The Root of David and the Branch, a Shoot from the Stump of Jesse

Note: scripture passages are from the King James Bible (KJV) unless otherwise noted.   Other versions: Jerusalem Bible (JB); Revised Standard Version (RSV)   

     We are experiencing the renewed popularity of genealogy thanks to great strides in DNA technology and the increasing access of online databases.  Many are engaged in searching for their roots and the family members to whom they are connected.  Yet genealogy has never gone away.  Ancestor worship has been and remains a key part of Asian philosophy and religion.  In the biblical record it takes particular form in the lineage running from Abraham through Jesse and David to Jesus.  Why is this important?  We are not dealing with a divine figure alone; the human identity and history of Jesus is an integral part of who he is.  In the season of Advent, especially, it is our connection of the divine with the human: God with us. This post will survey the interrelated images of the “root of David”, “the Branch”, and the “stump of Jesse”, sometimes referred to as the “root of Jesse” and the “branch of David”.  Our Christian faith is more than a heavenly image: it has a real, solid, genetic base.  Jesus Christ in His human nature and family connections was a descendant of David, a member of his family.  In addition to those presented here, a wealth of additional references may be found by those who wish to follow the chain references.

     Our genealogy must have a record, and we see it in Matthew 1:1.  Its conclusion in verse 17 reads: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.”  A similar (though not exact) genealogy is given in Luke 3:23-38.

     Jesse was the father of King David, whose descendant God promised would have a throne forever (2 Samuel 7:16). As often happens with dynasties, the succession gradually weakened  until it finally disappeared. By the time Jesus was born, no king had been on the throne of Israel for 580 years and the line of Jesse was much diminished.

     Jesse’s family tree had been cut down, with nothing remaining but a stump.  However, it was still alive. And so it would again sprout “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:1–2).  Jesus as the new branch would arise in his power to reign, and not over Jews alone but Gentiles as well, his “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16).  Paul identifies Jesus as the “root of Jesse”, pointing to these promises in Romans 15:12, quoting Isaiah: “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.”

     References to the restoration of the Davidic throne form a prevalent biblical theme.  An early occurrence is in 1 Kings 11:36: “And unto his son will I give one tribe, that David my servant may have a light alway [JB notes: “symbolizing an enduring dynasty”] before me in Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen me to put my name there.”  The theme is further developed in Psalms and Zechariah: Psalms 78:67-72: “Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved.  And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.  He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds:  From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.”  Psalms 89:19-21: “Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people.  I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him:  With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him.”  Psalms 132:11,17: “The Lord hath sworn in truth unto David; he will not turn from it; Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne.  There will I make the horn of David to bud: I have ordained a lamp for mine anointed.”  [JB notes: The unextinguished lamp symbolizes the Messiah as the light of the nations.]  Zechariah 12:10-11 introduces, as described in the Jerusalem Bible notes: “The messianic age depends thus depends on a passion and a mysterious death comparable to the sufferings of the servant in Isaiah 53:12.”]  : “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”  It is, however, the path of salvation, in Zechariah 13:1: “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.”

     The prophets provided a vision of what was to come.  In Isaiah 4:2: “In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel.” [RSV notes: Compare the Messiah as Branch in 11:1.]; In Isaiah 11:1-5: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 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 of the fear of the Lord;And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.  And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.”  The JB translation provides additional clarity: “A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a scion thrusts from his roots: on him the spirit of Yahweh rests, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh. (The fear of Yahweh is his breath.)”  Verse 10 continues: “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.” [RSV notes: The messianic age]

     Jeremiah 23:5-6 reads: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.  In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord Our Righteousness.” [RSV notes: A messianic oracle]

      In Ezekiel 29:21: “In that day will I cause the horn of the house of Israel to bud forth, and I will give thee the opening of the mouth in the midst of them; and they shall know that I am the Lord. [JB notes: “Symbol of power, sometimes of messianic significance, e.g. Ps 132:17.”]

      Zechariah 3:8  speaks of the servant of God as the Branch: “Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, thou, and thy fellows that sit before thee: for they are men wondered at: for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the Branch.”  Branch is one of several messianic titles, as in Jeremiah 23:5-6 (JB): “See, the days are coming—it is Yahweh who speaks—when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise [KJV “shall   reign and prosper”; RSV “shall reign as king and deal wisely”], practicing honesty and integrity [KJV “judgment and justice”; RSV “justice and righteousness”] in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel dwell in confidence.  And this is the name he will be called: Yahweh-our-integrity [KJV “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”].” [RSV notes: The Branch, a Davidic figure who is to usher in the messianic age, here refers to Zerubbabel.]

