This is now the second Sunday in Advent, and beginning last week we have been looking at various Old Testament promises concerning the coming of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, God provided prophetic glimpses of the person and work of the one who’s coming we celebrate at Christmastime. And today, I’d like for you to turn with me, if you would go ahead and take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands, I’d like for you to turn with me to the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 7 – the famous promise of the coming of the child, Immanuel, whom we know as the Lord Jesus. You’ll find that on page 571 of the church Bibles. Once you have the Scriptures open before you, please would you bow your heads with me as we pray.
As we’ve just heard, O Lord, Your Word sung to us by the choir, promising that the day shall come when the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it and our assurance that it will be so is that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. We pray as we hear You speak again to us in Your Word that we might see something of that promise fulfilled and Your glory revealed in the midst of this congregation. For we ask it all in the name of Jesus and for His sake, amen.
The book of Isaiah, chapter 7, at the first verse. This is the very Word of the living God:
“In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
And the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer's Field. 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. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,’ thus says the Lord God:
‘’It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.’’
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 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!’”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.
I wonder if you’ve put up your Christmas tree yet. That was my duty yesterday. I was out in the rain choosing a tree; I got cold and wet. There were pine needles in my hair and resin on my elbows. And then there was the sanctifying business of wrestling the thing through the front door into the stand without denuding the tree of every needle that it has. Eventually, it was all done, and I must say I loved every minute of it. It reminds me, you see, it reminds me of my childhood when putting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house was the great thing. It marked the beginning of Christmas excitement. Usually, it took us all day to do it, but when we were done the house was transformed. Everything sparkled and glowed and in the middle of the cold and in the dark of a Scottish December, those decorations spoke to my young heart of hope and joy and anticipation. And that, I suppose, is what Christmas decorations are supposed to do. Right? They’re supposed to evoke light in the darkness and joy to the world in the bleak, midwinter. That’s the whole point.
And yet, I have to confess – I wonder if you’ve found this – there is a sort of law of diminishing returns with these things as you get older, isn’t there? When you’re young, all it takes is the first few bars of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” the first rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and all is well with the world. But after each succeeding year, we begin to realize it’s going to take more than nostalgia to supply real-world hope and enduring joy. If it’s hope we need, then a well-chosen Christmas tree and your favorite holiday movies really will not supply it. At best, it’s an exercise in escapism but not real world hope.
Now in Isaiah chapter 7, the passage that we read together just a moment ago, the people of God are in big trouble. The future looks bleak indeed and into the midst of their fear-filled season of life God gave them a great sign of hope, real-world hope. He told them the virgin would conceive and bear a son and call his name, Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This Christmas text, do you see, doesn’t belong among the lights and the tinsel and the ornaments. It’s not a decoration intended to distract us for a little while from the dreariness and the drudgery of the real world. No, this Christmas text is the ground of hope and the source of joy for scared, hurting people, both in Isaiah’s day and in ours. I wonder if you would look at it with me, please.
Verses 1 and 2 set the scene. They paint a picture for us of international intrigue and escalating, regional tensions. It’s the year 734 BC. God’s people have divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom has Ahaz, the descendant of King David, ruling over it. Sorry, the southern kingdom is ruled over by Ahaz. It’s called the kingdom of Judah. And to the north, Pekah the son of Remaliah, rules the kingdom that was called Israel. And at this point in history, the whole region is under the threat of military conquest from the fantastically named, Tiglath-Pileser III. I said this in the earlier service. It’s the III that really kills me. You’d think that Tiglath-Pileser Jr. would decide to go a different route when his boy was born, but no, there it is! Tiglath-Pileser III; we’ll call him Trey! King of Assyria, the super-power of the day. And for his part, Pekah King of Israel doesn’t want to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser to buy him off, but he doesn’t want to be crushed under his boot-heel either. And so he decides to form a defensive alliance with the king of Syria, a man called Rezin. And that leaves poor Ahaz, King of Judah, to the south, really quite vulnerable not only to the predations of Tiglath-Pileser and the Assyrian Empire but to the retribution of this northern alliance with which he refuses to join and take part. And so, verse 2, we discover that verses 1 and 2 we discover that Rezin and Pekah have decided to come and teach Ahaz and the people of Judah a lesson.
And so verse 2, “When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’” that is when David’s heir learns of the northern alliance’s plans, “the heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” That is to say, the nation is in turmoil; panic grips the populace. Things are about as bleak as they can be. Everyone is full of fear for the future expecting attack from the northern alliance at any moment. And it is into this fear-filled context that God speaks. Notice King Ahaz is really preoccupied with a siege that he expects to come at any minute because he is out inspecting the water supplies for the city of Jerusalem. And so, verse 3, God sends Isaiah to meet him there “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.”
