Updated: Nov 13, 2020
3,000 years ago, God promised to intervene for Judah's protection if king Ahaz would simply trust Him. Ahaz did not. Today, God has promised to intervene in our lives if we will trust Him -- particularly in the most important matter, our eternal destination. Will we?
The sign for Ahaz was a child. The sign for us is also a Child.
Trusting or Testing?
We all know Jesus' famous response to Satan's temptation: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (Luke 4:12). But we all kind of tend to do that, don't we?
Let's get there by taking a trip down memory lane. Did you ever test your parents? Or how about a teacher? Were you ever a "testy child"?
How did you do it?
I usually think of this in terms of "testing the boundaries". Kids want to know what their boundaries really are; they want to know their parents' resolve to enforce a given rule. This can be done in many different ways. There is the "innocent" tester, who is going to follow the rule but wants to understand what it means. Parents and teachers aren't too put out by this testing. There is the "devious" tester, who wants to find a way to disobey a rule without getting caught and in trouble. And there is the "defiant" tester, who wants you to know what he thinks of your rule and what you can do with it. This is the child that takes years off of the life of an adult supervisor. I tested my boundaries all the time, but I was mostly compliant (until I turned 14; my high school years were rough on my parents). From stories I've heard, some of you were more like a caged predator testing the integrity of your electric fence. God bless your parents.
But there are lots of different ways we could be testy. Basic disobedience / "testing boundaries" is just one. What are some others? You can argue with decisions that have been made. You can not trust that your parents have your best interest in mind (that's a common one for teens!). You can withdraw from family interaction. You can not cooperate with siblings in chores or the like. Lots of options. And all of them would be considered "testing".
Let's get to the point: why did we test our parents and teachers? What did that say about us, about our relationship with our parents, and about what we thought of our parents?
"Testing the Lord" in the Bible
And now let's transition to our lesson topic. The Bible has a lot to say about testing God, including the passage I mentioned above. Why do you think that is?
Exodus 17:7 - He named the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Numbers 14:22 - none of the men who have seen my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and did not obey me,
Deuteronomy 6:16 - Do not test the Lord your God as you tested him at Massah.
Judges 3:1 - These are the nations the Lord left in order to test all those in Israel who had experienced none of the wars in Canaan.
If we tend to test our parents, wouldn't we also tend to test God? Why is that such a very, very bad idea?
Note that "testing" is a complex topic in the Bible. Consider these scenarios:
The Bible speaks about plenty of occasions in which God tests people. Why is it okay for God to test people?
And then there is the strange tale of Gideon (Judges 6-7, as in "Gideon then said to God, “Don’t be angry with me; let me speak one more time. Please allow me to make one more test with the fleece. Let it remain dry, and the dew be all over the ground”").
And also Malachi 3:10: "Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house. Test me in this way,” says the Lord of Armies. “See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure."
And also the desire to be tested by God, as in Psalm 139:23, "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns."
What's going on in those passages? How do they fit with what else the Bible says about testing? What makes those scenarios different than the testing we're talking about above, as kids test parents?
In our passage this week, we have a strange subversion of this idea. God said to Ahaz, "Give me a test." Ahaz said to God, "I will not put God to the test." And then God became angry with Ahaz. Not reading anything else in this passage and just looking at those three sentences, brainstorm some possible reasons why God might be upset with Ahaz's stated desire not to test God.
And once you've had a chance to do that, consider this statement: sometimes not testing is itself a test. Could that be true?
Where We Are in Isaiah
Chapter 7 starts a second section in Isaiah, one my professor called "Trusting God or Testing God". Isaiah indicates a time jump from 6 to 7 (chapter 6 happened the year Uzziah died; chapter 7 happened during his grandson Ahaz's reign), and we have to understand the historical context to understand our passage this week.
