God With Us
Imagine I read a news report to you this morning that said this: “After years of sleep, a major global superpower, far to the east, awakens to expand its empire and swallow up neighbouring countries. Smaller nations band together in alliances, and are nervously suspicious of those who won’t join them against the eastern aggressor. Former treaties fall apart as each nation tries to find its place in the new global order.”
When would you say that news report could have been written? 2022 maybe? Perhaps. But what about 753 BC? Isaiah ministered in a day when current events sound surprisingly familiar to our present day, and Isaiah 7 plunges us right into the middle of these turbulent days.
In chapter 6, we found ourselves in the year that king Uzziah died. In Isaiah 7, we’ve jumped ahead to the first year of king Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson. We know from 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 that he was 20 years old when he began to reign. So picture not only a brand-new king, but a really young king at that.
And the situation going on in the wider world is that Assyria, the big superpower to the east, is gaining strength and it starting to scare people in Ahaz’ part of the world. They had been a threat in times past, but in Uzziah’s day they had backed off somewhat. But now Assyria has a new king, and they have fresh ambitions to take over the world, and so they are turning up the pressure again on these western states.
And so several of these states, including the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria, form an alliance together to defend themselves against Assyria. Please note that there is a difference between Syria and Assyria. Syria, or Aram, was a country that bordered Israel where present day Syria is located, whereas Assyria was the major empire much further to the east, with a heartland in present-day Iraq.
So these countries form an alliance against Assyria, but from what we can tell, the kingdom of Judah refuses to join that alliance. And so that’s a weak spot for this group of kings. They’re trying to huddle up all of these countries against Assyria, and one of them says no—so maybe he’s going to be friendly to Assyria? That’s big threat to them.
And in fact, we know from 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 that Ahaz is being drawn towards Assyria. We don’t know if these other two kings have sniffed that out or not, but either way, Israel and Syria make plans to invade Judah and do a regime change. They want to take out Ahaz and replace him with a king who will join their coalition against Assyria.
And they intend to do this right in the first year of Ahaz’ reign—right when he’s still wet behind the ears both as an adult and a king, still getting settled and established.
And that’s where Isaiah 7 picks up: “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:1–2).
This is one of the worst things that could happen for the nation, let alone a new king. Israel shares a big border with Judah, and Jerusalem is close to that border. Having their close neighbour turn on you and invade, with Syrian support, is terrifying news for Judah and their new king.
Isaiah’s First Message
And so God sends Isaiah to speak to the king. “And the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field’” (Isaiah 7:3).
So Isaiah is supposed to go meet the king with his son. And not because it’s national take-your-child-to-work-with-you-day, but because Isaiah’s son is himself a part of the sign. We’re going to see this again in Isaiah, that his children are given names which themselves are prophetic messages to the nation.
“Shear-Jashub” means “a remnant shall return” and so his very presence suggests both the theme of God’s judgement (that exile will happen) but also grace (that not everyone will be taken, but a remnant shall return). And so Isaiah goes out with his son to meet the king “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool.” This is an important detail, because this conduit was a part of the siege preparations. This was like an aqueduct where water could flow into Jerusalem so that they could survive being surrounded by their enemies.
So they’re out there at this spot where the king is perhaps inspecting the siege preparations, knowing the armies are coming, and Isaiah has his son whose very presence means “a remnant shall return,” and this is the message Isaiah gives to Ahaz:
“And say to 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. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord God: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all”’” (Isaiah 7:4–9).
So let’s pull apart this message to Ahaz. First, in verse 4, Isaiah tells Ahaz in four different ways not to be afraid and not to act on that fear. He says, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.”
Notice here that we don’t just see a command to not to be afraid. We see two commands to not to be afraid: “Do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.” But even before we get there, we find two commands which tell Ahaznot to act on his fear. “Be careful, be quiet.” In other words, don’t go rushing off and doing stuff. Don’t say a lot. Just be quiet and still.
This is important given what we know from 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28—that Ahaz’s knee-jerk reaction to this attack was to reach out to Assyria for help. To try to do something. And through Isaiah, God is telling him not to do that. Not to rush out and try to fix this himself. Instead, he just needs to rest, and hold his tongue, and not fear.
And the reason is that, from God’s perspective, this attack from Rezin and Pekah is not a big deal. These two puny human kings are nothing to be afraid of. God makes that clear in verse 4 when we refers to them as “two smouldering stumps of firebrands.” They are like two pieces of firewood after the fire has gone out, and they are just sitting their smoking. In other words, they are spent fuel. Their power is all used up already.