And notice Isaiah’s message for fearful Ahaz. You can see the goal of Isaiah’s message in verse 4. Look at verse 4. “Say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’” That is what God is after in Ahaz’s life. Or look down at the end of verse 9. You’ll see it again. Here’s the big idea of the whole passage. What God wants to do for Ahaz and actually what He wants to do for us. “If you are not firm in faith you will not be firm at all.” He wants to strengthen faith and to teach Ahaz that his confidence, even in such a fearful circumstance as this, must rest in the Lord and not in any earthly political alliance or maneuver. Understand what God is really saying. He’s not denying that there are enemies one very side menacing God’s people. In fact, verses 5 and 6 are abundantly clear about that, aren’t they? “Syria with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah has devised evil against you saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it and let us conquer it for ourselves and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it.’” They have a plot to assassinate the king. Pekah and Rezin want to slip some Polonium-210 into Ahaz’s sushi one night and replace him with their own guy. These are dangerous days. And yet God’s message is clear, isn’t it? “Don’t be afraid! If you’re not firm in faith you will not be firm at all. If faith in Me isn’t the stable foundation for your life when all other ground is sinking sand, then you will certainly fall in the end. I’m the only stable foundation. Stand firm in faith.” And that’s the message.
Stand Firm in Faith
And it’s a message we need to hear today, don’t you think? After all, we too live in difficult, challenging times. The plotting and the political intrigue that surrounded Ahaz in our chapter reads like a news report from the front lines of the Middle East even today; something you’d see on CNN or FOX News. And whether our fears are generated by political uncertainty or by personal insecurity, many of us find today that we too must fight fear and fight for faith this Christmas season. And if that’s you, I want you to be encouraged. This passage has three things to say to help strengthen you in the fight for faith.
A faithful remnant will be preserved
The first of them you can see if you look at verse 3. Notice Isaiah is told to take his son along with him for the confrontation with Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool. Now in this part of the book of Isaiah, it’s important to notice that his sons are named and their names have symbolic significance. His firstborn is here in chapter 7; another son is mentioned in chapter 8. His firstborn here is called Shear-jashub. Shear-jashub means “a remnant shall return.” A symbolic name. This boy means, “a remnant shall return.” And if you look back at the end of chapter 6, you’ll see that God was pronouncing coming judgment on Judah, on His people. The people, He said, will be like a cut-down tree. All that will be left is a stump. And yet the stump that is left, He calls “a holy seed.” A faithful remnant will be preserved. And so taking Shear-jashub along with him was a, perhaps, subtle, maybe too subtle for Ahaz, but a subtle way to remind him of that promise. A remnant shall return. Yes, judgment is coming, yes, these are difficult days, but God loves His people. He is committed to His Church. As the Lord Jesus told His disciples, “Even in the teeth of the gates of hell, I will build My Church. Don’t be afraid! I am committed to My people. And though there will be trials, I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
The Kingdoms of Men Will Be Obliterated
Then a second encouragement for faith in difficult days is there in verses 4 to 9. Look at verses 4 to 9, please. Notice how in commanding Ahaz not to be afraid, notice how God describes the King of Israel, Pekah, and the King of Syria, Rezin. He calls them names, actually. He calls them “two smoldering stumps of firebrands.” That is to say, “There may be plenty of smoke, Ahaz, but there’s no fire. Don’t worry about them! Their flame has gone out.” And then just to drive the point home, the Lord drops the metaphor altogether and spells things out very plainly for Ahaz. Verse 7, “It shall not stand; it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.” “The heads of your two enemies who have you cowering in fear, Ahaz, Israel and Syria, what are they? They’re just men. And because they’re just men, they cannot possibly withstand My purposes. In fact, within two generations,” He says, “their kingdoms will be obliterated. Just men, Ahaz. That’s all they are.”
Our Confidence is in The Lord
That’s another perspective worth keeping hold of, don’t you think? When the fear of men steals our hearts and we worry about what others will say or do – whether they are lawmakers and leaders or employers or family members or friends, it helps to remember they’re only men, they’re just human beings, and our confidence does not rest in them. Our value and worth does not derive from them. Our hope is not the product of their good favor. No, our confidence is in “the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. God is our refuge and our strength; a present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear. Though the earth gives way, though the mountains are moved into the heart of the sea, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress,” Psalm 46 verses 1 and 2 and verse 11. You see, Ahaz was giving far, far too much credit to the power of men and not nearly enough to the sovereign Lord who rules over all.
