Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah, Part 1: a sign rejected

brown grass field under black sky during nighttime

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married. They’ve never consummated the relationship but then Mary finds out that she’s pregnant. Joseph did not want to bring shame upon Mary and so he prepared to divorce her quietly. 

An angel appeared to Joseph. And the angel tells him to stay with Mary because the child she’s carrying has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. 

The angel says:  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

The Gospel of Matthew summarizes this exchange by quoting a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 

While Isaiah’s quote in the Gospel of Matthew is familiar in its connection to Jesus, the original prophecy was given more than seven centuries before at perhaps the most tumultuous time in the history of Israel. 

The original context for the Immanuel prophecy is often overlooked because it’s a complicated story. But while it’s complicated, it’s also a fascinating story that involves conquering empires, civil war, judgment and betrayal. 

At the outset, I should also say that while these are passage which deal with war and conquest, and while those aren’t what we think of as Christmasy themes, these are also passages of hope and which point us to God’s grace and faithfulness. 

Historical background 

It’s important to start with some historical background of Isaiah 7. 

This passage can get very confusing if you don’t know what’s going on or who the players are, so I think some introductory information is essential to understanding this passage. 

First thing: timeline. These events happen around the year 735 B.C. 

There are four nations which are mentioned in this passage: Judah, Israel, Syria and Assyria. 

Israel is not the good guy in this story. 

Israel and Judah

Something about the history of Israel that we can sometimes miss in the Bible is that for much of Israel’s history, Israel is a divided kingdom. 

Think of it like this. We live in the United States of America. In the 1860s, we had a Civil War where 11 states seceded from the union. We had the union and the confederacy. 

Similarly to how we have the United States, Israel was a collection of territories divided among tribes. Each tribe had their own land. The tribes were descendants of a man named Jacob. 

And something that you have to know to understand this passage is that the Israelite territories were not always united. The Great King of Israel was David. His story is pretty familiar. He wrote many of the Psalms. He was the man after God’s own heart. 

His son was Solomon. Solomon’s son was a man named Rehoboam and that’s where things really start to get bad in Israel. Rehoboam is eventually overthrown by a man named Jeroboam and it is at that point that Israel is no longer a united kingdom. 

The northern tribes and the southern tribes split. They will never again reunite. 

If this helps, I’ll call it a divided states of Israel. Here’s part of why it can get confusing. 

You have two kingdoms. North and south. The northern kingdom is called Israel. The southern kingdom is called Judah. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, is home to Jerusalem. The royal line which leads to Christ in the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew is the kings who reigned in Judah. 

The Southern Kingdom, called Judah is also home to the tribe of Judah, which is the specific tribe from which Jesus was born. 

None of this is saying the southern kingdom of Judah is perfect or righteous. The grace bestowed upon them was the same grace that is bestowed upon every believer in the gospel. It’s the undeserved gift of God which he freely gives.  

To the north, you have Israel, but in the south, while it’s called Judah, the southern kingdom is actually the true Israel. It’s the true chosen people of God who have the promises of God.

Another point of clarity. While Judah is called Judah because of the Tribe of Judah. Well the northern kingdom of Israel is often called Ephraim because its largest tribe was Ephraim. And I point that out because the northern kingdom of Israel will be referred to as Ephraim in this passage. 

Think of it like how the United Kingdom and Great Britain refer to the same place, or now Holland and the Netherlands refers to the same place. 

The northern kingdom of Israel is the same place as Ephraim. 

So that’s two of the players in our story. Judah and Israel. And just to reiterate, Israel is not on the good side in this passage. 

Judah is sinful too, as we will see in this passage but the divine wrath is first placed upon Israel. 

Two more kingdoms in this story. Syria and Assyria. And obviously that can add confusion to the story because it sounds like it’s the same place. They’re different. 

Assyria was the regional superpower. They posed a threat to the territories in the region. Syria and Israel were in an alliance against Assyria. 

They had attempted to get Judah to join their alliance to fight against Assyria. At one point, Israel and Syria actually wanted to stage a coup to overthrow the king of Judah and install a puppet king who would do what they wanted. 

Serious geopolitical issues. 

Three Kings 

In Isaiah 7, the prophet begins by introducing Judah, Syria, and Israel. 

Verse 1: In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. 

Often times in the Old Testament, people are introduced in conjunction with who their father is. This passage is no different. With Ahaz, it tells us that he’s the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah. All these kings are direct descendants in the line of Christ. 

