The Good News of the Incarnation: The Comfort of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:1-17)Thursday, December 08, 2005
The Comfort of Immanuel
December 19, 2004
Preface: This was a sermon I preached during the height of a lawsuit last year, one filed by half our congregation against the deacons and myself (because we were 'Calvinists' and because we supposedly had a plan to take over the church). This passage was particularly salient, not only for this time of year, but also for the particular time in which we found ourselves. Thus, the passage provided accute application for the rest of the fellowship at the time. I've since left, but the church continues to stand in need of intercession. The lawsuit is nearing an end, but the conflict is no where near such a point.
There seems to be certain moments in the existence of a person’s life, or a church’s life and even a nation’s life which define its history, its existence and its future. We are at such a moment in our own church’s life today. I’m at a moment like this in my ministry. And this morning I want to you comfort and instruct you with a reflection on a similar moment in the life of the nation of Judah.
The nation of Syria was a constant problem for God’s people during that time in Israel’s history when the kingdom was divided. For over 200 years, they pestered, pillaged and assaulted God’s chosen nation, and the books of 1 and 2 Kings are peppered with these pestering kings of Syria.
In Isaiah chapter 7 we find the last threat that this little country posed to the people of God living in Judah during the 8th century B.C., which is about seven hundred years before Christ’s birth. Their last king was named Rezin and he reigned from 750-732 B.C. He was eventually killed by the king of Assyria, Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.; cf. 2 Kings 15:37).
Since the kingdom of Israel was divided, the northern kingdom of Israel also posed a regular threat to the southern kingdom of Judah. As you recall, the split occurred as a result of Solomon’s moral failures. Reheboam, Solomon’s son, ended up splitting the kingdom with another fellow named Jereboam, the result of Solomon’s failure with respect to morality and idolatry. The divided kingdom lasted for over 200 years.
As we turn our attention to Isaiah 7, we find that the king of Israel in those days was Pekah, who was the next to the last king over the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was eventually overtaken by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser in 722 B.C. The last days of Israel were the darkest days in the nation’s history. Within nine years of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 7, the northern kingdom of Israel was snuffed out.
The southern kingdom of Judah, however, was a brighter spot, albeit a little one at that. God seemed to protect it from the Assyrians, for His sovereign purposes. In Isaiah 7 Ahaz is the king. His son, Hezekiah follows him. He was one of two more lengthy reigns during Judah’s history which were the brighter days. Hezekiah and Josiah reigned for many years, and even after Josiah’s reign, there would be another 140 plus more years before they were destroyed by Babylon in 586 B.C
It is this kingdom of Judah, and more specifically the reign of Ahaz that I want to point your attention toward this morning. It seems that the presence of a godly king seemed to leave enough of a godly influence on the following generation or two that was not easily undone. That’s the way it is often. When godly men rule, or when godly pastors preach for a long time, their influence takes a long time to undo, even when they are followed by men of lesser or even wicked character. Perhaps that’s why evil took so long to become engrained in the people of Judah. They had enjoyed the reigns of Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Amaziah, Azariah and Jotham before suffering under the wicked rule of Ahaz. I’m not sure how a nation with such a track record of godly kings could all of the sudden come to suffer under an ungodly one.
We at this church find ourselves in a somewhat reverse situation, don’t we. This church has seemingly suffered without gospel preaching for many, many years. And now that the gospel has returned to the ministry of the church, wickedness is revolting. My prayer is that the gospel will in fact be victorious here, take root, become solidified, and bear much fruit in the coming days, weeks, months and years. But it is the cherishing of the gospel in the local church that will ensure that the future generations of this local church will seek out other gospel-cherishing leadership when the time comes.
But such was not the case with Judah in the days of Ahaz. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Read with me about this king in 1 Kings 16.
“Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (1 Kings 16:2-4).
Here is Ahaz, the son of a godly, who is so wicked that he burns his own son in an idolatrous sacrifice! This was the more than likely the god Molech. If there was ever a biblical parallel to abortion in our day, it is Molech, a pagan fire god who demanded the burning flesh of little children in order to appease his anger. How can the son of a godly king see any value or worth in such a detestable practice?
The Background of Isaiah 7
Now let me see if I can throw some fuel on your own fire, which is probably burning against a man like this. What does such a man deserve? He deserves to be thrown in that fire himself. And that’s just the sort of thing we find developing. In 1 Kings 15:37 we read that in the days of Jotham, Ahaz’s father and godly king of Judah, “the Lord began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah.” For those who struggle with the theology of a God who causes evil to happen, it is right here in this text. God is sending destruction upon His own people, Judah. And He sent it against a godly king, Jotham!
When Ahaz takes the throne, this problem is continuing to brew. We move back to 1 Kings 16 and in verse 5 we read that “Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to wage war on Jerusalem, and they besieged Ahaz…” Good for Ahaz! Right? Probably. God’s sovereignty strangely raised up a goofy confederacy between a pagan nation and His chosen nation to come and attack His chosen nation which was then being ruled by a godly king who didn’t deserve that, humanly speaking. And He continues this action on into the reign of an ungodly king who did deserve it and a whole lot more.
Yet in verse 5 we finish the verse by reading that these two kings “could not conquer him.” Then in verse 6 we read of the record of how Pekah and Rezin took some of the citizens of Judah captive. Out of fear, “Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel who are attacking me” (v. 6). Along with that letter, Ahaz robbed the temple of some of its golden and silver furniture and sent it to the king as a present, to sort of butter him up.
What else to we expect from an ungodly king than to form an alliance with another pagan king and send the precious treasures of the temple as a present to him. It is interesting to note that the northern part of God’s kingdom sided with a pagan nation to attack the southern part. And the southern part sides with a pagan nation to defend itself. It is just utter foolishness. There’s no sanctified rationality going on here at all. Ultimately, the king heeds the plea, comes up to Damascus, the capitol of Syria, takes the city and kills the king, providing some measure of remedy to Ahaz’s problem.
Now turn to Isaiah 7. This chapter is written before Rezin is killed by Tiglath-Pileser. It is a chapter written in the throes of worry and anxiety. In this chapter we find Ahaz fearful about what to do. It is probably written after he wrote the letter to the king of Assyria, but again before that king defeats Syria.
What is interesting in this chapter is that instead of the prophet pronouncing doom on this incredibly wicked and detestable king, god issues a comfort to him. Here is a wicked king, about to be destroyed by two other neighboring countries, and instead of a just prophecy of doom, he gets a merciful prophecy of comfort. And he gets it from the same God who sovereignly initiated and planned the uprising to begin with!
Application: Remember God sends the evil that His people experience, and He always accompanies it with His comfort.
This is where I must break in and offer you this seed of counsel which goes too often unnoticed. It was Matthew Henry who wrote, “The God who comforts is the God who sends the trouble; and the God who sends the trouble is the God who will comfort” (on Isa. 7:1,2). God initiated and planned the destructive attacks against a godly king in Judah. These attacks carried over to Ahaz’s rule. And this same God turns around and comforts the one who would become a victim of His sovereign attacks. I ask you, would you want to be comforted by the one who plotted your demise? Now consider, when it is a good, wise, sovereign, righteous, just and merciful God initiating such destruction, why would you not want your comfort from Him. After all, if He planned it, He knows how to comfort you in the midst of it. It is part of this double-sided theology of God that so many in our day are completely unwilling to consider.
Isaiah Appears on the Scene (v. 3)
Back to Isaiah 7, we come to verse 3 where Isaiah is told to meet Ahaz at a specific location. It appears that at this location there was probably some strategic planning going on with his men. They were probably considering how to secure the water supply which was key to maintaining control of a city. Or perhaps they were planning how to deprive the enemy of that water supply and acquire a better chance of winning (2 Chron. 32:3,4; Isa. 22:9-11). Or maybe they were planning how to strengthen the city.
Here the wicked king is, continuing to act wickedly by trusting in the arm of man. It is a wicked thing for God’s people to strategize their defense without the mind of God. It is a natural thing, also, for God’s people to defend themselves without God’s help. It takes supernatural effort to stop relying on the arm of flesh, in the strength of a man’s body and power of his mind. It is supernatural to stop such a thing and begin throwing yourself headlong into the wisdom of God to inquire of Him.
Application: Step back and allow God to be your defense when evil times come upon you.
Ahaz didn’t do that. He didn’t call for Isaiah at all. But that didn’t stop God. God sent Isaiah to Ahaz to interrupt the strategic planning with a word from God, a comforting word which they needed to hear at that time. This is not unlike our God who in this last week has sent comfort to us, His people, at a very seasonable time. He does this throughout history for His people and usually at a time when they are most afraid. And in that dark hour He encourages them to trust in Him.
