Over January this year I had the enormous privilege of visiting the British Museum in London, perhaps one of the greatest Museums in the world. While there we had the chance to view an Assyrian Relief. Now I’ve had a bible dictionary with a picture of this for years. But nothing prepared me for the scale of these carving. These are like stone wall paper and they are huge. They are twice as high as a man. These carvings are from a royal palace in Nineveh and they depict the Siege of Lachish a city 40 kms south West of Jerusalem. 2 Chron 32.9. After the siege of Lachish, the Assyrians went on to besiege Jerusalem, but fail. At the start of Isaiah Assyria is the world power, and these reliefs bring these ancient stories to life.
After this, Sennacherib king of Assyria, who was besieging Lachish with all his forces, sent his servants to Jerusalem to Hezekiah king of Judah and to all the people of Judah. 2 Chron 32.9
I visited the British Museum 20 years ago, it looked older then and had an older style. The British museum used to have a huge empty courtyard, Over the millennium they covered that courtyard and now It’s amazing. It has transformed the place.
What’s interesting is the Parallel with Isaiah, because Isaiah also marks a change in Theology, from a Theology of Imperial power to an emphasis on service. Isaiah’s Theology is like a putting a beautiful new roof on the way that people thought at kings and power. Or you might say – from Rule to influence,
Ok so let’s jump into the history. Assyria is the major player in the region, requiring the little Kingdoms of Aram, Israel and Judah to pay tribute (protection money). But when Ahaz becomes King of Judah, (the southern Kingdom); Assyria is distracted, and Aram and Israel in the north have a plan. Aram, led by King Rezin from Damascus, is plotting with Israel led by King Pekah based at Samaria to throw off Assyria’s influence. They want Judah to join them. But Ahaz made a promise to the Assyrians and he plans to keep it. Hence, Rezin and Pekah go to war with Ahaz, they take some territory and besiege Jerusalem. They don’t actually want to destroy the city, they just want to change the King. You might recognise the idea regime change. Why does this all matter? Because God had promised King David that a King from his lineage would one day rule the world with peace and Justice. And Ahaz is a little part of the journey from David to Jesus.
Now a little bit more info, Pekah was an army officer and perhaps because he was unhappy with his King’s Pekahiah’s, approach of paying tribute to the Asyrians – he murdered the king in Israel and took the throne. So you can see regime change wasn’t just a funny idea.
One of his chief officers, Pekah son of Remaliah, conspired against him… , he assassinated Pekahiah…, in the royal palace at Samaria. So Pekah killed Pekahiah and succeeded him as king.
2 Kings 15.15
So Isaiah goes to Ahaz and tells him to hold tough. That he’s got it right. God doesn’t want him to fight Assyria but to submit to Assyria. But, first he reassures him about Rezin and Pekah, they are big talkers but not very strong. All smoke and no fire that’s what the talk about stumps means. Next Isaiah predicts that the fall of the Kingdom of Israel. And that happens a few years later Aram is destroyed, then Samaria as recorded in 2 Kings 17 where the Assyrians besiege the city and capture and deport the people, then finally Lachish is destroyed. But Jerusalem is saved.
The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria and laid siege to it for three years. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. 2 Kings 17.5-6
Now Isaiah 7 verse 9 is interesting, ‘If you do not stand firm you will not stand firm at all’, this couplet uses the Hebrew word Amen, in two ways. The word comes from truth, and standing firm. One way of translating it is – ‘if you stand firm then your standing will be strengthen’. It’s a summary of faith. Believe and it will be done for you. There is a role of faith here for Ahaz. Just like our lives are full of calls to faith.
Ahaz was scared and God challenges him to face his fear and then he will overcome it with God’s help. He doesn’t overcome it on his own, God will establish him firmly, but he has to take his stand. Think of Jesus resurrection, God did it but jesus had to face the enemy. Jesus often encourages us to take a stand of faith
This whole passage is Interesting because neither the writer of Kings nor the writer of Chronicles Likes Ahaz. But Isaiah seems more positive, One of the great messages that comes through the Bible is that God often uses flawed people, even unfaithful people to achieve his purposes. Here God through Isaiah is exhorting Ahaz to stand firm, to take a stand of faith – stirring stuff!
