Summary: God with us is a message of assurance of God’s love and care for us
Imagine you’re the king of a nation surrounded by enemies who are threatening your entire world. They’ve formed an alliance that appears irresistible. But imagine at the same time that your nation is one that God has chosen as his own special nation. What would you think as you listened to the reports of the armies getting closer and closer to the capital city?
Well that’s the context of the passage from Isaiah that we’re looking at today. Judah is under threat from an alliance of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahaz the king is getting worried and he doesn’t know what to do. He could form his own alliance with the much stronger nation of Assyria or he could wait it out and trust that God will protect him.
It’s one of those situations that Christians are faced with regularly. Do we trust God to help us in a difficult situation, or do we use our own political savvy, our own applied logic, to find a way out by ourselves?
There was a question that was regularly included in the theology exam when I was at Ridley. It simply said: "Pray for rain, dam it. Discuss." Apart from the cleverness of the question itself, it sums up this particular dilemma doesn’t it? To answer the question you needed to discuss the options of acting to solve our problems or praying that God will do it for us.
Well, in the case of Ahaz, God helped him out. He sent Isaiah to speak to him and say "’Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood." Ahaz could relax in the face of this threat, because God was with him. This was God’s city and he wasn’t going to let these almost burnt out enemies take it captive. Now you’d think that when the prophet of the Lord speaks to Ahaz he’d be reassured, wouldn’t you? But maybe this is too soon in Isaiah’s career as a prophet, because Ahaz doesn’t seem to be reassured. So Isaiah speaks on. He tells him that within 65 years Ephraim, that is, Israel, the northern kingdom, will be shattered. Their alliance with Syria will bring about their own downfall as Syria takes them over. So too, if he decides to take up an alliance with Assyria he risks Judah being swallowed up. He says: "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all."
Still, Ahaz isn’t ready to trust God, so God speaks again (v10): "Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." All Ahaz has to do is ask God for a sign that he’s with him. You may remember that this was what Gideon did when the angel told him God was making him the leader of his people. He asked God for a sign that he really would be with him. And God gave him that sign. In fact he gave it to him twice. So too, here Ahaz is told to ask for a sign to reassure him of God’s intention towards Judah and Jerusalem. But Ahaz refuses. He uses pietistic language to excuse himself, but it’s fairly clear that he really doesn’t want a sign because then he’ll have to risk trusting God.
Do you find that sometimes it’s easier to rely on our own solutions than to wait and see what God will bring out of a situation? It can be much more risky to wait for God to act can’t it?
Well by now Isaiah is getting impatient. He doesn’t want Ahaz to form this alliance. He wants him to continue to trust the Lord to protect them. So he prophesies that God will give him a sign anyway. He says: "A young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." The naming of a child is a common technique in the prophets to bring a message to God’s people. Hosea uses it to warn them of God’s judgement, then to promise his restoration. Here the child is to be named Immanuel, that is, God is with us, to assure them that God is ready to defend them against their enemies.
Well, in the end the things God warned them of happened. Both Israel and Syria were taken over by Assyria. Even Jerusalem was threatened, though not taken, because God protected them.
But of course the history of Israel isn’t actually our focus today. Today we’re interested in the way that prophecy had its outworking in the birth of Jesus. As we read in the passage from Matthew 1, Matthew identifies this child with that prophecy of Isaiah 7: "They shall name him Emmanuel," which means, ’God is with us.’"