Isaiah’s Counsel (v. 4)
After telling Isaiah where to find Ahaz and his men, God tells Isaiah what to tell those men. We find it in verse 4. “And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint…” What incredible counsel this is! This is what this king is to do while waiting on a confederacy of evil to come and destroy his city and people. What kind of counsel is it that tells someone to sit and wait rather than get up and prepare?
It is God’s kind of counsel, that’s what. This is the very counsel David followed in Psalm 27. That is the famous Psalm, you’ll remember, where David begins with “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” He ends that wonderful Psalm with the words, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
This waiting on the Lord to come and defend His people is described in Isaiah’s counsel in four ways. First, God told Ahaz to be careful. The Hebrew word behind our translation here means to keep, watch, or preserve. It also means to take heed to something, or pay careful attention to something.
Now this first piece of counsel actually goes with the following phrase, which is “be quiet.” The Hebrew word behind this English phrase means to remain undisturbed. Together with the last phrase God is saying, “keep watch over your heart to make sure you remain undisturbed in the midst of this coming destruction.”
The opposite of this would be to resort to human tactics or perhaps even to strange or extreme measures. Man is never more tested in times of trouble than when he is tempted to use ways and means that are strange and extreme to get him out of that trouble. This is best illustrated on the show COPS. When the officers are chasing a person, that person will resort to the strangest and most extreme measures, sometimes just to get out of being arrested. In the end, they are always caught and subdued.
Have you ever felt like that before? I know I have, and more particularly in this situation we find ourselves in right now. There have been the most strange and extreme ways of dealing with my sorrow, anguish, pain and frustration. But those ways are fleshly, not godly. My task, and yours as well, is to make every effort to remain undisturbed in your soul and heart. Let nothing shake you. God gave this counsel to Isaiah in chapter 30. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (v. 15). That is our task this morning.
Application: Take control of your thoughts and submit them to God before they take control of you.
How do we do this? Simply put, the comfort that God wants to give us in times of trouble is brought about primarily by us watching out for those things that disquiet us and then dealing with them properly. It is the practice of taking every thought captive and making it obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). It is the discipline of measuring our thoughts and permitting into our hearts only those that are true, noble, lovely, pure, excellent, praiseworthy and of good report (Phil. 4:8). It is the watchful heart of praying about everything and worrying about nothing (Phil. 4:6-7).
This is what God means by the last two phrases. All four phrases are really synonymous to one another. To be careful and quiet is reflected in not being afraid and not letting our hearts grow faint. The phrases mean that we are not to let our hearts grow weak or soft or timid. We are not to let the possibility of destruction mollify our hearts so that we just melt into a puddle of anxious tears.
God’s View of the Threats (v. 4)
Now comes the glorious reasoning behind the counsel of comfort. God tells Ahaz and his people to be careful, be quiet, to not be afraid and not let their hearts be discouraged because the threats that face them are nothing more than smoldering stumps.
Beloved, part of being careful and quiet and courageous is seeing things and persons fro God’s point of view. Ahaz sees two destructive forces who mean him harm. God sees two smoldering stumps. Have you ever seen from a distance what looked to be a huge fire with billowing smoke shooting a mile into the sky, only to drive by and see that it was a smoking stump? These kings weren’t raging fires, just smoldering ones.
How often are we deceived by our own hearts into thinking that because there is smoke there is a huge fire? Usually, but not always. Where there is smoke there is always fire, but not always a raging one. God’s enemies are usually like dogs with a loud bark but with no bite, and from His perspective usually without teeth! They are fires, but ones that are no longer even capable of producing a flame of harm.
Application: Remember that the days of the wicked are numbered.
Matthew Henry offers some incredibly wise counsel and application on this passage. Allow me to quote it for you here.
“And such are all the enemies of God’s church, smoking flax, that will soon be quenched. Nay, they are but tails of smoking firebrands, in a manner burnt out already; their force is spent; they have consumed themselves with the heat of their own anger; you may put your foo ton them and tread them out…The more we have an eye to God as a consuming fire the less reason we shall have to fear men, though they are ever so furious, nay, we shall be able to despise them as smoking firebrands.”
