Most people understand fear that comes from natural disasters―hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, earthquakes. We know the fear that comes from debilitating disease, or sudden calamity, like a car accident, a bad fall, sudden loss of income, or worse. Many today live in constant fear of warfare, or of chronic crime, or live in neighborhoods where violence and despair permeate.
Fear of losing a loved one in the military or police force, fear of living alone, of never having a child, fear of an aging body, fear of failure, or of being publicly shamed in some way, fear of being hurt.
All of us deal with some kind of deep-seated fear, even if we have managed to suppress it in some way, or tried to talk ourselves out of being afraid. But minimizing and rationalizing cannot truly downsize fear when we know we have little agency to affect outcomes.
It helps to keep that in mind when reading Isaiah 7, for it concerns a king with deep-seated, and legitimate fear.
The prophet Isaiah’s intense encounter had come at exactly the right time, of seeing the Lord Jesus seated upon His throne in heaven, worshiped by fiery beings. The whole temple had shaken with the sheer force of it, the display of glory, holiness, and vast power which overwhelmed Isaiah. He had experienced the cleansing of his sins and he answered God’s lifelong call to speak to the people.
It marked a turning point in perspective for Isaiah, for he would never again be intimidated by kings and potentates. Even the legendary power and cruelty of the Assyrian emperor did not shake Isaiah’s faith in God, Almighty Sovereign of the universe.
That is exactly what the nation of Judah needed in this critical hour. Isaiah was given his vision around 740 BCE, the year king Uzziah died. The crisis here in this chapter took place five years later, around 735 BCE and involves four kings:
- King Ahaz of Judah
- King Pekah of Israel
- King Rezin of Aram (Syria)
- King Tiglath-Pilesar III of Assyria.
Tiglath-Pilesar had become king ten years previously, in 745 B.C. and had immediately begun to re-establish Assyria as a world power. Of course, that made the surrounding nations pretty nervous.
So Rezin (Aram/Syria) and Pekah (Israel) made an alliance to resist Assyria, and put pressure on Ahaz to join them. Ahaz was a young king, no older than Isaiah, about twenty years old, and new to the throne. What did he know?
Judah had been enjoying a long period of peace and prosperity. Israel to the north and Aram/Syria to the east were a lot closer to Assyria, which lay even farther north and farther east, and acted as well-armed buffer states to the southern kingdom. To Ahaz, it did not seem as though his own nation of Judah needed to get involved. Ultimately, Ahaz decided against joining the alliance.
Background history on this political and diplomatic minefield is found in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28. Rezin and Pekah were distinctly unhappy with Ahaz’s decision. They were worried that if Ahaz perhaps allied with Tiglath-Pilesar, their two nations would be hemmed in from the north, east and south, with the Mediterranean to their west. They would be militarily vulnerable, with little recourse.
Their solution was a preemptive strike on Judah with the goal of compelling the young and inexperienced Ahaz to capitulate and join their side.
Their armies had now marched through Judah’s northern border and were encamped just a few miles outside Jerusalem. The generals of Israel and Aram had already captured tens of thousands of Judahite prisoners, looting and pillaging their way through town after town. They had already punitively annexed the region of Elath to their own nations as a further show of force.
This is how Isaiah 7 opens, with Ahaz and all of Judah terrified, for imminent disaster was at hand.
In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem but could not conquer it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.Isaiah 7:1-2 (NRSV)
At this point, God sent Isaiah and his son, who bore the prophetic name A Remnant Shall Return, to reassure Ahaz
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.Isaiah 7:4 (NRSV)
Rezin’s and Pekah’s plan was to remove Ahaz, descendant of David, from the throne and put a puppet king in his place who would obediently take orders from Rezin and Pekah.
But God had made a promise to king David 250 years before―the throne would always have a descendant of David on it. Perhaps without quite realizing it, these two mere earthly kings had now thrown down the gauntlet before the very God of all gods, Almighty and Omnipotent Sovereign of the Cosmos.
Imagine Isaiah’s confidence.
Isaiah knew God.
Isaiah had seen Almighty and Everlasting God seated upon the throne heaven. The prophet knew how laughable the threat was that these two kings were making.
Centuries later, as the apostle Paul reassured the believers in Rome, only recently returned from an exile imposed upon them by a hostile emperor, he wrote,
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[c] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
. . . What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?Apostle Paul, Romans 8:25-28, 31 (NRSV)
This is what Isaiah had also come to know about God.
With ebullient confidence, the twenty-five-year-old prophet accompanied by his young son delivered his oracle to Ahaz, the twenty-year-old king. God proclaims these two kings as tinpot tyrants. Isaiah boldly pronounced. They have fooled no one, and certainly not God, who knows exactly what they have planned.
Aram—with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah—has plotted evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it’Isaiah 7:5-7 (NRSV)
And God will not stand for this.
Therefore thus says the Lord God:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.
Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.Isaiah 7:7, 8 (NRSV)
Imagine the young king, having barely been crowned and now he must face this terrifying trial. And the young prophet, courageous and confident, the aura of spiritual power emanating from him. Perhaps Isaiah let his oracle settle around the trembling Ahaz.
These are not real firebrands, Ahaz, these are ‘two smoldering stumps of firebrands,’ they have plotted evil against you, but God has taken it personally, for they assault the oath of the Lord to keep the House of David on the throne for all eternity.
In just sixty-five years Ephraim—Israel and its capital of Samaria—will be shattered and they will no longer even be a people.