Isaiah 8: Prophecy with Skin On
Updated: May 5
(Some scholars call chapters 7-12 of Isaiah “the book of Immanuel,” because in this section of his prophecy Isaiah begins to reveal that the promise, “God is with us,” would take on human flesh. Especially take note of the role children play in his messages, clues that the Messiah might not come in the package the people of God expected.)
Isaiah had been visiting wicked King Ahaz of Judah for about 7 years now, warning him to stop worrying about what his northern neighbors were doing, and start listening to what God was saying. By now the matter was settled—the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) would be conquered, and it wouldn’t go well for Judah. The message for them now was “prepare.” But Ahaz isn’t listening; he’s busy making friends with the sneaky Assyrians, so it’s time to tell the people: Get ready.
The LORD instructed Isaiah to write on a large placard—a billboard—as public and eye-catching as possible in words the common man would understand: “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” It was a phrase soldiers yelled as they ran into battle: “The looting will come quickly; the prey will be easy.” That was it. That was all the sign said. It was meant to stir up questions, not provide answers. The LORD also told Isaiah to make sure that two men who had the king’s ear watched what he did, so that in days to come they could testify, “Yup. I remember when he did that. Strange guy, that Isaiah…” (verses 1-2)
Of course, Isaiah did as he was told, then went home. There, he and his wife made a baby. Because his wife was a prophetess and the baby would be a message, she was literally the bearer of God’s word. The baby would be an everyday reminder of what the LORD had said. He was a prophecy with skin on.
His name: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. (Sound familiar?) His message: “Before I know how to say ‘dada’ or ‘mama,’ the northern kingdom and all its wealth will be booty for the king of Assyria.” (verses 3-4) The implication: Stay calm. Don’t panic. Trust God. Those you consider your greatest enemies, Aram and Ephraim, will be washed up in less than a year.
The Lord spoke to me again. He said, “These people (Ephraim, as well as Aram) have rejected the gently flowing water of Shiloah and find joy in Rezin and Remaliah’s son.” (verses 5-6)
The stream of Shiloah was Jerusalem’s main water supply. It was steady, reliable, spring-fed. At times it wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was dependable and it supplied the city of Jerusalem with the water it needed. One potential weakness: the Gihon spring from which it flowed was outside the city gates, continuously vulnerable to enemy attack. So protection of their water source was a matter of faith for those in Jerusalem; they had to depend on the God who gave them their city to protect their source of water.
When Ephraim had broken away from Judah to set up their own government far from the stream of Shiloah, they had traded God's gentle, faithful care for the false security of earthly bodyguards. They no longer looked to God as their shield and supply but had begun to depend on Rezin and Remaliah’s son to be their protectors. That is why the Lord is going to bring against them the raging and powerful floodwaters of the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria with all his power. It will overflow all its channels and go over all its banks; it will sweep through Judah. It will overflow and pass through; it will be neck-high (verses 7-8).
By rejecting the gentle stream of Shiloah (God), the northern kingdom had chosen destruction by the mighty Euphrates (Assyria).
So Isaiah was making public what he’d been saying to the kings of Judah for years. He’d hung a big sign out in the open for all to see because time was short. In less than a year, the Assyrians, as powerful as the Euphrates River, would pour into the northern kingdom, and the threat from Aram and Ephraim—the reason King Ahaz had sold his soul to the king of Assyria— would be swept away. Yet, like the Euphrates River, the unpredictable Assyrian army would flow faster and further than King Ahaz had expected, and Judah would suffer major flood damage from the very force they had expected to deliver them.
Unlike Ephraim, Judah would survive. Assyria would have them by the neck, but they wouldn’t be destroyed. Why? The word of the LORD. God wasn’t preserving Judah because they were better people than Israel (they weren’t) but because they were the descendants of David, in the family line of the Messiah. And since the Messiah was yet to be born, Judah had to be preserved for Immanuel’s sake. In the meanwhile, Assyrian domination would become a dark shadow over all the land: “Its outspread wings will extend over your whole country, O Immanuel.” Their waiting for the Messiah would be done in the dark.
Be broken, you people. Be terrified. Listen, all you distant parts of the earth. Prepare for battle, but be terrified. Prepare for battle, but be terrified. Make plans for battle, but they will never succeed. Give orders, but they won’t be carried out, because God is with us! (verses 9-10) For now, Judah could boast in the protection of a God they barely served; He was preserving them for the sake of the whole-hearted Servant He had promised.
