We’re around the year 735 B.C. The Kingdom of Judah is home to the chosen people of God and the promises of God. It’s the home to Jerusalem and the family line which leads to Christ.
A man named Ahaz is the King of Judah. Though they’re God’s chosen people, he’s a sinful king in a sinful kingdom. They have regularly disobeyed and dishonored the Lord. The first several chapters of the book of Isaiah largely revolve around the judgment which will befall Judah.
There are also a lot of military tensions in the region. The Assyrians are the super power in the Middle East at the time. They pose a threat to the various local kingdoms.
And so you have two other nations: Israel and Syria who have formed an alliance against Assyria. Israel and Syria try to pressure Judah into the alliance but Judah will instead opt to pay off the Assyrians for protection. As a result, Israel and Syria go to war with Judah. Through the prophet Isaiah, King Ahaz is told that the destruction of their oppressors: Israel and Syria is imminent.
We find out from other passages like 2 Kings 16 that Judah actually paid off the Assyrians for protection. Ahaz is told to ask the Lord for a sign, and where we concluded our last post in this series, Ahaz refuses the sign.
A sign rejected
Isaiah 7:10-11: 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 has been sinful and faithless. But he’s given an incredible offer from the Lord. He can basically ask any sign he wants from the Lord. He can ask the Lord to reveal himself to him in a spectacular way.
I can’t think of another time in the Old Testament where this offer is given to someone.
If you were given that offer, what sign would you ask for? Whatever you want? Maybe you’d ask to see heaven, ask to be healed from a health issue, ask to see a loved one who’s passed away brought back to life?
Ahaz instead responds in verse 12: I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Now at first glance, that can appear as a good thing. I will not put the Lord to the test. In the temptation story of Jesus, he talks of not putting the Lord to the test.
Matthew 4:5-7: the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Jesus was asked to basically prove his identity by challenging God. He doesn’t. He points to the scriptures when he says “it is written” and then adds a command from the Old Testament “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
That’s a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16. You shall not put the your God to the test.
So it can appear as though Ahaz is just being faithful to the commands of scripture. What’s the problem? It’s not a violation of the command when the Lord tells you to ask him for a sign.
Ahaz says he won’t test God but it’s God who tested Ahaz and Ahaz failed. Ahaz makes a mistake that has existed since the first sin which is misapplying the Word of God.
God tells him to ask for a sign and Ahaz balks at it. It’s because Ahaz doesn’t want a sign. He doesn’t care about seeing what God can do. Ahaz has already put his faith in his own industry in paying off the Assyrians for protection.
So when he says he won’t put God to the test, he’s just giving the appearance of faith. In Jesus’ day, it was a problem for the pharisees. They had attached all sorts of laws onto laws and outwardly appeared to be very religious and moral.
You can’t fool the Lord.
It’s easy to say the right things, it’s easy to talk the talk. But the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The Lord sees through Ahaz’s attempt at outward piety.
Verse 13, he’s given a response: And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
A sign given
Ahaz doesn’t ask for a sign but God gives him a sign anyway. The Immanuel prophecy in this passage is the same prophecy which is quoted at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The gospel adds a note that the name Immanuel means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
It’s a difficult verse in Isaiah. It’s cryptic. Its meaning is controversial and disputed. Numerous questions arise.
We will examine three of them.
1. Why is that the sign when Jesus isn’t born until more than 700 years later?
I don’t take this Isaiah passage as only referring to Jesus. Don’t misunderstand. The sign ultimately refers to Jesus, but I believe that the sign had a double-fulfillment.
The prophecy is given as a sign to Ahaz. Therefore I think it matters that the sign means something in the Day of Ahaz, and as we will see momentarily, I believe the context of this passage demands that it mean something in Ahaz’s time. As a general rule, I think we should be weary of Biblical interpretations where a verse has no significance to its original audience.
This is an important note about studying the Bible and studying prophetic literature in the Bible. Especially when you consider what else our present passage says. Let’s look at the Immanuel prophecy and the immediate context.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
What’s the meaning of those verses? There’s no apparent relationship between those verses and Jesus.
They have to mean something. We’ll examine them more closely in a few moments but I think that verses 15-16 refer to events in the lifetime of the first Immanuel.
A second issue to consider.
What does virgin mean?
What does the word virgin mean?
In English, our word “virgin” has a pretty straightforward meaning. Someone who has never had sexual relations. And virginity is certainly an important aspect of the birth of Jesus.
