Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test’” (Isa. 7:10-12, ESV). Have you ever wished that God would just give you a sign? When faced with difficult decisions or overwhelming circumstances, wouldn’t it be great if God could just spell out his answer for you in the stars, or send an angel with a reassuring message? Perhaps even the proverbial “handwriting on the wall” would be nice now and then (although, for Babylon’s King Belshazzar, the handwriting on the wall spelled doom: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. “You have been numbered, you have been weighed, and you have been found wanting. Now your kingdom will be taken away” [Daniel 5]).
The circumstances surrounding our Old Testament lesson are the kind of situation in which most godly people would seek a sign from God. What am I supposed to do in this situation, Lord? Should I do this or that? Should I go here or there? Should I marry this girl? Should I accept this job offer? Is it the right time to move my family across the country? How do I know which college to go to? Should I homeschool my kids, put them in a Lutheran school, or send them to public school? Is this really a good business deal or just a scam? Are you going to heal me, Lord, or should I prepare for my end?
King Ahaz needed a sign. But to understand the dilemma he faced, we need to understand the context leading up to our Old Testament lesson. In the opening verses of Isaiah, chapter 7, we learn that the city of Jerusalem, is besieged by a military alliance of Syria and Israel. According to the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, this was to punish Ahaz for his wickedness and idolatry. For Ahaz was one of the worst kings ever to sit on David’s throne. He erected altars and high places to worship all kinds of foreign gods, including the fertility god Baal and even the chief god of Syria—his enemy! Ahaz “sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Chron. 28:4). But worst of all, Ahaz even engaged in child sacrifice, burning his own son alive in worship of the bloodthirsty Canaanite god known as Molech (2 Kings 16:3).
Ahaz needed a wakeup call, so the LORD God, Yahweh, sent the joint forces of Syria and Israel against him. Before laying siege to Jerusalem, they devastated the countryside of Judah, killing 120,000 soldiers and taking 200,000 prisoners all in a single day (2 Chron. 28:5-8). So Ahaz, king of the southern kingdom of Judah, was afraid—very afraid. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isa. 7:2).
But Ahaz came up with a plan: he would dispatch messengers to go and buy the military aid of Assyria, the rising superpower in the Ancient Near East. (Please note: Assyria, once located in modern day Turkey and northern Iraq, is not to be confused with Syria. Assyria’s capital was Nineveh, roughly corresponding to modern-day Mosul, Iraq). Ahaz raided the royal treasury and even stole money from the Temple in order to secure a military alliance with Tiglath Pileser III (2 Chron. 28:20-21). Faced with a military threat, he tried to hire the biggest, baddest dude on the block to have his back. For Assyria was a nasty nation known for scorched earth warfare and taking no prisoners. In many ancient depictions of the Assyrians, they march triumphantly with their defeated enemies’ heads on pikes. So Ahaz’s plan was to bribe the biggest bully in the ancient world.
But Yahweh knew this would spell disaster and bring doom upon his people. Instead of making a new friend, Ahaz would turn Judah into a vassal and puppet state of the mighty Assyrians. Instead of trusting in his money to buy a solution to his problems, he needed rather to repent of his idolatry and worship the one, living God of Israel instead.
So God sent the prophet Isaiah to warn Ahaz not to worry about the Israelite and Syrian invasion of his country: “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps…” (Isa. 7:4). In other words, Ahaz worried about smoke where there was no fire. Syria and Israel were not truly a menace to be feared. God had his own plan to destroy them, so theirs was an empty threat: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isa. 7:7). And so Isaiah cautioned Ahaz to trust in Yahweh and not give up hope. “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isa. 7:9b). Or, as one pastor puts it, “If you won’t lean on me, how can I support you?” Or, as we read in the Psalms, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of [Yahweh] our God” (Ps. 20:7).
