The Virgin shall conceive
Reading: Isaiah 7:1-
Who do you turn to when things seem to be going wrong? Who do you trust in the difficult times, the most difficult times? Many folk rely on friends and family and it is great when we are able to look to such for help and support. But what about those situations which are simply beyond their capacity? Who do you trust then? Many will assume that they can only trust themselves, their own efforts and their own decisions. Are you like that?
The Bible of course has a different solution to propose:
"Trust in the Lord with all you heart" we say with the writer of Proverbs "and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths." (Prov.3:5-
But the question presents itself: "Can the LORD be trusted?"
In Isaiah’s day part of God’s people had already been faced with this question and had taken the fatal decision to trust herself rather than listen to the LORD and now it was Judah's turn. Ahaz was king in Judah, what would he do?
Ahaz was the lawful king reigning over God’s people in the Kingdom of Judah. He was a descendant of great King David but he shared few, if any, of his ancestor’s qualities. The Bible’s description of this king’s life is curt and it is damning:
And Ahaz lived in difficult days. They were days of political uncertainty and international instability. It was a time when he and his nation really stood in need of God’s help and assistance but Ahaz didn’t want to know.
Ahaz’s problem, though he didn’t realise it, went by the name of Assyria. You see Assyria was waiting in the wings as the rising power in the region. The Assyrian Empire would be used by God as an instrument of divine judgment. The Lord God would use Assyria to severely discipline his own people because they had turned their backs on him and rejected him. Instead of following his ways of righteousness and holy living the nation had preferred to copy the example of other nations, nations whose behaviour had nothing in common with the Lord’s holy standards.
To the north Syria and Israel also felt under threatened by the rise of Assyria – after all they were directly in Assyria’s firing line and a plan was needed. They came up with one: they would set up an anti-
The situation was very serious. When Ahaz heard news of the impending attack he was worried and his subjects with him:
Is.7:2 "the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind."
It was into this anxious environment and to speak to King Ahaz that Isaiah was sent by the Lord with a gracious message of hope.
Offers of Grace
Did you notice how carefully the Lord told Isaiah where he would find Ahaz? I wonder what you made of it. Perhaps you thought it was just adding a little colour to the record and nothing more. Let me suggest to you that it means much more than that. It means that the Lord knew where Ahaz was to be found and when – in fact he knew everything there was to know about Ahaz! And what is more he knows everything about you too! He knows where to find you. That will be an encouragement to you unless, of course, you are intent on trying to turn your back upon him and run away from him!
Yes, the Lord knew where Ahaz was and because he knew there was no difficulty is getting his message of grace to the king. And make no mistake this was a gracious message because by no stretch of the imagination can Ahaz be deemed to have merited any favours whatsoever from the Lord. Ahaz had no respect for the Lord and had turned deliberately away from him, rejecting his laws preferring to do his own thing, and still the Lord offered him deliverance and safety.
It was a gracious message too as it wasn’t made because God knew it would be accepted either. In the event Ahaz would refuse the Lord’s overtures of grace and hope. God’s offers of help, of deliverance, of salvation, are based upon his own character and never upon any supposed merits in the life of the recipient.
What was true in Ahaz’s case then remains true too for us today. The Lord offers us a message of hope, a message of salvation, and he does so because he is good not because we are or because we might like to think we are. Ahaz hadn’t done what was right in God’s eyes and neither have we. But grace is extended to such people. We must not be stubborn like Ahaz and reject the very help and deliverance we need.
Isaiah called upon Ahaz not to try and be a clever politician, leaning on his own human understanding. Did the present threat of Israel and Syria worry Ahaz? There was no need for that, declared Isaiah, these nations were already a spent force, they were nothing more than a couple smouldering stumps that were soon to be stamped out; two dying embers of a fire that was going out! This was what the Lord told Isaiah to say to Ahaz:
v.4 "Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands."
Indeed one of these two nations that Ahaz feared so much would soon disappear entirely from the stage of world history!
v.8 "Within sixty-
The choice facing Ahaz was a simple one: was he going to pursue safety and security by means alliances and politics or by simple trust in the divine promises: salvation by works or salvation by grace? The divine promises were clear: the enemy could not succeed, but only faith could preserve the people – how would Ahaz respond? Grace was offered him and to reject grace would be a heart-
v.9 "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all."
Encouragements to Faith
We are not to imagine that faith is impossible, we are not to think of it as some kind of blind leap in the dark. Ahaz was given every encouragement to take the right decision. Not only had God told him what was going to take place God also offered him a sign to back up which would back up the truthfulness of what he had promised!
