Root of Jesse is a metaphor found in Isaiah 11:10: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” The term root of Jesse figuratively stands for the Messiah.
The “root” of a family is its progenitor. Jesse was King David’s father. We know from the genealogical records (Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38) that Jesus was descended from the line of Jesse and his son David. In Isaiah 11:10, the Hebrew word used for “root” (sheresh) implies a root that remains alive and sends up a shoot or branch; thus, the root of Jesse was a root from which more descendants could come.
When Isaiah began to prophesy, there was a current hope among the people that a glorious earthly king—the Messiah—would assume the throne of David. Through the prophet Samuel, God had promised David that his offspring would establish an eternal kingdom: “When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–16). The messianic title “Son of David” traces back to this prophecy.
Isaiah’s use of root of Jesse expresses the promise of a messianic king who would be born of David’s family line and focuses Judah’s expectation of survival on a sparse, leaderless remnant. The prophet uses a similar metaphor—“a shoot from the stump of Jesse”—in Isaiah 11:1 to describe their future hope. This “stump” signifies the remnant of Jesse’s family that would barely survive. God’s judgment was coming on Judah, and the nation would be left with nothing but a seemingly lifeless “stump,” but there would be life yet. God promised to retain a remnant to carry on His work and the bloodline of King David. What seemed to be a dead, decaying stump would bring forth new life in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Quoting from the Septuagint, the apostle Paul referred to Isaiah’s prophecy in Romans 15:8–13. Paul specifically acknowledged Jesus Christ as the root of Jesse in whom the Gentiles put their hope: “And again, Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope’” (verse 12). And in the book of Revelation, Jesus states, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).
Isaiah’s use of the phrase root of Jesse calls into focus the humanity of Jesus. The Messiah would possess human ancestry. It also underscores Christ’s humble origins. As a shepherd from Bethlehem, Jesse occupied a relatively humble station in life. King Saul often used the phrase the son of Jesse to refer to David in a derogatory manner (1 Samuel 20:27, 30–31; 22:7–8). The Jesse Tree is an Advent custom that originates from Isaiah’s prophecy of the root of Jesse. Instead of perishing, Jesse’s family grew into a branch that bore fruit in the form of Messiah: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). During Advent, some use a Jesse Tree to represent the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
The Jesse Tree tradition dates back to the Middle Ages. Tapestries and stained-glass windows depicting a tree with Jesse at the roots and Jesus at the top branch were prevalent in the earliest displays. As pictorial representations, they allowed unschooled people to learn the stories in Scripture from the time of creation until the birth of Jesus Christ.
Today, families often use a Jesse Tree in place of an Advent calendar to teach their children about the Bible and the story of salvation at Christmastime. Each day of Advent, symbolic ornaments are placed on the tree, an act followed by a short devotional to explore and reinforce the biblical significance of each ornament. Several variations of Jesse Tree themes exist, including messianic prophecies, ancestors in the bloodline of Jesus, the promises of God, and important Bible stories.
While little is known from Scripture about the man Jesse, throughout the Old and New Testaments, he is associated with the Messiah and mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, Paul makes it clear once again that the “root of Jesse,” God’s promise to David, is indeed the Messiah and Savior, Jesus Christ: “After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:22–23).