The LORD Himself Will Give You a Sign

Dennis E. Johnson
Thursday, December 31st 2015
Jan/Feb 2016

I, King Ahaz, admit it. It didn’t turn out as I expected. But realistically, what alternative did I have?

My administration and my nation were under military assault from all sides, and I needed to forge an alliance with a rising power, one with expansionistic aspirations and that would welcome a pretext for invading my enemies. Where else, realistically, could I turn, except to Assyria?

Let me explain our crisis, and you tell me whether you could come up with a better solution! It was my fate to rule Judah in troubled times. My grandfather Uzziah (also known as Azariah) and my father Jotham had it easy. Grandpa reigned for over half a century—though toward the end he suffered from a mysterious skin disease and withdrew from public life, so my father ruled with him.

Grandpa was a military genius, conquering neighboring peoples to the west (Philistia) and south (Arabia), and subduing the Ammonites on our eastern border. He strengthened the fortifications of our capital, Jerusalem, and built watchtowers in the countryside to protect his vast farms and pasturelands. His standing army, outfitted with the latest in military weaponry, numbered in the hundreds of thousands and their courageous leaders in the thousands. His prowess in war reminded people of our royal ancestor David, and his international fame rivaled that of David’s son Solomon. No one dared mess with Grandpa! My father had his strong points, though his reign was much shorter. He too was a builder and a warrior, keeping the Ammonites in submission.

The big flaw in both Grandpa and Dad was their loyalty to the Lord, following in old David’s footsteps. Of course they both made the necessary political compromises, letting their people worship wherever they chose, however they chose, and whichever god they chose. And, to Grandpa’s credit, he insisted on his royal right to take center stage in Judah’s worship, a privilege those Levite priests had monopolized for far too long! I suppose the sudden outbreak of Grandpa’s skin disease had something to do with the fact that my father, ever the traditionalist, lacked the stomach to demand his right as king to lead our worship. I have certainly remedied Dad’s defect! What my father and grandfather failed to grasp was how risky it is to put all your eggs in one basket, whether religiously or politically. As monarch of a minor nation confronted by danger on all sides, I realized that when it comes to gathering allies (human and divine), the motto has to be “The more the merrier.” If the support of Molech, god of the Ammonites, could be bought by human sacrifice, then passing a few of my own sons through his fires seemed a small price to pay.

But I digress. I was saying that my grandfather and father had easy reigns, distinguished by military victories, political dominance, and economic prosperity. It’s understandable that they were loyal to the Lord, the unseen god who (so the story goes) once upon a time rescued our people from slavery, preserved them in the Sinai badlands, gave them possession of the land that we now call “home.” Since everything was going well for them, it was safe enough for those who preceded me to the throne to trust this invisible “Lord.” Yes, I have heard troublesome prophets claim that things went well for them because they were trying to be loyal to the Lord, but I don’t buy it.

My times, however, have been different. I was confronted with enemies on all sides. Immediately to the north, our kinsmen, whose fathers had long ago rejected my ancestor David’s royal house, were now ruled by a royal pretender, a traitorous assassin named Pekah. Pekah formed an alliance with Rezin, king of Syria, and together their troops pushed south into Judah, actually succeeding in besieging Jerusalem! Tens of thousands of my hard-fighting troops fell in battle. Even more of my subjects—ordinary men, women, and children—were taken as prisoners of war. Seeing my troubles descending from the north, the Philistines invaded from the west and the Edomites from the south. We were attacked on all sides!

What I needed was a strong ally who could split—maybe even crush—the Pekah-Rezin alliance, forcing them to withdraw their troops from outside Jerusalem’s walls to defend their own borders. Who better to approach than Tiglath-Pileser, sovereign of Assyria, the rising power in the Land between the Rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates? If Assyrian troops could be induced to sweep across the Fertile Crescent and break through Syria’s “backdoor,” maybe even press farther west into the realm of Israel’s northern tribes, then I would be saved! Small states need strong saviors, and Tiglath-Pileser would be my rescuer.