So we have Ahaz listed at the beginning of the passage. He’s listed first because this passage ultimately revolved around his kingdom, Judah. 

Few more things about Ahaz. Even though he’s king of Judah which is the kingdom who retains the promise of God, that does not mean that Ahaz is a good king or a good man. 

In fact, he’s neither of those things. 

Talking of Ahaz, 2 Kings 16:2 says: he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done.

That passage also tells us that Ahaz sacrificed one of his sons as a pagan offering (2 Kings 16:3). And he also took it upon himself to go outside the bounds of Old Testament worship and practiced other pagan religious rituals. 

2 Chronicles 28 tells us that Ahaz made metal images to worship pagan deities (2 Chronicles 28:2). 

He’s not a good king. He does not honor God. 

Next up: Rezin the King of Syria. Syria is probably listed next because they were a more prominent provocator of the military conflict than was Israel. 

Israel is listed last, their king was Pekah at the time. 

So three nations, three kings. 

And the passage tells us in verse 1 that Syria and Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it. 

Keep in mind that it’s Assyria who’s the threat in the region. 

And with that in mind, you may be asking yourself a logical question. If Assyria is the threat, then why are Syria and Israel wanting to fight Judah? 

I briefly touched on this earlier but the issue was that Israel and Syria wanted Judah to join them in an anti-Assyrian alliance. 

Isaiah 7:2:  When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 

This verse refers to the southern Kingdom of Judah as the House of David. Another way of referring to that part of the kingdom. 

They find out that Syria has an alliance with Ephraim, which is to say that Syria has an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 

So you have Israelites fighting Israelites. It’s very disheartening for Judah to learn that these two nations are against them. Eventually, Syria and Israel would attack Judah and hit some of the territories outside of Jerusalem, and they hit Judah with devastating results. 

2 Chronicles 28:5-6: the LORD his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria, who defeated him and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who struck him with great force. For Pekah the son of Remaliah killed 120,000 from Judah in one day, all of them men of valor

And then again from verse 8: 8 The men of Israel took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters. They also took much spoil from them and brought the spoil to Samaria.

So Judah has over 120,000 casualties and over 200,000 taken enslaved. 

A dilemma 

Imagine if you were a citizen in Judah at the time and someone who was in the know about the diplomatic happenings in the region. It was a difficult time. You’re basically under threat of all the nations who surround you. You could join your fellow Israelites in the Northern Kingdom and band together with Syria.

But then you might still have to battle Assyria, an empire who could be ruthless in their conquests. Perhaps you could try to find a way to appease them or pay them for protection. 

What’s the right choice? 

We’ll get to that in a bit. 

A prophecy and a name

Back to our passage. Verse 3, the Prophet Isaiah comes into the story for the first time.

Along with Isaiah, we’ll also meet his son. And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.

The son is significant to the passage. 

In Hebrew, Shear-Jashub means “a remnant will return.” 

Why does that matter? You have a corrupt king in a corrupt kingdom. The early chapters of the Book of Isaiah largely revolve around Judah’s sin. There will be judgment on them for their sin. And in 735 B.C, they find themselves losing battles to neighboring nations. 

They’ve already suffered tremendous losses, but Ahaz is given a promise: a remnant will return. Even with as dark as the times were in Judah, the nation would not be totally destroyed. 

Even within our passage, Israel and Syria attempted to overtake Jerusalem and couldn’t. We don’t know if Ahaz understood that at the time. 

Verse 4. Isaiah speaks.  And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands,

After Isaiah has called Ahaz to trusting in the Lord, Isaiah continues by talking about the imminent destruction awaiting Israel and Syria. Isaiah calls Israel and Syria two smoldering stumps. He will elaborate more in this chapter but Isaiah is beginning to communicate the reality that Israel and Syria’s days are numbered. 

Continuing in verse 4: at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.

Isaiah is addressing the two combatants who have gone to war with Judah. 

Verse 5: Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” 

A lot could be said there. It’s basically one prophecy. 

Even though Judah has all sorts of issues with sin and with the sinfulness of their king, it’s still God’s chosen people and there is a severe penalty for Syria for attacking Judah. But what’s more, for the northern kingdom in Israel, also known as Ephraim, there is also a severe penalty for them attacking their fellow Jews. 

But they have all of these plans against Judah, and the Lord says: 

“ ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. 8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. 

