The Promise - Isaiah 7:1-25
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What does God have to do to get our attention? We have to admit that we are not always good at giving him our attention. Sometimes, if the truth be known, we don’t want to have God to attending to us. Think back to the days when you were at school and the teacher asks a question of the class and as she is looking around for an answer you are just willing yourself to become invisible to her, hoping, praying she will just choose somebody else. But as tends to happen you are the one she picks on and- as tends to happen to your acute embarrassment- you don’t know the answer and all the other kids look at you and smirk. Well, sometimes because our Christian life is not as it should be, like with the teacher we hope that God won’t pick on us to do something and so we just keep our heads down. That is when God will get our attention. He did it with plenty of people in the Bible. With Moses he used a burning bush- that certainly grabbed his attention. What about being swallowed by a great fish- that certainly did wonders for Jonah’s attention deficit disorder! The fact is, God is so committed to his people and ensuring that his mission is accomplished that he will go to the most amazing lengths to get our attention, and sometimes it will hurt.
That is certainly what King Ahaz was about to discover in the passage we are looking at together this morning in Isaiah 7. The year is 734 BC. No longer is Israel the great nation it once was under King David, in fact it was a divided kingdom having the ten tribes in the North centred on Samaria which had long ago abandoned Israel’s faith for idolatry, and the now minute David’s kingdom of Judah in the South centred on Jerusalem. This is Ahaz’s domain and he is panicking. And the reason why he is in such a state of near apoplexy is because his kingdom is under military threat. The emerging superpower is Assyria to the North. It had already flexed its political muscles sometime earlier in attacking northern Israel and Syria (Aram) making them satellite states of the new evil Empire. And, as you can imagine, the Kings of the two countries- Pekah and Rezin respectively- were none too pleased and hatched a plot to throw off the oppressive yoke of Assyria. And so they approached Ahaz to try and entice him and Judah into joining with them in an alliance. But Ahaz felt trapped. On the one hand he didn’t want to incur the wrath of the King of Assyria, goodness knows what he would do if he heard about this, and the likelihood of an alliance defeating Assyria was pretty well nil. On the other hand Israel and Syria combined could pack a pretty nasty punch to a small state such as Judah. And that is what looked like was about to take place- v1, ‘When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.’ So Ahaz was stuck and stalling for time. And that is when God decided to get his attention and -as we shall see- ours.
First of all we come across the first ‘when’- when faith gives way to fear vv 2-9. So verse 2 ‘Now the house of David was told, "Aram has allied itself with Ephraim"; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind. 3Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. 4Say to him, `Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smouldering stubs of firewood--because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah's son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6"Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it."’
The real test of anyone’s faith, that is trust in, and love for, the one true God, comes when we are under pressure. While the finances are good, while food is on the table, while the children are well, then we can say as loudly as the best of them the Nicene Creed- ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty.’ But what happens when all of these things are threatened to be taken away, who do we trust then? That is the choice facing Ahaz. Obviously Ahaz and the entire population are scared spitless in the face of the potential onslaught. There was no Geneva Convention in those days. Indeed, what was later to be dubbed ‘ethnic cleansing’ was already a refined diabolical art way back then, and whoever wasn’t killed- including women and children- were usually transported away never to see their homeland again. And so no wonder that we read in verse 2 that their hearts were ‘shaken as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.’ And Ahaz takes the threat very seriously because he is found by Isaiah in verse 3 inspecting the aqueduct of the Upper Pool. This was the City’s most vulnerable point. Water had to be transported overland- so cut off the water supply and you can exhaust a population under siege into submission.
So Isaiah arrives with his son whose name makes him a living sign- Shear Jashub- ‘a remnant shall return’, or perhaps in this context ‘a remnant will repent.’ Total devastation is not envisaged, God will keep some of his people safe- that is the promise. And so Isaiah’s mission is to steady the king, or as Margaret Thatcher said to George Bush Snr at the outset of the first Gulf War ‘This is no time to wobble George.’ V 4, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid.’ That is, you don’t need to panic in the face of such opposition. Why, -v5, because in God’s sight these two Kings are like two smouldering fag ends- they are already a spent force. Sure, they have made their plans-v 6 "Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves." But in the final analysis it is not men’s plans that count, but God’s and what are his? Verse 7- ‘Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "`It will not take place, it will not happen, 8for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. 9The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah's son.’ Do you see who is the real King, who is really in charge of everything? It is God, ‘The Sovereign Lord’- Adonai Yahweh-the Lord of Hosts. ‘What are you afraid of Ahaz? Aram-Syria is not worth worrying about and Israel or Ephraim will be a political none entity within 65 years.’ And it happened. In 722 the Assyrians invaded northern Israel, killed most of the people, carted off the rest and repopulated the land with their own folk. So what is Ahaz to do? V9 ‘If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.' " The question is: will he? Will he put his beliefs into practice and do the politically unthinkable- namely sit there and doing nothing except trust that God will sort things out? Or will fear get the better of him, so that he tries to fix the problem himself by making an alliance with Assyria- which in the short term might be politically expedient, but in the long term will spell disaster for you cannot trust these guys? God certainly has got Ahaz’s attention hasn’t he?- through the circumstances and through the prophet. He has also made it plain what is at stake- you either stand firm in your faith or you don’t stand at all. Which is it going to be? You know, time and time again the church and Christians have decided to take things into their own hands and so fail to stand at all. Are numbers getting less in church?- then let’s replace Bible exposition with entertainment in the hope of attracting people in. Does the church lack political clout? Then let’s get more political and less spiritual to make our voice count. But all that these reveal is that we are employing panic measures and not trusting in the great God we say we trust in. And Ahaz was no different; in 1 Kings 16 we read that he went to the King of Assyria for help, even taking some of the gold vessels from the temple to butter him up and offering sacrifices to Assyrian idols. That was what he decided to do probably between verses 9 and 10.