Gospel of Luke. 1:31, Mary is told she’s going to have a baby. behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
The angel goes on to say what will happen during this ministry but Mary responds in Luke 1:34:
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The virginity of Mary matters in the birth story of Christ because it demonstrates a miracle of God. That the birth of Christ is an entirely divine activity. So when people were reading the Old Testament hundreds of years before Christ, did they read this verse from Isaiah and take it to refer to a virgin having a baby?
If you’ve ever heard a sermon on this passage or the Matthew passage before, or if you’ve ever looked up these verses in a Study Bible, you might have seen a note that talked about how the word for virgin can also mean “young woman.”
That’s true. The closest example we have in English is probably a word like “maiden.” The word “maiden” isn’t used in English today as much as it was about 100 years ago, but a maiden refers to a young unmarried woman.
Now, in this Jewish culture in the 8th century BC, for a young, unmarried woman, it would have been assumed that she was a virgin. So that’s certainly part of what was meant, but my point is that Isaiah’s audience didn’t necessarily understand this passage referring to a virgin conception.
I think they would have taken the Hebrew word that’s used here to refer more to the woman’s I think it’s more likely that they understood this Immanuel sign as being the child of a young woman.
But here’s something that’s interesting.
While the word probably meant something more like young woman or maiden to its original Hebrew audience, by the time the text was translated from Hebrew into Greek, which was still prior to the birth of Christ, the Greek word that was used actually does more specifically mean virgin. So it is possible that a Greek reader, would have had an understanding in his time of a virgin birth.
Who are Immanuel and the woman?
There are several theories about who Immanuel is. Some think that the woman is King Ahaz’s wife and Immanuel is his son Hezekiah. Others think it’s the prophet Isaiah’s son. Some think that the name Immanuel became popular in Judah at this time and a lot of baby boys were named Immaneul and that that was the sign. Or perhaps it was the child of an official in the royal court who was named Immanuel.
And there are several other theories. I just point that out to again show that this is a difficult passage with several possible interpretations. But just because a passage in the Bible is hard, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study it.
As far as the identity of the original Immanuel, we’ll cover that in another post. But the point that I want to make for right now is that there was a first Immanuel before Jesus, the ultimate and greater Immanuel. As this prophecy continues, Isaiah will elaborate on the circumstances of the world into which the first Immanuel will be born.
And he starts to talk about the immediate future within the region in its connection to this sign of Immanuel. There will be a time of difficulty in the region. The first subject to be dealt with are Judah’s oppressors: Israel and Syria.
This passage is talking about the early years of the first Immanuel. And there will be judgment for Israel and Syria, and later for Judah.
Verse 15: He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
When Immanuel is just a child, he will eat curds and honey. Now, when the Israelites are on their journey to the Promised Land, it’s often referred to as a land flowing with milk and honey and that’s seen as a good thing.
But in this passage, the curds and honey seems to be a negative for the young Immanuel. The region will be so desolate, war will make the kingdom such a wasteland, that he will be eating a nomadic diet.
He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good
Twice the prophet talks of a time associated with when this boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. The point of that is Immanuel will be very young when all of this happens. It’s before he will have reached an age of accountability. Historically, we know that this is correct because these events happen around 735 B.C. and the kingdom of Israel was conquered in 722 B.C.
The things the Lord says will happen in this passage do come to pass and they come to pass in the very near future.
End of verse 16, Isaiah throws down the gauntlet: the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
Ahaz is specifically being told of the desertion which will befall Syria and Israel. And that is desertion because they will be conquered and taken from their land. It is a blessing that Syria and Israel will both be conquered for their sin.
But Judah has also been sinful. Ahaz the king has been sinful. And there will also be consequences for them.
I said this in the beginning, but many of the early chapters of Isaiah have actually focused on the sins of Judah. They’re God’s chosen people but they’re sinful, and Ahaz is sinful. And Ahaz placed his trust in a pagan nation in Assyria for his hope and protection rather than God. There are consequences for that as well.
And so the rest of this passage ends by talking about judgment which would befall Judah. We will be fairly brief with these verses.
Verse 17: The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”
Where it says “upon you and upon your father’s house,” it’s a reference to the House of David who rules in Judah. It’s the monarchy. Then the text talks about days which have not come since Ephrairim departed from Judah.
I touched on this in a previous post, but it’s referring to to the split between Judah and Israel, Israel is here being referred to as Ephraim after its largest tribe.
What this verse is saying is that: while there is judgment for Israel and Syria, Judah will also experience a time of difficulty and upheaval. The challenge they will face will be the King of Assyria, as the verse ends.