It shall not stand and it shall not come to pass. 

This is the Lord God speaking through his prophet Isaiah. The text says that within 65 years, Syria would be conquered. Ephraim will be shattered from being a people.

Again, remember that Ephraim is the northern kingdom of Israel. 

So this is what Ahaz is told about his enemies. 

And guess what? Those things do come to pass. Assyria would go on to conquer Syria. And in 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel is conquered and they lose the land. 

Earlier I talked about the tough situation which Judah faced. They had the option of joining the alliance with Syria and Israel. That’s option A. They didn’t choose that option. They could have tried to appease Assyria. That’s what Ahaz chose. 

Let’s look at this story in 2 Kings 16. 

2 Kings 16:5: Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to wage war on Jerusalem, and they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him.

Similarly to where our passage begins. Israel and Syria have come to attack Jerusalem but do not prevail. 

Ahaz begs Assyria for help. 

2 Kings 16:7: So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.”

He’s going to a pagan and enemy nation and begging them for help. He will pay off Assyria. Where’s he get the funds?

2 Kings 16:8-9: Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. 9 And the king of Assyria listened to him. The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin. 

Ahaz takes the gold and silver that’s in the temple in Jerusalem and that’s what he uses to pay Assyria for protection. And the 2 Kings passage begins by talking of Assyria attacking Syria and having Rezin killed. 

In the next scene, Ahaz meets the king of Judah and continues to be reverential to the Assyrians. 

2 Kings 16:10-11: When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. 11 And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus.

And we will continue to see in 2 Kings that Ahaz does everything he can to show allegiance to Assyria. He practices their religious rituals. 

So what was the right option? 

Joining Syria and Israel? Or joining Assyria? 

Trick question, the correct answer was option C. Ahaz should have trusted in God and his promises. 

The importance of faith

Instead he let fear draw him into sin. He let his lack of confidence in the Lord lead him to bowing down to other deities. He put his trust in his own abilities and not in God’s providence. He trusted a man, the King of Assyria for his protection rather than placing faith in the Lord. 

Israel and Syria might have looked like giants to Judah. But their days were numbered. He had the promise of God. He had the divine kingdom, and yet he sold off the temple items for what felt like earthly security. 

The issue with Ahaz was that his first hope was not ultimately God. And this passage was an opportunity to trust God. 

Where is your dependence? Where is your hope? 

It’s easy to judge Judah. It’s easy to say that Ahaz should have had more faith. And he should have. I’m not defending him. But it’s interesting to consider his situation. All the nations around them have reason to go to war with Judah. The super power is taking up territory. And so he does what we so often do in a crisis of faith, he takes matters into his own hands. He doesn’t trust in the Lord. 

But for him, his life, his reign, his nation hung in the balance. I think of the thousand other situations we face in our lives all the time where it can be so easy to distrust God. 

Situations that are so much smaller than what is happening in this passage. 

What’s our excuse? We have God’s promises. Yet we often times what to do whatever we can to feel a sense of control over our lives. We have God’s Word, but it so often doesn’t bring us the comfort that it should. What God says will happen will happen. That’s true of both good and bad things. 

In this passage, we see God’s faithfulness to his word. He told of the destruction which would befall Syria and Israel. And it happened. 

God is true to his word. What does he say in his word that you struggle to believe? 

At the end of our passage, Isaiah continues to speak to Ahaz. But they’re not Isaiah’s words. They’re the words of the Lord. 

A sign offered 

Verse 10: Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Ahaz is told to ask God for a sign. Signs are often used in the Bible to point to the miraculous works of God. 

And the text says as “deep as Sheol or as high as heaven,” the point is that Ahaz can basically ask for any sign he wants. That’s a pretty incredible offer from the Lord. The Lord is saying that he will reveal his power and glory to Ahaz on Ahaz’s terms. 

Imagine if you had such an offer? What would you ask for? 

Maybe to see a relative or friend raised to life? Maybe to see heaven? Maybe to be instantly healed? Maybe to see a change the the weather or in nature like the day suddenly becoming 85 and sunny. 

A sign rejected 

What sign would you want to bolster your faith? 

For Ahaz, the offer is meaningless. He’s already thrown his lot in with Assyria. That’s where his trust lies. 

In verse 12, Ahaz says “I will not ask.” 

He rejects the sign. 

Tomorrow, we look at part 2 where we see a sign given.