How good God is to sinners! The word of the One True Living God who does not lie ought to be enough on its own but here the Lord stooped to accommodate himself to the weakness of a mere man and offered to give proof that was he said was true!
The offer takes the form of a command. Ahaz is told to ask for whatever sign he wishes and the clear implication is that it will be given. But Ahaz, under the guise of piety, refused. (A number of years later Hezekiah, one of Ahaz’s sons, asked for a remarkable sign and was given it!) Of course there is such a thing as the sin of putting the Lord to the test but that is not the issue here for Ahaz. Ahaz was not eager to obey the Lord, he wouldn’t trust him and his promises because he did not want to. Ahaz acted out of settled unbelief; he did not want a sign because he does not want to believe. He preferred to do things his way. We must be careful that we are not like him.
Isaiah knew that Ahaz had already decided what he would do. He knew that Ahaz was about to turn to Assyria for help and he knew that would prove to be an unmitigated disaster. Ahaz had decided to pay Assyria to put an end to the Syrian/Israel threat. It was to prove a short term solution. Judah might have got out of the frying pan but would soon find itself in the fire as Assyria, the national saviour, quickly became Judah’s national executioner.
Such are the results of trusting in human wisdom.
The Lord who offered a sign to Ahaz doesn’t usually make similar offers to us today. We are not encouraged to ask for supplementary signs as proofs of what he has done for us in sending the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of sinners. And this for the very good reason that he has already given a truly stupendous sign! This is how the apostle Paul described it as he preached on Mars Hill in Athens:
The Lord’s own Sign
Returning to Isaiah’s prophecy we must note that although Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign added another nail to his coffin it did not stop the Lord giving a sign. Only this time the sign would not foster faith in Ahaz but highlight how foolish it was to refuse to trust the Lord.
The sign is well known to those who know the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ because the words are read over and over again each Christmas. Here they are:
Is.7:14 "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
This word from Isaiah likely had two separate though related fulfilments. The first fulfilment, in Isaiah’s day, functioned as a pattern or a type which would be fulfilled more literally and more completely centuries later.
Isaiah spoke to Ahaz about a specific woman who was probably well known to them both for he spoke about not just any woman but about the virgin. Concerning her exact identity we can say no more though commentators have hazarded a number of guesses. Understood in the simplest way Isaiah was speaking about an event that was to occur shortly after he proclaimed his prophetic message. A woman, who was not yet married and hence a virgin, would have a baby. We are looking at a birth perhaps a year after the marriage took place. The boy would be called Immanuel because he was to be a living testimony to the fact that God had not forgotten his people but was with them. The boy would have time to grow for a few years but he would be no more than 10 at most before the two kings that Ahaz was so frightened of would no longer be significant actors in the political/military affairs of the region. (Indeed, as we have already mentioned, Israel would disappear entirely from the stage of world history.)
The birth of this child in the non-
But the words of the prophecy also pointed to another and a more complete fulfilment that would take place at a time much further in the future. At that time another virgin would be involved only this time she would actually conceive a child while still a virgin. We know the name of this particular virgin – her name was Mary.
Mary’s baby would be someone very special indeed. Her baby would also be called Immanuel. This time however the child’s name did not simply point to the fact that God was with his people but he was himself God with his people! Mary’s baby known more under the name of Jesus would come, and did in history come, to deliver them from the greater perils they would then be in – he came to save his people from their sins!
In their respective accounts of Jesus’ birth Matthew and Luke both emphasise the fact that Jesus was conceived in an utterly unique manner. Both insist that his mother, Mary, was a virgin when she conceived and both equally emphasise that the Holy Spirit was at work to ensure this miraculous. Matthew also adds that Mary had no relations with Joseph, the man to whom she was betrothed, until after Jesus was born.
Thus Isaiah’s sign points us beyond the virgin of his day to Mary and in particular to her son, Jesus 7 centuries later! Why did God want to do this? What was is it really all for?
Let me tell you.
God wants to focus your attention upon Jesus Immanuel. He has come to be the Saviour of the World and God wants you to trust him as your Saviour and Lord. He is God’s solution to the problem that is far greater and more significant than the military, economic and political might of a few nations which are here today and gone tomorrow. He is the Saviour who delivers from sin. Reject this Saviour because you prefer to follow your own hunches and you will be left, like Ahaz, relying pitifully upon your own efforts which will fail you.
We must all place our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and in him alone for he is the only one who can do poor sinners good – for he has the authority to forgive us our sins!
And may God be praised for this gracious message that brings us hope.