Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Life-Cycle of a Tree Stump

Seeds are really good at waiting. The seeds of trees have to have amazing perseverance. From the time they are dropped in the ground (by human hand, animal droppings, or “buried treasure”) until the tiniest sprout becomes a towering tree, most trees in the forest span years longer than a human life.

There are many images of trees and seeds in the Bible. The tree of life, the faith of a mustard seed, the cedars of Lebanon, the fig tree. But what about the tree when all that’s left is a stump? How many more years before a mighty cedar (or maybe it was a cypress, sycamore, acacia, balsam, or juniper) falls from storm or carpenter’s hand. And all that’s left is a stump.

Isaiah writes in chapter 11 (v.1-10):
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
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 the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or 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 that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”
It sounds like something, or Someone, magnificent is going to come from a withered tree stump. What does that mean? There is historical and theological significance to this motif, as we’ll see in a moment. But agriculturally, this is not necessarily an anomaly. New branches shoot up from tree stumps all the time. What’s amazing is the time it takes. Time that cannot be rushed because the Creator created the life-cycle of seeds and plants just the way he did.

On R.C. Sproul’s ministry website, Ligonier, there is a devotional based on this passage of scripture. The author writes,
“Let us not miss the significance of all the prophet is saying. First, Isaiah speaks of ‘the stump of Jesse’ (v. 1). The image here is of a tree that has been so devastated that only a stump remains. Jesse, of course, was the father of King David (1 Sam. 16:1–13), so Isaiah is speaking of the Davidic line of kings. . . [But] David's line would decline to such a degree that it would be essentially left for dead. History tells us this is exactly what happened, with David's royal dynasty all but dying out as a result of God's judgment of His people through Assyria and Babylon. Nevertheless, Isaiah also saw that while the Davidic line would seem to be dead, life would remain within the stump. A shoot—life barely detectable at first—would emerge. But once this shoot went forth, it would become a mighty tree. A king of humble origins would be a signal for the nations after the exile (Isa. 11:2–10).”
The author goes on to reference John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah. He emphasizes that the shoot from the stump will come “from Jesse”, not “from David.” Calvin believes this speaks to how low the family line had sunk. It no longer appeared to be a royal family (emphasis on David the king), but a lowly peasant family (which they were, emphasis on Jesse the patriarch).

Sound familiar? A peasant family from the line of Jesse? When David was first anointed king he was truly the least obvious choice. As Jesus grew in his ministry, he was certainly not the leader-type or messiah people expected.

Humble beginnings. Small seeds. Miraculous outcomes.

One of the things that fascinates me the most is when I see my smallness against God's bigness. The movement of time and space and history up against God's eternal plan. Scripture is full of these images we can see woven through the Old and New Testaments, all adding up to the story we are retelling this season. The story of Jesus’ arrival.

When sin first entered the Garden of Eden (another tree!), God could have enacted his plan of salvation right then and there. But instead, He demonstrated great patience in order to unfold a plan that would teach us important lessons about faith and hope and love. For those who celebrate Advent with a Jesse Tree, the ornaments do just that: recount the rich story of God’s faithful and often astounding redemption design.

God is in the business of making all things new. And while supernatural shortcuts (miracles) are known to occur, in His providence, the normal, garden-variety life is lived according to the Creator’s intended rhythm. Things take time. The cycle of living things takes time.

I don’t think a tree knows what it means to be impatient, but the waiting still takes perseverance and care from outside of itself. Human waiting is hard. But just as a gardener watches over the things in his garden, we can rest assured that God is with us as we wait. He is holding this promise in His open hands: because of the Shoot that sprung from Jesse’ stump, we too have the hope of new life. And the resting place will be glorious.


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