Of course, enlisting Assyria’s military support would be costly, both financially and politically. I had reckoned on that. I would have to swear allegiance to the Assyrian ruler and pay tribute fees in exchange for his protection. What I had underestimated was Assyria’s insatiable appetite for “protection money.” Not only would I have to plunder the wealth of the Lord’s temple, but I would also, regretfully, draw on my own royal treasuries. That last part really hurt. Grabbing gold from the Lord’s house didn’t bother me, since I had big plans to reconfigure its design, replicating the cutting-edge trends in worship I had witnessed in Damascus after Tiglath-Pileser overwhelmed that Syrian capital. At least that part of my plan worked! But Tiglath-Pileser’s greed was ravenous, always demanding more. I have to grudgingly admit that my alliance with Assyria brought more grief than relief.

But what alternative did I have?

What did you say? I could have turned back to the Lord, who gave victories to my ancestor David and peaceful, prosperous reigns to my grandfather Uzziah and my father Jotham? You sound just like that annoying prophet Isaiah, who claimed to have been enlisted as the Lord’s spokesman in a terrifying vision at the temple around the time of Grandpa’s demise! I know Isaiah had my father’s ear, but—as I’ve said—it’s fine to trust the Lord (or whatever works for you) in tranquil times. But I had a crisis on my hands! The threat of the Israel-Syria alliance had my heart and the hearts of my subjects shaking like the trees of a forest shake in the wind!

So what did Isaiah, that self-pronounced messenger of the Lord, have the temerity to say to me? I went out to inspect the conduit leading to the upper pool, trying to ensure that our city’s water supply would not be disrupted in the siege we expected. There he was, with his little son, “Remnant Shall Return,” waiting for me. What kind of a name is that to give a boy? What a bizarre blend of hope (“shall return”) and disappointment (only “a remnant”)! But I digress. What galled me was the message that Isaiah claimed his God (the God of my fathers, but not really mine) had given him: “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.”

“Smoldering stumps of firebrands”? Pieces of kindling smoking but on the verge of being extinguished? Where had this prophet and his God been living? I had read the reports from the battlefield, the shocking totals of our casualties, and I knew the real picture: the forces of the Rezin-Pekah alliance were a wildfire racing across fields from the north, and the troops of Judah were mere stubble, consumed in an instant by their fiery rage. Isaiah’s facile “Do not fear, do not let your heart be faint” was so out of touch with reality that I would have laughed had the situation not been so dire.

But his message from the Lord wasn’t finished. Isaiah went on to announce that within sixty-five years not only Rezin and Pekah but their respective nations, Israel and Syria, would be crushed, “shattered from being a people,” he said. That was the outcome—even better than the outcome—that I had in mind in enlisting Tiglath-Pileser’s intervention. But sixty-five years? My grandfather had ruled for only fifty or so, and that was an unusually long reign in our part of the world. What good would it do me if my foes were destined for destruction long after I was buried in my tomb? I can understand why a preacher with no political experience or responsibility could dare to call me to be “firm in faith” in his unseen Lord. I had a kingdom to protect, so I naturally had to put my faith in forces more visible, more tangible…like the ruthless armies of Assyria, champing at the bit to lash out from the Land between the Rivers, across the Fertile Crescent, and down into Syria, bursting through Damascus’s backdoor!

Did Isaiah see the contemptuous unbelief in my eyes? Did he sense that I was not one to be fooled by empty words, hollow promises? That I would demand something I could see and touch before I placed my faith in his unseen God? The old ones passed down stories of his drowning Egyptian charioteers in the sea, his feeding wanderers in the desert daily for decades, his shattering Jericho’s walls. If he were willing to do stunts like these, I might have reconsidered my devotion to the gods who seemed to be giving our neighbor-nations such success in making our lives miserable, with their user-friendly ever-so-see-able images.