The Plans of Evil Can’t Succeed (vv. 5-9)
The reason why we must never fear those who would bring harm to us and God’s church is not only because they are just smoldering stumps. It is also because their plans will never succeed. That is what God goes on to declare to Ahaz in verses 5-9. The promise of the sovereign God in verse 7 is that the God who sent them to war against Judah in the first place would not allow their plans to succeed. Remember Psalms 33:10? “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.” There are several thoughts of comfort here for us today.
1. The top commanders of men are still men, but the top commander of God’s people is Jehovah. This is the point behind the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 8. Their plans will not come to pass because their plans are coming against the plans of Jehovah. When Isaiah says that “The head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah” here merely means to communicate, “the capitol of Syria is this little city Damascus, and the leader of that city is the mere human named Rezin. And the head of Ephraim is the city of Samaria, and the leader of that city is the measley human named Pekah.”
Following that word is the prophecy that within 65 years the area of land known as Ephraim, which included the Syrians, would be destroyed, broken to pieces, and that they would no longer be a nation. That happened in 669 B.C. when Asshurbanipal, King ofAssyria, transferred his own residence to Babylon. This prophecy, therefore, happened in 733 B.C.
Beloved, the strongest leaders of men are still men. They are creatures. They cannot and will not ever be able to frustrate the plans of their Creator. He is not just one step ahead of them. Remember, according to our texts, He is behind all of their efforts. This comforts us because it means that the evil that threatens us, no matter what it is, has been orchestrated by God. And if it is orchestrated by God then it will be brought to an end by God. And it will be brought to an end for the benefit of His people.
2. We must believe in the promises of God’s word if they are to take their comforting effect on our troubled souls. That is the point behind the end of verse 9. “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” In other words, the counsel to this wicked king is that if you choose not believe this prophetic promise, then you will not stand firm when the day of trouble does arrive.
One commentator says that “Full faith in the promise of ver. 7 would have enabled Ahaz to dispense with all plans of earthly policy, and to ‘stand face in the Lord,’ without calling in the aid of any ‘arm of flesh.’ The reason this counsel was given, folks, was because Isaiah knew Ahaz had already called for help from Assyria. Ahaz was trusting in their coming to help him rather than in God’s promise to deliver them. Therefore, if he chose to believe in Assyria rather than God, he would not stand firm. One wise pastor once stated, “The grace of faith is absolutely necessary to the quieting and composing of the mind in the midst of all the tosses of the present time” (Henry). (Recount the story of 2 Chronicles 20:20-23).
The Pivotal Point of History for God’s People (vv. 10-14)
Isaiah then moves to give a prophecy and confirm his predictions in verses 7-8. The coming of the Messiah is the proof that the plans of Pekah and Rezin will come to nothing. Today for us it is reversed. Looking back at the coming of the Messiah, Immanuel, proves that no weapon formed against us will prosper. If the coming of Immanuel meant deliverance for Israel before He was born, it means deliverance for true Israel after He was born!
Notice that in verse 10 Isaiah said God would give a sign to confirm the prophecy. This has always been God’s way, beloved. (Read Hebrews 6:13-20). God always gives a sign to His people to confirm His promises. It is just part of the divine faithfulness of His veracity. God tells us nothing but what is able and ready to prove.
Notice next that Ahaz didn’t ask for a sign for one reason. He was an evil king without faith. He didn’t believe in YHWH. Rather he believed in the Assyrians. He was counting on them to come to his aid and fight against Israel and Syria. Worse yet he disguises his disbelief with a pious excuse. He is an example of those who will not trust God while pretending they don’t want to tempt Him. Put God to the test! God offered it to Ahaz and He offers it to us!
Fruther, notice Isaiah’s reproof in verse 13, because of the contempt that Ahaz had for prophecy in the first place. Unbelief is contemptuous, especially when it is God behind the prophecy and promise. “Nothing is more grievous to the God of heaven than to be distrusted” (Henry).
Now the sign was the prophecy of Messiah. This is where you must listen closely to get the point of the prophecy. From Ahaz’s family would come the Messiah. He was the king of Judah in the line of David. God made a promise to David many generations earlier, that the Messiah would come from his line and sit on his throne. So if Ahaz and his family are destroyed then the Messiah couldn’t come.
Behind the scenes here is no doubt Satan who has throughout all generations of history attempted to snuff out the line from which Messiah would come. But God is faithful to His promises, and He is faithful to that promise to David. That’s why despite Ahaz’s wickedness, God would not allow Ahaz or Judah to be destroyed. He was going to be faithful to His promise to bring the Messiah, and preserving a wicked king and His family depended on it. Here again, God uses wicked people to keep His promises and accomplish His plans.
