It’s Christmas time, and for those of us who are lifetime followers of Christ and not just seasonally religious, certain stories are seared in our memories. We can almost quote them verbatim because there are etched in our souls, placed their by our parents who read them to us as children and the many Sunday School teachers who used cut out figures on flannel graphs. These are the stories that we know.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1.18-23)
The gospel writer knew his Old Testament scriptures very well. He knew the story of Isaiah and Ahaz which is recorded in the seventh chapter of Isaiah. And Matthew was divinely inspired to see in Isaiah’s words to Ahaz a fuller prophecy that was fulfilled in the birth of the Messiah. But I would like to invite you to return with me to the days of Isaiah, to the days where these words were first spoken, to see if the Lord might have a word for us today.
The time is somewhere around 734 BC. A twenty year old kid has just ascended to the throne of Judah due to the death of his father, Jotham. Jotham was one of the few kings of Judah to actually do what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Kings 15.34), but his son would not live up to his father’s shadow.
Ahaz was handed the throne in troubling times. The two major players in the region were Egypt and Assyria. For the past few years, Egypt was weak and Assyria was otherwise engaged. That allowed Judah and Israel to experience a relative amount of peace and prosperity. But that was all changing. Tiglath-Pileser was the new king of Assyria, and he was determined to assert his dominance over all of the smaller kingdoms in Palestine, and Judah and Israel were square in his sights.
The king of Israel acted quickly to form an alliance with Syria, and they tried to force Judah to join their team. Judah wanted no part of their alliance, so Israel and Syria tried to use military force to change the young king’s mind. The story is told in two parts, one part is told in 2 Kings 16, but the more significant part is told in Isaiah 7. The events of Isaiah 7 take place in the middle of the events of 2 Kings 16. So, we have to read both stories at the same time. Let us begin with the words of 2 Kings 16.
1In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign. 2Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God. 3He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. 4He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree. 5Then Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem and besieged Ahaz, but they could not overpower him. (2 Kings 16.1-5)
The stage of the conflict is set, but the writer of 2 Kings moves too quickly to the events that follow. The writer quickly writes in verse 7, “Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “’I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.’” However, before Ahaz called out to the king of Assyria for help, a few very significant events took place which are recorded in Isaiah 7.
1When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it. 2Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind. (Isaiah 7.1-2)
But God was not absent from the story. He was not a passive observer just watching His people suffer the invasion of a foreign army. No, He was quite involved. He sent in His “A Team,” the prophet Isaiah.
3Then 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. (Isaiah 7.3)
Most of us read these various place names in the Old Testament narratives and just gloss over them because they don’t mean much to us. But this place is important. King Ahaz and his advisors have gathered at the water source in Jerusalem. They are most likely in a deep discussion about how they can preserve and protect the water source during the upcoming siege. To outlast the coming siege of Israel and Aram, the city would need a secure source of food and water. When Isaiah meets the king at the Upper Pool, he is interrupting a high level meeting of advisors who are seriously stressed out about the upcoming invasion. And the words of Isaiah would not be well received. The Lord said to Isaiah,
4Say 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. 5Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6“Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “‘It will not take place, it will not happen, 8 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. 9The 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.’” (Isaiah 7.4-9)
In other words, the Lord said through Isaiah, “Don’t worry about these two armies that are knocking at your door. They are all smoke and no fire, all hat and no cattle, all bark and no bite.” But the Lord was not finished speaking through Isaiah.
10Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11“Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” 12But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” (Isaiah 7.10-12)
At first, the words of Ahaz sound very spiritual. They almost sound like Jesus during His temptation in the desert. “I will not put the Lord to the test.” Spoken by a person of faith, these words testify that we need no further proof to trust the Lord. But spoken by a person who lacks faith, these words mean something entirely different. Ahaz was not being spiritual; he was being unspiritual. In effect, he was saying to Isaiah, “Go away. Don’t bother me with this spiritual stuff. I have very important work to do to get ready for this invasion.” Ahaz put no stock in the words of the Lord which said, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” So, Isaiah gets the last word.
13Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16But 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. (Isaiah 7.13-16)
Though we hear the gospel of Matthew when we read the words of verse 14, we must try to hear them as Ahaz would have first heard them. Isaiah was saying that the two nations who were knocking on the door of Jerusalem would be short lived powers. In fact, before a young woman of marriageable age would have time to get married and raise the child to the age of eating solid food and knowing right from wrong, these two kingdoms would be laid to waste.
Just a few words of explanation about verse 14. The Hebrew text uses a word that means “young woman of marriageable age.” The LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, would translate that word into the Greek word for virgin about four hundred years later, and Matthew would quote the LXX text instead of the Hebrew text. But the important thing to remember is that Ahaz knew Isaiah to be talking about a young woman who was not yet married. While we don’t know who this particular young woman was, whether it was a daughter of the King or a daughter of the prophet, we do know that Isaiah’s point is about the time period between the present situation and the age of the child who would be birthed by this unmarried woman. “Eating curds and honey” most likely refers to a diet of solid food for a baby, and “knowing enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” also refers to a developmental milestone for a child. The big picture is, “Within a few years, these two kings will be long gone. You should trust the Lord in this situation.”
While this might appear to be good news, because of Ahaz’s lack of faith. It will be very bad news.
To get the bigger picture, let’s return to the story as told in 2 Kings 16.
7Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. 9The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death. 10Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction. 11So Uriah the priest built an altar in accordance with all the plans that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus and finished it before King Ahaz returned. 12When the king came back from Damascus and saw the altar, he approached it and presented offerings on it. 13He offered up his burnt offering and grain offering, poured out his drink offering, and sprinkled the blood of his fellowship offerings on the altar. 14The bronze altar that stood before the LORD he brought from the front of the temple—from between the new altar and the temple of the LORD—and put it on the north side of the new altar. (2 Kings 16.7-14)
The writer of 2 Kings tells us what Ahaz decided to do. Instead of trusting the Lord, he turned to Tiglath-Pileser for help. Not only did he rob the Temple of the Lord to pay the king of Assyria, but he also brought back to the Temple the pagan idol worship of Assyria. In effect, he traded YHWH for the gods of Assyria! And in his wisdom, he thought that this would work out well for him. But there is a way that seems right unto a man, but it only leads to death. We read the “rest of the story” in Isaiah 7.
17The 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.” 18In that day the LORD will whistle for flies from the distant streams of Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. 19They will all come and settle in the steep ravines and in the crevices in the rocks, on all the thorn bushes and at all the water holes. 20In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and the hair of your legs, and to take off your beards also. (Isaiah 7.17-20)
The Assyrian king would not be a rescuer for Judah, but an instrument in the hand of God to discipline and judge His people.
Now, what does this have to do with us this Christmas season?
At some point in our lives, we will all find ourselves gathering around the Upper Pools on the road to Washerman’s Field. There will be a looming threat on the horizon. It will probably not be an invading army, but it will seem just as hopeless. It might be a report from a doctor that the cancer has spread, or it might be the news from the front office that the company is downsizing. It might be the cold, hard reality that a child has taken a wayward path or the bitter pain of an impending divorce. Threats come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are common to the human experience.
And when the threat is looming on the horizon, we will gather around the Upper Pool, trying our best to figure out how we are going to weather the storm. How can we muster our resources to survive the attack? We will gather our advisors and weigh our options. And while we are wrestling with how to weather the storm, along comes this pesky “Word of the Lord.” And the Spirit of God will say to our spirits, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”
But there are other options. We could sell all the gold and silver of the Temple and bribe another earthly power to rescue us from the threat. Do we trust in the power of Tiglath-Pileser or do we believe in the saving, rescuing power of the Almighty God?
Perhaps this is why Matthew saw in the words of Isaiah a prophetic word about the coming Messiah. This child that was going to be born in Bethlehem was the very presence of God reminding us that He is sovereign over the events of our lives. Whether it is the invading forces of Aram, the rule of Rome, or whatever our current struggle, God is sovereign over this moment.
So, the question that is left before us in this Christmas season is “In what way does God want me to stand firm in my faith in the light of the threat on the horizon?”
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.