Isaiah tried to reassure Ahaz and convince him to trust in God instead of military might. He even urged Ahaz to ask for a sign to confirm his promise—a rather generous offer, especially when you consider Ahaz’s unfaithfulness and the fact that elsewhere in the Scriptures, God told his people not to put him to the test (cf. Matt. 4:7). Christ himself repeatedly declared that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign…” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4). But when God himself sends the prophet of Yahweh to command you to ask for a sign, you had better ask!
But Ahaz refused to ask for a sign. He’d already made up his mind to call upon the Assyrian army instead of Yahweh his God. “I will not ask,” he said, “and I will not put the LORD to the test” (Isa. 7:12). The king sounded so pious, but he was a hypocrite.
Of course, Ahaz’s piety was just for pretend, a “polished halo act.” He wasn’t interested in God’s way. He didn’t want to hang everything on hope and a Word from the Lord. He wanted to get things done in a concrete way: money and military might—the two things which buy and secure power in the world. According to Gary Light: “Ahaz knew the theology, but to him it was all just words. In a crisis in the real world, he wanted something more, something that could be seen and touched. Assyrian iron was easier to trust than YHWH’s words.”
Ahaz would not ask for a sign, as God commanded, so Yahweh himself would give a sign. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” which means “God [is] with us” (Isa. 7:14; cf. Matt. 1:23). A virgin girl who never knew a man would give birth to a son! Who ever heard of such a thing as a pregnant virgin?! Yet God creates life where life should not exist because he is not bound by our conventions or sensibilities. A miracle baby would be born with the name Immanuel as a sign that God loves his people and doesn’t not abandon them. He is with them. And so Ahaz should have trusted and believed instead of turning his back on God.
So despite this wonderful promise of a royal Son who would signify (and embody) God’s presence with his people in the flesh, Ahaz would not live to see it or reap the benefit of this glorious miracle. The Lord would still rescue Judah from Israel and Syria, which would both be wiped off the map within just a few decades, but Judah would come under the thumb of Assyria, and the line of kings would falter and fail until no one was left to sit on David’s throne. As one preacher has it, “Ahaz would save his throne, but at the cost of his country’s soul.”
Within a hundred years of Ahaz’s death, the monarchy would be finished. For with the exception of a few bright spots (Hezekiah and Josiah), the kings who came after Ahaz were all wicked and corrupt. Ahaz’s grandson Manasseh followed in his footsteps, turning to child sacrifice and turning his back on Yahweh. For this, God assured Judah of its doom. By 586 B.C., the walls of Jerusalem were torn down, the temple was destroyed, and King Zedekiah was carted off to Babylon in chains—but not before his sons were killed in front of him just before they plucked out his eyes. That way, the last thing that the last king of Judah beheld was the end of his hope. And so the line of kings failed. “The promise awaited its time but the threat was immediate.”
Then, more than 700 years after Ahaz, the promise of Immanuel finally came to be. After centuries of faltering faith and lost hope, Yahweh still kept his promise to Ahaz. Yet it was not enough simply for God to be with us or for us (on our team). He decided to become one of us. So the angel Gabriel visited a teenaged girl from Nazareth named Mary and told he that she was to become the mother of God’s own Son. Indeed, the virgin did conceive and gave birth to a Son and called his name Jesus, for he came to save us—his people—from our sins. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:22-23).
Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh, God with skin in the game. Jesus is God with us, and for us, and as one of us. Jesus is the sign of Immanuel promised to King Ahaz, who refused to believe God’s Word and so he died without hope. Now Jesus is God’s Word made flesh (John 1:1, 18). He draws near to us in the womb of Mary and in the manger of Bethlehem. You did not ask for this sign, but God gives him, nevertheless. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa. 9:6a).
Nearly every day we long for a sign from God, a word of comfort or assurance. Yet of this we can be sure—that the sign is already given: Jesus in the manger, Jesus on the cross, and Jesus rising out of the empty tomb. So the next time that you wish for a sign, look to the manger and the cross. There is your sign: Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us.” In the name of Jesus, Amen.