Whenever I meet or get in touch with some of the believers in Russia or Ukraine, I get the response, Мир Вам, meaning ‘I wish you peace’. For a Jewish person it would be ‘shalom’, meaning much the same except it has the richer significance of ‘peace and well-being’. Despite these good wishes, peace in the world is in short supply. The coming of sin made sure of that.
What do we mean when we talk about peace? Is it merely the absence of conflict, and if so, what brings about conflict in the first place, and how can the cause of conflict be removed? Ever since sin entered the world, the relationship between God and human beings has been severed, and real peace is only a memory. God says there is no peace for the wicked (Isa. 48:22). You might say, ‘Hold on! Who are these wicked people the Bible is talking about? We are civilised people: we don’t murder, steal, defraud, etc.’ Wickedness in the Bible is the refusal to submit to God. There is no greater sin than to refuse to submit to the God who created us for himself. For people, societies and nations like that, there can never be real peace.
Real peace can come only when our relationship with God is re-established and our conflict with him is brought to an end—when we learn to live in dependence on him and in harmony with him.
That’s not what Satan wants, and he will do everything possible to keep people from submitting to God. Paul the apostle wanted the believers in Ephesus to look beyond the obvious conflicts in their lives and in the world around them, and recognise that
our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (6:12).
Their commitment is to keep us from trusting God and allowing him to direct our lives. Peace comes when we learn to rest in God; in the things he wants to do in and through us, and letting him do it his way.
To provide the background to what we have read and will be looking at in Isaiah 7, we need to start with chapter 6, and see how God revealed himself to Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry.
God, the King (Isa. 6:1-3)
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:1-3).
The word ‘Lord’ in this case does not refer to God as Jehovah, as it usually does in the OT, but to him as ‘king’. What the angels were saying is, “Holy, holy, holy is the King Almighty” — the Almighty Ruler. This is important for us to note when we turn to the story of Ahaz in the next chapter.
God is the Almighty One, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. There is no-one to compare with him. The whole universe is his, and his alone. Kings, emperors, presidents may rear their heads and strut the world stage for a little while, but then they disappear, and are no more than a memory, or a few lines in history books that few people bother to read anymore. There is only One who is eternal, the unchanging One. Although he is the utterly holy One before whose presence even angels shrink, he is actively involved in his world. It’s his world and he won’t allow anyone to claim it for themselves, nor ruin his plans for it.
Who has dared to pit himself against this King? The Bible says that it is initiated and directed by Satan with a whole host of helpers the Bible calls the ‘powers of darkness’, and the ‘spiritual forces of evil’. What confuses us at times is that we don’t see these forces, but we do see individuals, organisations, government bodies that seem to do the dirty work.
The motivation behind these attempts is to remove every memory of God, and his right to rule in his world: evil powers are trying to make this world their world. Why? So that we can be fooled to do what we want to do, go our own way, and finally destroy ourselves. Satan’s aim has always been to destroy, but he comes to us with the lie that if we can get independence from God we will be truly free. We will be able to think for ourselves, plan for ourselves, and establish our own set of values that are less demanding and more self-gratifying. That sounds so good that many people fall for the trap. Even Christians can fall for this lie.
The question that arises is, ‘Who will we trust?’ God? His Word? Or Satan? That was the issue back in the Garden of Eden where the whole problem started. Even then Satan didn’t appear as he really is. He never does. He appears in whatever shape or light he knows will achieve his purposes. He sounds so persuasive, so humane when he tells us that we need to be more loving, more compassionate, and more accepting of people who the Bible clearly says have set themselves to oppose God’s intentions for them. Satan works on our weaknesses, our ignorance, our fears, and he begins with our ego.
Let’s see what we are to learn from the story of king Ahaz of Judah. Remember, Israel as a land became split after Solomon died; the northern kingdom was referred to as Israel, and the southern, much smaller kingdom, was Judah.
