Isaiah 4 is a fascinating passage that highlights both the extreme responsibility that the translators have and also the value the believer can derive from using multiple translations. The primary controversy surrounds Is 4:2 and whether or not the 'branch of the Lord' is a direct Messianic reference. Even more interestingly this is a battle that places the translations on rather different sides of the fence from what one would expect. It is precisely the more modern and sometimes dynamic translations such as the NIV, NASB, NKJV that make this reference more explicitly Messianic. The older translations whilst favoring Messianic reference do not assert it. The only translation that moves away from the Messianic implications completely is the net Bible.
Whilst I do wish to focus heavily upon this key verse I also believe it is important to look at a verse in the context in which it is given. This essay will therefore give a brief analysis of the chapter; including one verse which I don't believe should be in the chapter. Particular attention will be given to the probable time in which this prophecy was due fulfillment. We will then attempt to dig into the possible meanings of Is 4:2 and look at some of the supporting references that either interpretation have in other parts of the Bible.
The first point to make about Isaiah 4 is that Isa 4:1 really has no place in this chapter. It does mention in that day which may be why it was pulled next to Isa 4:2; however nothing else about the verse fits even slightly. It is looking to a time when men will be in extremely short supply to the point where women will grab any man they can just to take away their reproach. This hardly fits with the idyllic conditions pictured in the following five verses. It does however fit extremely well with the tail end of chapter three where we are told that the men will have been slaughtered by the sword. As unsatisfying as it is I believe we have to accept that the 'that day' reference in Isa 4:1 is an example of the expression being used in a non-technical sense.
The last four verses of Isa 4 are in very stark contrast to the first. However we must also note the explicit promises in order to get some idea as to when they may be fulfilled. Firstly Is 4:3 details that the remnant in Jerusalem will be called Holy. It even describes them as those that 'are written'. This could simply mean those written in the books of the families of Israel however it is also possible that an allusion to the book of Life was being made. If the latter is the case it is particularly suggestive as the Dan 12:1 reference already places this passage at the End Times.
Is 4:4 makes clear that the bliss of Is 4:3 only comes after a thorough purging. The language is not dissimilar to that of chapter 3 but could also be reminiscent of Luke 23:28 a verse that many apply to the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Is 4:5-6 however is if anything reminiscent of the wilderness wanderings; the cloud and the fire are back to guide and the tabernacle has returned to provide refuge from external hostilities. Importantly the tabernacle also was the place where God dwelt with man. I believe that is the implication of these two verses.
Taken as a whole I do not see how these verses can be considered to have been fulfilled. Whilst Jerusalem has gone through a number of slaughters it can hardly be described as a place where the remnant is called Holy. Verse five and six promise security and rest; given the city is now within range of rocket attack from two hostile neighbors it is hard to claim that this has happened yet. I think therefore we have to say that this looks forward to a time subsequent to another purging of Jerusalem when Jerusalem does become a place of holiness and peace. This is obviously the millennial kingdom subsequent to the tribulation.
Given the time period provided by Is 4:3-6 and knowing that Isa 3:1-4:1 relates to the prophets relatively immediate time frame we need to look to see if Is 4:2 provides us with any cue for a significant time shift. It does and it is of course very blatant; we get the expression 'in that day' used right at the very beginning and it would appear reasonable and logical that on this occasion it is being used in the technical sense and marks a boundary from a portion of prophecy that was fulfilled in the sixth century BC to one which is yet future.
This interpretation appears reasonable and I believe is; however it brings us into sharp conflict with the traditional interpretation of 'the Branch of the Lord' in the middle part of Is 4:2. Again I will note in passing that the capitalization of 'Branch' differs from translation to translation. NKJV, NIV & NASB have all opted to capitalize it thereby stating fairly plainly that they consider it to refer to Christ. Most of the older translations leave it without capitals although the rendering 'the branch of the Lord' is still highly suggestive.
