Isaiah Gives a Prophetic Sign to a Faithless King
Many of us are familiar with this prophecy, because it is frequently quoted during the Christmas season. Matthew quotes it directly in his gospel to show how the amazing story of Jesus’ birth is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. All of this, of course, is absolutely true.
I think it is also helpful to hear these words in the context of the story where they were originally spoken. Otherwise, it might be easy to take the attitude that a prophecy like this was dangling back there in the Old Testament without much meaning or connection to those who first heard it. There can be a tendency to look at the end of stories in the Bible and then glance backwards, without seeing the real value of clearly following the storyline of the Bible from beginning to end. Without that perspective, we miss the full significance of God’s great salvation story as it unfolds from Genesis to Revelation. The story that surrounds Isaiah’s famous prophecy might be a good example of this.
Isaiah gave this prophecy during the reign of Ahaz, the king of Judah. Ahaz was a weak and fearful man. He lacked true faith in the Lord God. News had come to King Ahaz that Syria had allied with the Northern Kingdom of Israel with a plan to attack his kingdom, Judah. When they heard this news, Ahaz and all his people were shaking like leaves with fear.
The Lord called Isaiah to go prophesy to Ahaz these words, “Don’t be afraid, this invasion will never happen. These kings and their nations are just burnt out has-beens, but, if you don’t stand firm in faith, you won’t stand at all.” After that, Isaiah said to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord for a sign of confirmation that all this is true. Make it as hard as you want.” But Ahaz said, “Oh, no! I would never test the Lord like that!” Neither Isaiah nor the Lord were happy about this pious sounding, hypocritical reply from the king.
So, Isaiah went on to say, “All right then, the Lord is going to give you a sign, anyway! Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means ‘God-With-Us’). Before this child is old enough to choose between what’s right and wrong, the lands of the two kings you are so worried about will be deserted. But be warned, God will bring on you and your nation judgment worse than anything that has happened since the kingdom split. The king of Assyria is coming!”
There is the story, briefly told, of Isaiah’s prophecy about the virgin birth of Jesus. This story reveals something about the nature of prophecy, both in Old Testament times and today: it does not contain a clear timeline for its fulfillment. There is certainly an immediate message for King Ahaz concerning the promise of the coming of Immanuel. His birth would come about 725 years later. It turns out that this was not just a personal sign for Ahaz, though. Ultimately, it was a sign for multitudes throughout history.
On the day this prophecy was given, it could have been easily assumed that the fulfillment of all that was spoken would soon come to pass. But, God has his own timetable. Our place is to trust in him and his infinite wisdom to bring about all that he has promised in his time. That is essential if we are to stand firm in faith.
In this story, there is an immediate application for Ahaz and those in his kingdom. He declares that in a period of a few years, like the time between conception and when a child knows right from wrong, the two kings he is so worried about will be out of business. But, the king of Assyria, with whom Ahaz had been making a deal to help rescue his nation from those two kings, was about to become a serious threat to them (2 Kings 16:7).
Ahaz needed to put his trust in God and the sign he was given, instead of trusting in his ability to make political power maneuvers, which would ultimately fail. Ahaz needed to repent and put his faith in the promise of Immanuel—God-With-Us. Sadly, he missed his opportunity and continued in his own ways, which led to a tragic end. But his son, Hezekiah, did put his trust in God’s promises and served the people of Judah as a godly king. Since that time, multitudes have put their hope and trust in Immanuel, the promised Son, born of a virgin, and we have found him to be all that Isaiah proclaimed him to be: