Read: Isaiah 7 and 8
Background Considerations As noted in last week’s study guide, chapters 7-9 of Isaiah assume some awareness of the events surrounding what came to be known as the “Syro-Ephraimitic War,” a united quest between Syria and Israel to enlist the support of Judah (and other small states?) for their revolt against and thereby escape the taxes of the empire of Assyria in 734. At this point, we add two additional dates of importance: 732 and 722 BC. In 732 Assyria, under king Tiglath-pileser III, besieged and destroyed Syria and its capital Damascus, removing the Arameans as a threat to Judah. In 725, Shalmaneser V and then Sargon II laid a three-year siege against the capital of Israel, Samaria, and destroyed it in 722, forever removing the northern nation of Israel from the Middle Eastern map. This resulted in “the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” and left a mixed population in the land which, by the time of Jesus, had become the Samaritans.
As we study the rest of chapter 7 and all of chapter 8, it will be important to keep doing the math with these numbers in their historical context. We will see some interesting connections in the accounts and be led to think about the predictive element of prophecy. How might this make a difference in the way we interpret this material?
A note about “signs” might be appropriate here. The term shows up often in the Bible and carries with it special significance. One should always pause and pay attention when “signs” appear in the words or actions of prophets. God uses these to convey lessons often obvious as well as sub-surface and more significant than meets the eye.
The ancient world of the Middle East was characterized by all kinds of forms of magic and superstition, some of it connected with the dead. It would probably be a mistake to equate at least some of the terms used in chapter 8 with all modern phenomena for lots of reasons – translations of some terms is challenging as are cultural differences. At the same time, it is clear that societies often looked to the paranormal for some kind of direction from God/the gods. A good Bible dictionary will help fill in some blanks here.
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read Isaiah 7-9 a couple of times this week, too.
- Deuteronomy 18:9-14 – One can find here (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) descriptions of some of the off-center expressions of religion, which receive resounding condemnation from the Bible writers. Check out a recent commentary on these terms and descriptions.
- Isaiah 7:14-17 – The sign-son. There are few passages in the Old Testament which have received more treatment by students of the Bible than these verses, especially by Christians trying to understand Isaiah 7:14. If we are to understand this section in context (the 8th century, the Syro-Ephraimitic War, a group of people gathered around the upper pool in Jerusalem listening carefully, the invitation to King Ahaz to put his trust in God), we must avoid the temptation to jump immediately to the New Testament, as the SDA Bible Commentary reminds us. On its own, Isaiah 7:14 is directed at King Ahaz (and Judah probably should be included in this as well, since the “you” is plural) and is translated literally as follows: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold the young woman is pregnant and is bearing a son and she shall call his name Immanuel [God is with us].” This is followed by two verses indicating how long it will be before the threats of Syria and Israel will be gone – before the child comes to the age of responsibility for deciding between good and evil.If we do the math, by 732 Syria is gone and by 722 Israel is gone. That’s within 12 years. That’s within the time frame Isaiah predicted. That’s pretty amazing! Whoever the woman was (the king’s wife, the prophet’s wife, another important person’s wife, just any pregnant woman in labor, perhaps one within earshot of the pool), whoever the child was (a new prince, another PK, just another kid on the block), this was a public sign meant to have “sign”-ificance to the people gathered around the pool with Isaiah, his own son and the king. Many people received names tied to God and his role in their lives – Elijah (My God is the Lord), Isaiah (The Lord is Salvation – the same for Joshua and Hosea), Jezreel (Hosea’s son – God sows or scatters).
But what happened to these words on the way to the New Testament? The Greek translation (the Septuagint) made a few adjustments. It reads literally: “Behold the virgin will conceive and bear a son and they will call his name Immanuel.” And, since most New Testament writers used the Septuagint, this translation provided Matthew with his words. Some intriguing issues at stake here, but maybe it is more important to mention two: 1) that we pay attention to the whole context of the original if we hope to understand and interpret it and 2) that perhaps there might be more than one level of meaning to a passage – an original inspired message to a particular group and another equally inspired but different message to another group. Perhaps it is not either/or, but both/and; maybe we should view this as plus/plus, an added-benefit way of reading. In both cases, we are called to put our trust in God.
- Isaiah 7:18-25 – The remainder of this chapter reminds us that Ahaz’ refusal to trust God led to the very thing he wanted to avoid – military destruction, only this time at the hands of the Assyrians whom he had enlisted to help him fight against the others!
- Isaiah 8:1-10 – It might be interesting to note that the name “Immanuel” shows up two times in Isaiah 8 (verses 8 and 10 [although translated out here]). Are we to make some kind of connection between this name (from the sign-son of Isaiah 7:14) and that of Isaiah’s other son, Mahershalalhasbaz, born under rather public circumstances? A close reading might prove intriguing.
- Isaiah 8:11-15 – These verses pull together positive terms like “sanctuary” with negative ones like “stone of offense.” Are we ready for this? Is it possible that “God with us” might carry both the good news of salvation as well as the bad news of judgment?
- Isaiah 8:16-22 – An interesting set of verses in which the prophet attempts to help us separate out appropriate sources of information about God. Shouldn’t one turn away, Isaiah asks, from consulting the dead to listening to the prophet and the names of his sons, both “signs” to Judah?
Contributions to the study of Isaiah This book (and other inspired writers who quote it) provides us with a remarkable invitation to trust God, perhaps at several levels. Did the people know what later inspired writers would mean by Isaiah’s words? Likely not. Did Isaiah know? Probably not. Did God know? Now this is a level of inspiration we must celebrate, even if we don’t know all its dimensions.
Lessons for Life What is the role of signs in developing trust in God? Any controls we should keep in mind?