I started this project on the hunt for references to the Messiah in Isaiah. And, now here is a big deal one in Isaiah 7: The sign of Immanuel.
But reading the chapter in context, I am struck with how much is being said here about fear.
I don't recall a lot of focus on fear from pulpits, news sources, conversations while growing up.
I see a lot today.
Has much really changed, however? Was there a lack of fear or a posturing to mask fear that was really at play during the Cold War?
I grieve for my children growing up now, in the midst of all that is happening. But, when I was a pre-teen during the Gulf War, my classmates would sing a lyric set to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA":
"Born, in the USA. We're gonna blow those little commies away..."
What does this do to the psyche of an entire generation, and what did similar fear-mongering due to our parents' generation?
I'm convinced that one generation's fear as fueled another's, and another's, and here we are today.
The whole scenario in Isaiah 7 is an odd one---an evil king refuses to ask for a sign and is criticized for this. And the sign ends up being the birth of Immanuel, which most Christian scholars interpret as likely having both an immediate application during the political and civic unrest in Judah...and the birth of Immanuel (God with us), Jesus Christ.
It's worth reading and mulling over, for its narrative properties, as well as its spiritual significance.
But back to the fear. Why is King Ahaz even seeking out a prophet?
He's afraid. Really, really afraid. Why would an fairly irreligious king go out of his way to seek out a prophet who is not exactly known to mince words?
Well, he may not be the most spiritual person, but his is a reasonable fear. Two of his enemies (sadly, one of them is Israel, separated from Judah forever after their civil war) are rallying against him. Everyone is afraid, even the king. And, the scenario is bleak. Ahaz's own soldier son has already died in earlier skirmishes and Judah's soldiers overall were experiencing heavy casualties. Ahaz sees no way out of this.
So, Ahaz seeks the counsel of Isaiah. But remember in Isaiah 6, that Isaiah isn't called to say words that people want to hear. He is called to speak forth what is REAL. He says, "Keep calm and carry on."
I mean, "Be careful, keep calm, and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood....It will not take place, it will not happen...If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all."
This fear thing is going to be a theme in Isaiah (this isn't my first time around this heavy book...I know more fear is a-comin'). It seems, throughout history, people can get all up in arms and reactionary across whatever they feel is the Big Bad (umm...another Buffy reference...). They use this fear to justify whatever it is they need to do to counter the Big Bad. But all it takes is one conversation with a prophet and he says, "Oh, don't worry about THAT. That is nothing. You want to know something scary?? God's gonna bring down the Assyrians on everyone. Israel and Ephraim are nothing. History won't even remember them as big players on the ancient world's military scene. The Assyrians, though. Wait until you see THEM!"
This is my paraphrase. But, just take a look at verses 18ff and you see the gist.
And you know what, Isaiah is right. The Assyrians are really scary. The Ancient History encyclopedia (https://www.ancient.eu/Assyrian_Warfare/) says that Assyrian inscriptions for military conquests typically said:
"I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire."
Pleasant folks, they are not.
It's an interesting answer to prayer when God says that you're not afraid of the right things, and then points out what there is to be actually afraid of.
Sadly, Ahaz doesn't listen. Well, he listens enough, as in, "Assyria. Got it. They're strong. We need a Mighty Man. Better yet, a whole group of Mighty Men." Instead of turning to God and the precious sign given to him--the sign of Immanuel, God with us.---Ahaz decides to be really clever. He aligns with Assyria!
So, God tells him to seek the peace and presence of God, and Ahaz uses this special knowledge to fight fire with fire. He allies with the bloodthirsty Assyria. Judah, who we all like to think of as God's chosen people, the good kingdom, the one that doesn't do all the idolatry that Israel did...they ally with one of the most bloodthirsty groups in all of human history.
Who is worse--idolatrous Israel or bloodthirsty Judah? Guess what--the Bible tells us the answer. Hint: See Jeremiah 3:11.
And lo and behold, the fight fire with fire strategy works. It was super effective. Judah defeats their ethnic brothers and sisters. Israel falls and gets deported. And, basically, annihilated as a discrete people group. They become the Lost Tribes of Israel.
It's a super successful strategy, from a worldly perspective.
Those of you using this strategy right now---it may work in the short term.
Long term, history is not on your side.
Ahaz must have felt really good for awhile. His followers must have felt justified, like they hitched their cart to the right horse.
Throughout this time, Isaiah doesn't stay silent. He keeps speaking out, chiding Ahaz and telling him to seek the Lord, seek the Lord.
Instead, this alliance leads Judah into idolatry. So, now they have their own sins and they take on the sins of others, too. Bonus sins! Shockingly, "righteous" Judah bows to the social mores of bloodthirsty Assyria rather than vice versa. So much for a Christian...ahem...I mean, Jewish witness.
Ahaz falls so far that he even sacrifices his own child in a religious ritual to another god. Bet his younger self would never have expected he would do something like that. Funny how the "banality of evil" (term from Hannah Arendt's report on Nazi Germany) rears its head again. Seemingly good people slowly creep to outrageous acts by taking small, incremental steps that in the moment still seem OK.
Scripture views Ahaz's reign as one that is disastrous for the religious integrity of the nation.
The irony for Ahaz is stark--in the aftermath of losing one son in a war, he seeks greater might...which leads him down a path of darkness so that he eventually willingly kills another one of his sons.
He sought to change the world, but the world changed him.
History tells us that Ahaz was successful. He accomplished what he wanted to militarily. But Judah still fell. He merely delayed the inevitable.
And in the process, he himself, and many others, missed the actual source of power: The Sign of Immanuel.
God with us. The true Christian walk has always been one of abiding with God. Union with Christ. These two terms "abiding" and "union" are not often heard in Christian circles anymore. But, they used to be thought of as core to what it means to be a Christian.
When evangelical Christians appeal to the 1950s as a golden era, they don't go back far enough.
I hope we'll get the chance to unpack these ideas further via Isaiah. For now, let's reflect on the opportunity that Isaiah 7 presents to us--the opportunity to choose differently than did Ahaz.
Stand firm in your faith. Look to Christ, Immanuel. He is here, He is with us. In this world of darkness, His is always the still, quiet voice. Seek it out. Someday all will be made right. Be on the side of right. Don't fear what the world fears.