. Instead, Isaiah returns to the humble origins of David’s father Jesse. The man had been known simply as ‘the Bethlehemite’, someone from an unimportant village. Within the new kingdom of Saul this Bethlehemite would have appeared an insignificant sapling rather than one of the pillars of the realm. But the name of Jesse would replace that of Saul. Time and again the name Jesse appears, and Isaiah uses it to symbolise the enormous destiny of gathering God’s people from exile throughout the known world. It would stand at the heart of messianic hope of the Jews.
Directly this messianic hope is identified with Jesus in the writings of the New Testament, Paul (Romans 15.12) uses Isaiah’s prophecy with a wider significance. The name of Jesse provides a cornerstone for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Here is the inspiration for the apostles’ desire to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and for their faith to break out of the confines of their own nationality.
With the rise of Christianity, the Jesse Tree became a well-loved and familiar image throughout the Western Europe in the middle ages. The family tree, depicted as a vine growing from Jesse, passes through David and Solomon to Mary and Jesus, whilst all around the prophets make their proclamations about the messiah. Jesse, the root of this divine flowering, lies at the foot, blissfully asleep. He is oblivious of all that God would achieve. All he had ever done was respond to Samuel’s call to accompany him to a sacrifice. He hardly knew that God’s call was in Samuel’s bidding. But then, who does know? Did Ruth, Jesse’s grandmother, have any inkling of what would happen when she refused to abandon her mother in law? Did Boaz, Jesse’s grandfather, know what was in store when duty and desire invited him to marry Ruth, a foreign widow?
From all of this Isaiah gives us the unlikely spectacle of a fragile shoot rising from the unlikely ruin of a fallen tree. It is the insignificant man from Bethlehem, a forerunner of the unknown child who would be born in his town in a stable. God takes what the world counts insignificant, and with it he builds his kingdom. He takes our obedience, our generosity, our acceptance of him and uses them for his purpose. And though we may not see the fruits in our own lifetime, nothing is lost. Though we cannot see it, all will be grafted into the vine he makes, just as strange, seemingly unlikely disparate sayings of the prophets are woven first into messianic expectation, and then into glorious fulfilment.