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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 7, or, 'ask for a sign'

This week, a history lesson! I will do my best to make it relatively painless, I promise. Recording above, translation below, essay below that, and we're off.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 7

Rezin, king of Aram, forms a military coalition with Pekah, king of Israel's northern kingdom (Ephraim), in order to repel the Assyrian Empire. They attempt to force Ahaz, king of southern Israel, to join them – but, Isaiah insists, such an alliance would be futile without God's help.

1. It happened in the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, King of Judah: up came Rezin, King of Aram, and Pekah son of Remaliah, king of Israel, to wage war against Jerusalem – but they couldn’t win.

2. Word reached David's house: they were told, ‘Aram has joined forces with Ephraim.’ Then Ahaz's heart and his people’s heart were rattled, as tree branches in the woods rattle at the breath of the wind.

3. But God said to Isaiah, ‘go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-Jashub, at the far end of the waterway from the Upper Pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field.

4. And say to him, “careful now, still your mind, don’t be afraid. Don’t let your heart go limp at the thought of these two lumps of smoldering charcoal — at the thought of the seething rage of Rezin and Aram and Remaliah's son

5. Because Aram plotted evil against you, along with Ephraim and Remaliah's son, saying,

6. ‘let’s go up to Judah and assault it, and breach its wall; let’s claim it for our own, and make Tabeel's son king at its city centre.’

7. So says my Master, God: ‘it won’t stand. It won’t happen.

8. Aram’s head is Damascus, and Damascus’ head is Rezin. And by sixty-five years from now the nation of Ephraim will be beaten out of existence.

9. And Ephraim’s head is Samaria, and Samaria’s head is the son of Remaliah. If your belief isn’t secure, then neither are you.’”’

10. And God proclaimed still more to Ahaz. He said,

11. ‘Ask for a sign from God, your own god — from the pits of the Grave or the lofty heights.’

12. But Ahaz said, ‘I won’t ask. No, I won’t put God to the test.’

13. Then Isaiah said, ‘now listen, house of David: is it so minor a thing for you to run men ragged, that you’re going to tire out my god too?

14. Since that’s so: my Master will give you a sign himself. Look: see a maiden girl conceiving, and bringing forth a son, and calling him by the name GOD-WITH-US.

15. Curds and honey will be his food when he knows to reject evil and choose good.

16. Yes, even before the boy knows to reject evil, and choose good, that land — with its two kings who so fill you with horror — will be abandoned.

17. Upon you, and your people, and your fathers’ house, God will make days come that never came before, not since the day that Ephraim left Judah.

18. And it happens On That Day: God will whistle for the gadflies at the farthest banks of Egypt’s rivers, and the drone bees in Assyria’s land.

19. And they’ll swarm, all of them, into desolate valleys and gashes in the rock, and over all the brambles and all the pasture.

20. On That Day my Master’s going to take a razor hired from across the river — the king of Assyria — and shave your head, your crotch, your toes, even your beard too.

21. And it happens On That Day: a man will nourish a calf and two sheep.

22. And it happens: from all the milk they make he’ll eat curds, so curds and honey will be food for everyone still left in the heart of the land.

23. And it happens On That Day: every place where a thousand grapevines once went for a thousand silver coins, will be good for nothing but thorns and choke-weed.

24. People will go there carrying bows and arrows, because the whole land will be thorns and choke-weed.

25. And as for all the mountains furrowed deep with mattocks: you won’t go there for fear of thorns and choke-weed. They’ll be where you send your oxen and let livestock trample.

-- -- --

Kingdoms around Israel 830 mapKing Ahaz of southern Israel was scared witless. How could he not have been? Throughout the 730s BC, two formidable Palestinian powers had joined forces, and they were coming for him.

Aram, or ‘Syria,’ was ruled by King Rezin in the capital city of Damascus. Northern Israel, sometimes just called ‘Israel,’ ‘Ephraim,’ or ‘Jacob,’ had split off from the South in the 1000s BC and was now ruled by King Pekah in the city of Samaria. These two kings were united in defence against the relentless predations of Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria and aspirant to world empire.

Assyria was rapidly conquering every territory in sight. So in the desperate hope of mounting a resistance, Ephraim and Aram had banded together, and they wanted southern Israel on their side. The South (called ‘Judah’) contained the holy city of Jerusalem where King Jotham had been reigning after his father Uzziah’s death.

Ephraim and Aram tried to bully Judah into joining their coalition. King Jotham resisted until his death, at which point his son Ahaz became king in Jerusalem and Judah. And it's at that point, with a kid in his twenties thrust perilously onto the throne in the midst of a national crisis, that Isaiah 7 begins.