The second major way that God encourages Ahaz to not be afraid is by contrasting him with these other kings. So notice, at the end of verse 4, and the middle of verse 5, and in the middle of verse 9, Pekeh’s name is not used. Instead, he’s referred to as “the son of Remaliah.” Notice again in verse 6 the phrase “son of Tabeel.”
You might ask, why is that important? Who is Ramaliah and Tabeel? And the answer is that Ramaliah and Tabeel are nobodies. Literally. We know basically nothing about them. They certainly weren’t kings. Pekah and this son of Tabeel weren’t a part of a dynasty or family of kings. They were just guys who wanted to rule.
But who was Ahaz? He was the son of David. He was a part of a dynasty, a family of kings going back to David, a family line that God promised to keep on the throne. 2 Samuel 7 and so many Psalms were dripping with promises about the royal son of David, and Ahaz was in that line. As long as he kept trusting God, He had nothing to fear.
That’s also the gist of these words in verses 8-9. Verse 8 reminds him that the capital city of Syria is Damascus, and the leader of Damascus is just Rezin—just an ordinary man in an ordinary city. Similarly, verse 9, the capital city of Ephraim or Israel is Samaria, and the leader of Samaria is this guy whose name doesn’t even deserve to be used. Just an ordinary guy in an ordinary city.
But think of Ahaz’ kingdom. The head of Judah was Jerusalem, not just an ordinary city, but the city that God had promised to be in. And the head of Jerusalem was Ahaz, David’s heir, with the promise of God’s protection on him. And so as long as he trusted God, he had nothing to worry about. And God told him this directly. In verse 7 he said about Israel and Syria’s plans, “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7). And even more devastatingly, in verse 8, he says about Israel, “within sixty-five years, Ephraim will be shattered form being a people.”
Israel and Damascus were just normal kingdoms governed by normal men in normal cities. They were relying on alliances with other normal countries led by normal kings in normal cities. And it was not going to work out well for them at all. Israel was going to cease to exist within just a few decades.
But the kingdom of Judah was governed by David’s heir who ruled from God’s special city. So Ahaz shouldn’t try to follow Israel’s example. He should not reach out to Assyria to try to make an alliance. He should not trust in just another human power for salvation. His only hope here is to trust in God, like verse 9 finishes up: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” That’s where the strength of the people will come from: trusting in God.
So, that’s the first part of Isaiah’s message here to Ahaz and the nation behind him. These two other kingdoms are nothing to worry about. You are David’s heir, ruling from God’s city, so trust His promises and sit tight, and whatever you do, don’t do what these northern kingdoms did by reaching out to other human nations for security. Don’t make an alliance with Assyria. Trust God and you’ll be safe.
The Sign of Immanuel
Now that’s all that God needs to say. Ahaz already has enough here to go on. He knows about the promises to David. He’s heard this word from the Lord through Isaiah.
But God takes another step towards Ahaz. He knows how easy it will be for Ahaz to be in fear, so reaches out with even more grace to strengthen his faith in God’s promises. And so we read, in verse 10, “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven’” (Isaiah 7:10–11).
There are times in the Bible when people ask God for a sign, and it’s not a good move on their part. It’s a sign of unbelief. But here, God Himself is offering the sign, because He wants to strengthen the faith of Ahaz in the face of these invading armies. And he basically gives Ahaz a blank cheque. “Ask anything you want. I’ll move heaven and earth to prove to you that I’m with you.”
What an incredible offer. What an incredible gesture of grace from God to this new king.
But don’t get too excited. Verse 12: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test’” (Isaiah 7:12). That sounds very pious, doesn’t it? “No, I won’t put God to the test.”
Except, God told you to put him to the test! God made this offer! God told you to ask!
But here’s Ahaz, pretending he’s better than God. Pretending he’s holier-than-thou. And perhaps that’s because Ahaz has already determined not to trust God. Maybe Ahaz has already decided to reach out to Assyria for help, and he doesn’t want to be proven wrong. Either way, Ahaz does not want to believe, and so he brushes this offer off like he’s too good for it.
And Isaiah’s response is not kind. “And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (Isaiah 7:13). In other words, “Did you get bored trying to grate on people’s nerves, that now you’re trying to grate on God’s nerves too? Like, seriously, man.” Isaiah sees through Ahaz’ religious words and knows that there is a heart of unbelief lurking right in behind.