The Syro-Ephraimite War ~736-732 BC
I mentioned this war two weeks ago. Assyria was growing in strength and had subjugated the traditional regional powers of the Near East, namely Syria (the southern "state" of the Syrian region was Aram, capital Damascus). Somewhere around the time of Uzziah's death, Assyria invaded and captured parts of Israel (1 Chron 5:26, 2 Kings 15:29). In response, Syria and Israel formed an alliance to rebel against Assyria and attempted to persuade Judah to join them. When Judah refused, they jointly attacked, starting this war.
The king of Israel was Pekah - reigned ~752-732 BC
The king of Syria/Aram was Rezin - reigned an uncertain length (see 2 Ki 16)
The king of Judah was Ahaz - reigned ~735-715 BC
The king of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser III - reigned ~745-727 BC
As you can see, there's a small overlap of these reigns, but much happened during that overlap.
According to 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chron 28, Syria and Israel successfully invaded Judah, conquering much territory and killing many Jews (including the king's son and other royal officials) and carting off many prisoners and plunders. However, they could not capture Jerusalem.
And that's what Isaiah 7 introduces. The word of the invasion has reached the king, and he is terrified. He does not believe that he can stand against them, and so he wants to enlist the help of King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria. God sends Isaiah with a message: don't go to Assyria for help; I will defend you from this invasion.
There are three more facts that will really help you understand what's going on in our passage:
Ahaz has already decided to beg Assyria for help.
Assyria has already decided to conquer Israel and Syria anyway.
God already knows facts 1 and 2.
And that leads us to a major repeated question in Isaiah (and the rest of the prophets): are you going to trust God or trust in military power? Or the variation here: are you going to trust God or are you going to test Him (in a bad way)?
For personal application, we're going to be looking at ways we fail to trust God.
Part 1: God Intervenes (Isaiah 7:7-9)
7 This is what the Lord God says:
It will not happen; it will not occur. 8 The chief city of Aram is Damascus, the chief of Damascus is Rezin (within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people), 9 the chief city of Ephraim is Samaria, and the chief of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all.
The meaning is simple: the invaders will not capture Jerusalem. That's really all there is to it. The only question is why God chose to send Isaiah with these words.
The first phrase is pretty easy -- God Himself "Yahweh Adonai" "God the Lord" has made this statement. If you reject this very clear statement, you are calling God a liar.
But why mention the capital cities and rulers of the invaders? It seems redundant. The NIV adds, "The head of Damascus is [only] Rezin", taking a common approach to this -- you don't need to fear these invaders because they are only men.
I actually think God means something slightly different with this. God has identified the invaders by their capitals and their kings. The choice is now set before Ahaz: unless you choose to align yourself with the Sovereign Lord as your King, your new king will be Tiglath-pileser of Nineveh. (More about this below.)
What about that "65 years" comment? It admittedly seems a lot like a statement a rabbi would have put in his notes in the margin, only to have a later scribe mistake it for original text. (Side note about textual criticism: that's actually a common theory about verse 8b, and I'm not personally bothered that someone would suggest it. The verse addition doesn't change the meaning of the prophecy, and it could be easily explained as a copyist error. If verse 8b were in fact added later, it would not make me doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible!) There are two big questions with respect to "65 years":
What happened in 65 years? That would be about 670 BC. There are no major events in 670 BC, at least not that would make a later rabbi call attention to it. Israel was destroyed long before, in 722 BC.
Why would Ahaz care what happens in 65 years? At that moment, he didn't think he would be alive in 5 years!
Unless you think a copyist might have simply copied this number wrong (which is certainly possible but I think unlikely), you have two good options for interpretation:
"65" is used generationally. In other words, "In your lifetime . . ."
The focus of this verse is not on the "65 years" but on the "too shattered to be a people".
I like that second idea. "In your lifetime" loses its power when compared with the urgency in 7:16 (see below). But "too shattered to be a people" is quite literally what happened to Israel in that 65-year range. Between 680 and 660 BC, Assyria resettled Israel with transplanted peoples, and they eventually became known as Samaritans (and we've talked at great length about the animosity between Jews in the south and Samaritans in the north). In other words, God would be saying that "within 65 years, you won't be able to recognize the people living in Israel". That makes a lot of sense to me. And it's what happened.