This looks to King Ahaz like a do-or-die moment: Aram and Ephraim are bearing down on Jerusalem, threatening to depose him and ravage his people. But God sends Isaiah to Ahaz with a message: ‘careful now, still your mind, don’t be afraid’ (verse 4). These two would-be tyrants are just ‘lumps of smoldering charcoal,’ and before too long ‘the nation of Ephraim will be beaten out of existence’: Pekah and Rezin are nobodies, says God, soon to be wiped off the map by Assyria's king (verse 8). Here and now, unprepared and untested as he is, Ahaz is asked to stare annihilation in the face and laugh. He is asked to trust God’s word over his own very reasonable panic.

That’s a tall order, especially since Judah’s kings had been weakening in their faith from generation to generation (see 2 Kings 15-16; 2 Chronicles 26-28). Uzziah was the last to worship in Jerusalem’s temple; Jotham never did, and Ahaz departed so far from Jewish practice as to sacrifice his own son to other gods (2 Kings 16:3). Yet in Isaiah 7, the true God makes this apostate king a remarkable offer: let me prove myself to you. Verse 11: ‘ask for a sign,’ any sign you want, and see that I am no distant abstraction but your own god, right here working with you even in the depths of your terror and disobedience.

Ahaz responds: ‘I won’t ask. I won’t put God to the test’ (verse 12). Superficially speaking, that’s a pious answer. It sounds like obedience to Deuteronomy 6:16: ‘do not test the Lord your god.’ But when the Lord your god has personally demanded that you test him, then citing his own commandments against him can only be an evasion. These are the words of a guilty man who knows he has blood on his hands. Who can’t face the fact that God is real.

I can relate to Ahaz here. I too am often guilty of an attenuated faith – one which might gesture vaguely towards a distant creator, but stops short of the bolder and more potentially falsifiable claim that a living God is visibly at work in human history. And despite the fact that I genuinely do see God acting in concrete ways every day, some combination of quasi-rationalism and false reverence makes me recoil from expecting that he might do so again in future or in response to prayer.

Yet God in Isaiah invites us to expect just that: ask for a sign, he says, and see if I don’t deliver. Stand fast when it looks like the world is crashing down around you, and see if I don’t put the world to shame. Let me prove myself stronger than the things you fear.

Or else hide your face and live out your fear, only to find that it was fear of entirely the wrong thing. Because though Ahaz refuses to ask, he still gets a prophecy anyway: the same Assyrian juggernaut that obliterates Aram and Ephraim will become the ‘hired razor’ which God uses to cut Judah down to size as well (verse 20). It is Assyria, not Aram or Ephraim, which will now conquer Israel and lead its people into slavery.

What then? Having learned the hard way that history is God’s just as heaven is, the Jews will be told to wait for a saviour. Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ the anointed Messiah, will indeed be born into this very world of ours and set it at last to rights (verse 14). It goes without saying that for Christians, this verse can only refer to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ many generations later. But that interpretation is of course contested – not least by the Jewish people themselves, who believe the Messiah has yet to come. Whatever else, at this moment in 735 BC – when all the horror of exile is still before the people of Israel – these words can only offer distant hope of rescue, an opaque reassurance in the face of what seems like the end of the world. Through slavery and torment, through the collapse of all they held dear, through the many chapters of Isaiah still to come, the Jews will be asked to trust that God’s word is good. That God’s chosen one will really appear in person to save them.

That too is a tall order, no matter how many prophecies have already come true. It is a tall order because our own present reality always makes itself undeniably felt as palpably real. And no matter how much we will ourselves to belief, no matter how certain we are of God’s faithfulness based on all past experience and all spiritual conviction, the promises of God are simply not as present to our senses as the suffering and fear which we experience here and now. In moments of supreme inspiration and supernatural intervention we may receive assurance of God’s presence; in moments of doubt and despair we can only hold to that assurance as to a sputtering candle in the deep dark. It is a hard thing to face down loss and pain and still act as if God will accompany us even into death. It was too hard for Ahaz; it is too hard for me on all but the best of days.

And yet on those best of days, even as my own fear whispers lie after lie, I can also hear another voice: ‘careful now, still your mind, don’t be afraid.’ Those words are spoken by one who has been tested and found true time and again, in my life and in past generations far darker than mine. And though Ephraim and Aram, though Assyria and Babylon, though heaven and earth themselves pass away like dust, those words – God’s words – shall stand forever. Of that we may be assured.

Rejoice evermore,