But God gave him one last chance which we see when grace is exchanged for guilt v10. This is sometime later, ‘Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11"Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights." 12But Ahaz said, "I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test." Do you hear what God is saying? ‘Ahaz, what more do you want from me to prove that I am as good as my word? You name it, I will do it. I will move heaven and earth for you if that is what it will take.’ Now, there’s grace for you; there is the real passion of God when we are stuck in our unbelief- he pleads with us. And Ahaz’s response sounds oh so pious-, "I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test." Here is the King of spin, long before Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair came onto the scene. What he really meant was that he didn’t want a sign from God because he had already made up his mind to go with Assyria. But instead of coming straight out with it, he even misquotes the Bible- Deuteronomy 6- in his defence- ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’. You see, there is a world of difference between saying to God, ‘I will not believe unless you do such and such.’ -that is testing God- and God offering us a sign which we then refuse- that is trying God. And we know this is nothing but spin because ever since he came to the throne Ahaz had done nothing but test God. How? By his wicked idolatry. This is the man who took his first born baby boy but a few days old and burnt him alive as a sacrifice to the god Molech. This is the man who ransacked the temple and set up altars on the street corners of Jerusalem as if worship of God was as common as going to a Mac Donald’s take away. This is the man who gave away the holy temple vessels to a pagan King and bowed down to his gods and then has the gall to try to pull the wool over God’s eyes by uttering this pietistic twaddle about not wanting to test the Lord. It’s all there in 2 Chronicles 28. Sadly, it comes so easily to us to use religion as a cloak to cover our desire to do other things. It happened with Pope Urban 11 in 1095 when he began the first Crusade. One of the reasons he thought it was a good idea was to stop Europeans feuding amongst themselves and so he saw a crusade against a common enemy-Islam- as the perfect solution. It happens when the Christian decides to get engaged to a non- Christian and the reason given is the hope of converting them. It happens when we stay away from church so we claim can have more time in personal devotion, when if we are honest it seems far less of an effort. We so easily deceive ourselves, but of course not God.
And so God spells out the consequences of not standing firm in our faith – viz. not standing at all in verse 17ff, ‘The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah--he will bring the king of Assyria."’ And he did, certainly after Ahaz’s time, but in 701 the Assyrian army marched right up to the gates of Jerusalem, leaving very little left of the land. It was a scorched earth policy they adopted, which is really what is described in verse 18 and following. The scene if one of complete devastation. There is no part of the country that is not touched. In verse 20 the picture is of the King of Assyria being like a razor which cuts off every piece of hair from a man- and the NIV is being modest when speaking of the ‘hair on the legs’, the actual term is ‘feet’, which is a euphemism for genitals. In other words, the punishment will be thorough and demeaning. So it really doesn’t pay in the long run to go it alone; our clever get out plans eventually boomerang back on us. If only Ahaz had done what he was asked to do in the first place- stand firm in his faith.
Does that mean there is no hope? Is it the case that once we have blown it, we have blown it for ever? Thankfully, no, not with this God, hence when the Lord comes down in love. So let’s go back to the key verses 13-14: ‘Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel The tone has changed because by now it is clear that Ahaz has made up his mind and is playing with God, so God is going to give a sign alright, not the original sign to strengthen faith, but another sign so mysterious that it confirms God’s judgement because of lack of faith, while at the same time offering hope for the future. First of all, notice that this is a sign which is not just for Ahaz, but ‘the house of David’ as a whole. Ahaz is just one of many descendents of David who has not come up to scratch. Yet, God promised David that there will always be a descendent of his upon the royal throne. The problem is, his offspring are proving to be so useless that looks less and less likely to happen. God’s patience is being sorely tested and judgement day is a coming! And that the sign is not primarily for Ahaz but for his descendants is underscored by the use of the plural in verse 14, ‘The Lord himself will give you (plural) a sign.’ And to say it would have been a mystery to Ahaz and anyone else at the time would be a major understatement: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.’ What on earth is that supposed to mean? Now, all that Isaiah is doing here is in line with what God has called him to do back in chapter 6, ‘, "Go and tell this people: " `Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' You see, these folk were so steeped in unbelief and wickedness that God was going to speak to them but in such a way that it would sift people out; so those who meant business with God and humbly sought him would ‘see’ but those that didn’t would be confirmed in their unbelief-they would not ‘see’ beyond the mere words. That was Ahaz.
