Isaiah 7: Stay calm. Don't panic.
Updated: May 5
When the ten tribes of Israel rebelled against the house of David, they took up headquarters at Shechem in Samaria. With no access to the temple in Jerusalem, they established their own shrines, one in Bethel and one in Dan, established a priesthood outside of Aaron’s line, and set up golden calves in place of the Ark of the Covenant. Although they continued to call themselves “Israel,” they had no favored standing in the eyes of God. His prophets referred to them as Ephraim, and their kings no longer sought the counsel of God Most High.
The tribe of Judah, for the most part, remained loyal to the God of their fathers. They maintained the temple in Jerusalem with priests from the line of Aaron, and their kings were from the family of David as God had decreed. That lineage didn’t guarantee godliness, though. It seems that about every second generation, the heir to the throne was an idolatrous, evil king—as was Ahaz, the grandson of Uzziah.
Grandfather Uzziah had been a good king. He made Judah strong and caused them to prosper. His son, Jotham, was a good king, too—he walked steadfastly before the Lord his God ( 2 Chronicles 27 ). But Ahaz? Ahaz was a cowardly, superstitious, and hypocritical ruler. He worshiped the gods of Assyria and sacrificed his son to Molech ( 2 Kings 16:1-4 ). The only good thing Ahaz seemed to do was father Hezekiah, who became the good king of what was left of Judah when his father was done with it.
I found chapter 7 of Isaiah kind of hard to follow, so I went to The Voice translation to see if it was a little less intimidating.
When Ahaz (Uzziah’s grandson, Jotham’s son) was king here in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, a coalition of two other kings—Pekah (Remaliah’s son) from the Northern Kingdom (also called Israel and Ephraim) and Rezin from Aram (which is Syria)—determined to attack our capital Jerusalem. But they failed to take it. (You can read about it in 2 Kings 16.) This is what happened: when our royal house (descended from David) heard that Aram was in league with Ephraim against us, the king was terrified. The news shook the hearts of the people like trees in the wind. So the Eternal told Isaiah to get involved.
Eternal One: Catch up with Ahaz at the end of the stream that comes out of the upper pool—you know, the one at the highway where they wash and bleach cloth. And bring your son who’s named Shear-jashub (which means “Returning Remnant”).
The LORD sent Isaiah and his son out to meet King Ahaz with a prophecy for Judah and Jerusalem. Now, why would God tell Isaiah to take his son with him to deliver a word to the king? His son's name, Shear-Jashub, means “a remnant shall return.” Depending on if you are a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty person, the name could be a promise: “I will not utterly forsake you,” or a warning: “Only a remnant will survive.” We’ve read enough of Isaiah to know that it was probably both. So, Isaiah could be taking Shear-Jashub because his name would be a reminder to the king of what God had said about their future. But I think there’s another reason too, and we’ll talk about that a little later.
Tell Ahaz, “Keep your wits about you. Stay calm. Don’t panic just because those two angry northerners, Rezin of Aram and Pekah (Remaliah’s son), threaten you and say: ‘Let’s march against Judah, terrorize the people, overthrow it, and set up Tabeel’s son as our puppet king.’”
Aram and Ephraim were scrambling. They had made an alliance with each other, not out of friendship, but out of fear of the advancing Assyrian army. They weren’t necessarily out to destroy Judah, but to replace the rightful king (I said “rightful,“ not “right.” Ahaz was on the throne simply because he was a descendant of David, not because he had earned the crown.) with their own puppet so they could take control of the strong army that kings Uzziah and Jotham had raised up.
Ahaz saw Aram and Ephraim as a terrible threat. God looked at Aram and Ephraim as two smoldering stubs of wood (NIV)—a whole lot of smoke, but no fire.
Eternal One: It’s not going to work; what they determine is not going to happen. The head of Aram is Damascus, and its head is King Rezin; Ephraim’s head is Samaria, and its king is Remaliah’s son. Ephraim will fall apart as a nation and as a people within 65 years. Now then, if you don’t hold firm, if you don’t believe, you will not remain firm.
A government is only as good as its leaders, right? (Wrong question a couple of weeks before the election, I know.) And God obviously didn’t have much respect for Rezin and Pekah. He had arranged world events so that in 65 years the rebellious kingdom of Ephraim would be history. He wanted Ahaz to hold on, to have faith, and He sent Isaiah to tell him. Did it work? Let’s see:
The Eternal One also said this to our king, Ahaz: Ask for proof, a sign from the Eternal your God. Go ahead, ask anything, anything at all; it can be high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead. Ahaz: No way. I wouldn’t dare to ask, to test the Eternal One.
Pious, isn’t he? Knows the Scripture ( Deuteronomy 6:16 ). Noble. Wise. Humble. Right?
Wrong. If we ask God for a sign, we may be showing a lack of faith. But if God tells us to ask Him for a sign, and we refuse, we are showing a lack of common sense. God was providing Ahaz an opportunity to see His power at work, and Ahaz refused.
