There can be little doubt that the rod out of the stem of Jesse described in Isa 11:1-5 is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ; a more problematic question is whether this description was adequately fulfilled by His first advent or if this passage is actually predictive of His second. I shall attempt to answer this question by firstly looking at the immediate context of this section. Then the section itself will be examined in the light of other scripture to see if any timing indications are given. Finally I shall suggest what I consider to be the correct interpretation and note that an overlooked detail of this passage may actually be the key to it.
It is always wise when considering a passage to look at the one immediately preceding it but on this occasion the wisdom become necessity as the two passages are intricately and beautifully linked. In Isa 10 we essentially see the fate of the Assyrian. Whilst used presently as a club in the hand of God they had their own agenda for which God would ultimately punish them. The very end of the chapter uses an extremely graphic metaphor; the proud leaders of armies are seen as great trees and thick forests which the Lord was about to chop down with an ax. Then suddenly in Isa 11:1 we see a humble stump poking out of the ground which is about to start growing. If you take out the uninspired chapter division you end with one flowing metaphor.
The strength of this metaphoric connection alone may well be sufficient to place Isa 11:1-5 in time if the tenth chapter was any easier to place in time than the eleventh; regrettably that is not the case. There are elements of chapter 10 that demand an immediate fulfillment. The Assyrians were literally at hand, the successes that they were boasting of were contemporary and their destruction too was relatively swift subsequent to their capture of Israel.
However there are some elements of Isaiah 10 that seem to be looking further forward. For example Isa 10:20 states that 'at that time' the remainder of Israel would no longer rely upon a foreign leader that abuses them; instead they would truly turn to God. The reality is that the fall of the Assyrians simply led to the onslaught of the Babylonians followed by the Persians giving way to the Greeks that then led to the Selucids and then the Romans.
The passage following Isa 11:1-5 is much easier to place. We see the famous verses describing the animals living in harmony, the Holy Mountain of Zion a place where no-one is hurt, knowledge of God abounds and the Lord is banner to which the Gentiles come. It is completely impossible to see this as anything but still future without doing grievous violence to the meaning of the words. Firstly predatory animals are as carnivorous as ever. The siege of Jerusalem by the Romans was followed by mass crucifixions around mount Zion. Spiritual ignorance abounds and the natural man is still an enmity with God. Clearly then Isaiah 6-9 is still future.
Looking at the five verses of Isa 11:1-5 we find that the second and fifth verses describe the nature of Christ and provide no time indicators of any use. I believe a careful reading of the third verse also shows that it is capable of applying to either the first or second advent. Christ is seen as fearing God and not judging using sight or hearing; this could refer to the first advent when He didn't judge at all or to the second when He shall judge based upon the counsels of the heart.
However the fourth verse brooks no such ambiguous interpretation. Christ is seen to be judging, striking the earth and slaying the wicked. We know that this judgment is going to be done by Jesus Christ and we know that it will be at a time which was as yet future in the time of the Acts. The book of Romans also sees the judgment of God as being done in a time yet future. It may be noted too that whilst the sword from the mouth of Christ is seen in the present and is threatened against the church it is also a prevalent feature of the Second Advent.
Therefore we have a pre-context that refers a time some six hundred years before Christ and yet looks forward to the end of the tribulation. We have a post context which is certainly millennial and we have a fourth verse which can only refer to the second advent. It is therefore entirely acceptable to move all five of these verses to an eschatological timeframe.
However I believe that the first three verses have a dual application and apply to both the first and second advent. I have already shown that the second and third verses are ambiguous. I believe that Isa 11:1 is actually the key to the timing of this passage and that it is explicitly showing, albeit in guarded fashion, that there were to be two advents. The verse discusses the shoot springing from the stem of Jesse and the branch from his roots which bear fruit. Some may argue that this is simply synonymous parallelism however I would suggest it is better seen as synthetic parallelism.
In the first portion we see a shoot coming forth, in the second it has grown into a branch. In the first we don't read of the shoot producing fruit; in the second it does bear fruit. The thing that is startling to me however is that the two growths come from different places. The first appears from the visible stump of Jesse; the royal line of David. The second appears from the roots, from underground where no-one knows it is coming until it does.
I suggest that the shoot from the stem of Jesse is Christ in his first advent. He came from the visible Jewish royal line and as far as Judaism is concerned He did not produce fruit. The nation rejected Him. He is going to come again but this time not from any visible Royal line. Instead he is going to appear by surprise and this time the nation will look upon Him and repent.
In conclusion we have seen that the immediate context of Isaiah 11:1-5 is suggestive of an eschatological fulfillment although the closely linked preceding chapter appears to be a dual application of immediate and future context. The text of the passage is split between that which could apply to either advent and the fourth verse which demands a future fulfillment. Finally I suggested that the first verse may point to a two stage fulfillment of which Christ's first advent was the shoot springing from the stem of Jesse and the second will be the branch bursting forth from the roots.