We often want a sign that God will come to us as a conquering hero. Here, God gives us a sign that consists of a defenseless child, not a conquering hero.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand some of the socio-political contexts for the early parts of Isaiah.
Understand that God with us comes to us in unexpected and rather underwhelming ways.
Have faith that God does promise to be with us always.
Catching up on the Story
Ahaz, the son of Jotham, who was the son of Uzziah, is king in Judah. At this time, King Reznicek of Aram (Syria) and King Pekah, son of Remaliah of Israel (also referred to as Ephraim), joined forces to attack Jerusalem to either compel Ahaz and Judah to join them in their rebellion from Assyria or to overthrow Ahaz and place a more agreeable king on the throne. All the while, Egypt, to the south, is taking advantage of the political instability and raiding cities and towns in Judah.
In the midst of all this, Isaiah is told by God to go, taking with him his son, Shear-jashub (which means “a remnant shall return”), to Ahaz to offer him advice and direction. Isaiah seeks to reassure Ahaz that God is indeed working for Judah. The two kings, which Isaiah refers to as “smoldering stumps of firebrands,” will not pose a permanent threat. Rather, both Aram and Ephraim will be destroyed.
This week’s text can be split up into two separate sections. The first section, verses 10-13, deals with the direct conversation that Isaiah continues to have with King Ahaz. The second section, verses 14-16, deals with the sign God offers to Ahaz.
Ask for a Sign: Isaiah 7:10-13
The word of the Lord again comes to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah. The situation seems dire, with armies sitting to Ahaz’s north and south. We have just heard some reassuring words from God that the imminent tragedy will not indeed occur. So, God directly asks Ahaz to ask him for a sign. It matters not the extent of this sign; nothing is too large to request. Ahaz can request something from Sheol, the place of the dead, or something from heaven.
To our surprise, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign. At the outset, it might look like Ahaz is doing the correct thing. Here God offers to prove to Ahaz what will come to pass, yet Ahaz declares that he will not put God to the test. Of course, we remember the words of Jesus during his wilderness temptation as he quotes Deuteronomy, saying that one should not put the Lord our God to the test. It certainly looks like Ahaz is exercising great faith in God by not asking for a sign.
Yet, Isaiah greets Ahaz’s refusal to seek a sign with a stern rebuke! “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” (v.12) Here, the sense of “weary” is to “exhaust the patience of.” (Brown, Driver, Briggs) Not only has Ahaz exhausted the patience of those around him but of God also.
Many commentators believe that Ahaz was not concerned with taking Israel’s faith seriously. The witness of those who compiled the book of Kings (2 Kings 16:10-18) judged Ahaz to be motivated by politics and pagan worship more than by devotion to the one true God (Watts, 98). Or, perhaps Ahaz was scared to ask for a sign because, like us, we may not like what we receive. It might be better to ask for forgiveness for doing the wrong thing than to ask for permission (Lundbald).
Whatever the case may be, Isaiah’s response and the giving of the sign anyway place Ahaz clearly in the wrong.
Here’s Your Sign: Isaiah 7:14-16
Isaiah proceeds to give Ahaz the sign that he clearly does not want. The content of the sign is also contrary to what Ahaz wants: that God is with us. It will be clear, as the narrative moves forward, that Ahaz rejects a world where God’s intended future exists. Ahaz could care less if God was with him.
The specifics of this sign are not unfamiliar to us. Here the NRSV and the NIV differ in their translation of the Hebrew word ‘alma. The NRSV renders the word “young woman” while the NIV renders it “virgin.” Going from the original Hebrew, “young woman” is the translation to be preferred. More broadly, the term refers to a woman of marriageable age and differs significantly from the Hebrew word normally translated as virgin or betulah (Childs, 66).
Both the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) and the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) have rendered ‘alma as “virgin.” Since these two translations have dominated the reading and interpretation of the Bible, the translation “virgin” has stuck (Brueggemann, 70). Even the gospel writers have incorporated this passage into their narratives of Jesus’ birth.
What is clear is that the focus of this passage, for Ahaz and Isaiah, is not on the woman who will give birth to this child. Rather, the focus should be on the child that was a sign for Ahaz and is now a sign for us. For Ahaz, the child Isaiah speaks of, represents the embodiment of God’s saving presence with and for Judah.
Notice how the sign that Ahaz receives is not a vast and great army or the hope of a mighty conqueror from another place coming to save the day. Rather, the sign is a harmless child. We are told that by the time this child is eating solid food, curds, and honey, Judah's current problem will be solved. By the time he can choose between the good and the bad, Judah’s current problem will be solved. Ahaz is not told how this might happen. He is only to trust that it will happen, and the promise, as it has so many times in Israel’s history, comes in the form of something small and insignificant, a child.
The child’s name will be Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” If Ahaz were to have trusted in the ways of God, if he had allowed God to be with him and his people, which he does not, then Judah might have enjoyed a different fate. As it was, however, the refusal of faith, the refusal of the sign of Immanuel, led to Judah’s destruction.
All Advent, we have been waiting with Jesus, learning what it means to be his follower, walking in his paths. Another theme that has woven its way throughout each week is the theme of seeking peace. This week’s passage is no different. Ahaz finds himself in a very desperate situation. He has a choice to make: he can trust that God will lead him and his people out of trouble and allow God to be with him. Or, he can choose to do his own thing, rejecting God’s presence. Ahaz will ultimately decide to do his own thing, rejecting God as Immanuel.
As we learn to walk in God’s paths, we are often confronted with similar situations, except none of us are leaders of our nation! We often find ourselves amid struggle, desperation, and even conflict. God, who is always with us, comes to us to show us a way out, to give us a sign. Only we do not want a sign because we have made up our minds about the way we want to go. Deep down inside, we know the sign we will receive will be the sign of Immanuel, of God with us in the form of a gentle and humble child. It’s not the sign of revenge or a conquering hero.
Waiting with Jesus means we must wait for God to work all things together for his purposes, not through violence or coercion, but through the self-sacrificial work of love born out through the cross. This sign we read about from Isaiah is both hard to hear and easy to accept. It is hard to hear because we often do not want a sign that figures a defenseless child. We want a sign that bares a mighty rescuer. At the same time, it is easy to accept because we know that this Immanuel has already come; he has already begun to rescue us, beginning first as a little child. May we wait at his feet, always learning to be like him in every situation. May we allow him to be God with us truly.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why would God ask Ahaz to ask for a sign?
Why does Ahaz refuse to ask for a sign?
Isaiah seems to be fairly upset that Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign. Why would this upset Isaiah?
God gives Ahaz a sign anyway. Why would God do that?
The sign Isaiah gives to Ahaz is a child with the name Immanuel (“God with us).” How would this sign have challenged Ahaz? In this season of Advent, why would we read this passage now?
Describe a time when you knew that you needed to trust that God would somehow bring you through a rough situation. How did you respond? Did you wait for God’s deliverance, or did you seek a solution for yourself? What were the results?
Describe a time when you knew the “God with us” way of responding but failed to do so. What were the results?
How can we learn to allow God to be with us in the way that Ahaz should have been?
Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1–39, ed. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary, ed. William P. Brown, Carol A. Newsom, and Brent A. Strawn, 1st ed., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
“Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16 by Barbara Lundblad,” accessed October 21, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1942.
John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 24, Isaiah 1-33 (Watts), 513pp (Waco, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1985).