So what is this sign? The first thing we have to clear up is the meaning of the word translated ‘virgin’. Some say that it should be rendered ‘young woman’ because that is what the word used- ‘almah’- means. If it had meant virgin in the technical sense then another word would have been used, ‘betulah’- a ‘virgin, virgin’. And so on this interpretation the son to be born which was meant to be a sign was maybe Ahaz’s son or Isaiah’s. Well, there are several things which could be said in favour of the traditional interpretation, let me mention a few. First of all, sometimes the word betulah or ‘virgin’ is used when it does not necessarily refer to a virgin at all. There are examples of this outside the Bible, but even within the Bible, there is the case of Rebecca who was to be Isaac’s wife who in Genesis 24 is described as, ‘The girl (who) was very beautiful, who was a virgin (betulah); no man had ever lain with her.’ The fact that the writer adds ‘no man had ever lain with her’ would be redundant if ‘betulah’ exclusively meant ‘virgin’. So this qualifying statement suggests that the word was not restricted to technical virgins, but those of marrying age. However, the term ‘ almah’, or as we might say, ‘girl’ is only ever used of women who were virgins. So the NIV is right. Now that would be a sign wouldn’t it? A virgin having a baby boy! What is more in the original it says, ‘The virgin’ and the definite article is put in front like that to indicate someone who is not yet known- so it can’t apply to anyone Ahaz or Isaiah was familiar with, but some unknown person who is yet to be revealed.
‘But’ you say, ‘doesn’t verse 16 suggest that this was to take place during Ahaz’s time not several hundred years later with Mary: ‘But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste’ Not necessarily, it might mean no more than, ‘ In the time it takes for this boy, when he appears, to grow to the age of discernment, that is the time it will take for the Kings of Israel and Aram to be destroyed, i.e. not much time at all.’
But the decisive argument that Isaiah is speaking about the coming King who is ‘Immanuel, God with us’ to be miraculously conceived by a virgin is that this is the interpretation the angel gave to Joseph in Matthew 1. On hearing the news that his fiancé Mary was pregnant we read:19 ‘Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us." 24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.’ Now we tend to think that the quote from Isaiah 7 is Matthew’s addition, explaining that this is the fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy. But the interesting thing is that everywhere else in Matthew 1 and 2 Matthew quotes the Old Testament after the event has taken place, but not here for this is slap bang in the middle. So this naturally reads as part of what the angel is saying to Joseph, who then wakes up and does as he was told. And notice too the stress in verse 20 that this is Joseph son of David. Remember how back in Isaiah 7 the sign given is not just to Ahaz as such but to ‘the house of David’? Here is Joseph of the house of David who receives the sign. You see, because of Ahaz’s unbelief and sin, things got worse and worse until eventually the Royal line looked like it was disappearing altogether. It began to recede into obscurity- until this point with Joseph. What God promised all those years ago was now taking place. Of course it was a mystery to disobedient Ahaz as God’s word is always a mystery and so word of judgement to anyone who willingly chooses to rebel against him. But what was a sign of judgement to Ahaz became a sign of blessing and hope to Joseph who was obedient and righteous.
So what was being promised? Just turn back with me to chapter 6 and Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord in the temple, this is what we read:’ In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." Do you know who Isaiah saw that day? You say, ‘God’. Yes. But we can be more specific than that for John in chapter 12:41 of his Gospel, after quoting from Isaiah 6 says this: ‘Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.’ This is the Second person of the Trinity that Isaiah saw in all his divine majesty and royal regalia. And this is the one who was to be born of a young Jewish teenager in a land under occupation, a devastated land in so many ways, which can be traced back to the stupidity and faithlessness of this King –Ahaz. This is the one who in chapter 9 is spoken of as ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father (in that he mediates to us the presence of the Father), Mighty God.’ That is what he is as to his deity. And in chapter 11 he is described as the ‘shoot of the stump of David’, the remnant of the Royal line who will reign for ever- that is what he is as to his humanity. God’s love comes down, alright in the form of a person. God’s love pleads with baby murderers, idolaters and religious hypocrites like Ahaz, but now his love pleads with us through a man, the Royal King Jesus.
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