The Hard Way
At a burning building in New York City’s Harlem, a blind girl was perched on a fourth-floor window. The firemen had become desperate. They couldn’t fit the ladder truck between the buildings, and they couldn’t get her to jump into a net, which she, of course, couldn’t see.
“Finally her father arrived and shouted through the bull horn that there was a net and that she was to jump on his command. The girl jumped and was so completely relaxed that she did not break a bone or even strain a muscle in the four-story fall. Because she trusted her father completely, when she heard her father’s voice she did what he said was best.”—Edited by Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 135.
In the same way, God provided powerful evidence that He wanted the best for His children, but they rejected the gently flowing way He first presented to them; thus, He had to speak to them with a roar and a flood instead.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 23.
In Isaiah 7:14–16, Immanuel is a sign linked to the specific dilemma of Ahaz: before the child Immanuel would be old enough to decide between different kinds of food, “the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:16, NRSV). This refers to the land and kings of Syria and northern Israel (see Isa. 7:1, 2, 4–9) and reiterates God’s promise that their power would soon be extinguished.
The crops and fields of Judah would be destroyed by the Assyrians (Isa. 7:23–25). So, the people, including the Old Testament Immanuel, whoever he was (Isa. 7:14, 15), would be forced to return to the diet of nomads (Isa. 7:21, 22). But while they would be poor, they would have enough on which to survive.
This prophecy of Isaiah was given about 734 b.c. In response to the bribe of Ahaz, Tiglath-pileser III did what he probably would have done anyway: he smashed the northern coalition, conquered the Galilee and Transjordanian regions of northern Israel, deported some of the population, and turned the territories into Assyrian provinces (734–733 b.c.). The remainder of Israel was saved when Hoshea, after murdering King Pekah, surrendered and paid tribute. In 733 and 732 b.c. Tiglath-pileser conquered Damascus, the capital of Syria. Then he made Syria into Assyrian provinces.
So, by 732, within about two years of Isaiah’s prediction, Syria and Israel had been conclusively defeated, and it was all over for the two kings who had threatened Ahaz.
Soon after Shalmaneser V replaced Tiglath-pileser III in 727 b.c., King Hoshea of Israel committed political suicide by rebelling against Assyria.
The Assyrians took the capital city of Samaria in 722 b.c. and deported thousands of Israelites to Mesopotamia and Media, where they were absorbed into the local populations eventually and lost their identity (see Isa. 7:8—within 65 years Ephraim would no longer even be a people). God had predicted what would happen to the enemies of Judah, but His point to Ahaz was that this would happen anyway, without any need to rely on Assyria.
“Invitation upon invitation was sent to erring Israel to return to their allegiance to Jehovah. Tender were the pleadings of the prophets; and as they stood before the people, earnestly exhorting to repentance and reformation, their words bore fruit to the glory of God.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 325.
Thus, for Ahaz, the man of fear rather than faith, the good news from God was that Syria and Israel would be wiped out. The bad news was that Assyria, the ally and “friend” he had chosen to help him, would turn out to be a far more dangerous foe than Syria and Israel had been. By turning down God’s freely offered deliverance, Ahaz was guaranteed defeat. If Ahaz thought his world was falling apart now, things were only going to get worse!
“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Ps. 118:9, NRSV). How could Ahaz trust that Tiglath-pileser III would be satisfied with taking the countries to the north and would respect Judah? Assyrian writings, such as annals of the Assyrian kings themselves, testify to the fact that their desire for power was insatiable.
Second Chronicles 28:20–23 powerfully sums up what resulted from Ahaz’s asking for help from Assyria rather than relying on the Lord.
Can you imagine playing a ball game with Isaiah’s second boy? By the time you could say “Maher-shalal-hash-baz, throw me the ball!” it would be too late. But even longer than his name is its meaning: “swift is booty, speedy is prey” or “speed the spoil, hasten the plunder.”
