By Suzanne Nicholson
A modern fairy tale describes a scorpion asking a frog to give him a ride across a river. The frog, understandably skeptical about his safety, balks at the idea. The scorpion reminds the frog that if he stings the frog, they will both drown; it’s in the scorpion’s interest to treat the frog well. The frog finally agrees to carry the scorpion on his back across the river. Halfway through, however, the scorpion stings the frog. In pain and terror, the frog cries out, “Why have you done this? You’ve killed us both!” The scorpion, just before sinking under the waves, admits, “I could do no other; it’s in my nature.”
When we look across the world today and see the consequences of our sinful human nature—war in the Ukraine, mass shootings in schools, children experiencing poverty and hunger—it can be all too easy to despair that nothing will ever change. But the prophet Isaiah gives us hope for a different kind of world, a place where the wolf will lie down with the lamb and no harm shall come.
In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet describes a time after the judgment upon Israel when God will bring a Messiah to restore the Davidic dynasty—once great, but now nothing more than a stump. Although human eyes may see a bleak picture, God prepares roots to burst forth in a new shoot of hope.
This new Davidic messiah will be empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, and Isaiah offers three pairs of descriptions of this new ruler. He will have wisdom and understanding; in other words, he can discern the truth of a matter and offer judgments accordingly. He will also have counsel and might; that is, he will know what to do and will have the power to carry out those plans. Finally, he will have the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This kind of knowing comes from being in covenant relationship with Yahweh; one who has experienced the goodness of the Lord will naturally offer awe and reverence to the one true God. As a result, this Messiah will be the ideal ruler.
This new ruler will also have an ideal reign. God has always been concerned for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner, as anyone reading through the Old Testament will quickly discover. Yet these most vulnerable in society are often the ones whom others overlook or overpower. But the messiah of God will set things right by judging equitably. Just as God did not judge by the outward appearance when he chose the youngest of Jesse’s sons to be king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:7), so too the new Davidic king will not be deceived by outward appearances when he rebukes the oppressor and lifts up the poor. Wearing righteousness and faithfulness as the identity markers of his reign, this Messiah will put all things right.
The results of this ideal reign by the ideal ruler affect the entire world and create an ideal realm. Isaiah uses the contrast between wild and domestic animals—predator and prey—to show that peace will transform the world. We are meant to be shocked and surprised to hear that wolves and bears lie down with sheep and cows, feeding on plants together. They form one flock, one new family. It’s not just the nature of the wolves that has been changed from powerful oppressor to peaceful herd member, for the prey, too, are changed. No longer do lambs and calves run away at the first sight of the wolf or bear. No longer do weaker nations tremble at the approach of powerful foreign armies. Fear is no longer the reigning attitude of the weak and vulnerable. In a world where all are cared for, no one need fear a hungry marauder.
This peaceful realm is only possible when the knowledge of the Lord fills the earth. In that day, all the nations will gather around the banner of Messiah, the root of Jesse.
The book of Isaiah does not end its messianic proclamation here, but picks up similar themes in 61:1-2a, where the messianic speaker declares,
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”
Of course, Jesus emphasizes this theme when he reads from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath, declaring that he has fulfilled the prophet’s promise (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ ministry bears out this proclamation. He heals the sick, casts out demons, and forgives the sinner. Jesus ignores the social distinctions of his age, proclaiming the good news to Samaritans (John 4:1-42), healing Gentiles (Mark 7:24-30), teaching women (Luke 10:38-42), and ministering to both rich (Luke 19:1-10) and poor (Luke 8:43-48) alike. He rebuked the powerful for their lack of justice (Matthew 23:23) and their failure to care for the poor (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus’ own choice of disciples demonstrated that the wolf and the lamb could live together in peace: you couldn’t get more politically incorrect than asking a tax collector (Matthew) and a zealot (Simon the Zealot, Luke 6:15) to work together. Tax collectors worked for the Romans, and the Zealots advocated armed rebellion against Rome and its collaborators. But somehow the messianic king brought peace among his diverse followers. When this king declared at the Last Supper that he was making a new covenant, pouring out his blood for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28), he did not limit this covenant to Jews or men or the elite of society. Rather, as the church later came to understand, all people could receive this sacrifice of atonement through faith (Romans 3:21-31).
After his death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers—now empowered by the same Spirit of the Lord—carry on the work of the messiah in the world. The church itself, drawing in both Gentiles and Jews, demonstrate that the wolf and the lamb can lie down together in peace. For those who “once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:13-16).
The apostle Paul draws upon Isaiah 11 when he brings together key themes from Romans in chapter 15, urging harmony between Jew and Gentile “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).
Advent season calls us to look ahead to the return of Christ, remembering the promises and the power of God to establish justice, transform lives, and bring peace where we thought it impossible. In a season where we remember the miracle of the eternal One taking on finite flesh, we also look ahead to the miracle of the wolf lying down with the lamb. And we keep the hope that perhaps the scorpion and the frog can make it across the river together after all.
For all of us in this community of believers, our call is to make the body of Christ a foretaste of what is to come. We who are Republicans and Democrats, we who are partakers of community food shelves or providers for it, we who are high school dropouts or PhDs, we are to stand together, with one voice, our transformed lives signaling to the world that the root of Jesse is returning soon.
The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, a deacon in The United Methodist Church, and Assistant Lead Editor for Firebrand magazine, a free online Wesleyan magazine. She is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Council.