Christ is a Solid Rock
Isaiah himself has had to learn that very lesson in the chapter prior to this one. You remember what happened. Look at chapter 6 verse 1. In the year that Ahaz’s father, King Uzziah died, that was the year when things really began to look grim for the future of God’s people. “In the year that King Uzziah died,” the prophet said, “I saw the LORD, sitting on a throne, high and lifted up and the train of his robe filled the temple.” The king is dead, the enemies are coming, but the Lord is still on the throne. Nations rise and fall, earthly kings come and go, presidents and politicians, pundits and polls, pop culture, personal convictions – they ebb and flow. But while earthly leaders inevitably fail, God has taught Isaiah to say, and He’s trying to teach Ahaz here to say, and He wants you and me to say, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is a solid Rock. Standing there we are secure when all other ground is sinking sand.
Ask a Sign of the Lord Your God?
And yet the Lord, in His kindness, is still not done with fear-filled Ahaz. He’s given him these two reminders of His faithfulness. There’s a third, a third encouragement to believe in these difficult days. Ahaz is then invited, look at verses 10 to 17, Ahaz is then invited to ask for any sign he can come up with that will bolster his faith that God would, in fact, protect His people. It’s an extraordinary offer and invitation on God’s part. “Ask a sign of the Lord your God. Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God is writing Ahaz a blank check! He can fill in any amount! The only limit is his imagination. What an offer! But look at his response. Stunning. Verse 12, “I will not ask and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Now Ahaz sounds marvelously pious there, doesn’t he? After all wasn’t it precisely in these words that another Son of David, the Lord Jesus Himself, responded when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness. You remember? Like Ahaz here, He quotes the words of Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” But you see, when the devil tempted Jesus, Jesus’ refusal to put the Lord to the test was an act of faith and submission to God alone. He would not take Satan’s shortcuts but would obey the Lord alone. Whereas when Ahaz was invited by God Himself to ask for a sign that would encourage him and strengthen his faith, though Ahaz uses the language of Scripture, he does it only to hide his fundamental unbelief.
Ahaz’s Lack of Faith
You see, the situation is not that Ahaz doesn’t need a sign to confirm and strengthen his faith in God’s promises because his faith is already so strong and sure. No, on the contrary, it is rather that Ahaz has no faith at all. He doesn’t believe a word that Isaiah has been saying to him and so he rejects God’s offer to confirm and prove that his promises are reliable after all. Unbelief, you know, can cloak itself in the language of Scripture very readily when it wants to. Unbelief can sound pious and holy when the situation demands it. We can learn to use the Bible the way Ahaz uses it – not to guide our faith and our obedience before God, but to keep God at arm’s length. To get those who press us to get real to back off; to avoid accountability altogether. I wonder if you do that. Do you do that? Do you use the Bible the way Ahaz does? Throw out Bible jargon as a smokescreen to cover the fact that you haven’t prayed, not really prayed, in years. Sure, you can turn it on when you need to; come over all “holy sounding” with the flick of a switch. You know the words. But it’s just a cover for your cold, dead heart that has been captive to fear and unbelief for far too long.
God’s Extraordinary Mercy and Kindness Towards Sinners
That was precisely the situation in which Isaiah finds Ahaz. His heart is captive to fear and unbelief, perhaps just like some of ours. And so he refuses God’s offer to strengthen his faith because he has no faith. And yet, his unbelief notwithstanding – here’s an evidence of God’s extraordinary mercy and kindness towards sinners, perhaps even toward you as you recognize that you do not yet know the Lord. The Lord, despite Ahaz’s unbelief, stoops down to give him a sign anyway. It wasn’t the sign Ahaz himself might have chosen, to be sure, but it was a sign that would speak a word of hope much brighter than any word Ahaz himself might have invented. You can hear Isaiah’s frustration with him, can’t you, in verse 13. “Hear then, O house of David, is it too little for you to weary men that you weary my God also?” But then comes God’s marvelous promise. Verse 14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name, Immanuel.”
Now we know from Matthew chapter 1 verse 22 that quotes this passage that it refers to the birth of Jesus Christ to the virgin Mary. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” But here’s the difficulty that apparently sends the commentators virtually apoplectic. The birth of this child, understand now, the birth of this child is meant to function as an effective sign for Ahaz. It’s intended to bolster his faith in God’s promise in the face of the dire situation in which Judah finds itself in those days. But how can the birth of Jesus, 734 years after the fact, be any kind of sign for Ahaz at all? That’s the question! And the scholars fulminate and fuss over it and there’s the inevitable array of ingenious explanations that are attempts to resolve the apparent difficulty.
