The vision Isaiah sees of the LORD, high and lifted up (chapter 6), prepares him for what is about to happen under the reign of Uzziah’s grandson, Ahaz (chapters 7-8). After Uzziah’s death, the stability of his 52-year reign quickly collapses. Uzziah’s son, Jotham, who had been a co-regent with Uzziah for about 11 years remains king for another five years. During this time, Assyria exercises its domination in an ever-increasing way. Jotham is removed in favor of a pro-Assyrian leader, Ahaz.
Sensing the threat from Assyria, two neighboring nations—Syria and Israel—form an alliance to try and blunt the force of the Assyrian expansion. They join forces and plan to invade Judah; their plan is to depose Ahaz and install the “son of Tabeel” (7:6). In this way they hope to increase their ability to resist Assyria (since Ahaz is pro-Assyria).
Syria (led by King Rezin) and Israel (ruled by Pekah the son of Remaliah) “wage war” against Judah but are unable to mount a successful attack on Jerusalem (1). As this immanent threat becomes known to Ahaz and the people of Judah, they are badly shaken— “as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (2).
The Lord dispatches Isaiah to talk with Ahaz, instructing Isaiah where to go (“conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field”—3) and with whom to go (Isaiah takes along his son “Shear-jashub”—3).
Isaiah’s message from the Lord is meant to calm and stabilize Ahaz and Judah. Ahaz is told to “be quiet, do not fear and do not let your heart be faint” (4). The Lord promises that the kings of Syria and Israel (“two smoldering stumps of firebrands”) look and sound more menacing than they actually are. Their plans will not succeed to conquer Judah (7). In fact, within 65 years, Israel (called Ephraim) will be so shattered they won’t be recognized as a people (7).
Isaiah concludes his message of hope to Ahaz and Judah with an admonition to faith: “If you (plural pronoun) are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (9). The only way to stand firm in the midst of troubling times is through a firm faith in the Lord, the King of kings.
To shore up Ahaz’s weak faith, the Lord has another message for the king through Isaiah (10). Ahaz is invited to select a sign from God to verify what Isaiah has just spoken concerning Rezin and Pekah. What a gift! Gideon had asked for a sign when his faith was wobbly (Judges 6:36-40). Here the Lord offers a sign before Ahaz asks for one.
Ahaz’s response seems pious and faith-filled: “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test” (12). Isaiah’s response of exasperation shows that Ahaz’s refusal is not evidence of great faith but a hardened heart (6:10). He’s already made up his mind to rely on Assyria to get him out of trouble (2 Kings 16:7). He’s not waiting around for the Lord to come to his rescue.
In spite of his refusal, the LORD proceeds to give a sign to “the house of David” (13). He promises that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (14).
This somewhat cryptic “sign” has been studied and pondered for centuries. Matthew cites it as pointing to the virgin birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:23). However, it must have had some contemporary fulfillment when given to Judah by Isaiah.
The Hebrew word for “virgin” refers to a young woman of marriageable age—hence, someone still a virgin. It is, however, not the technical term for virgin. Further, the fact that a young woman would have a baby hardly seems a divine sign; women have children all the time. Compounding the curiosity of the sign is the fact that Isaiah gives no specificity as to which virgin would bear a son. All we know is that she will bear a son and call his name Immanuel: God is with us.
While it’s difficult to be completely definite because of our paucity of information, I side with John Oswalt’s view that the woman who will have a child is (or will be) Isaiah’s wife. While Isaiah already has a son, we know nothing of the woman who bore Shear-jashub. It’s possible she has died and that he will remarry (“the virgin”). Oswalt suggests that the text points to this woman as the “prophetess” (8:3). Further, the baby boy she calls “Immanuel” is named “Maher-shalal-hash-baz” (8:1-3). The textual clues to link these women and baby boys comes from the similarity of the circumstances predicted surrounding their births (devastation of the land while they are still very young—7:15-16 and 8:4) as well as the two-fold mention of Immanuel in 8:8, 10. So, the boy that the woman calls “Immanuel” is named “Maher-shalal-hash-baz”. In this reading, Isaiah has two sons, both of whom are called “signs and portents” (18). The point of the sign is that the promised destruction of Syria and Israel will come soon—before a newborn child grows up into a young man. God will fulfill His promises to judge Israel and Syria.
But there’s more. The sign is not just a message of hope for Judah; it’s also a warning of impending invasion into Judah. Before the child (Immanuel) grows up—before he knows the difference between good and evil—the Assyrian armies will have invaded and ransacked Judah. The Lord will summon Assyria to swarm into Judah like bees and flies (18-19). He will use the Assyrian armies as a razor to give Judah a close, humiliating shave (20). The result will be that the land will become a desolate waste. Cultivated vines will be overgrown with thorns and briers (23). People will subsist on curds and honey, not grain or meat. The few cattle and sheep left in the land will provide the milk for curds; wild bees will produce the honey. But the agrarian life known by Judah will be decimated by the Assyrian invasion.
Behold Your God
The Lord is high and lifted up above all the rulers of the world. The LORD raises up and brings down kings: Rezin and Pekah will fall. He summons the most powerful of kings (Assyria) to do his bidding—whether they realize it or not. Regardless of how things look to us, even when a trusted leader is gone (Uzziah), God is the King who is high and lifted up and in control.
The Lord sees through pious words when they come from a proud, doubting heart. On the surface, Ahaz seems trusting and pious to decline the offer of a sign from God. It sounds right to hear him say, “I will not put the LORD to the test” (12). However, God knows these words come from a heart that no longer looks to God for protection. He declines the sign because He dismisses God’s help. The LORD knows the reality behind the words we speak.
The Lord speaks when His faithful prophets speak. Verse 10 says “the Lord spoke to Ahaz.” The context makes clear that He does this through His servant Isaiah (see verse 13). The clear implication is that when God’s prophets speak His message, He is speaking. The prophetic speaking of God’s word is God’s Word.
The Lord grows weary of those who fail to trust him. Ahaz and the people of Judah are indicted by Isaiah for exhausting God’s patience. It’s one thing to “try the patience” of men; it’s another thing to “try the patience” of God (NIV translation). God is slow to anger but also grows weary with those who fail to take Him at His Word. Don’t be that guy!
The Lord can fight for His people and against them. The sign that Isaiah gives Ahaz and the house of Judah is a double-edged sword. God will deal with the two nations threatening Judah (Syria and Israel). At the same time, He will deal with Judah! He will bring the Assyrians not only to deliver Judah (as Ahaz was hoping) but also to decimate Judah. To invert Romans 8:31, “If God is against us who can be for us?”
Here Am I
I am responsible for my response to troubling circumstances. Ahaz is told to “Be careful (the Hebrew word means to watch or guard), be quiet (30:15: “in quietness and trust shall be your strength”), do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint (or weak)” (4). These four commands cluster around the idea of stabilizing your heart in the face of threats and danger. The repetition of similar ideas all serves to underscore the fact that Ahaz was both capable and culpable for giving way to fear instead of finding inner stability in God through faith. The same truth holds for us today: we are able and expected to respond to troubling circumstances with faith and trust due to the greatness and goodness of our God.
The only way to stand firm in trouble is to stand firmly on the promises of God. Those who trust in their own power and resources will be shaken like leaves when facing a bigger threat. Those who trust in the Lord realize there are no threats too big for Him. He towers above all the powers of the world. His Word and will will certainly be done! So, we must know His promises and trust them.