And the next thing he tells him is that God won’t be deterred by his unbelief. God offered a sign, and if Ahaz won’t obey and ask for it, God is going to give him one anyways.
Verse 14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”” (Isaiah 7:14–17).
This sign that God gives Ahaz is bad news for Ahaz’ enemies. The sign goes like this: there is a woman, who at that point in time was a virgin. She was going to conceive a child, and call his name “God with us,” a reminder that God was with His people. And before that boy was old enough to to know and choose the difference between good and bad, verse 16, “the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”
In other words, there’s a countdown clock that’s on. It’s going to take 9 months for this woman to have a baby, and then however long it takes that baby to grow up to the point that he’s able to follow his conscience. So that’s maybe three or so years in total? And by that time, Israel and Syria won’t be anything to worry about. They are going to be wiped out.
So this sign is bad news for Ahaz’s enemies. But this sign is also bad news for Ahaz. God knows that Ahaz has an unbelieving heart, and that he already has—or soon will—reach out to Assyria for help. God knows that 2 Kings 16:7 is going to happen, or maybe had happened already: “So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Kings 16:7).
Ahaz surrendered his Davidic lineage, surrendered God’s protection, and put his hope in the king of Syria. And because of this, God’s judgement was coming on Judah.
Verse 15 says that this child named Immanuel “shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Curds and honey, as we’ll see later on in the passage, is, in this context, the food of poor people. Hard times are coming to Judah. Because, verse 17, “The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!” (Isaiah 7:17).
This guy that you think will be your saviour and protector is going to be your oppressor and your enemy. And that’s exactly what 2 Chronicles 29:20 says. “So Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came against him and afflicted him instead of strengthening him.”
And verses 18 and following in our passage give four vivid word pictures of what these invading Assyrians were going to do. Verses 18-19 compare the Assyrians to insects who will fill the land like an infestation. Verse 20 compares Assyria to a razor who will leave Israel humiliated and bare. To have your beard shaven off in Israel was a dishonour, and Assyria was basically going to do that for the nation.
Verses 21-22 says that the population of the land will be so small that a single cow and two sheep will provide more than enough food for everyone to eat. In other words, there won’t be a lot of people left in the land.
And verses 23-25 says that the land itself will be desolate, and what used to be beautiful farmland will become a wilderness, overgrown with weeds.
This is the judgement coming upon Judah because they turned to Assyria and trusted in that nation instead of God.
So let’s review what we’ve seen so far. Ahaz, a brand-new king, is threatened by Israel and Syria who have a plan to remove him from the throne and replace him with another ruler. He’s in terror and his knee-jerk reaction is to reach out to Assyria for help.
Through Isaiah, God tells him not to do this, but to be quiet and wait and trust, because the plans of these other nations won’t come to pass. God’s promises to David should be his comfort. And to help him in this, God offers him a sign, as big as he wants it to be.
Ahaz, however, is already locked-in to his unbelief, and so rejects this sign. But God gives him one anyways: a woman, who at that point was a virgin, was going to have a child, and by the time that child was maybe two years of age or so, Israel and Syria were going to be done as a nations. Assyria was going to wipe them out.
But because Ahaz refused to put his trust in God, Assyria was coming for them, too, and hard times were ahead for them as a nation.
But so locked-in was Ahaz’ unbelief that even this warning didn’t move him. We know that he went on to be one of the most wicked kings Judah had ever seen.
2 Chronicles 28:3 tells us that Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. He even made metal images for the Baals, and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Chronicles 28:1–4).
2 Kings 16 tells us that on his way to Damascus to meet the king of Assyria, he saw the altar to a false god there in Damascus, and had the priests back in Jerusalem build an exact copy of it and used that replica pagan altar in the temple instead of the altar of God for his sacrifices. He was an awful, wicked man. Isaiah’s words in this chapter went in one ear and out the other. He did not trust God because he didn’t want to trust God, and no promise or threat could move his stony heart.
What About You?
And so one of the big questions this passage asks us is, “What about us? What about you?” When your life starts to fall apart, when your sense of security is threatened, when you feel small and powerless and vulnerable in the face of other people or other challenges, who do you run to?
What is your Assyria, your safe bet, that you lean on and run to when things get tough?