Let me give you one example. One commentator proposes that the Immanuel prophecy actually refers to one of Isaiah’s sons. There are two mentioned by name – one here in chapter 7; another in chapter 8. They both have symbolic names, so maybe one of them is supposed to be a sort of type of a future child who would be born who would be Immanuel. Well, maybe, but there’s really no suggestion of that at all in the text or in the context. In fact, in chapter 8 verse 8 when the name, Immanuel is used again, it is a synonym either for God or for the Davidic king, not for Isaiah’s son because Immanuel is the one who possesses the land. It is his land. It belongs to him. Instead, “Unto us,” Isaiah will say in chapter 11, “a child is born and a son is given.” But He’s not an ordinary child at all. “The government shall be upon his shoulders and his name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” No, the promise of Immanuel here, all the difficulties notwithstanding, can only point to Jesus Christ and no one else.
God Will Save His People
And so the question remains. How does this promise of something away off in the future serve to strengthen faith for Ahaz in this moment of real difficulty? Well, I have to confess, maybe I’m just simple, but I have to confess to being bemused by the interpretive gymnastics this passage has elicited over the years. After all, anyone with a modicum of spiritual discernment will quickly find and confess nothing bolsters faith than the promise of a coming Savior. Nothing better comforts fearful hearts. Nothing better silences our dread. Nothing stills the turbulent waves of unbelief than the Word of God directing and riveting our eyes upon the Christ of God. And that is precisely what God is doing with Ahaz in our passage. He is directing his attention to one who is to come, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, judgment is coming. In fact, he says it will take about as long as this child will take to develop clear faculties of moral choice, to refuse evil and choose good; just a few years, in other words. And judgment will fall. And so as a matter of historical record, first Syria, two years later in 732 BC and then Israel in 722 BC, will fall to Tiglath-Pileser. Trey is going to conquer these two kingdoms. And then eventually Judah itself will fall, this time at the hands of Assyria’s successors, the Babylonia Empire.
And so yes, “Hard days are ahead,” God is saying, “but in My sovereignty, even those dark days will work together for the good of loves who love Me and are called according to My purpose. So that from among My remnant people, which I will preserve through it all, one little family will eventually emerge from the house of David.” We will see them one day make their way on census day from Nazareth to Bethlehem and there the virgin shall bring forth a son and He will be called the Son of the Most High, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us, Immanuel, God Himself in the midst of His people. He will save His people! He will save His people not with temporary rescue from earthly trials – that’s what Ahaz is hoping for; he’s looking for a political “get out of jail free” card. No, no. God is going to provide something far more wonderful. You’re worried about Tiglath-Pileser and Rezin and Pekah, earthly kings and their empire building. There’s a deeper deliverance that you need, Ahaz, and that can be found only in the child who is to come in the fullness of time, born of a woman, Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a lesson we need to learn or re-learn again this Christmas. The message that we are celebrating this time of year is not that God is going to rescue us from all trouble. If that had been what Isaiah was telling Ahaz, then Ahaz would have been quite right to doubt it. Never trust someone who tells you that God is in the business of making you happy and healthy and prosperous. Never trust someone who tells you that is the Gospel. No, God’s promise is not that everything will be good for those who love Him. God’s promise, rather, is that everything including bad, hard, sore things, will work together for good to those who love Him. God doesn’t promise deliverance from difficulty; God promises something much better. He will sustain us through difficulty and He will deliver us from sin and death and hell and He will deliver us to fellowship with Himself and joy and peace in believing and sustenance in every trial till He brings us home to glory at last. And He promises it all only as we put our confidence and trust in Jesus Christ.
“If you’re not firm in faith,” God told Ahaz, “you will not be firm at all.” And in the teaching of our passage we’ve learned that faith finds its only secure anchor in the child of the virgin. Faith can only be firm when it is founded on Immanuel. You want to face dark days, dark days that are coming? You want to fight a fearful tomorrow? Sink your foundations down deep into the immovable Rock that is Jesus Christ and say, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand when all other ground is sinking sand. I’m secure there.” That’s the message of Christmas. Not tinsel and lights and holiday movies, as must as I love them. It’s not make-believe; it’s not escape from reality. It is hope in the midst of it, joy in the midst of it, assurance that although difficult days may come, in Jesus Christ we have confidence, a confidence that cannot be shaken, and so we will not be afraid. Is your confidence in Jesus Christ? Are your feet firmly planted on the only solid Rock? That’s how you face difficult days with joy and peace. Firm in faith and therefore firm through it all.
May the Lord help us this Christmas fix our eyes on Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God with us, that in Him we might find hope to the praise and glory of His great name. Would you pray with me, please?
Our Father, thank You for Jesus, the true King who, in the face of the raging nations of the world who plot in vain, is seated enthroned at Your right hand til You make all His enemies a footstool for His feet. Would You help us in these challenging days to face them without fear, not because we are strong or wise or clever, but simply because we know we can utterly trust ourselves and all our tomorrows into the hands of Jesus Christ who is a steadfast and immovable Rock, a firm foundation in the shifting sands. For we ask it all in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.