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No one enjoys feeling like people are talking past them.
We’ve all been there. A conversation is going on, you are part B–so you’re clearly important to the conversation–but the other person is just going on and on, and you are lost trying to find any relevance in this conversation for your life.
God does not talk past us. He meets us where we are, and He wants us to understand Him and act on what He tells us. God cannot be charged with talking past people.
Unfortunately, as we move into the Christmas season, we are going to come face to face with a conversation that for all practical purposes makes it seem as though God talks past people.
If you see it on a Christmas card, or even in its New Testament citation, you might completely miss how this could be understood as God talking past people:
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.Isaiah 7:14 (HCSB)
You read that quote and you say, “Of course. This is the classic quotation where Jesus was prophesied to be born of a virgin.” And then you scratch your head and ask, “What do you mean by God talking past people?”
Well, i’m glad you asked. Notice where this verse occurs. Isaiah 7:14. Verse 14. This means there were thirteen verses prior, and any number of verses after that might place this passage in more of a historical setting than merely a loose statement that can simply hover over time for 730 years and be applied to Jesus when He is born. For sake of time, let’s limit this post to Isaiah 7:1-16.
This took place during the reign of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah king of Judah: Rezin king of Aram, along with Pekah, son of Remaliah, king of Israel, waged war against Jerusalem, but he could not succeed. When it became known to the house of David that Aram had occupied Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the hearts of his people trembled like trees of a forest shaking in the wind.7:1-2
Ahaz was not a good king. The histories of Israel agree (Kings and Chronicles), “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God like his ancestor David but walked in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kings 16:2-3; cf. 2 Kings 17:9-10). This event occurred around 733 BC. We know this because utilizing Assyrian sources, we can know that Jerusalem was attacked by Aram and Israel between 734-732 BC.
Aram and Israel (led by Rezin and Pekah) wanted to rebel against the Assyrian boot that was holding them down. They wanted Ahaz’s father (Jotham) to join them in their venture. When he turned them down, Aram and Israel decided to attack Jerusalem. Jotham died around this same time, and thus we see Ahaz faced with a predicament at the start of his reign.
Isaiah notes for us that Rezin and Pekah were unsuccessful (7:1), but still narrates the story anyways. He tells us that as land fell to Aram, the courage of all in Jerusalem fell. They were scared, like trees shaking in the wind. (It is worth pointing out that Isaiah thoroughly enjoys using agricultural metaphors [cf. Isaiah 6:13].)
You know the feeling. You seem incapable of movement because the future is terrifying to you. You can’t find the motivation to do even the simplest of tasks. You feel trapped. You feel surrounded. You want an escape. So you go to bed for the night. But you wake up the next morning and it’s more of the same. More uncertainty. More fear. More hopelessness. You turn on the coffeepot to start another long, hard, depressing day. But coffee is what keeps you going; you wonder how people survived the hard days before coffee.
Our passage continues:
Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field. Say to him: Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smoldering stubs of firebrands, the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah. For Aram, along with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted harm against you. They say, ‘Let us go up against Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves. Then we can install Tabeel’s son as king in it.’ ”7:3-6
Isaiah relates what God communicated with him for Ahaz. This can be divided into three discussions: 1) the place of the conversation, 2) the command, and 3) the reason for the conversation.
We’ll start with the place. Isaiah (with his son–more later) was going to meet Ahaz by the upper pool. Dr. Paul Wegner, in his forthcoming commentary on Isaiah in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series, notes that Ahaz was “quite probably checking the vulnerable water supply in anticipation of the coalition’s attack” (161). It is also possible that the attack had already started and Ahaz feared whether the city had enough water to last. It probably took everything in Ahaz to get him to move outside to check the water supply. He–like us in our stressful circumstances–probably wanted to stay in bed. But he forced himself up, and it was as he was checking the city’s water supply that God met with him through His prophet Isaiah (and his son).
What are Isaiah’s first words to him? “Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly.” This is exactly what Ahaz needed to hear, but it is definitely not what he wanted to hear. No one enjoys being told they are wrong. No one especially likes being told they’re acting out of fear. And as the king of Judah, he could have ordered Isaiah’s execution for boldly bringing these strong words against him. (I wonder if this is why Isaiah brought his young son [likely no more than 6 years old at the time], but then again, Ahaz sacrificed his own children [albeit later in his reign probably; 2 Kings 16:3, 2 Chronicles 28:3] so it is possible it is not.)
