The descendant of Jesse foretold by Isaiah will be known, along with his other attributes, for the sheer force of his speech: in dealing justice, ‘he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth’ (Isaiah 11:4). This phrase also embeds itself in the book of Revelation, whose rebirth and interweaving of Hebrew Bible imagery brings messianic prophecies into New Testament fulfilment. In Revelation, the rod sprouts with a vengeance. Now it is the messianic warlord Christ who wields a rod of iron (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15); and a ‘sharp two-edged sword’ (Revelation 1:16), ‘with which to smite the nations’ (19:15; c.f. Isaiah 63 and Wisdom 18). The rod that grows up from Jesse’s stump, and that flowers initially in David, becomes manifest at the end of time in Jesus, the ‘root of David’ (Revelation 5:5; 22:16). With destruction issuing from his mouth, ‘the name by which he is called is The Word of God’ (19:13).
Medieval renderings of the ‘rod of his mouth’ are frequently quite literal—a sharpened blade issues from Christ’s mouth, as speech takes the form of his ‘terrible swift sword’ (to recall the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’). A very different way to imagine speech of such force can be found in Jenny Holzer’s ‘Inflammatory Essays’ of 1977–82, a series of over 100 mini-treatises printed on throw-away vari-coloured neon paper.
Her project began as posters put up, randomly and anonymously, around New York. Consisting only of text (100 words divided into 30 lines), Holzer’s italicized, upper case words give voice variously to Emma Goldman, Mao Zedong, Valerie Solanis, Karl Marx, and others—all without attribution. The effect is a visual rant that conjures up something ‘between a batty dictator, a leftist activist and a sage prophet’ (Frank 2017). The messages in this example range from ‘REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE’ to ‘THE APOCALYPSE WILL BLOSSOM’. It is impossible in Holzer’s ‘Essays’ to identify a single speaker or a consistent point of view. Nonetheless, the rod of someone’s mouth forces us to pay attention, whether to affirm or reject the proclamations. Interpretation rather than obedience is all.
Frank, Priscilla. 2017. ‘Jenny Holzer’s ‘Nasty’ Essays Will Get You Ready For A Revolution, 24 January 2017’, www.huffingtonpost.com, [accessed 11 July 2018]
11There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2And 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.
3And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide 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 he shall slay the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9They 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.
10 In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.