Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
“Dear God, just give me a sign!”
It’s a common cry, in the popular imagination: an exasperated plea for a clear indication of God’s presence, assurance, favor, and guidance. Who wouldn’t want a sign from the Divine? Particularly during the Christmas season!
Ahaz, that’s who.
For those wondering who would reject a miraculous sign readily offered by God, Ahaz was king of Judah in the late eighth century BCE. According to Hebrew scriptures, his reign was particularly disastrous for Judah, spiritually speaking. He is recorded to have assimilated numerous forms of idol worship, including child sacrifice. In doing so he is accused of desecrating the nation’s spiritual foundations.
Viewed geopolitically, however, Ahaz’s legacy is up for debate. At the time, the northern kingdoms of Israel and Syria sought an alliance with Judah to fend against the might of the Assyrian empire together. When Ahaz refuses to join, he incites his neighbors’ wrath. Outgunned and out of options, Ahaz reaches out to the Assyrians for assistance, essentially turning Judah into a vassal state in exchange for protection. Assyria obliges and lays waste to Israel and Syria. Judah appears the victor, siding with the strong instead of throwing his lot in with the minor contenders.
Say what you will about Ahaz’s motivations. Call him shrewd or call him cowardly. In either case, the result was a period of peace under the careful watch of a greater empire. Ahaz lived out the rest of his days in relative comfort as he adopted Assyrian ways of worship and life. One could even argue Ahaz promoted a form of religious freedom, allowing the people of Judah to worship where and how they wished. It is for this freedom that Ahaz is hated by those devotees of Yahweh who penned the scriptures we read today. Ahaz’s negotiated peace would not last. Eventually, the Assyrians fell to the might of the next great empire: the Babylonians. In turn, Judah crumbles as well. Ashes, ashes.
This is the history situating Ahaz’s rejection of the now famous and dearly held Advent prophecy, of a mother and her child named “God with us.” The prophet Isaiah urged Ahaz not to bend his knee to a foreign power for protection, but to turn to God instead. What’s more audacious, this protection is signaled by a child so young that he could not yet make sense of right and wrong. When the child matures, then he can reap the benefits of a time of plenty (curd and honey). But while this child is still small and malleable, God will show up to overthrow Ahaz’s enemies.
Yes, you may be as vulnerable as an infant wandering the streets of a warzone.
“God is with you!” This is the sign of Isaiah: in weakness and dependence upon God shall you be saved.
God is all you need.
But Ahaz would have none of this. He even dresses his rejection of God’s fragile and idyllic little sign in the language of piety. He does not want to test God, after all.
And if you look at it that way, Ahaz isn’t so evil… he’s just being realistic, practical, and perhaps even judicious.
And what about us?
Is Immanuel enough?
Is “God with us?” all we need?
Scripture often appears to offer us a black and white choice: to follow God is salvation and to turn away is death.
To follow God appears foolish to the world, but it is pure and holy and your best self. It may be dark initially, but curds and honey await the faithful. But to follow the world is endless politics, scheming, and compromise until you lose who you are. A little bit of light for the moment isn’t worth the darkness to come.
I want to live in the world of the child, as one whose hope is always in God.
But when I look around me, I’m pretty sure I live in the world of Ahaz.
And what’s a Christian to do in this messy world of alliances and wars?
We all want signs from God, but when those signs appear childishly naïve, maybe we’d also say “no, thank you.”
But good news…
A rejection of the signs does not mean the signs don’t carry on.
Ignoring God does not mean God withdraws from us.
The image of the mother and child and of “God with us” was spoken against Ahaz’s wishes, and so God speaks it to us every Advent season – whether we want it or not.
Behold – even in the mess – mothers still bear children and life finds a way to proceed.
Behold – even though Ahaz chooses another way, God’s faithfulness prevails.
Behold – the sign remains, so let us return to ponder it yet again…
Immanuel – God with us – always – despite our worst.
It’s true, God’s presence may not turn out to be the simple love we once imagined – the kind that quickly makes everything right if we just have faith and follow.
But maybe, even in the face of complexity – of war, famine, and the end of the world…
“God with us”
Immanuel – God with us… in, through, and beyond the mess.
Follow along with our 2019 Advent devotional series here and read our introduction post here. You can also subscribe for a weekly digest of all our posts on the right-hand sidebar.