The ambiguity of Ahaz’s faith, hinted at yesterday, becomes an issue in today’s Isaiah text. When offered a sign as confirmation of God’s promise to protect Jerusalem (v.11), Ahaz refuses under the pious guise of not wanting to “test” God (v.12). This surface piety, however, disguises a deeper fear of risk, indicating that Ahaz’s pro-Assyrian policy was less a matter of trust in God than of political caution. For this timidity, Isaiah accuses Ahaz of testing or wearying God (v.13).
A sign is given to the faithless king, nevertheless. The young woman (the article is definite, indicating the queen or some Davidic princess) shall conceive and bear a son (v.14), a potential heir to the throne, to continue the royal line God promised to establish.
While the birth of an heir is already a sign of hope, the child’s name, Immanu-el (“God with us”), heightens that hope. In addition, a time-frame for fulfilment is given. Before the child is weaned from baby food and knows how to discern right from wrong, the threat to Judah will have dissipated (vv.15-16).
But just as we want to celebrate the coming of this promised heir, Isaiah’s oracle switches abruptly from assurance to threat (vv.17-25). In words that foreshadow his subsequent prophecies, Isaiah indicates that the coming of the king of Assyria signals a new epoch for Israel, the coming day of Yahweh (vv.18, 20,21,23) as significant as the division of the kingdom in the tenth century (v.17). Just as the departure of Ephraim from Judah signaled the end of the united monarchy, so the coming of the Assyrian empire signals the end of Judah’s independence and of the political aspirations of the Davidic line.
Henceforth the people of God will have to come to terms not just with reduced ambitions, but with the wholesale devastation portrayed in verses 18 to 25. What role is there for a royal house and a holy city in an epoch of foreign invasion and occupation (vv.18-19, in a time of humiliation and defeat (vv.20-25)? What indeed could God have in mind, especially since Isaiah makes it clear that this epoch of judgment is God’s own doing (v.17)? How can this same God reaffirm the promises of protection for Jerusalem and the house of David and, in the same breath, decree marginality and suffering for the people?Perhaps we who live after the birth of Christ and celebrate his Advent can glimpse in Isaiah 7 the ultimate purpose and culmination of God’s protection of the Davidic line: the coming of a king who suffer for the sins of his people, to deliver them not just from political plots or the bondage of empires, but from the imperial captivity of sin and death. “Immanuel” is indeed an apt description of God’s incarnate presence in Jesus, who came among us to restore justice and shalom to all creation, including our social and political lives.
Yet we, too, live in the tension between the fullness revealed in Jesus and the grim realities of political fragmentation, economic recession, and mandatory “social contract” cuts. Where is God in this scene? Is it possible for us to discern the signs of the times, as Isaiah did two and a half millennia ago? Can we claim the hand of God at work in our world, both bringing judgment for our culture’s accumulated injustices and constraining us to live under the sign of the crucified Messiah? Can we avoid both triumphalism and despair and walk in bold faith instead? Or is that just too bold? Perhaps, like Ahaz, we prefer to play it safe and not test God.
Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.
From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.