[By the way, why tell you all of those possibilities? Including the ones in which people say that somebody made a mistake in copying the Bible? Because if you do your own research, and I hope you do, you'll come across them. Part of my teaching approach is to share how we might handle various perspectives and interpretations of the Bible -- not to tell you what to believe but to help you not be afraid to make up your own mind. I believe strongly in the value of understanding multiple viewpoints.]
[By the way, part 2: what if while you're studying someone else's perspective you read something that really confuses you? First and most importantly, know that there is an answer. God is utterly trustworthy in what He has said to us. There is always an answer to every question. (That doesn't mean that the answer will line up with our preconceptions!) Second, use a concordance or Bible dictionary to give you some other places in the Bible to learn about your question. Third, hit your church's library for a trustworthy commentary. Finally, ask a church leader directly.]
The meaning of this prophecy is found in verse 9b: if you don't trust God in this matter, your entire life has no foundation. (And yes, the fact that Isaiah uses the plural form of "you" means this verse is intended to apply to everyone.)
The big questions to ask yourself: According to this passage, faith is an all-or-nothing thing. "Either you trust God in everything, or you don't trust God at all." That's obviously not the way most of us live our lives. Let's take some common areas of life:
[Add your own]
In which of those areas do you trust God the most? In which of those areas do you trust God the least? Why the difference?
God Expects (Isaiah 7:10-13)
10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz: 11 “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God—it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.”
12 But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.”
13 Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God?
This is one of my favorite exchanges in the Bible -- there's so much going on here! It starts with God freely offering to let Ahaz test him. This is not generally God's M.O.; He expects us to trust Him. For us today, the "sign" we have been given is the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. That's the only "sign" we need.
But this one time, God gives the chance to test Him. Why? Perhaps it has to do with how dire the situation is. It's possible that time has passed between verses 9 and 10 and things have gotten worse. Many, many Jews were killed in this war, and most of the land was lost. It would take a miracle for them to win. [Hint, hint.]
But I wonder if this is more about the unique moment in salvation history. The northern kingdom (Israel) is about to be forever wiped out. Ahaz is about to (or already has) make the decision that will set in motion the events that will lead to the fall of Jerusalem. And Isaiah is about to tie all of this to the promise of the Messiah. In other words, this is simply a critical moment in history that will point us to Jesus.
Anyway, have you ever asked God for a sign? What was it in reference to? How did it turn out? I've asked God for plenty of signs in my life, and God has given me many signs. But there's a critical difference -- when I asked for a sign, I was asking for help in making a choice. In Isaiah 7, God was offering a sign for the purpose of proving that He could be trusted to fulfill His miraculous promise. That's why His phrasing is so interesting; it's the modern equivalent of "the sky is the limit".
But Ahaz says "no". Of course, he makes himself sound spiritual by saying, "I won't test God". I asked you at the top to spitball some reasons why God was so upset with Ahaz for saying this. What did you come up with?
In this case, Ahaz had no intention of trusting God. He didn't want God to give him a sign because deep down, he was afraid (he knew?) that God's sign would make him doubt his plan to call on Assyria for help. But he was the king of his people, and he would make the decisions on what to do around here! (Now, think back to how I understood verses 8 and 9. Ahaz thought of himself as the chief of Jerusalem and Judah, and yet with the decision he was making he was about to give it all away.)
If you read 2 Kings 16, you know that Ahaz didn't just ask Assyria for help. He sent a lot of the gold and silver from the temple as tribute, and he also brought back plans for Assyrian altars. He was exchanging the riches of God and God's worship for the pagan religions of Assyria. Is there any wonder why he was skittish around God's prophet?