Then Isaiah makes this incredible offer. Ask for a sign and it will be done. Ahaz is cautious and irritates Isaiah if not God. He might have been cautious because his grandfather Uriah, had tried to take over the priests job of burning incense and it had gone really badly for him. Isaiah Says God will give you a sign anyway.
As a Christian this next sign is wrapped in meaning. But lets start by looking at the sign in context. Now I believe in double fulfilment, that these signs usually have an immediate fulfilment and then serve later to point towards some other great event in scripture. So the sign is that an almah, a young woman, usually translated Virgin but there is some breadth in that, will conceive and give birth to a child and she will call him Immanuel (God with us.)
In OT usage Almah seems to have a little bit of a breadth of usage, a sexually mature young woman, who has not had her first child. She will have a child and call his name Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us, (El, for God). However Isaiah usually talks of god as Yahweh, so perhaps this was not Isaiah’s word but may have been a word used in a liturgy in the temple or the palace. Perhaps it was language commonly used of the Davidic kings. Perhaps at a coronation.
So if that all adds up. And I can’t guarantee you that, but if it does, here’s a possibility. Isaiah points to a young woman, perhaps a princess who has just entered the royal household , (maybe even Abia the daughter of Zehariah), and says that she will conceive and have a child and he will be proclaimed Immanuel, that child could become King Hezekiah.
There are three things at state. Personal, Ahaz is worried about himself, he’s worried about the country but even more worried about the dynasty. Remember how Pekah murdered the rightful king. In time Hezekiah is born and does take the throne. Perhaps this was a slow burning sign.
Of course from a Christian perspective Isaiah enters into the lexicon of prophesy a prediction that will one day come true, in a much fuller way in Jesus born of the Virgin Mary.
Let me summarise where we got up to. Ahaz has agreed to be under Assyrian control, this is actually part of God’s greater plan. He is going to rebuild his people but has some renovations to do first using Assyria. Ahaz is attacked by Rezin and Pekah who are hoping for a regime change. They fail. Isaiah tells Ahaz stand firm and you’ll be OK. And within the next few years Aram and Israel are destroyed by Assyria. In fact after Lachish Jerusalem is besieged also, but does not fall.
So what’s our take away?
Do not be afraid stand firm. If you feel that God has led you to do something, stand firm, faith requires courage to make it happen. Ahaz is not a flash character, but he is told, if he stands firm – when he could have run away – then he will be established. There are points in all of our lives when we want to run. Facing a health issue. Facing anxiety. Facing a challenge at work or at home. Perhaps especially when you know what needs to be done; but it is very hard. I believe God speaks to us the double amen, stand firm and I will establish you. I think life is often full of taking the skills and learnings that you have and starting again with worn out tools. To do again and again and again. Yes accounting for your doubts, adjusting for your learnings. But a great life is built one step at a time. Amen. Amen.
This is a story about a sign. I think biblical Signs are often bigger things. Longer term than we think. Not just shall I buy this car. But our lives are lived within stories that God has written in advance; and the way to read the signs of the times is to look bigger and not smaller.
Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign. I think it’s OK for us to ask for a sign from God about important decisions in our lives. That’s not tempting God, but seeking his guidance. Signs often start with commons sense and things that are well recorded in scripture. But I think more than that is available too. I think God often gives us signs by giving us a foretaste of the things that we are trying to discern. A sign can be about getting a bigger perspective. If we try a little of this and it feels like this is God’s fit for me. Or do I try this and know that it is not God’s fit. I remember my friends Keith and Frances going to Guatemala to see if God was calling them to work there – and within days they knew the answer was no.
Isaiah reveals from God this great vision for the people of God to serve. This is not serving in cleaning up afterwards. But it is putting others ‘well being’ first. This is a different type of influence rather than ruling. I think we can sum Isaiah up as a transition from a vision of a Kingdom of control, of ruling the world to a vision of serving, of being the light to the Nations, of being God voice. From ruling the world to saving the world.
God wants us to lead more by influence than by power.