So did Ahaz really refrain because he thought it was irreverent to ask? I don’t think so. Ahaz had already made up his mind to seek Assyria’s help. Apparently, he trusted in what he thought they could do more than he trusted in God to do what He said He would do. Apparently, Ahaz didn’t understand that God's word is set in stone. God’s promise to keep a descendant of David on the throne forever didn’t change just because a descendant of David was a terrible king. (As was Ahaz.) What wasn’t set in stone, though, was the protection that would have been Ahaz’s had he only trusted in God, asked for a sign, then watched God work. But he didn’t. He was the Old Testament equivalent of a Pharisee. He used the law of God to avoid doing the will of God.
So, God said (I’m switching to the NIV):
“Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
This was one of the most confusing passages for me. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas Eve service, you know who Immanuel is. It’s Jesus, and this was a prophecy of His birth. He would be “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23) Yet, verse 16 says the land will be laid waste before the child has started on solid food. Ephraim was emptied 65 years after Isaiah said this yet Jesus didn’t come for another 700 years. So I asked the commentators. Those who had anything to say said basically the same thing. One of them, Stephen Armstrong, pointed me to an interlinear Bible, where I confirmed what they were saying.
First, in verse 13, Isaiah is addressing the nation— “Hear now, house of David…” It was the nation that was trying God’s patience, not just the king. And so the sign God was going to give was not just for Ahaz, but for all of David’s descendants for all time.
Second, the English language confuses so many things by using the same word— “you”—to mean one or many. Not so in the Hebrew. I’m going to use Stephen Armstrong’s technique to bring some clarity to this. (Stephen Armstrong is from Texas.) Here is what these verses really say: “Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for y’all to try the patience of men, that y’all will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give y’all a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. Before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
The prophecy about Immanuel was for the benefit of all. The prophecy of Aram and Ephraim’s defeat was for the benefit of Ahaz. So this is one of those dual prophecies. Part is for the present, part is for the future, and part of it has its fulfillment in both.
Third, the son (verse 14) and the boy (verse 16) aren’t the same child. How do we know? The son Immanuel will know the difference between good and evil while he is still eating baby food. That fits, right? Jesus was sinless from birth. The other little boy, a “toddler“ according to the Hebrew word, will come to an age of accountability; at some point, he will come to know enough to choose what is good. And before that happens, Aram and Israel will be given over to Assyria. So who was that second child? Who was the toddler? Commentators convinced me that when Isaiah said “the boy” he was pointing to his son, Shear-Jashub. So that’s why he was there! Isaiah brought him along as a visual aid to impress upon Ahaz that time for Aram and Ephraim was running out, that if he would hang on for another decade or so, he would be free of them. (Ephraim was defeated 14 years later, but they weren't exiled until 51 years after that.) That would have been good news had Isaiah stopped there. But Ahaz’s refusal to ask God for a sign—his refusal to trust in God to deliver him—had dire consequences.
In that day (when Aram and Ephraim are taken over by the Assyrians), the Lord will whistle for flies from the Nile delta in Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. They will all come and settle in the steep ravines and in the crevices in the rocks, on all the thornbushes and at all the water holes.
Isaiah wasn’t talking about ordinary swarms of insects, although that in itself would have been quite miserable. He was referring to the armies from the lands of Egypt (known for flies since the time of Moses) and Assyria (famous for their honey bees). These two powerful forces, advancing toward each other, would meet in the hills of Judah and battle it out there. So although the kingdom of Judah wouldn’t be under attack, the land of Judah would bear the brunt of the damage.
Isaiah went on to say:
In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and private parts and to cut off your beard also.
Middle Eastern men knew no greater shame than to be shaved; having hair showed their virility and maturity. Thus, their honor would be stripped away by the dreaded Assyrians’ sharp razors.
In that day, a person will keep alive a young cow and two goats. And because of the abundance of the milk they give, there will be curds to eat. All who remain in the land will eat curds and honey.
There would be enough livestock to provide milk and cheese and the like, but if they butchered Bossy and the two goats for protein, well, no more milk and cheese. And milk and cheese for life is better than shwarma for a season.
In that day, in every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, there will be only briers and thorns. Hunters will go there with bow and arrow, for the land will be covered with briers and thorns.
No more wine; the end of agriculture; the return of subsistence hunting.
As for all the hills once cultivated by the hoe, you will no longer go there for fear of the briers and thorns; they will become places where cattle are turned loose and where sheep run.
Aram and Ephraim’s attack on Jerusalem was ultimately unsuccessful, but their advance on Judah took its toll. 2 Chronicles 28 documents the damage: Pekah killed 120,000 valiant men in Judah in one day because they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers. The Syrian army carried away a multitude of captives. The king of Israel also took 200,000 men, women, and children captive before the prophet Oded ordered they be sent back home.
2 Kings 16 tells us that Judah was saved from Aram and Ephraim because Ahaz entered into an ungodly alliance with Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria; that he presented him with silver and gold from the temple to win his favor and protection; that he remodeled the house of the LORD to look like the pagan altars he saw in Damascus. When Ahaz chose Assyria over God as his source of protection and deliverance, the “house of David” was handed over to a long line of puppet kings and centuries of alien domination. The name of the overlord changed from Assyria to Babylon to Persia to Greece and, finally, to Rome, when Immanuel, “God with us,” came to inherit an invisible throne and pay the price to redeem His people. God kept his promise to King David, but king Ahaz received the reward of his unbelief.
Oh, the price of human wisdom!