Isaiah, in his message for his readers, has already made it clear that Ahaz had no reason to fear, because of the words of verse 1: ” . . . waged war against Jerusalem, but he could not succeed” (emphasis added).
Ahaz, on the other hand, has no idea what will become of him. He needs help. He needs–he thinks–military help against this threat. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s terrified! And Isaiah says, “Calm down and be quiet.” He says, “Don’t be afraid or cowardly.”
Luckily, though, Isaiah doesn’t leave his message there, like so many well-meaning people on social media do. He gives reasons. He reassures Ahaz that the ones attacking him are no better than firewood that has already mostly finished burning. Their plan is to destroy Ahaz, remove him from the throne, and place the son of Tabeel (possibly the king of Tyre) on Jerusalem’s throne instead. Their thinking is that if Ahaz won’t join them against Assyria, then they’ll just put someone in Jerusalem who would be loyal to them.
Do your struggles look insurmountable? Do you fear that you will never make it through whatever it is you’re going through? Remember God. He’s the One who controls all things. He’s got this in His hands just like He had the armies of Israel and Aram in His hands.
So now that God has explained the plans of the enemy, He explains what will really happen:
This is what the Lord GOD says:
It will not happen; it will not occur.7:7-9
The head of Aram is Damascus,
the head of Damascus is Rezin
(within 65 years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people),
the head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
then you will not stand at all.
We, as the readers–2700+ years later–already know that the armies attacking Jerusalem were unsuccessful. But Ahaz does not know this until verses 7-9. Prior to this word from God, Ahaz simply knows that God wants him to be brave. So here in verses 7-9, we see an encouraging statement of fact regarding the future of Jerusalem; we see two parallel statements further describing the futures of these invading nations; we see a final command to be strong in faith; and we see a future prophecy that does not fit Ahaz’s (or Isaiah’s) lifetimes.
Verse 6 had concluded with the plan of the invading nations. They wanted to remove Ahaz from the kingship and install another there instead. The first thing God tells Ahaz in verse 7 is: “It will not happen; it will not occur.” This should be incredibly encouraging for Ahaz. He should be able to rejoice, praise God, and thank God for the promised salvation from invading enemies. However, the text never shows him doing that.
God expands on His promise of deliverance in verses 8a and 9a. In essence, He says the same thing twice, only changing the names (there were two nations coming against Jerusalem). God had called both of these invading men (Rezin and Pekah the son of Remaliah) “smoldering stubs of firebrands” in verse 4. In other words, they were weak and about to die. And what does God say of both of them? The head of the nation is the capital city, and the head of the capital city is the king of the nation. In other words, “a country is only as strong as its leader” (Wegner, 162). If the kings are going to die and come to nothing, then Ahaz has no reason to fear. The kings can’t touch him; the nations under those kings can’t touch him either.
And then God calls him to faith. Literally, the text says, “If ya’ll don’t believe, then ya’ll won’t be believed.” Isaiah is speaking to more than merely Ahaz here. It is possible when he spoke this message to Ahaz, he said it to just him, but now that he is writing his book for the good of the nation, he includes the whole nation in his call to faith. (Even merely glancing at Isaiah 1 shows that the whole nation needed faith.) And yes, it is a call to faith. The verb tenses of the two uses of “believe” above are actually two different stems. The first is causative: “If you (all) don’t ever start believing,” and the second is a simple passive: “then you (all) will never be believed.” Both verbs are preceded by a negative particle that when present with an imperfect verb means that it is a permanent prohibition. And it is still true today: If we never place our faith in Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ will never believe us when we say, “Lord, Lord!” (cf. Matthew 7:21-23). Would Ahaz trust God?