The Assyrians, the nation in whom Ahaz had placed his hope will become their oppressor. So often the things we look to for freedom can enslave us.
The passage begins to talk about what will happen to Judah. Now with Syria and Israel, annihilation is the fate which awaits their kingdoms. By the grace of God, it won’t be quite as severe here for Judah. But they will still suffer.
18 In that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. 19 And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.
The verse is talking about military oppression which Judah will face. It talks of troops as if they’re swarms of bees and flies. Numerous soldiers will converge upon them. All of the hiding places will be overcome by enemy forces.
Verse 20: In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.
Another picture of what will happen. It talks of the people being shaved. The point this is making is he humiliation that the Judeans will face at the hands of the Assyrians. Removing a person’s hair is often a symbol of stripping away their identity.
We see a third picture of the future for Judah.
Verses 21-22: In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, 22 and because of the abundance of milk that they give, he will eat curds, for everyone who is left in the land will eat curds and honey.
That verse might not seem so bad because it does talk about people having livestock and an abundance of milk.
But given that everything else in the passage is a picture of judgment, I think the point is more that there will be an abundance of food and people will have livestock because there will be so much devastation about the population.
A final picture
23 In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. 24 With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. 25 And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.
This is a picture of the devastation which will befall the land. The fertile ground will become briers and thorns. In the Old Testament, God talks of drought and of waste coming upon the farmland as divine judgment for Israel’s disloyalty to the covenant.
Give another example. Isaiah 5:5-6 says: I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
Around the year 701 B.C., the Assyrians did lay siege to Jerusalem. They did not ultimately conquer the city, that would happen at the hands of another empire a century and a half later. But for their sin, there was judgment upon Judah.
I understand that these are difficult passages. There’s a lot of history, a lot of context. It can be confusing that Judah’s enemies are judged by God but then so is Judah. One of the things that this passage again shows us is the weight of sin.
God does not take sin lightly. Anytime we act like sin doesn’t matter or isn’t a big deal, we are communicating a profound theological falsehood. God is deathly serious about sin.
Judah is God’s chosen people in his chosen land. It can be tempting to wonder if they suffered too much. But the real question is always why God gives grace to anyone when no one deserves it. Something else that we see in this passage is God’s sovereignty over the nations.
Both in our lives and in the dealings of the world, nothing happens outside of the sovereignty of God. There are many evil empires today. North Korea, China, dictatorial leaders in places like Venezuela. Countries that are torn apart by civil war and religious fanaticism.
God sees it all. That’s true throughout the world and in the lives of individuals.
All sin will be accounted for. Either it was nailed to the cross and you believe in what Jesus did. Or you will spend eternity separated from God because of your own sin. But there is nothing that is unnoticed to an all-knowing God.
As I close, I want to return to the Immanuel prophecy in verse 14.
Isaiah gives the sign of Immanuel. Again we often know it in connection with the Gospel of Matthew and Christmas time. Basically everything going on in Isaiah 7 revolves around war. Judah being attacked, Judah’s oppressors judged, but Judah also suffering at the end of the passage.
This is not a quaint, yuletide passage. It’s a passage about war and you’re given this one glimmer of light, the sign of Immanuel, which means “God with us.” In spite of all that is going on in the world, God is still with his people. There will be difficulties for the nations, but God is still faithful to his promise and his people.
There will be judgment on Judah, but God is still with them. This is a passage about war and the one hopeful message is a sign given to a king who didn’t even want it. We live in a world that is so often at war. War between nations, war within ourselves, conflict within our families, struggles against our sinfulness.
In the face of war and turmoil, Ahaz was offered a sign. He turned it down. The message that we need is not always the message that we want. In our sinful lives, we are given the message of the gospel. That you are separated and alienated from God due to sin, but you can have forgiveness when you turn your hope away from yourself and place it in Jesus and what he did on the cross.
There are difficulties in life. God with us. Is he the Lord in whom you place your trust?
Even as Christians we are not insulated from the sin that is in the world and our own lives. There are times of difficulty. But God is faithful. God never unjustly brings judgment.
My point with all of this is not to destroy a favorite Christmas verse from Matthew.
But I do think there’s value in knowing the original story. Because life is not the quaint, Norman Rockwell painting that we so desperately want the Christmas season to be. Life is hard. There is sin, disease, death. There’s hurt and betrayal. There’s war between nations and threats that we face.
Yet in spite of that, to an undeserving king, God gave the sign of Immanuel. And to an undeserving humanity, God gave the gift of the greater Immanuel, his son, God who came into the world, God with us.