Lessons from Ahaz (Isaiah 7:1-9)
The threat (Isa. 7:1-2)
To the north of the biblical land was Syria (or Aram), but its resistance against Assyria to its north-east could only succeed if it could form an alliance with its southern neighbours. It had succeeded in doing so with Israel, but the southern kingdom refused to cooperate, probably afraid that it would be gobbled up by its more powerful northern neighbours. When Pekah of Israel, and Rezin of Syria failed to persuade King Jotham of Judah to join them, they didn’t give up their attempts. When Jotham, who was a godly king died, his son Ahaz inherited the throne. Pekah and Rezin now set out to attack Ahaz to bring the southern kingdom under their influence. Ahaz was a completely different kettle of fish from his father. He had no time for God. He was a pragmatic man who felt that his security lay in an alliance with the most powerful force of the day―Assyria.
God’s people, chosen to be a blessing to the world, were now facing the threat of extermination. God had told them that if they put their trust in him and obeyed his laws, he would care for them and protect them. But if they weren’t prepared to trust and obey him, they would experience the consequences of their choices. God would use the neighbouring nations to scatter them to the ends of the earth, and bring them under merciless tyrants.
Now the moment of testing had come for Ahaz—the king—a king who was supposed to rule God’s people on his behalf, depending on him. Who will he trust to resolve his predicament? The situation was desperate.
Ahaz checks his resources
Ahaz is aware that he has to ensure the safety of Jerusalem. A dependable water supply is essential for a city having to face a prolonged siege. So Ahaz goes down to inspect the Upper Pool and the aqueduct that carried the water to the city. The whole city is shaking in fear. To make things worse, Edom to the south smells an opportunity to raid Judah and is snapping at its heels. The Philistines to the west are gearing up for raids on Judah. Here is a picture of evil forces combining against God’s people and God’s plans for the world. This is the moment of truth for Ahaz and the city.
So what happens?
Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah's son have plotted your ruin, saying, "Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it." Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: " 'It will not take place, it will not happen, for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah's son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.' " (Isa. 7:3-9).
Why did God tell Isaiah to take his son along with him to meet king Ahaz? The name Shear-Jashub given to his son meant ‘(only) a remnant will return’. This was a powerful visual reminder to Ahaz that the consequences of his decision were enormously serious.
God had three things to say to Ahaz: Stop, revive, survive; I promise you! 3. Watch out!
1. Stop, revive, survive (Isa. 7:4)
Anyone who has done any kind of driving along our highways has come across this sign quite often. What does it mean? When you are tired, you no longer make correct judgements about your driving. You need to stop and have a rest before you go on. Otherwise, you might not survive your trip.
Ahaz, all you can see from your vantage point at this moment are the gathering forces from the north. 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid.’ What strange advice to give to someone who is terrified, not only for his own safety, but for the safety and survival of his city and kingdom.
God isn’t saying, ‘Stop, refresh your thinking, and you’ll be in a far better position to make wise decisions.’ He is saying, Stop… be still… Be still and know that I am God, says the King of kings. I’m in control here although you can’t see it. I’m asking you to trust me. Stop and reflect on your history. Remember what I did for Israel when I rescued them from the clutches of Pharaoh? Remember how I led them when they faced the sea before them, the mountains to one side and the desert on the other, and the Egyptian army behind them? Remember how I led them through that sea and destroyed the enemy who pursued them? That’s the kind of God I am. Trust me! Ahaz, I am giving you the opportunity and privilege of a lifetime to witness for yourself, in your day, my wisdom and might.
You see two kingdoms and their armies. But who are they in reality? Aram, or Syria with its centre in Damascus, but who is in charge there, is it not Rezin, a mere man? It’s the same with Ephraim, the northern kingdom with its centre in Samaria, but who’s in charge there, is it not Remaliah’s son, a mere man? God doesn’t even deign to refer to him by his name. Is that who you are afraid of?
There are times when we need to stand back and allow God to give us a new perspective on what is happening to us: a perspective that places our situation against the backdrop of what God is doing in the world. We need a hyperopic view.