Nestled in the end of verse 8 is a peculiar phrase. “Within 65 years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.” Sixty-five years after the time Isaiah is communicating with Ahaz would be around 670 BC. Ahaz is long dead by 670 BC. Is Isaiah talking past Ahaz here? I don’t think so. Again, Wegner proves helpful:
The phrase “and within yet sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people” in Isaiah 7:8 has puzzled scholars for years since it does not appear to fit the context, even though its information is correct. Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.) or Ashurbanipal (= Osnappar, 669–627 B.C.) came through approximately sixty-five years after the time of Isaiah 7 and deported more people from Israel (cf. Ezra 4:2, 9–10). The most likely explanation is that this phrase was added by an editor or copyist sometime later (perhaps when these events happened), but once again no textual evidence suggests that this phrase was a later addition to the text. Since these parts appear in all the extant Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions, they must have been put into the text fairly early and apparently were part of the authoritative text maintained by the scribesPaul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 30.
I mentioned a moment ago that Isaiah might not have used exactly the same words in his conversation with Ahaz as he put in the biblical text when he compiled all his stories and prophecies together. As such, it is quite likely that Isaiah 7:8b was put in there when Isaiah wrote his book, because this is the best place for it. Ephraim is also mentioned in Isaiah 7:17; 9:9, 21; 11:13; 17:3; 28:1, 3. I would argue this is the best place for it because it comes in the center of a discussion about heads, and it says that Ephraim’s will be shattered. Ephraim and Aram are trying to destroy God’s anointed (King Ahaz), trying to end the Davidic line. So God gives Isaiah (regardless of when he first proclaimed it) a time period declaring when their end would come. They are the seed of the serpent in this case, trying to destroy the seed of the woman (cf. Genesis 3:15 and this article by James Hamilton). So whether it was proclaimed to Ahaz or not, it is in our Bibles, it came true, and God can be trusted. Ahaz lived on. His son Hezekiah was born, and he lived on. His son Manasseh was born (and probably ended up in Babylon as a result his own sinfulness, in line with the timing of Isaiah’s prediction here, cf. 2 Chronicles 33).
So did Ahaz trust God? Are you trusting God?
Our Bibles often put a heading before verse 10, which can prove confusing, but there is no reason to believe this occurs at a later time. A valid, literal translation of the next verse is: “And Yahweh increased speaking to Ahaz,” meaning, He had more to say to him.
What does Isaiah relate?
Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz: “Ask for a sign from the LORD your God—from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven.”
But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the LORD.”
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? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating butter and honey. 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.”7:10-16, emphasis added.
Thus we come to the end of our text for today. In context, this makes perfect sense that it would go with what came before. God wants to prove to Ahaz that He will deliver him from Aram and Ephraim. He challenges Ahaz, “What would you like me to do? I’ll do a miraculous work in the heavens–shoot some lightning or something–or even something under the earth–bring someone back from the dead. Give me a challenge! I’ll prove to you that you can trust Me!”
But what does Ahaz do? He pretends he’s too spiritual for that kind of thing. “I will not test the LORD.” In truth, Ahaz was already communicating with Assyria to get these pesky invaders taken care of. He would rather trust a foreign, brutal nation than trust God. And, by not asking God for a sign, but playing “holier-than-that,” he was actually disobeying God, and–in a sense–testing God’s patience. Ahaz sinned against God, but God gives grace. He doesn’t strike Ahaz down. Instead, He says (through Isaiah):
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? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating butter and honey. 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.7:13-16
What does God promise Ahaz will be proof that the invading kings would be unsuccessful? A child would be born. In fact, the text is pretty clear that by the time this child is old enough to know right from wrong, the lands of Aram and Ephraim would be abandoned. Wegner (TOTC, 166) explains the various options for how far into the future this prophecy would take place:
These phrases could refer to various times in the life of the child: (1) when he can demonstrate food preferences, around ages one or two years (i.e., preferred foods are ‘the good’; nonpreferred foods are ‘the bad’); (2) when he has learned to recognize harmful versus good things in the environment, between ages two to three years old; or (3) when he is old enough to have developed moral discrimination, between the ages of twelve to twenty years.
One or two years later would be about the time Tiglath-Pileser made Israel barely more than “an Assyrian province” (Watts, Isaiah 1-33, WBC, 97). And twelve years later would be about 722 BC when Assyria deported the northern kingdom amongst the nations.