Isn’t it true that, when we feel small and powerless, there’s so often something we want to run to right away? Maybe its your career or your skills or your possessions, all things that you surround yourself with to feel powerful. Maybe it’s a substance like food or alcohol that you use to try and comfort your heart. Maybe it’s a relationship, a person who seems to need you who helps you feel validated. Or perhaps you take the route of bullying and abuse, finding someone weaker than you whom you can hurt to make yourself feel big. Maybe it’s some virtual escape like video games or pornography where you can pretend to be strong and powerful for a few minutes. Or maybe you just give in to fear and anxiety, allowing yourself to be consumed with all of the thoughts about everything that might possibly happen to you.
So many unhealthy human behaviours and relationships are driven by this need to find a safe place for our vulnerable hearts in the middle of a big and scary world, and the fact that there is no safe place for our hearts outside of the living God. So many of our problems in life come because we go the route of Ahaz instead of his forefather David, years before him, who, when feeling small and threatened by powerful forces, found his safety in the Lord.
Running from Absalom his son, he could say, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (Psalm 3:5–6). Or who could say, after Saul died, “I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).
God was David’s refuge. And this wasn’t some abstract feeling in his heart. He really trusted God, really relied on God, really leaned on God. Like one commentator wrote, “The only way we can have God is by relying on him and using him. For the only way it is possible to accord God’s deity to him is by using him and risking one’s life upon God’s word by trusting his promises and obeying the revelation of his will.”1Quoted in J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 84.
And we can and we must lean on God amidst our weaknesses and vulnerabilities because He is the only sure place for us to trust. And because He is a God who has moved heaven and earth to prove His trustworthiness to us.
The Sign of Immanuel
And it’s here, right at this point, that we’re going to return to the “sign of Immanuel” back in verser 14 and deal with one final element in this passage that I’m sure has been driving some of you totally nuts up until now. See, we explained one angle on this sign of Immanuel—a child whose life basically signalled a 3-year countdown to the destruction of Judah’s two enemies in the north.
But that’s not all that’s going on there, is it? Aren’t there some big clues in the text that there’s more going on? Doesn’t it seem strange that God offered to move heaven and earth to give Ahaz a sign, but all that he ended up promising was just the birth of a child? Isn’t it strange that Isaiah draws attention to the fact that a virgin shall conceive? That word is always used of an unmarried young woman. Why use that word specifically? Isn’t it interesting that in the next chapter, in verse 8, Isaiah refers to Judah as “your land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:8).
That language of “your land, O Immanuel” is language used throughout the Bible for a king or even God Himself, but never of just an ordinary Hebrew.
And finally, there’s this child’s name. “Immanuel.” God is with us. How could just an ordinary child be the sure proof that God was with his people in the midst of such a turbulent time of upheaval and exile and judgement (Isaiah 8:10)?
At first this sign of Immanuel seems pretty straightforward. But if we think about it a little bit deeper, it’s not so straightforward anymore.
It’s kind of like 2 Samuel 7, where God promised a son to David. On the one hand it seems to be talking about his immediate heir, Solomon. But on the other hand, the more you think about it and read it carefully, you see that Solomon did not perfectly fulfill the promise. In fact, no mere human could perfectly fulfill the promise.
The promise given to David is like a partial sketch that sort of looks like Solomon, but points beyond Solomon to a greater Son yet to come.
And so it is here. These words about Immanuel are like a sketch that may have been initially fulfilled in Isaiah’s day, but point beyond Isaiah’s day to a day when God would move heaven and earth to give a real virgin a real son who would really be God with us (Matthew 1:23). And this child would prove that God can be trusted and that God’s grace will triumph when He hung on a cross, bearing His Father’s judgement for all the wickedness of His people. And then He would rise again and send His spirit to be with His people until the day when He would bring heaven to earth and truly live and be with us forever.
And so you and I, from our vantage point today, understand this sign of Immanuel way better than Ahaz ever did, and even way better than Isaiah even could.
We know that God is trustworthy. We know that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the solid basis for our hope and confidence. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:32, 35, 38–39).
So the question, as we close, is this: is there anywhere in your life where you are acting like Ahaz, refusing to rely fully on the Lord, refusing to lean on His promises and rest in His word?
And the exhortation, following up on that question, is: look to Christ. Look to the sign of Immanuel. Look to God-with-us who died and rose again for you and through His spirit is with us today, and who has promised to return to be with us finally and fully forever.
And it’s at this point that we’re going to pivot and turn to the Lord’s table this morning—a place where we can repent of our Ahaz-like faithlessness and unbelief, and where we can receive the forgiveness that Immanuel hung on a cross to purchase for us. And where we proclaim His death until He returns, just like His word has told us to do.