Second Thursday of Advent: Faith and politics in Advent
The background to the events of Isaiah 7-12 is an important political crisis, described concisely in Isaiah 7.1 see also 2 Kings 6.5-9). While Judah had for many years pursued a policy of non-resistance as a vassal state to the encroaching Assyrian empire, many anti-Assyrian alliances sprang up throughout the region. One such was led by Rezin, king of Syria (Aram), who was joined by Pekah, newly ascended to the throne in Ephraim, the northern kingdom. Together these kings and their armies marched against Judah in 734 B.C., seeking to lay siege to Jerusalem and replace King Ahaz with a puppet who would willingly join the anti-Assyrian coalition (v.6). Ahaz was understandably shaken (v.2).
But his fear was not limited to these external threats. Judah had already suffered so much at the hands of its Assyrian overlords and previous military raids from Syria that Ahaz’s popularity (and his pro-Assyrian policy) was at an all-time low. Like the chief priests and scribes of Luke 22.2, he lived in fear of his own people. He needed no Gallup poll to know that he faced the threat of an internal coup. In this highly charged context God sends Isaiah with a message of encouragement and warning.
On the one hand, God assures Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite plot against Jerusalem will come to nothing (v.7), since these kings even in their “fierce anger” are only “two smouldering stumps of firebrands” (v.4) soon to be extinguished by the Lord of Hosts. Isaiah thus encourages Ahaz not to be afraid, but to remain firm in his political resolve not to join the anti-Assyrian coalition (v.4).
On the other hand God’s protection of Jerusalem is by no means unconditional. “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all,” Isaiah announces, both making a pun (which the English tries to reproduce) and alluding to God’s ancient promise (2 Sam 7.6) that David’s kingdom would stand or be made firm forever (the same verb is used). But Isaiah distinguishes this promise from cheap grace by placing significant responsibility for the political future squarely on the shoulders of Ahaz and his companions (the you in v.9 is plural). Ahaz is challenged to remain steadfast in faith if God is to protect Jerusalem and the Davidic Dynasty.
As it turns out, Ahaz’s faith was ambiguous (see 2 Kings 16.7-18 for details). Although he did resist the Syro-Ephraimite coalition, he is judged ultimately to be an evil, idolatrous ruler who did not do what was right in the eyes of Yahweh (2 Kings 16.2-4).
Though Isaiah 7 is less clear in its judgment, an important hint may be discerned in the introductory notice that the prophet inconveniently had to go to the king to deliver his message. Ahaz was at “the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s field” (v.3), a location outside the city walls (see 36.2 and 2 Kings 18.17), inspecting the water supply and fortification in anxious anticipation of the coming siege. The contrast with his son Hezekiah is clear to anyone who reads ahead in Isaiah: in response to the later, Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (701 B.C.), Hezekiah actively sought out Yahweh in the Temple to pray for help and receive God’s blessing and assurance of protection (37.1,14-35). Isaiah 7, however, does not resolve the question of Ahaz’s faith; it simply poses it. Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz thus addresses us in our contemporary crises, challenging us beyond a cheap, sentimental celebration of Advent, to a faith that indeed makes a political difference.
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.