After prophesying that Israel would be conquered, using a metaphor of a tree being chopped down or burned, Isaiah presents an image of rebirth:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.Isaiah 11:1, 2 Nephi 21:1
As he does frequently, Isaiah gives us two parallel phrases in this passage, saying the same thing twice using different words. The stem of a plant is the main trunk, from which the branches grow. The “rod” or “branch” grows from the stem, and by extension from its roots, drawing nourishment and strength from them.
Jesse was the father of King David, and Jesus was a descendant of David. (See Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38.) So one interpretation of this passage is that the Savior (the rod or the branch) came from Jesse (the stem or the roots).
Isaiah’s subsequent description of the branch seems to reinforce this interpretation:
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 of the fear of the Lord…
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.Isaiah 11:2, 5, 2 Nephi 21:2, 5
But when the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823, he quoted Isaiah 11 in full, telling Joseph that it was “about to be fulfilled.” (See Joseph Smith—History 1:40.) Since the Savior had been born many years earlier, Moroni must have had a different interpretation in mind.
Joseph Smith shed additional light on the prophecy nearly fifteen years later, by writing a set of questions and answers about this chapter.
- “Who is the stem of Jesse?” he asked. “It is Christ.”
- “What is the rod?” “It is a servant in the hands of Christ, who is partly a descendant of Jesse as well as of Ephraim, or of the house of Joseph, on whom there is laid much power.” (Doctrine and Covenants 113:1-4).
In this interpretation, it is a servant of Christ who acts with wisdom and understanding and walks in righteousness, under the guidance of the Sprit of the Lord.
Who is that servant? It might refer to Joseph Smith, himself. But because he leaves the person nameless, we can also imagine the symbol applying to other people who act on behalf of the Savior, strive to emulate Him, and receive power from Him.
In fact, the entire passage seems to convey a core principle: Those who represent the Savior must emulate Him and receive power from Him. He is the stem or the root, and we are the branches, drawing strength from Him.
Later in the chapter, Isaiah modifies the metaphor: “In that day,” he says, “there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people” (2 Nephi 21:10).
What does that root represent? According to Joseph Smith, “It is a descendant of Jesse, as well as of Joseph, unto whom rightly belongs the priesthood, and the keys of the kingdom, for an ensign, and for the gathering of [God’s] people in the last days” (Doctrine and Covenants 113:6).
This sounds a lot like his description of the branch, and I think that’s intentional. This servant of God draws strength from the Savior and is in turn a source of strength to others. When we act on behalf of Christ, we are not only recipients but also conduits of His power. The power He gives us is intended not only to bless us but to bless other people.
Today, I will strive to live up to Isaiah’s description of a servant of the Lord. I will strive to be firmly rooted in Christ as I do His work, and I will remember that I must use the power He has given me to bless other people. As a servant of the Lord, I must be both a branch and a root.