Isaiah 8:1–10 reinforces the message of chapter 7. Before a child could reach a certain stage, spoils of war from the capitals of Syria and northern Israel would be taken by Assyria. Furthermore, because Judah had refused God’s message of assurance, represented by the gently flowing waters of the Shiloah stream in Jerusalem, it would be overwhelmed by the mighty power of Assyria, represented by flooding from the great Euphrates River. Because Ahaz turned to Assyria, the names of Isaiah’s sons referred to Judah, as well as to northern Israel: “swift is booty, speedy is prey,” but “a remnant shall return.” Why was there still hope? Because although Assyria would fill Immanuel’s land (Isa. 8:8), they still had the promise that “God is with us” (Isa. 8:10). Indeed, what we see here is a theme that permeates the entire book of Isaiah, which is that though there would be judgments on God’s enemies in Judah and other nations, delivered in the form of military disasters, suffering, and exile, the Lord would be with the faithful survivors of His people and restore them to their land.
The timing of this son was central to his significance as a sign. As with the sign of Immanuel, from the time he was conceived and born to the time Assyria defeated Syria and Israel there would be less time than it would take for the boy to reach an early developmental stage, in this case calling for his father or mother (Isa. 8:4). When Isaiah legally recorded the boy’s name even before his conception, he made the child and his name a public prophecy that could be tested by subsequent events.
In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1933, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a nation disheartened by the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Isaiah’s message to depressed people is: we have nothing to fear when we fear God Himself.
God warned Isaiah not to fear what his people feared, but to fear Him (Isa. 8:12, 13). This is an important theme in Scripture. For example, in Revelation 14:6–12, three angels proclaim a worldwide message: fear God and give glory to Him, rather than fearing and giving glory to the earthly beast power described in Revelation 13.
True fear of God as holy means that you recognize Him as the ultimate power in the universe. Such fear overcomes any other fear. If He is for you, nobody else can touch you without His permission. If He is against you because you have rebelled against Him, you can run, but you can’t hide!
There are different kinds of fear. If someone with awesome power is your friend, with whom you share mutual love, you do not fear that person in the sense you think he or she will hurt you. But you have a kind of fear in the sense that you know and respect the power of that person and the boundaries of your relationship.
Ahaz was deeply involved in pagan religion (2 Kings 16:3, 4, 10–15; 2 Chron. 28:2–4, 23–25), which was heavily interconnected with the occult (compare Deut. 32:17, NRSV; “They sacrifice to demons,” 1 Cor. 10:20). Various aspects of modern witchcraft have striking parallels in ancient Near Eastern rituals, as witnessed by ancient writings outside the Bible. Indeed, even many of today’s New Age practices are simply contemporary manifestations of these ancient occult practices.
Isaiah’s description of despair resulting from reliance on spirits other than the Lord (Isa. 8:21, 22) fits Ahaz well (compare 2 Chron. 28:22, 23). Isaiah refers to people becoming enraged and cursing their king (Isa. 8:21). This would warn Ahaz that because he led the people into the occult, they would curse him. In fact, when Ahaz died, an exception was made regarding his burial due to lack of respect for him: “they did not bring him into the tombs of the kings of Israel” (2 Chron. 28:27, NRSV).
Separation from the occult is a matter of loyalty to God. First Chronicles 10:13, 14 applies this principle to the case of King Saul: “So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord; moreover, he had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (NRSV).
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Can Our Dead Speak to Us?” pp. 551–562, in The Great Controversy.
“In the days of the Hebrews there was a class of people who claimed, as do the spiritualists of today, to hold communication with the dead. But the ‘familiar spirits,’ as these visitants from other worlds were called, are declared by the Bible to be ‘the spirits of devils.’ (Compare Numbers 25:1–3; Psalm 106:28; 1 Corinthians 10:20; Revelation 16:14.) The work of dealing with familiar spirits was pronounced an abomination to the Lord, and was solemnly forbidden under penalty of death. Leviticus 19:31; [Leviticus] 20:27. The very name of witchcraft is now held in contempt. The claim that men can hold intercourse with evil spirits is regarded as a fable of the Dark Ages. But spiritualism, which numbers its converts by hundreds of thousands, yea, by millions, which has made its way into scientific circles, which has invaded churches, and has found favor in legislative bodies, and even in the courts of kings—this mammoth deception is but a revival, in a new disguise, of the witchcraft condemned and prohibited of old.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 556.
Summary: Through Isaiah’s actions and family, as well as his words, God reinforced the message of warning and hope: the only safe course is to trust that God knows what He is doing. He has both the love and the power to guide, protect, and provide for those who let Him. For those who turn to other powers, there is only gloom.