So, what are ways that we try to disguise our sinfulness with piety? Let's say that someone asks us to do something for the church, and we know we don't want to do it, but we don't have a good reason why not. What do we respond? "I'll pray about that." Or let's say that we have some great gossip that we don't want to keep to ourselves but we know it's wrong to gossip. How do we introduce it? "Hey, I think you need to pray for so-and-so about such-and-such." Or let's say you aren't going to church like you should and you know it. How do you put off the people asking you to come to church? "I'm spending time with God in my own way." What other unspiritual things do we try to make sound spiritual?
And of course, God saw through Ahaz. Perhaps if Isaiah had been a regular Joe, Ahaz could have fooled him or bowled him over, but he wasn't. He was God's prophet. (And yes, the "my God" does imply that Ahaz did not truly believe in God, which I think is pretty well demonstrated by his actions.)
So let's get personal. In the previous section, I asked you to think about areas of life in which you did trust God, and areas in which you trusted Him less.
Now let's dive into those areas. In areas where you don't trust God as much, what do you trust? We all trust something. For example, in personal health, you might trust doctors to take care of you with the result that you don't pray. (See the difference? Going to the doctor and trusting God are not necessarily mutually exclusive.) Or you trust your own savvy to handle people and never ask for God's intervention. Or you think you have enough money in the bank that you don't think you need God's help for keeping up with everything.
Ahaz wasn't going to trust God; he was going to trust the biggest army.
What/who do you find yourself trusting when times get tough?
God Announces (Isaiah 7:14-15)
14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. 15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey.
We've finally gotten to the part I'm most excited about: the Immanuel prophecy! There is so much debate about this, but there doesn't have to be. Here's what we know as fact.
Matthew applies this verse to Jesus (1:23), therefore it is fulfilled in Jesus. If the New Testament says something about the Old Testament, it is accurate.
The "you" includes Ahaz; therefore this sign must have meant something to Ahaz.
The word "virgin" just means "young woman" in Hebrew. However, in Israel/Judah, all young women were virgins before they got married, so the word often carried that connotation. Also, in Matthew 1, the Greek word for "virgin" (in its sexual meaning) is used, so we know that Mary was a virgin.
The debate comes from those who say that this passage either applies to Mary/Jesus or it applies to someone in Ahaz's day. But that is such a limited view of God! Do you not think that God can pack layers of meaning into everything He says?
The technical term for what's going on here is "dual fulfillment". This prophecy was fulfilled in a way that meant something to the people who received it, but also pointed ahead to an ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. There's a lot of this in the Old Testament.
Let's start with the initial fulfillment in Ahaz's day. Here, the focus is not on the birth or the name but on the timetable -- "While the child is still young, both Israel and Syria/Aram will be laid waste". Imagine yourself being there when Isaiah gave this prophecy. The article here is like an English demonstrative pronoun, so we can imagine Isaiah talking to Ahaz in front of the royal court, and saying, "Here is your sign: this young woman will have a son, and before he turns 6 (?), your enemies will be destroyed, and you will be in big trouble." Isaiah likely would have pointed at someone standing there. (It's possible he was pointing to his own wife; see below.)
That's what Ahaz would have keyed on. By the time the child knows right from wrong (and this could be intellectually, so around 6, or it could mean socially, so at his bar mitzvah at 13), two things will have happened: he will be eating curds and honey, and his enemies will be destroyed.
Because we associate this prophecy with Jesus, we think of it in very positive connotations. But here we need to read it in its initial context: one of judgment. If a child is eating curds and honey, that would only be because all of the cultivated crops are gone. Curds, as you know, are simply fresh curdled milk. And there was certainly wild honey. But where God once "sold" the land to His people as "a land of milk and honey" in a good way, here it means that the natural produce of the land is all they have to live on. If it were not for God's provision of milk and honey, this child (and by extension everyone else) would be dead.
That's where "Immanuel" comes in. As you know, "Immanuel" means "God with us". (Don't worry about the spelling; remember that there were no vowels in written Hebrew. Emmanuel and Immanuel are the same word.) We get a warm fuzzy when we think about its Nativity/Jesus context. But here, it has a tougher meaning:
When we see this child, who was born in the royal court, eating wild curds and honey to survive, we will know that God has visited us. God has brought His judgment on us in the form of these invading and destroying armies. And yet, we're still alive, and we are surviving on the blessings of the land God gave us, and so we will know that God is still with us.