This means that the child referred to would need to be born sometime around 735 BC. Some have proposed that Hezekiah fits this description, because 1) he is in the line of David, 2) Isaiah was addressing the “house of David” (verse 11), and 3) the messianic line goes through Hezekiah, but this is untenable, as most date Hezekiah’s reign starting in 715 BC. It began when he was 25, which would place his birth around 740 BC (cf. 2 Kings 18:2). Hezekiah was already born by this time.
Others have proposed that a random woman would give birth to a child and literally name him Immanuel. This is possible, but still not likely.
More likely is that the sign is given to the “House of David” by Isaiah, and Isaiah interprets his own prophecy in chapter 8. Isaiah’s wife gives birth to a son with a different name. But if we remember the New Testament, Joseph wasn’t told to name Jesus Immanuel. Immanuel was more of a meaningful appellative. Isaiah’s son would be proof that “God is with us.” This is proven by the fact that the word Immanuel (“God with us”) occurs two times in Isaiah 8 (cf. 8:8, 10). Isaiah wants us to know that his child was the sign for Ahaz.
“But wait,” you cry, “Isaiah’s wife couldn’t be a virgin!”
You’re right. She had already given birth to Shear-yashub because of 7:3. But the word translated “virgin” can also merely mean “young woman.” There is a more technical term for virgin that occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament. A betûlâ is a virgin–always, regardless of age. An ‘almâ is a young woman, and–by consequence–also usually a virgin. The word used here is ‘almâ. As such, and because i posit that Isaiah is referring to his wife, it makes sense that he would refer to her as a “young woman,” and not as a virgin. (If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on this topic, check out my discussion in the excursus, “Seeking the Seed,” pages 299-303 in Live Free or Die Lawfully.)
So the child to be born in Isaiah’s day was not Jesus. The child to be born was supposed to prove a comfort to the “House of David” in Ahaz’s time. The child to be born was supposed to prove to Ahaz that God is with the nation.
Ahaz didn’t want God, and he took steps to place the nations hands in a foreigner’s grasp (cf. 2 Kings 16:7-9), refusing to trust God, and as a result, he became completely enamored with pagan religion (cf. 2 Kings 16:10ff.). Ahaz needed to believe God to stand. He didn’t. So his son eventually took control.
The problem, though, is that even Hezekiah wasn’t perfect. He did many things to restore proper worship in Judah, but in the end pride was his downfall.
But 700 years later, a descendant of Hezekiah would be born. The angel spoke to Joseph:
“Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”Matthew 1:20-21
The Greek version of the Old Testament in Isaiah 7:14 literally reads: “The virgin (in the technical sense) will receive in [her] womb, and will give birth to a son, and you all will call his name Emmanuel.”
The wording is such that the child is seemingly placed there, which, given the miraculous nature of a literal virgin becoming pregnant is exactly what had to have happened. The angel told this to Joseph. “What has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew comments further in verses 22-23:
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
See, the virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will name Him Immanuel,
which is translated “God is with us.”Matthew 1:22-23
Jesus is proof that God is with us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus Christ came to earth, humbled Himself enough to be born of one of the very creatures whom He had knit together Himself in her mother’s womb, and walked amongst us for thirty-three years.
What was His mission? The angel told Joseph that He came to save His people from their sins.
Who are His people? The ones who place their faith in Him. The ones who return to God in repentance. The remnant. The “stump” Isaiah described in 6:13. Isaiah’s son’s name means “A remnant shall repent” (Shear-yashub).
When would they repent? They are repenting even today if you place your faith and trust in Christ and stop trusting everything else out there competing for your allegiance. Jesus is calling you this Christmas. Will you trust Him?
If you do not stand firm in your faith,Isaiah 7:9
then you will not stand at all.
Repent and believe the Gospel! The Gospel of Jesus Christ was standing in front of Ahaz in the form of Isaiah’s son Shear-yashub 2,735 years ago. Isaiah was essentially asking Ahaz: “Will you be part of the remnant by faith?” Ahaz decided no.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is standing in front of you right now–in the words on this webpage. Will you be part of the remnant by faith? This is why we celebrate Christmas, year-in, year-out, whether government restrictions are in place or not!
Trust Christ today!
God doesn’t talk past people. He meets them right where they are at. Has this post met you where you are at today? Are you afraid? Are you depressed? Are you lonely? Look to Jesus! He will give you courage, hope, and companionship like no one (or thing) ever can.
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.
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