We are fresh from Christmas, and if we have been listening to the regular type of services in Christian churches, we will be familiar with that passage from Isaiah, Chapter 7, which speaks of a child being born whose name will be Immanuel. This is one of the most famous prophecies in the Old Testament and is regularly read, alongside a New Testament passage depicting the nativity, as proof that Jesus is the Christ—Christ meaning, of course, the long awaited Jewish Messiah. But more than that, the word “Immanuel” in its etymology means “God-with-us,” and so is also indicative of the whole idea of the incarnation: that God himself became a human being and lived among us.
Less well known, however, and if considered at all, is the rather remarkable context of the prophecy itself. Why was the prophecy made, and to whom? And what has that to say to us today? The story is, I think, quite astonishing.
The prophecy is made to King Ahaz at the time after the split of the Israelites into the northern kingdom (now under the reign of King Pekah) and the southern kingdom of Judah (from which the word “Jew” comes) led by Ahaz. All the kingdoms in this area close to the Mediterranean Sea are under pressure from Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian king, for Assyria is a civilization that is essentially conquering the known world at that time; its armies are savage and irresistible.
But Pekah has teamed up with the king of Syria, Rezin, in order to create an alliance to resist the advance of the Assyrians, and they are demanding that Ahaz join their alliance of resistance.
Asking God for a Sign
Isaiah, the prophet, goes to Ahaz to tell him that God has told him that Ahaz should not trust any alliance with Pekah and Rezin, but trust in God Himself and to resist this temptation. Furthermore—and here is the crux leading to the prophecy—Isaiah also informs King Ahaz that God wants to give him a sign that this prophecy is true, and that he should ask for it. Not only that, however, but God specifically gives permission for Ahaz to ask for any sign that could be shown either from the depths of hell (in Hebrew, Sheol) or from the heights of heaven itself. The Immanuel prophecy is given to King Ahaz because he rejects asking for one.
Here is the passage from Isaiah 7:
Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying,
“Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God;
make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”
This permission to ask for a sign is exceptional, particularly given the scope of it; indeed, it is difficult to think of a comparable offer in the whole Bible. First, then, why does God make the offer? Usually the situation is one of receiving the prophecy and being expected to accept it because it is the “word of God.”
We remember Jonah—a true prophet, but one who fled from the message and direction of God, and who consequently was swallowed by the whale and forced to go to Nineveh and deliver God’s prophecy of imminent destruction. There was no question of Jonah being offered a sign to confirm that he needed to travel to Nineveh, though a sign happened anyway.
But in the case of Ahaz, we do not have a reluctant or a false prophet; we have the king of Judea and Jerusalem, a descendant of King David. Apparently a religious man, for he cites scripture—”You shall not put the Lord your God to the test …” (Deuteronomy 6:16)—in order to reject the command for a confirmatory sign that would prove and establish what God’s will actually is.
He is seemingly, then, pious, but the piety is exactly of the order of Satan in the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, for Satan likewise cites scripture in order to confound the real inner meaning. Inviting Christ to throw himself off the temple building, Satan cites: “He will give His angels charge concerning you … That you do not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). Christ rebuts this by quoting the very text that Ahaz uses: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!” (Luke 4:12).
Thus, on the one hand, we have Ahaz condemned (Isaiah immediately says that Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign tries “the patience of God”) for invoking this text, and, on the other, Christ justified in its application. How can this be, and what are the important lessons?
Conversations With God
First, let’s note that the context of “testing” God connects both these passages. At the heart, therefore, of doing the “right” thing is the discernment of what is God’s will for us, individually and collectively. How do we discern what is the “right” thing to do when the texts themselves seem contradictory in that the same text justifies Christ but condemns Ahaz?
This is an important issue because many people reject religious and spiritual writings on the grounds that they are contradictory, so that God, or any or all spiritual writings concerning deity or deities must be contradictory too, and so worthless.
But this view is, as I hope to suggest, entirely superficial. We might recall those profound words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In good conversation, parties don’t speak to the words, but to the meanings of each other.” This is exactly what is happening here: Strangely, in looking at the “word” of God, we are invited not only to consider the literal words and what they might denote if we consulted a dictionary, but we are also invited to consider their meanings, which means their whole context.
In other words, God is having a conversation with us, and we must be alert to its nuances; in understanding spiritual matters, we must investigate more deeply its intentions and meanings.
Virtue-Signaling: Ahaz and Us
We see in Ahaz something that we see a lot in the modern world: virtue-signaling. It really conceals a deep evil or the heart’s evil intention. The psychiatrist and author Norman Doidge said, “Virtue signaling is, quite possibly, our commonest vice.”
Ahaz appears pious in quoting the scriptures, but in his heart he has already decided to act as if he were God, and that he knows better than God: He will form an alliance with Tiglath-Pileser III and so, through his own cleverness, avert the catastrophe that is sweeping down upon Jerusalem. The scale of the rejection of God’s offer—to show such a stupendous sign—is indicative of just how oblivious he is to God and to the world of the spirit. No amount of evidence for him would count.
If we think about Marxism, communism, socialism, and some of the other virtue-signaling philosophies that some follow, we can see exactly the same pattern. As Jordan B. Peterson observed: “If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917, there is absolutely and finally no excuse now.” Yet still the ideologues go on believing in the “rightness” of their way, despite all the historical evidence that these ideologies don’t work and only lead to the enslavement of whole populations.
Again, citing Norman Doidge, “Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to ‘make the world a better place’ before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within.”
Supping With the Devil
Finally, we observe here that because Ahaz rejects God’s way, he follows a course in which he resists evil (the invasion by Assyria) with evil; and of course, there is a catch.
Those who sup with the devil, it is said, need a long spoon. Indeed, the exact opposite of what Ahaz planned occurs: The Jews become vassals of Tiglath-Pileser, and the destruction of Jerusalem is not averted.
That Ahaz is evil is not in dispute. Perhaps the most telling detail, aside from this rejection of God’s sign, is in 2 Kings 16:3 where we learn that he committed the abomination of making “his son pass through fire,” and in doing so followed other nations in this pagan practice. The meaning of this is disputed: It might mean that one of his sons underwent a purification ritual, but it seems much more likely that the abomination refers to infant sacrifice. In 2 Chronicles 28:3 it expressly says that he “burned his sons in fire.”
It is this indifference to human life and what people actually need and want that seems to me the mark of all the false ideologies: The death of millions are just “statistics” along the way as we progress to “equality” and socialist utopias.
As we enter fully, then, the new year, the new decade, what signs are we receiving, or choosing to ignore? And if we think there are no signs, perhaps we need to intensify our prayers to ask for guidance—for more guidance—so that we are on the “right” way. After all, as we also learn from the Bible, God is a generous giver, so unlike Ahaz, who doesn’t ask and doesn’t want God’s guidance, we might simply do the opposite.
All quotes are from the New American Standard version of the Bible.
James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club on June 17, 2019.