So (claimed Isaiah) the Lord made me an offer, handed me a blank check: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Seriously? Name your miracle? Of course, I knew what that was. No god that I knew could deliver on an offer like that. It had to be a trap.

But I was too clever for Isaiah and the Lord he claimed to be representing. I was not going to bite at that bait! In fact, in the back of my mind I found a line from our ancient Scriptures, probably something I had heard from my grandfather or father, that came to my rescue. I simply said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Isn’t that exactly what Moses, our deliverer, had said? “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” That’s what he said, I’m pretty sure. You can see that, actually, Isaiah was trying to lure me into impiety, into calling the Lord’s bluff by naming a sign for him to accomplish in order to win my trust and loyalty. (Besides, what if the Lord had actually granted the sign I named? Then, to be frank, my bluff would have been called—because, just between you and me, I’ve always been devoted to so many gods and to my own political savvy that I couldn’t have brought myself to trust the Lord alone, no matter what stunt he would have pulled off.)

So I neatly sidestepped Isaiah’s snare and was ready to walk away from that dreamer. Conversation over. But it wasn’t. Isaiah seemed peeved, frustrated, and impatient. How dare he be peeved with his king? He spit out, not altogether respectful of my office: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.”

Well, I didn’t see that coming! I was aware of rumors that this Lord was prone to predict future events and then fulfill his own predictions, just to show that his power and wisdom were infinitely better than the gods of Ammon and Philistia and Edom and Moab and Syria and, I guess, even mighty Assyria. What if he were to do something really stupendous now, despite my deep doubt and disloyalty, something I could not deny or explain away?

It turned out I didn’t need to worry that Isaiah’s God would call my bluff. Do you know what his magnificent, doubt-destroying, faith-compelling sign was? “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The infant baby of a young unwed mother, given the name “With Us Is God.” That’s it? What I needed was a general like Gideon, a champion like Samson, a battery of plagues on the troops approaching Jerusalem’s walls—those who (so the stories are told) brought mighty Egypt to its knees and loosened Egypt’s death-grip on our fathers in slavery. That’s what I needed—power! But a baby? Seriously?

Then he added that before the boy grew up, old enough to tell good from evil, Pekah and Rezin would be destroyed, and that Assyria my ally would become Assyria my afflicter. As it turned out, the last part actually happened. But remember, I was the one who put that whole course of events in motion, for good or ill, by reaching out to Tiglath-Pileser!

Still, I confess to you (please keep my secret), what gnaws at me is that promise of a virgin’s son named Immanuel. If she really were a virgin, of course, that would be a miracle. And her son would be a miracle baby, a one-of-kind human being. But I prefer a more plausible explanation: perhaps the prophet meant that the mother would be an unmarried young woman, who should have been a virgin. If we had been observing the Torah Moses gave us, a pregnant girl like that would either be married in a hurry or executed for breaking her engagement vow. And perhaps her choice of a name, “With Us Is God,” was just wishful thinking, not an actual clue to the identity of her son. But what if Isaiah, what if his Lord, meant something more?

My memory of Moses’ Torah is admittedly hazy. I even surprised myself when I pulled up that bit about not putting the Lord to a test. But I think I heard somewhere that at the dawn of time, when our first parents had grown up enough to tell good from evil and their discovery didn’t go especially well for them, God said something about a woman’s son, one who would wage war against the ultimate enemy, suffer a grievous wound, but emerge triumphant, crushing the foe’s head. Does that ring a bell with you too?

So I wonder…Did the prophet really mean a virgin—a young woman who had never slept with a man? Did he really mean a miraculous birth, a miraculous child? Did he really mean that the child’s name, Immanuel, would be not just an expression of wishful longing but actually an assurance of divine promises kept? That in him the assurance spoken (so the old stories claim) to Isaac and Jacob and Joshua and others, “I will be with you,” will actually come true?

What’s that you say? It did?

Thursday, December 31st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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