This is a great text to take us one step deeper into trusting God during the season of Advent. First, some background information. The context for this section of scripture can be found in 2 Kings 16 where political and military trouble surrounds Ahaz in the year 735 BC. The Northern Kingdom together with Syria sought an alliance with Judah against Tiglath-Pileser III who was advancing with his Assyrian troops onto their lands. Israel had already suffered defeat from the Assyrians and knew they needed more help to resist them. So, with threats from the Assyrians and warnings that he had better capitulate to this coalition, Isaiah comes to offer Ahaz the most gracious alternate proposal from the Lord of hosts. Isaiah tells the king of Judah not to fear because of the small threats against him (7:4-9). Ahaz must choose between trusting in the Lord or in the armies and nations surrounding him.
By saying, “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz” (verse 10), it means homiletically this passage is connected to the previous pericope. The context from the previous section is that the allied forces are attempting to attack Jerusalem, which also implies the context for our text is a setting of fear. In terms of Law development in the sermon, this will help to serve the Gospel proclamation. What fears do we have that rob us of trust? So, from this context in verse 10, God graciously offers Ahaz any sign he wants to convince him to trust in God and not be afraid.
Unfortunately, palm-to-face, Ahaz refuses the sign, saying he will not test the Lord. Idiot! This was not a test. It was an offer! God graciously brushes aside Ahaz’s false piety and objection and gives him a sign anyway. Isaiah says to Ahaz, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign” (verses 13–14a). By giving the sign even with the king’s refusal, God shows His people steadfast love, faithfulness, and grace. Of course, this immediately calls to mind Matthew’s gospel, when he quotes Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name Him Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23). This is the Gospel we are heading for in the sermon. However, spending time in the context will give us a richer message which is more than just a set-up and knock-down without any development of the textual understanding, theological confession, or practical application for our hearers.
Unfortunately, palm-to-face, Ahaz refuses the sign, saying he will not test the Lord. Idiot! This was not a test. It was an offer!
God was gracious to Ahaz, but Ahaz’s refusal becomes an interesting point to develop homiletically. Ahaz’s refusal is interesting because of the reason he gives. When God instructs Ahaz to ask for a sign, Ahaz responds: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test” (verse 12). At first blush, it seems like the right kind of answer, an answer full of piety and something akin to Solomon’s response to God in 1 Kings 3:1-15. Do we not all secretly wonder though if Solomon wanted to ask for more? Ahaz seems to be piously following God’s Law, but Isaiah makes it clear the king is thoroughly missing the point of God’s offer. Ahaz is not “testing” God if he accepts God’s gracious offer, but instead it is God who is “testing” Ahaz. So, Ahaz’s refusal is a rejection of trust in the living God who is graciously giving him His Word and is promising to be with him in the midst of his trouble.
This reminds me of just about every person who refuses to go to worship because they believe, “The roof will fall in on them once they arrive.” How many people use pious sounding language to refuse to go to church or to receive the Sacraments? How many people reject God’s gracious gifts because of sacred excuses? A better line of questioning perhaps could be: How does God meet you in unexpected ways? How does God meet you with unexpected grace? So, consider the offer God gives to Ahaz: How do you respond in trust to the God who is with us? This is a perfect line of thinking in Advent as we prepare for the second coming of Christ the King who is our Emmanuel.
Ultimately, this text is pointing past the specific context of a specific problem at a specific time in Israel’s past. Prophecy has a way of telescoping. Like the scene in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman, we look through the telescope and see the danger to Ahaz is really close, but it also speaks of the trouble far away from Ahaz, this being the trouble the Roman and Idumean context of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem and the trouble of the world we live in as well. A sign was given to Ahaz to point him toward the greater sign given in a manger and that Bethlehem’s Messiah is the sign we look forward to seeing in the sky when Jesus, our Emmanuel, comes again (Matthew 24:30).
When interpreting Isaiah in context, this prophecy concerning the child is actually more than just a little vague. For instance, we do not know the identity of the mother. We also have no idea why it matters she is a virgin, and we cannot yet know how the sign of the child relates exactly to him being Immanuel. This is more than a little disturbing to preachers who think this is an easy text and upon exegetical inspection get more than they bargained for. However, for that reason, we should not give up on preaching on it. There is more to this sign than simple point-to-point rectilinear prophecy. For instance, this sign is both good news and bad news since it is both Law and Gospel. This sign is the fullness of the Word of God. I know the ambiguous nature of the prophecy may be troubling, but perhaps this very ambiguity can serve the purpose of teaching us to trust in the one thing which is clear in the text: The promise that God is with us in the midst of a world filled with fear and uncertainty. This is a theological confession worth developing in light of the Advent candle wreath.
The certain promises of God amidst a world of ambiguity teaches us that in Christmas time, when everyone around us is brimming with confidence and commerce, there is still lingering in us serious doubts and questions about life and faith in an uneasy world. Isaiah offers us a chance to name these doubts and acknowledge they are really there. Then God graciously comes to us by His Word and offers us the sign of Emmanuel, the incarnation of Christ, and the promise of Christ’s return at the end. We are called to trust and have faith in God’s presence with us even when all the details are not clear. We live as a community of trust in a world where all the details do not seem obvious.
We live as a community of trust in a world where all the details do not seem obvious.
In Silence, a novel by Shusaku Endo (and now a Martin Scorsese film), tells the story of what it is like to find grace in suffering and to see God’s presence with us in the unexpected places of life. His fictional account is based off the real-life persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan. In his book, the Japanese persecutors would have a test to prove believers were no longer Christians. Those who were suspected of being secret Christians were required to trample on a fumie, which is a carved image of the likeness of Christ. If they did not trample on the image of Christ, they were brutally tortured and killed. Those who did trample on the image of Christ lived with deep shame. This is the powerful telling of that story. At the conclusion, a young, faithful missionary had been betrayed (again) by those closest to him and was dragged before the Japanese officials to trample on the image of Christ. As he was staring at the fumie, the face he saw in the carving was filled with exhaustion and sorrow, just like him. As the missionary continued to stare at the fumie, the voice of Christ spoke directly to him. With surprising grace, Christ tells him to go ahead and trample the image. This seems an unusual test of his faith. Why would Christ say this? Is this a test? Should he remain pious and refuse? Christ insists (not to make the young missionary an apostate) to teach this young man the way of the Cross. Christ assures him that he came to be trampled on. This is why Jesus came to the cross and why He has this young missionary there right now, to share in His suffering so he might share in His resurrection as well. The point was to embrace the sufferings of the cross and not to try and live in the false theology of glory free from recognizing grace in the midst of suffering.
Endo’s difficult and profound work asks a similar question of us which is also seen in Isaiah’s encounter with Ahaz: How do we live in trust to the gracious and unexpected presence of the living God with us in Christ? We live in the saving grace of Jesus, who is God-with-us here in the midst of suffering by the power of His resurrection.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 7:10-17.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 7:10-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 7:10-17.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Walter A. Maier III Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Isaiah 7:10-17.