TITLE : “ Ask for a sign … Immanuel ”
DATE PREACHED : 12th December 2010
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 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. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 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.”
We have entered the “ Christmas season” of the year when the church traditionally reflects upon the birth of our dear Saviour , the Lord Jesus Christ . I join the chorus of all the saints past and present with joy, as we give corporate thanks to God our Father for sending us His Son !
This year I wanted to meditate with you on one of the most powerful OT Scriptures concerning the incarnation of our Lord. Isaiah 9 : 1-7 is traditionally read and proclaimed at this time , but I think that it is it is really important to pay attention to the greater context . The Lutheran commentator Leupoldt has recognized this context and has therefore called Isaiah Chapters 7-12 the “Immanuel book” .
Isaiah Chapter 7 contains the prophecy of the virgin birth of a son called Immanuel (7:14). The name of Immanuel and the circumstances under which he was conceived are as mysterious and unique as the life of king Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17ff (who is without father or mother or genealogy , having neither beginning of days or end of life…” – Hebr. 7:3) or of the man that wrestled with Jacob ( Gen 32:22ff) . The mystery is thankfully lifted when we read the NT Scriptures , and in this case particularly Matthew 1:20-23 . But more about that in a moment .
We may be somewhat surprised when reading and meditating on this text that it does not sound very “ Christmassy” at all when you consider the historical picture . Somehow we have managed to focus on selected texts from the Scriptures and have ‘ sentimentalized ‘ them , without recognizing the historical context and prophetic profundity of these texts.
I have showed you previously that Isaiah’s commission begins with a great vision of God (6:1-8) which ends with a very difficult commission in 6:9,10 where God said to Isaiah : “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” What a message ! You may well ask , “ What gospel or good news is there in this ?” I trust that at the end of our exposition you will indeed behold the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ !
Let us begin with the basic facts . Isaiah was sent to preach the Word of God ( for that is what prophets did!) to people who wouldn’t listen ! At least not according to their own choice .
In his very first assignment from God this happened . God called Isaiah to speak to king Ahaz in Jerusalem concerning his fears about the invading allies and armies of Syria and the apostate Northern kingdom ( i.e. the northern 10 tribes) . The message from God is captured in 7:4 : “ 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.”
Let me remind you that Ahaz , although he was a son of David , and mentioned in the covenantal line of the Messiah (see the genealogy in Matt 1:9 ) , he wasn’t a spiritual man who trusted the Word of the Lord . The Scriptures testify in the historical narrative of 2 Ki.16:3 that “ he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel . He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practises of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” .
So , Ahaz was essentially a godless man - a man given to making his own plans , and from the historical accounts in 2 Kings 16:7–8 we know that he trusted more in an alliance with the Assyrian king than in the God of his father David . Historically, within 65 years the Northern Kingdom of Israel would be taken captive and Syria would be destroyed by Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 16:9). All this happened just as God said it would. The study of the prophecies and their fulfillments in history are a great testimony to the reliability and authority of Scripture .
Ask for a sign (vv. 10–17)
With this in mind , Isaiah appears before Ahaz at the upper pool (7:3) with words that we would not have expected to be spoken to this godless, faithless king . Isaiah comes with a good and encouraging message from God and along with this he also brings a challenge in v. 9 : “ If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” .
But he finds king Ahaz apathetic to this positive message . So , God in His patient mercy says to Ahaz through His servant Isaiah in v.10-11 : “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
The God of grace and mercy is surely extremely patient with this apostate son of the covenant . He does this for the sake of His covenant and for the sake of the throne of David and his offspring the Messiah , and not because Ahaz deserves God’s patience .
God tells Ahaz by the mouth of His servant Isaiah to choose a sign as evidence that the message is true. He tells him also “ Make it as difficult as you like – make it as deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (v. 11). What an offer – what an opportunity to see the Living God at work . Imagine you were given that opportunity ! What would you have asked for?
Astonishingly we read in v.12 : “ But Ahaz said , I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test .” Some think that Ahaz is being merely humble or modest . Perhaps he remembers Deut 6:16 where it says : “ You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” . But as others have pointed out , when God proposes a sign , man is not putting God to the test. If the truth be told, the pious answer which he gives here actually masks a very stubborn unbelief. I do not need to remind you that some of the strongest unbelief hides behind religious, pious language !
Now you can hear Isaiah’s frustration beginning to manifest in v. 13 : “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? It is very likely that Isaiah was speaking this not only to the King but in the presence of a multitude assembled at the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the washer’s field . Many may have heard this word that now came to Ahaz and to them (v.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.
A virgin shall bear a son ?
“…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” . The Hebrew word used here for virgin is ‘almah’ - a marriageable young lady of unblemished character who was sexually pure. Many modern scholars have had a problem with this , because according to them virgins , by definition cannot conceive or give birth ! ( a real anti-miracle bias)
And yet this is not a grammatical mistake . Many years before Christ was born , Jewish scholars translated the OT into Greek (this was called the Septuagint - or the LXX) and they used the word “ parthenos” for the word “virgin” . The Greek language is precise and unambiguous . The term is deliberate, and a parthenos is a virgin ! They did not use the word “ young woman” or another equivalent .
This prophecy is truly astonishing . Everybody knows that virgins do not give birth . So, this was going to be something extraordinary .
However , here is the ‘ problem’ . There is no further indication in our context of who this virgin might be or who Immanuel might be, and so we are left guessing with respect to a contemporary fulfillment.
From our Christian perspective we would say that God was giving a sign beyond the understanding and time of Ahaz. Ahaz would never see it. This sign was impossible beyond the deepest depths of Sheol and the highest heights of heaven (v.10). A virgin would give birth to a male child.
The male child would be called “Immanuel” , meaning “God with us”. Immanuel is mentioned again in 8:8 & 10 .
- The land which was under the rule of the House of David was His land.
- He is addressed in prayer (8:8) so He must be the LORD . He is the Lord who frustrates the plans of His opponents in 8:10.
All this would have remained a mystery had we not received the interpretation in Matt 1:20-23 :
20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
And Luke 1:30-37 reads :
30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now please note the deliberate language used here by Mary :
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary knows that she is a virgin . She knows that it is technically impossible for virgins to fall pregnant !
And from this follows the fact that this birth is going to be an extra-ordinary birth !
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, ( here is an extra sign and a confirmation !) your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
- Much of the OT ( the prophecy of Isaiah by way of application) does not make much sense without the revelation of Christ our Immanuel .
- The Christian faith rests upon this prophecy in Isaiah 7 .
- The deliverance of Judah’s hopeless position at the time of king Ahaz comes not by human might or power , but by God ‘s miraculous intervention – and that despite the deafness and stubbornness of king and people ( or if you like – government and nation) . When I consider the issues that Namibia and the world faces , I know that there is no United Nations and no United States and no World Council of churches that will help us . There are simply no human alliances that will get the world out of this sticky mess , this entanglement of sin . But we thank God for the gospel !
- This story of Isaiah and Ahaz proves to us once again , that the gospel comes to us utterly undeserved and unsought . It comes to us because God is faithful to His covenant . In that covenant He has given a people ( a bride) to His Son . The Son has prayed for that bride in John 17. All that the Father has given to the Son will come. The sheep know Him and they follow Him (John 10: 14, 27) . Evil people like Ahaz will not stand in the way of God’s gospel – in fact , evil people like Ahaz are sometimes overwhelmed by the gospel and brought into submission of the gospel . The apostle Paul was a spiritual Ahaz before the grace of God overwhelmed him .
- Today I have prayed once again that God would be pleased to pour out His great gospel into the heart of many an Ahaz . Amen !