The LORD had a message for the prophet, too. It had to be tough on him, knowing the destruction was imminent. So the LORD took Isaiah aside for a talk: This is what the Lord said with his powerful hand on me. He warned me not to follow the ways of these people: “Don’t say that everything these people call a conspiracy is a conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear. Don’t let it terrify you.” Remember that the Lord of Armies is holy. He is the one you should fear and the one you should be terrified of. He will be a place of safety for you (verses 11-14a). Or, “You know what’s really going on, Isaiah. While everyone is scrambling around, full of fear, trying to find out who’s responsible for this disaster, come sit by Me, your gently flowing source of life, to watch. As long as you stay by My side, you’re safe.” (Isn’t that interesting! Safety is found in the fear of the LORD. Give it some thought; maybe we’ll talk about that at a later date.)
Then the LORD opened a window and pointed far into the future when a most unusual kind of Deliverer would come: He will be a rock that makes people trip and a stumbling block for both kingdoms of Israel. He will be a trap and a snare for those who live in Jerusalem. Many will stumble. They will fall and be broken. They will be trapped and caught (verses 14b-15).
Do these verses sound familiar? Paul quoted them to the church in Rome while explaining why it was so hard for the Jewish nation to receive their Messiah (Romans 9:33). Jesus used it as a hook for the Pharisees when explaining why the religious couldn’t inherit His kingdom (Matthew 21:42-44). Why is the cure for some a curse for the rest? I can’t say it any better than Motyer:
“The same God in his unchanging nature is both sanctuary and snare; it depends on how people respond to his holiness.”
Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 95. InterVarsity Press
Isaiah got up from his talk with God and with resolve set his face to be the message God called him to be in the midst of a people who refused to understand.
Tie up the written instructions. Seal the teachings among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who hides his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will hope in him. I am here with the children that the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord of Armies, who lives on Mount Zion. (verses 16-18)
Isaiah’s family was God’s word wrapped in skin. They were living prophecies of God’s eternal plan. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz: God’s people will be carried off as booty. Shear-Jashub: A remnant will return. Isaiah: God is salvation. And let’s not forget Isaiah’s wife: the bearer of God’s word.
People will say to you, “Ask for help from the mediums and the fortunetellers, who whisper and mutter.” Shouldn’t people ask their God for help instead? Why should they ask the dead to help the living? They should go to the teachings and to the written instructions. If people don’t speak these words, it is because it doesn’t dawn on them. (verses 19-20)
Desperate people will look in the most unusual places to find answers, won’t they? What is it in the heart of man that so easily accepts every answer but the one God offers? Something is missing: courage. Courage isn’t the same as bravery. Bravery is the ability to confront the difficult and dangerous without fear. Courage is the ability to confront the difficult and dangerous despite fear. Trusting God is hard, but what else is there? Nothing else is working! Sometimes when someone says, “Let’s pray.” I say, “Has it come to that?” I’m joking, of course. But the sad truth is, God is not always the first place we look for deliverance. Often, His idea doesn’t dawn on us until there’s nowhere else to turn.
They will pass through the land when they are hard-pressed and hungry. When they are hungry, they will be furious. Then they will look up, cursing their king and God. They will look at the earth and see only distress and gloom. They will go in anguish and be forced into darkness. (verses 21-22)
My heart hurts for those who curse God. I pray for those who refuse to believe. It must be a scary place out there without Jesus. I know this blog is supposed to be a teaching blog, but can it be a preaching blog for just a second? Yes? OK.
Be God’s word with skin on.
Finally, an encouragement: In John 7, that most unusual Deliverer, Jesus, stood up and announced that He was the source of living water, their gentle stream of Shiloah. The Jews were looking for a mighty mover, like the waters of the Euphrates, and they overlooked the source of everlasting life. Although few recognized him in the flesh, we have the privilege of knowing Him by the Spirit. And though He’s easy to miss, He’s still moving, still providing, still sustaining. He’s peace and provision in the midst of the raging waters of COVID, uncertain economics, and crazy, crazy politics. We're drowning in a flood of words: conspiracy theories, distress, and gloom. One word rises to the top: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'"