In life, myopia is a problem of short-sightedness where we only see things clearly that are close to us. Hyperopia is the opposite. It is far-sightedness. Perhaps what we as Christians need is a form of spiritual hyperopia—seeing God’s larger picture. We don’t get that from some kind of casual quick-read of the Bible when we have time, and when it’s convenient for us. It is something God reveals to us as we spend time with him and his Word.
Another problem we might have is to think that God is only concerned about the spiritual issues in our life and has no interest in the day-to-day matters that face us. This can lead to a separation between what is spiritual and what is practical. If Christian growth is to take place, we need to work hard at closing the gap between what we say we believe and the way we live in every situation.
God was saying to Ahaz, ‘I understand the situation you are facing, but I understand what is happening far better than you do. Trust me to work it out my way. Stop— get things into perspective—my perspective.’
2. I promise you! (Isa. 7:5-9a)
God then makes a promise concerning the Syro-Ephramite conspiracy: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass…’ God could easily have said to Ahaz, ‘Trust me.’ Full stop. After all, as King of kings, and as the Sovereign of the universe God doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone. But, he patiently and generously gives Ahaz an explanation. He gives him more than that: he forecasts the downfall of this alliance. That’s why he told Ahaz from the beginning to be careful, to be quiet, and confident. The situation was in God’s hands, not in the hands of those who Ahaz thought were in control.
Had Ahaz made himself familiar with the Scriptures he was supposed to have had by his side to guide him as king of God’s people, he would have been aware what God had promised his people in the past. These things were written down for them: both their covenant obligations, and God’s promises that accompanied them. Forgetting the obligations often leads to forgetting the promises. Sometimes, however, we like to take hold of the promises and close our minds to the obligations that relate to the promises.
Ahaz only saw the political aspect of the problem, but failed to see what was really at stake. What was that? God had promised the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. Through it would come the Messiah who would bring redemption not only to God’s people, but light to the nations. Ahaz’s myopia did not allow him to understand what was really happening. We too can become preoccupied with what we see happening around us, and fail to see the real threat that only God can deal with.
When we look at our own nation, and see the moral and ethical deterioration taking place, with our lawmakers considering legislative changes that will foist on the rest of us the need to accept immoral practices in society as normal, we can easily despair. Like Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem, we can allow fear to paralyse us. It is times like this we need to remind ourselves that God is still on his throne. The real rebellion is not against what some regard as outmoded Christian values or practices. It is rebellion against God and his right to rule in this, his world. Just because many people refuse to accept this, doesn’t alter who he is.
There are only two sides to the battle, those who are on God’s side, and those who are against him. There is no fence on which anyone can sit arguing that in real life it’s not a matter of seeing things simply as black and white. Surely, God can’t condemn us for genuine agnosticism—or, can he?
We cannot depend on God’s promises to protect and rescue us, if we are living lives of disobedience to him and to what he has made clear in his Word.
3. Watch out! (Isa. 7:9b)
The warning given to Ahaz is very significant.
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (v9)
This is the pivotal statement in this passage. When the Bible speaks about faith, it never refers to a quality we can muster within ourselves. It has nothing to do with spiritual maturity, or with trying to psyche ourselves up to believe harder. It has everything to do with the person we are called to believe in. That’s why no-one is exempt from exercising the right kind of faith in their walk with God.
‘Ahaz, despite what you see or think is happening, are you prepared to believe that God is able to resolve this situation his way? After all, it is his purposes that are at stake.’ God is offering Ahaz the opportunity of a lifetime to witness the mighty hand of God in his day. But, Ahaz has to give God the opportunity to be God. He has the clear choice to stop panicking, to be still, and discover what God is able to do; or, to resort to actions that will ultimately bring his own downfall and the downfall of the whole city.
God’s passionate plea to Ahaz
Unfortunately, Ahaz had no intention of consulting God, or trusting him. Despite the godly upbringing he had from his father Jotham, he decided to go his own way. God, who knew the awful consequences of Ahaz’s decisions, came to him in compassion, and offered him a second chance to change his mind.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” (v11)
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (v12)
What pious twaddle! We can call it pious unbelief. It wasn’t God who was facing the test, it was Ahaz.
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.” (vv13-17)
Despite any decisions Ahaz made, God would fulfil his purposes for his people. He would send his Messiah born of a virgin; born to set his people free from their sins and their rebellion against him. But, Ahaz would reap the consequences of his decisions. That is the nature of God’s Sovereignty. He will fulfil his purposes with or without our cooperation; but, if we fail to cooperate, we will be the losers. Does God allow us to go our own way and do our own thing? At times he does, but the consequences are terrible. We read in Psalm 106:15 that God gave the people exactly what they asked for but they ended up with an empty heart and a dried up soul. Praying does not always guarantee that we really want God’s will.
Consequences of wrong choices for Ahaz? (2 Chron. 28:5, 20)
To cut a long story short, Syria, Israel, and even the Philistines came and decimated the land. Ahaz saw his own future disappearing before his eyes. In desperation he reasoned that if the gods of Damascus were so powerful as to defeat him, then he would sacrifice to them. At one stage he even sacrificed his own sons to save himself. He finally appealed to the king of Assyria, selling himself, his land and its people as a price for Assyrian protection. We are told that Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came to him, but gave him trouble instead of help (28:20). The devil has always demanded a very high price for the privilege of serving him.
A lesson for Isaiah (Isa. 8:11-13)
We are familiar with the expression ‘conspiracy theories’. It is easy for us to succumb to the fear that there are conspiracies in society to destroy us as Christians. That was the problem Isaiah faced. Then he was told,
This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:
“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. (Isa. 8:11-13).
What people see as conspiracies against themselves, have a completely different dimension when God looks at them. When Saul of Tarsus was venting his rage against the early Church, trying to wipe the believers off the face of the earth, what was he really doing? When the risen Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus, and said, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? What was Saul’s response? Who are you, Lord? The divine answer was, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
It is against God the Sovereign Lord, the Creator of Heaven and Earth that evil has dared to pit itself against. We don’t have a hope of success against such forces of darkness in our own strength, or with our own wisdom. But the battle is not ours; it’s the Lord’s. When king Asa of Judah faced a similar threat, his response was,
“Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chron. 14:11).
Some of you will remember the words of the hymn the five missionaries and their families sang in Ecuador in 1956, before the men set off on that fatal mission to reach the Auca Indians for Christ; a mission that would claim their lives.
“We rest on Thee” ― our Shield and our Defender!
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When God calls us to trust him, it is because the real battle is against him, and we need to get that into perspective. And if it is against him, then it is his battle, and he cannot lose.
Are we then to relax, sit back, and let it happen? No, we are in it with him. Our role is to trust him to do things his way however it affects our lives. Ours is to pray and to rely on him in the everyday affairs of life. Jesus made it clear that the world through which these forces of evil work, will not respond to us more favourably than it did to him.
If we want to save ourselves from that kind of treatment and blend in with the world that is opposed to God, we will lose. Jesus warned that anyone who wants to save his life will lose it—as Ahaz found out. Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries wrote in his diary, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to believe him, and rest in his utter goodness. That’s the only way we will experience the peace that eludes the world.
As we face a new year of challenges and opportunities, God wants to prove himself on our behalf if we will trust him to do that. It might be at work where we need to be seen more clearly as belonging to Jesus Christ, not just because we are nice, honest workers. It might be among our neighbours who need to see that we are nice people because we belong to Jesus Christ. Perhaps we need to make our position as Christians more definite to our politicians. Sometimes it is fear of what others will think of us that stops us from making our position clearer to others. That’s when we have to ask ourselves, ‘In God we trust; but, do we?’
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.
If we do not stand firm in our faith, we will not stand at all.