Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg might have just missed out on the Nobel Prize last month, but this week Time named her their Person of the Year for 2019, making her the youngest ever to receive that recognition since the magazine started it in 1927.
The Swedish schoolgirl has become the face of a worldwide campaign for action on climate change since she staged a solo school strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018. Since then she has been tireless in her work to alert the world to the mounting risks from worsening heatwaves, floods, storms and rising sea levels.
Her success at both inspiring and riling people all around the world has been quite a surprise given her youth, prompting a number of people to quote the line, “and a little child shall lead them.” And it seems appropriate. She is a child, after all. And she is leading a global movement by her moral authority, her outrage and her tenacity.
But have you stopped to think where that famous line comes from?
It’s a phrase from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and it’s found in a passage about the messianic hopes of Israel. Isaiah 11 forecasts a new beginning for the nation of Judah, but in it, the prophet imagines an audacious, almost magical new world in which wild beasts are tame, kings are just, the poor are fed and the world is at peace. In the midst of all this, Isaiah refers to a little child leading. Here’s that section:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:6-8)
As you can see, the little child isn’t leading Israel toward its intended future. The little child is leading a menagerie of farm animals and wild beasts. Isaiah is imagining a world made new, one in which children can play with lions and snakes and not be harmed.
So, in a way, the phrase “and a little child shall lead them” doesn’t apply to every kid who does good or makes a difference. It’s a fantastical image of the world redeemed, restored and repaired.
For Christians, Isaiah 11, with its rich, messianic imagery, is all about Jesus, the Jewish descendant of Jesse and David:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11:1-3)
All the hopes Isaiah had for a future king of Israel are the same hopes Christians believe will be fulfilled in Christ. His rule will result in justice for the poor and lowly of the land, and in the coming together of all nations and tongues, and in a fundamental reordering of creation’s priorities. In Christ, life emerges from death.
Jesus self-consciously took on this mandate when he inaugurated his public ministry by reading Isaiah 61, another messianic passage, not dissimilar to Isaiah 11:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
No wonder some people confuse the child mentioned in verse 6 with the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem. But the little child isn’t the messiah. The little child is the beneficiary of the king’s new order.
That means Isaiah 11:6 isn’t entirely misplaced in reference to Greta Thunberg. Whether she articulates it this way or not, her hopes for a new world order, one that stewards the earth’s resources responsibly and with care, makes her a prime candidate to be the “little child that leads them”. She’s fighting for a world made whole.
I believe this magical world where children can play with lions and leopards and cobras won’t be brought about by Greta Thunberg or by climate change activism. I believe the world will be rescued, restored and renewed by the coming of the king, the messiah Jesus. But I also believe that when Greta Thunberg begs us to do something to protect the global environment, she is yearning for the very things all Christians should yearn for. That is, for a world made new.
Greta Thunberg isn’t the messiah. She’s a child, hoping for a new day, a day of world peace, of ecological harmony, of justice and mercy. And she’s reminding us all to yearn for, and work toward, that day too.