The traditional interpretation is that the 'Branch' refers to Jesus Christ at His incarnation. In fact as the word rendered 'branch' can just as readily be rendered sprout or bud then it is suggested that this is showing that the Messiah is a burst of new life coming out of something that appeared dead: the house of Jesse. There are of course a number of Biblical references that state precisely this whilst using a different Hebrew word for 'Branch'.
Equally the Hebrew word that is rendered Branch is clearly used of the Messiah in 4 places. In Jer 23:5, 35:15 we read of the righteous branch that will grow up to David. In Zec 3:8 we get 'my servant the branch' and Zec 6:12 gives us 'the man whose name is The Branch'. It would appear therefore abundantly clear that Jesus Christ is the Branch and that He grew out of the root of Jesse, He was and is righteous and that He was the servant of the Lord.
However it does not entirely prove that the reference in Isa 4:2 was directly referring to the Messiah. Whilst 4 of the 12 uses of the Hebrew word rendered 'Branch' are Messianic 7 certainly aren't. Examining those seven references is also illuminating. There are three prior to Isaiah 4, Gen 19:25, Ps 65:10 and Hos 8:7 where the context is very clearly one of agricultural growth. Then in Isaiah 61:11 we get an extremely important reference. The term the bud is very explicitly being used of agricultural grown and yet it is being contrasted to the righteousness that the Lord will cause to come forth.
Isa 61:11 For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
The three remaining references are in Ezekiel and are used in an unequivocally agricultural context. Therefore in eleven of the twelve instances when the Hebrew word rendered 'the branch' is used the context makes abundantly clear whether the word is being used in a Messianic or agricultural context. Thus it makes sense to look at the immediate context of Is 4:2 to see if there is any clear indicator of Messianic or agricultural import.
In fact the verse is a part of Hebrew poetry and consists of two clauses and by standard Hebrew usage one would expect both to refer to the same thing. Interestingly Barnes asserts that as the first part of Is 4:2 refers to the messiah then the expression 'the fruit of the land' must also be a Messianic reference. Gill, Keil & Delitzsch follow the same logic as Barnes and uses this to suggest that the Messiah will be fruitful and not a dry branch. We are however placed in a position whereby if Isa 4:2 is a Messianic use of the Hebrew word then it is the first one in scripture, the only one without a clear Messianic context, and Isaiah is the only prophet to use the expression in both a Messianic and non-Messianic sense.
I believe we also need to note that whilst there is a lot of support for the Messiah being referred to as 'The Branch' there is also a lot of scriptural support for bountiful harvests being a feature of the millennium and a sign of the Lord's blessing and favor. It should also be noted that in the immediately preceding chapter that famine was one of the calamities that God was to bring upon those that needed purging as it will be during the tribulation.
There is one other note that we need to make and that I believe can be asserted dogmatically. If Is 4:2 is a Messianic reference then it is not a reference to the Lord upon His first appearing. The verse states that the branch will be beautiful and glorious and the fruit will be excellent and comely. However Isaiah very explicitly states that the root from dry ground will not have form, comeliness or a beauty that we should desire Him. Thus if Isa 4:2 is a Messianic reference at all then it is a reference to the Lord upon His glorious return immediately prior to the millennium; not a reference to the incarnation. This at least solves the problem we had immediately hit; the verse now fits the context of the last four verses of the chapter and can be moved to a purely future timeframe.
With regard to the question as to whether or not this is a Messianic reference my answer is, as far as I know, unique and I simply offer it for consideration. I do not think Isa 4:2 is an explicit Messianic reference; I believe it forms a segue to the Messianic concept. Until the book of Isaiah the Hebrew word rendered 'branch' had always been agricultural. I believe Isaiah is reiterating that promise here but then proceeds to introduce the concept of the Messiah as a branch and then finally shows that the budding of the Messiah and the budding of agricultural prosperity are intricately linked. Subsequent to Isaiah the prophets then picked the aspect of 'the branch' that then suited their purposes and clearly flagged in their text which aspect they were taking.