The Prophet Isaiah, Benedetto Gennari, 17th century, Burghley collection
December 22, 2019
Today we return to the 8th century BC with First Isaiah. Indeed, we can date it rather precisely to 735 BC and the Syro-Ephraimite War. Although this is a rather grubby incident in Jewish history, it provided Isaiah with an opportunity to demonstrate artistic craftsmanship, theological profundity, and political acumen.
We must begin with the political realities—indeed with the basic political reality of the day. The two major powers, in what we have now come to call the “Middle East,” were Egypt to the south and a power to the north, usually the Babylonians or Assyrians. Smaller nations and tribal groups had to make their way around them. We have seen that this has been true with the two Hebrew nations of Israel (the north) and Judea (the south). Another political entity, which had to play the same game, was Syria, which constituted the area around Damascus.
The leaders of Israel and Syria thought that Assyria was declining, and they could rebel against it. They pressured King Ahaz of Judea to join them, and when he refused threatened to attack him and place another on his throne. The ensuing war is called the Syro-Ephraimite war, because Ephraim was the most powerful tribe in Israel.
When this news reached Jerusalem, “the heart of the king and heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.” (Is. 7:2)
All three writers who used the name Isaiah in the Old Testament believed that their God was the Lord of history, and that, having chosen the Jewish people, would never abandon them. This indeed is one of the great kept promises of history. Isaiah 2 and 3 celebrate the miraculous return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem after the exile, and we see the otherwise inexplicable survival of the Jewish people to this very day.
This hope is found not only in Isaiah but throughout the Bible, most clearly in 2 Samuel 7:12–16 when the LORD said to David:
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
And if he does wrong, I will correct him with the rod of men and with human chastisements;
but I will not withdraw my favor from him as I withdrew it from your predecessor Saul, whom I removed from my presence.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.
Also, but more beautifully in in the Psalms. For example:
God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Therefore we fear not, though the earth
and mountains plunge into the depths
of the sea.
(Psalm 46:1 but read as far as verse 4)
This hope was not however found in King Ahaz. The LORD calls on Isaiah to meet with him. “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool” (Is. 7:3).
Isaiah has set this scene well. First the location “the conduit of the upper pool.” Ahaz understood that Jerusalem would be put under siege and that water would be a critical factor. The main water supply was outside the city and vulnerable. This would remain a problem until a channel was dug by Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. A siege would be extremely dangerous and Isaiah shows his awareness of this with the name of his son “Shear-jashub,” which means “A remnant will survive.” Isaiah is counseling war and admitting that it will be costly.
He is realistic as to the results but believes that they must be faithful to their God in order to continue to exist as a people. A command from the LORD spoken to Ahaz immediately before our selection today says:
Unless your faith is firm
you shall not be firm!
Ahaz and Isaiah both agree that the revolt against Assyria will fail. They disagree about what to do about it. Isaiah says to prepare for a siege and wait for Assyria to crush their enemies on its own. Ahaz however is not willing to wait and wishes to call in Assyrian help. This will make Judea a Syrian vassal and they will lose considerable independence and pay tribute. Isaiah knows that this will radically change the nature of their nation.
Ahaz is thus asked to request a sign that the LORD is still faithful. As he has already made up his mind, he refuses to do so and hides behind a false piety. He receives one anyway and it is a very Jewish one indeed: “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Is. 7:14)
Virgin here means young woman, most likely Ahaz’s own wife. Immanuel means “God is with us” and the son is Hezekiah. We have seen him before and found that he was indeed a good king. Yet the most important thing is that he is a son of David, a physical sign that the promise we read above from 2 Samuel will continue. Ahaz may not be firm to his promises to God as King, but the LORD will never waiver with his.
This incident is found also in 2 Kings:
Meanwhile, Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, with the plea: “I am your servant and your son.
Come up and rescue me from the clutches of the king of Aram and the king of Israel, who are attacking me.”
Ahaz took the silver and gold that were in the temple of the LORD and in the palace treasuries and sent them as a present to the king of Assyria.
(2 Ki. 16:78)
This is not only desecration, but began a great increase in taxation for the tribute to Assyria. This taxation fell most critically on the poor and forced many off their lands. It changed the nation so severely that 100 years later the LORD used the Babylonians, then the ascendant power, to destroy Jerusalem. Isaiah, it seems, had a better practical grasp on the political realities than the king. There are things so important that if you lose them, you cease to be who you are although everything may look the same.
At the beginning of our own country George Washington issued an order concerning prisoners of war: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]… I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.” This was very far ranging and unusual. He had a chance to show how seriously he meant this when after the battle of Trenton (Christmas day and following, 1776) he had captured many Hessian soldiers. They were German mercenaries known for their cruelty. Many if not most expected to be executed. Instead Washington ordered, “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”
He knew at the very beginning that the nation would not be worthy of existing if it repeated the mistakes of the past, and that, however imperfectly, we would need to try to embrace what Lincoln years later would call “the better angels of our nature.” Ideals may not always be attained; Washington himself was 20 years away from freeing his slaves, but when there are no ideals then what chance is there of ever attaining virtue? As our history has demonstrated we have flourished when we tried and diminished when we did not. To abandon founding virtues would be to cease to exist even if the stock market hit record highs and our military power increased.
Both the history of our country and the example of the Jews show us that to know what is needed for long-term national health ask not the politician but the prophet.