A Shoot from the Stump of Jesse
For a holiday celebrating a New Testament event, it is surprising how many of our most cherished Advent and Christmas hymns draw on Old Testament sources. The themes of joy are perhaps easier to reconcile: we can easily see, for example, why Isaac Watts chose the jubilant Psalm 98 as a fitting source for rejoicing in Christ’s coming in “Joy to the World.” Less intuitive, however, is how an advent hymn like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”—a hymn not triumphant in Christ’s victory, but mournful in exile—should draw on Israel’s experience to express our own.
Yet that is what the hymnist calls us to do: to step into the shoes of ancient Israel and take the fullness of their mourning as our own. Somehow or other, says the hymnist, just as we relive Israel’s joy yet more fully because we have seen the coming of our Lord, we also fully relive the anguish of their exile. But isn’t this exactly what has changed since ancient Israel’s day: didn’t Jesus conquer such suffering by His coming?
In order to understand how we share in Israel’s exile, we must take a step back and remember the story of Israel’s exile in its own terms. Of course, the story is familiar. God chose a people for His own name, gave them a good land, and set them apart as His holy nation. In return, Israel utterly rejected His holy ways and refused to repent despite many warnings. At last God sent a pagan nation to destroy and enslave His chosen nation. In exile away from the land, Israel was a wretched people who had utterly failed to fulfill their calling.
Nevertheless, even in this place of despair, Israel was called to rejoice. For a great hope was offered to them: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). Though the great line of Davidic kings has been cut down to stump in exile, now a new shoot has emerged that will grow and even bear the fruit of righteousness! King Jesus, the shoot from Jesse’s stump, would bring Israel out of not only physical but also spiritual exile.
How can we not see in this story shadows of our own? Like the Israelites, we continue to suffer in both physical and spiritual exile. Even though Jesus has conquered sin and death, we do not yet see that victory in full; we still live in a fallen world where Satan appears to triumph. Like the Israelites (redeemed though we are), we rightly mourn over our continued sin and suffering and long for the end of our exile.
But also like the Israelites, we look for the shoot of Jesse’s stump as our hope in exile—Jesus, through whom we are grafted into the tree of Israel. As we remember Israel’s experience in exile, we both echo their lamentation and look to their hope: that just as King Jesus came once to conquer sin and reign on high, so He is coming again to reign among us in the New Creation—Immanuel, God with us. So our joy is mingled strangely with mourning as we sing in a minor key, “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”