So, who was this child? A lot of scholars point to Isaiah's mention of his own newborn child in 8:3 as the initial fulfillment of this prophecy. Why else would God make such a big deal about this birth and have it happen right after the prophecy in chapter 7? In 8:3, Isaiah's wife is called a "prophetess". But remember that the Jewish tradition is that Isaiah was related to Ahaz, so it's possible (likely?) that his wife spent time in the court. She absolutely could have been present when Isaiah gave the prophecy to Ahaz.
In Isaiah 8:3, they named their son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. (Remember, he can have a name and still be called "Immanuel", just as Jesus was named Jesus.) That name can basically be translated "Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil". In other words, destruction is coming quickly. That lines up quite well with the negative aspect of judgment in the prophecy in our passage.
So, how would that "initial fulfillment" work? Isaiah gave this prophecy to Ahaz, probably somewhere around 734 BC. The next thing mentioned in Isaiah is his child in 8:3, so let's say the child was born in 733 BC. Well, Assyria conquered both Israel and Syria/Aram in 732 BC. Further, Assyria destroyed Israel in 722 BC. Almost any way you look at this prophecy, it is completely fulfilled in Isaiah's son -- before he is old enough to know right from wrong, Israel has been destroyed and the land of Judah has been laid waste.
But again, as I said above, Matthew applies this prophecy to Jesus. Therefore it applies to Jesus. But the meaning and import is quite different. Whereas to Ahaz the emphasis would have been on the timeframe, to Matthew the emphasis was on the circumstances. God's people had lost faith and belief in Him, and so He was going to give them a sign -- a sign just like the one He gave to Ahaz. Except this time
The word "virgin" would be taken to its ultimate, miraculous meaning. That's why Isaiah used the generic word for a "young woman" which could also mean "virgin" -- it allows for the prophecy to have a deeper, even double, meaning. Isaiah's wife could have conceived in the "normal" way, and Mary could have conceived in the miraculous way, and both would fulfill the prophecy.
The name "Immanuel" would be taken to its ultimate, miraculous meaning: literally God with us. In Ahaz's day, Isaiah's son would be the constant reminder that God had visited them with judgment but also with mercy. But Jesus would actually be God with us.
What about the rest of the prophecy, about the "before he knows right from wrong" part? Well, that no longer applies. Those things have happened and are now a reminder rather than forecast. Israel was destroyed because of their rejection of God. Similarly, anyone who rejects God (in Jesus) after Jesus' mission has been revealed will also be destroyed.
I believe very strongly in the "dual fulfillment" approach to prophecy. Every prophecy in the Old Testament meant something to its initial audience. But God could have intended an additional meaning to people who would read it hundreds of years later. Those meanings are usually spelled out in the New Testament. (Think of how Jesus gave and then explained parables; it's kind of like that.)
Part 4: God Judges (Isaiah 7:16-17)
16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. 17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”
We've basically covered all of this already. Before the child in the prophecy reaches a certain age, these two kings you're so worried about will be dead and their land abandoned. (Which is what happened -- in about 2 or 3 years from the giving of the prophecy.)
But at that point, King Ahaz, you will have a new king to worry about -- the king of Assyria.
Somewhere in this quarter I'll give a history lesson on Assyria, the first nation to use "terror" as a diplomatic strategy. The things they did to the people they conquered are legendarily horrifying. And Ahaz willingly brought this upon his own people.
The application of this passage as it most directly pertains to us is in Jesus. Those things in ancient Judah happened. We can see the choices Ahaz made, and we already know the outcome. But our own lives are still known only by God. He has also made a promise to us -- trust Me and follow Me and I will be with you to overcome your enemies. The "sign" is Jesus, God with us, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Have we trusted in Jesus for salvation?
Are we following Jesus daily, trusting Him with our day-to-day lives?