Many scholars have asked how a prophecy about Messiah who didn’t come for more than 700 years later could possibly be a comfort to them there and then. The answer is simple when viewed through their eyes. They all knew about Messiah’s coming. They all knew He would come through David’s lineage. So to hear that He would come through Ahaz’s family meant certain deliverance. “Those whom God designs for great salvation may take that for a sign to them that they shall not be swallowed up by any trouble they meet with in the way” (Henry).
Application: Christ was, is and always will be our deliverance.
Matthew Henry was such a help in my study of this passage, as you have no doubt noticed by now. He properly understood the connection of Immanuel to Ahaz’s troubles as well as to our own troubles today. He wrote, “Note, the strongest consolations, in time of trouble, are those which are borrowed from Christ, our relation to Him, our interest in Him, our expectations of Him and from Him” (Henry).
I cannot and to the present day have not stressed anything else more than this single point. It is the coming of Jesus Christ and His miracle birth, vicarious death, and miraculous resurrection and ascension that means certain victory for us today, no matter what kind of troubles come our way and no matter how bad they may be. God has guaranteed that through giving us the Holy Spirit, whom as Paul says in Ephesians 1 and 4, is the guarantee of our redemption.
If you were to ask for a sign today, perhaps that would be fleshly. God has given the greatest sign ever in His Son Jesus Christ. If you are related to Him you cannot fail, you will not fall ultimately, and you will be preserved.
The Fulfillment (vv. 15-17)
In verse 15, if we are not careful, we can fall into the trouble of misunderstanding the prophecy here. What follows in verses 15-17 is not a reference to the Messiah who is prophesied in verse 14. That is a very easy mistake to make and I’ve made it before. And that mistake has messed me up before in terms of my understanding of prophecy.
The child referred to in verses 15-17 is Isaiah’s son, Shear-Jashub, the one he carried with him in verse 3. So, before Isaiah’s little baby would be old enough to know right from wrong, the confederate forces of Israel and Syria would be bereft of both their kings. That was full accomplished because about 2-3 years later, Hoshea conspired against Pekah and killed him (2 Kings 15:30), and before that the king of Assyria conquered Damascus and killed Rezin (2Kings 16:9).
Also remember that Isaiah’s son’s name Shear-Jashub meant “a remnant shall return.” His son’s prophetic name came true The 200,000 captives whom Pekah and Rezin carried off did in fact return. We can read about it in 2 Chronicles 28:8-15.
In closing may I offer a few points of application from this glorious prophetic promise of Immanuel. You know that this means “God with us.” And guys, I couldn’t think of a better encouragement and comfort for us this morning than this truth. God is still with us. He will never not be with us. He will always be with us, no matter what.
What this means is that we must believe the Messiah, our Savior, has already come. His birth, death, resurrection and ascension means we’ve already won, already been delivered. We must simply wait for it all to be fulfilled.
In light of that truth, we must put Him to the test! We do that by actually putting our trust in Him and believing in Him. We believe by living as if He has already won the victory for us. And we show that belief by not trying to work out the details of our own victory ourselves. We leave the work of the victory to God.
Also, we must embrace Immanuel. If God is with us, then we must commune with Him. Moses did this in the early days of Israel’s existence. He went into the tent of meeting to meet with this God. God was with Israel and Moses communed with Him daily. So you must commune with Him. The fact that God is with us means nothing at all if we do not love and delight in being with Him.
Further, be encouraged by God’s mercy for us thus far. He had mercy on a wicked king in Isaiah 7. How much more do you think He will have mercy on us, on those who love Him? God’s previous acts of mercy carry us through our troubles and prepare us for the next act of mercy. The mercy we got this past week in a stay from the appellate court is a mercy that prepares us for the next mercy, and carries us through til then.
Finally, understand that sometimes God blesses and comforts wicked people because of His faithfulness to someone else in their family. He’s faithful to His promises even when it includes blessing the wicked. We don’t understand why God does what He does, but if we trust in Him and believe in His sovereign goodness, then we will not fear.
Be careful to be quiet. Take every precaution not to let your hearts be undisturbed in our trial. Immanuel is with us. That means we must not fear. God is with us. We must not let our hearts be afraid. God is with us. We must not allow anxiety and worry to overtake our hearts. God is with us. We must be quiet and step back. God is with us.