In this story, Isaiah speaks to a king and a nation in stressful times. There are two nations in league against them, King Ahaz has already lost battles to both nations, and now he hears they plan on taking his city and setting up their own king. The result is, as Isaiah so vividly puts it, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (vs. 2). The way things look to Ahaz, there is very little hope of success unless he is able to form an allegiance with another, stronger nation, so that is what he does by sending treasures from the Temple to the nation of Assyria (2 Kings 16). He hopes to buy their support and save the day. Isaiah sees things differently.
Ahaz is shaken at the prospect of enemies at the gate and an uncertain future. Isaiah, though a citizen of the city in danger, is not shaken by foreign nations no matter how strong. Isaiah has seen the One who shakes the foundations of the earth and whose glory saturates everything that exists, so the fears of this world pale in comparison to him. Isaiah has seen the Lord and there is now no question of his faith and trust. Ahaz only sees the foreign threat and everything that could possibly go wrong, so his faith and trust in God is shaky at best. The difference is in what each man sees; one trusts God in the face of anything and everything, and the other cannot trust God no matter what God does. And in the end, this difference is also the difference in how the greatest gift of God to a broken people in a difficult world is received. What does it mean that, “God is with us”?
God wants Ahaz to learn to trust him. Isaiah tells the king, “If you are not firm in the faith, you will not be firm at all” (vs 9). What God means is that the only place to stand firm and secure in a world like ours is in him. Even if Assyria sends the treaty back with good news, they will fail (and ultimately attack) Judah. Ahaz will fall no matter where he stands unless he stands on God alone. When God presents himself as the answer to our fears, he does not make our fears small, he makes himself great. Our fears are real, but our God is greater than any fear we do or will possibly ever face. Isaiah knew this. Ahaz needed to learn it.
It is true that without God, Ahaz, and I, have everything to fear. Every conspiracy has the potential to destroy me. Every relationship has the potential to leave me hurt and alone. Every career has the possibility of failure. Every bank can collapse. And on it goes ad infinitum, ad phobium. But with God, it turns out that none of those fears are greater than he is and all of them put together are smaller than he is. So standing in faith in God is the only safe place to stand.
I said God wanted Ahaz to have faith in him. He wants it so much he goes to the extraordinary length of offering the king the opportunity to ask him for a sign – anything he can imagine. And when he refuses out of false piety, God in exasperation offers a sign that would blow anyone’s mind – a virgin will give birth to a son whose life will mean salvation for God’s people. And his life is a message – “God with us.”
Ahaz was waiting for a treaty to be signed that meant, “Assyria is with you!” God was giving him what only God can possibly give, “God is with you!” Ahaz missed it. Will we?