     Moving on to the New Testament, the connection is established between David and the resurrected Jesus.  The long passage in Acts 13:21-39 gives us this history: “And afterward they desired a king: and God gave unto them Saul the son of Cis, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, by the space of forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave their testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will.  Of this man’s seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus:  When John had first preached before his coming the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.  And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think ye that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose.  Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent. For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him.  And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain.  And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.  But God raised him from the dead:  And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people.  And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers,  God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.  And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David.  Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:  But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption.  Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

     Romans 1:3-4 gives a brief summation: ” Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” [RSV notes: God’s Son, who came into the world physically descended from David, was manifested and installed in his true status at the resurrection.]

     We now encounter the image of the High Priest.  This is not just any high priest; Jesus is the reinstatement of the mystical priesthood of Melchizedek. The necessity for this change is explained in Hebrews 11:7-17: “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?  For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.  For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar.  For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.  And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.  For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.”

     Psalm 110:4 refers to the priest-king Melchizedek as a prototype of this messiah: “The  Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: ‘Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek’.”  Just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so the priesthood of Christ is eternal.  Etymologically, the name is composed from the two elements melek(h) “king” and ṣedeq, which means either “righteousness” or the proper name Zedek

      This change also includes the designation of Bethlehem, the City of David, as the birthplace of Jesus.  Micah 5:2-4 reads: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.  Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.  And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.” [RSV notes: The shepherd king who is to be ruler of Israel will be born not in Jerusalem, but, like David, in Bethlehem, among the insignificant clans of Judah.]

     We commonly speak of our own family trees.  The Tree of Jesse is more than the family tree of Jesus: it is symbolically and psychologically the Tree of Life, a pervasive image in several traditions describing human consciousness as a whole.  In Sanskrit it is the Ashvattha Tree, evoking consciousness, life force, the nervous system.  It is, however, upturned, with roots above and boughs below.  This is an image of the brain, the wheel of samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), and Purusha, the Cosmic Person.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, Among trees, I am the Ashwatha– In Scandinavian culture the mythological tree Yggdrasil symbolizes the universe.  In mystical Judaism it is the Otz Chiim, where all the divine powers form layers like those of a tree. 

    Joseph Padinjarekara writes, “There is a connection between Jesus and the Asvattha tree described in the Kathopanisad, “with roots above and branches below….immortal….in Him all worlds are contained….bright.”  (JP) The word sukram is translated here as bright but a more appropriate meaning of the word is holy.”  The tree represents God himself.  Compare to Jn 8:23 “I am the from above” and Jn 6:48-51 “I am the living bread who came down from heaven.  And if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.  This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.”

     The title “Son of David” indicates Jesus’ physical descent from David, as well as his place in  the Davidic line of kings. The phrase is used a number of times in the gospels. It appears in Matthew 1:1 to introduce both the genealogy and the gospel. It is found on the lips of the blind men healed in Galilee (“Have mercy on us, Son of David,” Matthew 9:27), the Canaanite woman whose daughter is exorcised (“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me,” Matthew 15:22), and the blind men healed near Jericho (“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us,” Matthew 20:30). Finally, it also forms part of the shout of the crowds when Jesus enters Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:9). A variant of this title is found in Revelation 22:16 when Jesus refers to himself as “the Root and the Offspring of David”.

      Unlike the prophecies concerning his coming, the title of the ‘Root of David’ causes us to look back and ask the question, “if Jesus was the kingly descendent of David, how can he also be the Root of David?” Perhaps Jesus was explained this enigma when he questioned a group of Pharisees: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”’ (Matthew 22:41-42), to which they reply, ‘“The son of David”.’ Jesus then asks them to consider the words of Psalm 110; ‘“How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’?” – His final question silences his listeners, who give him no reply: ‘“If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”’ (Matthew 22:45).

      Seventeen verses in the New Testament describe Jesus as the “son of David.” It is a valid question to ask how Jesus could be the son of David if David lived approximately 1,000 years before Jesus? The answer is that Christ (the Messiah) was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the seed of David.  Jesus is a descendant of David by adoption through Joseph and by blood through Mary. “As to his earthly life [Christ Jesus] was a descendant of David.” (Romans 1:3).  Thus, the title “Son of David” is more than a statement of physical genealogy. It is a Messianic title. When people referred to Jesus as the Son of David, they meant that He was the long-awaited Deliverer, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.

     The Book of Revelation speaks to Christ’s power and includes over twenty references to a lion-like lamb, victorious like the resurrected Christ.  In his first appearance in Revelation 5:1-7 only the lamb is found worthy to take the judgment scroll from God and break the seals. In Revelation 5:5, “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”  This is the root and offspring of David in his resurrected power.

          In closing, Jesus speaks to us in Revelation 22:16 with one final image: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.”  Even so, Lord, Jesus, quickly come.





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