< December 19, 2010 >

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here is the promise: God is with us, so that we might live.

God is with us, so that we might believe. God is with us, because it is hard to believe, and God knows it.

"And the Lord kept talking to Ahaz" (Isaiah 7:10). This first detail tells us we have entered a story well underway. It is a story of national crisis and a king's gut-wrenching fear.

This scion of the house of David, king in Judah, has a responsibility to seek the welfare of his people. He must make political judgments that will lead to national security, health and life. External threats to national security seem to require military or diplomatic resolution.

But there is tension. The king also has a responsibility to learn and keep God's law (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). Moses promised that the king who resists pride and never turns from the law will have a long reign (Deuteronomy 17:20). God promised to the house of David an eternal dynasty, so long as his descendants hold fast to the covenant and to God's teaching (Psalm 132:12). Military and diplomatic resolutions do not always accord with covenant teaching. Alliances with foreign nations might lead to worship of their gods. Seeking help from nations more powerful than Judah might signal lack of faith in Judah's God. It might look an awful lot like hedging bets.

Ahaz faces a threat. Two neighbors to the north, Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and Syria, with its capital in Damascus, are forming a coalition. Their kings, Pekah and Rezin, are vassals to the mighty Assyria. They have surrendered tribute, dignity, and human life. They are ready now to throw off the yoke. They press Ahaz to join them and lend Judah's armies to their rebellion. He refuses. They respond with aggression. In 734 BCE the troops of Israel and Syria invade Judah (cf. 2 Kings 16:5). Their plan is to gain control of Judah's capital city, Jerusalem, and replace Ahaz with a new king, the son of Tabeel, who will back their bid for independence (Isaiah 7:6).

Pekah and Rezin propose to make Judah sick with dread and break this nation open to serve their purposes (Isaiah 7:6). It is a manipulation. The prophet Isaiah calls it what it is, and shows Ahaz the future. These two kings, says Isaiah, are smoldering stumps (7:4). These kings who make you sick with dread are nothing to you; in two years their lands will be empty (7:16). God has already decreed against their plan (7:7). The Lord reveals to Ahaz that Israel has embarked on a path to its own destruction (7:8). What path will the king of Judah choose? If you want to see your kingdom stand, if you crave a descendant on the throne of Judah, one thing only is needed. Believe (7:9).

This is the story we have entered. "And the Lord kept talking to Ahaz" (Isa 7:10). The summons to faith is hard to answer, and God knows that if God stops talking, Judah doesn't have a chance. The power of God would be too incredible to believe if there weren't signs of it everywhere. 

Ask me for a sign, says God (Isaiah 7:11). Ask me anything. What can you imagine? What can you not imagine? I will show it to you. Dig deep into the earth, sink your mind as low as the pits of hell, and I will give you a sign there. I can work such salvation that the dead come to life again and the underworld itself gives birth (Isaiah 26:19).

Turn your face, turn your mind, turn your hope upward, and I will show you a sign there in the sky. I put sun and moon and stars in the sky for signs (Genesis 1:14); I put my bow in the clouds as a sign of my covenant with creation (Genesis 9:12).

I gave Moses signs, and the people believed (Exodus 3:12; 4:3-31). I worked signs in Egypt (Exodus 7:3, 8:18, 10:1-2; Deuteronomy 4:34-35; 6:22; 7:19) to make it known that I have the power to save. I can save and I choose to save. Believe it. I know that you need a sign. I am ready to help you believe (cf. Isaiah 65:1). Ask me for a sign (cf. 1 Kings 3:5; 2 Chronicles 1:7; Psalm 2:8).

Ahaz refuses. Ahaz refuses because God's signs are too good. If he sees a sign from God, how will he be able to discount it? No, says Ahaz, "I will not ask. I will not test the Lord" (Isaiah 7:12).

On the surface this refusal sounds righteous. Moses had commanded Israel, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested God Massah" (Deut 6:16). The test at Massah grew from Israel's incapacity to trust in God's plan, sustenance, and miraculous provision. Israel failed to believe in God's saving presence among them (Exodus 17:7).

Now, if Ahaz does not need God's help to believe, we might applaud his show of deference. Isaiah does not applaud. He accuses the house of David of wearing out humans and God alike (Isaiah 7:13). So much has been entrusted to them, and they are using it up. When God offers to replenish the well (cf. Psalm 68:10), they refuse. Isaiah slams Ahaz for his pretense of faith, and calls him out of his unbelief (cf. Isaiah 1:14).

According to 2 Kings, Ahaz sent a petition to Assyria's king, Tiglath Pileser, declaring himself the king's slave and asking the king to "save him" from the threat posed by Israel and Syria (2 Kings 16:7). He bought his salvation with gold and silver from God's temple and the royal treasuries (16:8). When Tiglath Pileser neutralized the threat against Judah, Ahaz went to meet his new lord in Damascus and there saw Tiglath Pileser making a sacrifice on the altar (16:9-10). Ahaz had a copy of this altar made for Jerusalem's temple, and put it in the place of the bronze altar of the Lord (16:10-16). "On account of the king of Assyria" he stripped precious metals from the furnishings of the Lord's temple (16:17-18a). These actions do not testify to a surplus of faith.

This is the story behind Ahaz's refusal. Ahaz already has a plan and does not want to believe. It is easier to sell himself to Assyria than wait for salvation from God. But God still gives even when we will not ask. "Therefore the Lord will give a sign to you." It is still a sign of salvation. It is still a sign of God's power to save. It is a security for every promise even when faith fails.

Look, says Isaiah. "Here: the young woman is pregnant, and she is giving birth to a son. And she will call his name 'God is with us'" (7:14). The Septuagint translator of this verse projects the birth into the future, as does the evangelist Matthew (Mattew 1:23). The Hebrew text calls attention to a present reality (cf. Genesis 16:11; 38:24; Jeremiah 31:8). The impossible miracle of God's saving power is evident in the birth Isaiah shows the king taking place at this very moment. Stop looking away from the miracle. This woman is wracked with pain. She is laboring in faith to bring forth life. In a moment you will hear an infant cry. The woman will feel a flood of fierce love that binds her to this child as his guardian and protector forever. Listen closely when she speaks his name and you will hear her name the ground of all life and hope: God is with us.

There is much more to the story of Immanuel. In your Advent preaching I invite you to explore how the proclamation of the birth of Christ reveals the persistence of our God who knows how we struggle with faith and will give any sign, any grace, to help us believe and live.