Isaiah's Christmas Children:
Charles G. Dennison
Let me try to give you a feel for what is going on here in Isaiah chapter 7. The year is 740 B. C. or thereabouts. Judah's great King Uzziah has died, and with his death, there has also come the death of a long period of peace in the experience of the people of Judah. In fact, both Judah to the south (you know your geography and something of the history of the people of God), both Judah to the south and the nation of Israel to the north (the two southern tribes, the ten northern tribes, split by civil war after the reign of Solomon) had at this particular time enjoyed nearly fifty years of freedom from massive external assault. If you know anything about life in the ancient world, that was certainly a blessing.
Syria, to be sure, was a nuisance, a disturbance. But now on the horizon rose the imposing predator, the Assyrians (who have been called by some the Nazis of the ancient world) through a succession of impressive leaders: Tiglath- pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and of course, that most formidable of all, Sennacherib. Through a succession of impressive leaders, the Assyrians had campaigned in the interests of their superpower mentality. These Assyrians weren't your ordinary land-grabbing maraudersyou know, the rape and pillage type. They set their sights on more than the proverbial spoils of war. Their interest was world dominance, which they advanced through a systematic programa program uprooting entire nations. That was their methoda method that meant the transportation of the inhabitants of the defeated nations. And then to insure power, and their rule of law, the swift and immediate reprisal for the faintest hint of rebellion. And I mean swift and immediate. Assyrian power has been described as hideous, for the Assyrians were exceedingly cruel.
About five years after Uzziah's death (that death mentioned for us at the beginning of Isaiah 6), with Ahaz, his grandson, now on the throne in Jerusalem, distressing news shakes the Judean world. It seems that Israel, those ten northern tribes, have united with Syria, the nuisance, in an effort to block the advancing deluge from Assyria. In the minds of both the Syrians and the Israelites (those described as "Ephraim"), it only made sense that Judah should tag along, join them in the stand. The thought was that these three nations (and possibly some other lesser nations, as an alliance) could withstand the Assyrian assault. But what shocked the Judeans was word that the Syrian-Israelite coalition was so distressed by Judah's refusal to join in their alliance that this coalition now set its sights upon Jerusalem itself. Ahaz in this situation, a very proud man, acted seemingly as if "Well what's the problem?" In actual fact he was internally stumbling and looking for a solution. The king is as terrified as the people; so what does he do? He turns to the Assyrians, those cruel people which the Syrians and the Israelites had hoped to stop. This brings us up to date with Isaiah 7. When Judah refused to help, the Syrian-Israelite coalition invaded the land of Judah with the objective of placing their own man, son of Tabeel on the throne of Jerusalem (that individual is mentioned for you in the 6th verse of the 7th chapter). This sets the stage historically for what we have read in the seventh chapter.
But it might also be helpful to set the stage theologically. As we have said, Isaiah is the prophet of divine grandeur, and that specifically in relation to and even in contrast with human weakness and vanity: the magnificence of God and the puniness of man; the greatness of God and the littleness even of Judah and those who inhabit it. This message is variously communicated throughout the prophecy from Isaiah and that in such a way that even Judah, for all of her advantages (she is after all, living in the shadow of the templeshe is living with the plains of Davidthere hovering over the city of Jerusalem and securing the people within the land, which they believed had been promised to them)even Judah for all her advantages, and all of her supposed reasons to boast, is put in her place. For here, in light of the stark contrast, the immensity of God and the smallness of man is portrayed for us a universal devastation that reduces man, reduces humanity to nothing, to utter desolation. Meaning, of course, that if there is anything to be salvaged, if there is anything to be saved, God himself will have to act. For man does not have it in himself, even in what he is as a creature, much less what he is as a fallen creature, to save himself. God's salvaging activity, sovereign and gracious God's salvaging activity is then variously presented throughout the prophecy of Isaiah.
At the very beginning of the prophecy (and throughout the early chapters) that salvaging activity repeatedly turns to the very small remnant of which the prophet speaks. If Judah is little, the remnant is littler. If Judah is insignificant, then the remnant is even more insignificant. Judah dismissable, the remnant even more dismissable. At the beginning of the prophecy of Isaiah, and throughout those early chapters of Isaiah, you will find the prophet repeatedly referring to the remnantso wonderfully identified in the first chapter of Isaiah (at least according to the King James Version) as that "very small remnant", not saved by its own merit, nor by its own strength. The remnant doesn't even have the wherewithal to form an army out of its number .
And at the end of the prophecy, what can we say about the way things progress at the conclusion of the prophecy, specifically with reference to the famous Suffering Servant figure set forth for us there? That one who takes to himself the weakness and the fallenness of his people and bears in his body the judgment that they deserve. But you know that God's salvaging activity will also be highlighted in the prophet himself, in Isaiah personally. That's why Isaiah 6 is so significant. For here you have the confession of one who stands in privileged position within Israelwithin Jerusalemwithin the temple. He is brought right within the sanctuary. And as he is confronted with the vision of God in all his glory, in all his magnificence, he is constrained to cry out: "Woe is me, for I am a ruined man! I am destroyed, a man of unclean lips, living in the midst of a people of unclean lips." This unworthy man then, in keeping with God's salvaging activity, his saving enterprise, becomes a conduit of God's holiness.
But God's salvaging activity is also powerfully presented for us as we launch into chapter 7. He is powerfully presented to us in the figures of a number of children. It is now becoming as profound as it is sublime. You have Judah, you might imagine strength for her. You have the remnant, you might even be able to conjure up strength for the remnant in thinking about it. But when you are face to face with a child, what do you do? The child is utterly helpless, the child is completely without power. If the remnant cannot generate an army, in demonstration of its own strength, then what about a child! The lessons are heaping up, they're being piled up for Judah's consideration, and beyond Judah, they are being piled up for your consideration!
Theologically it is not going to be sufficient for us just to take stock of these things that are laid up for us here, for we are going to have to consider them in light of the program and the scheme of God's redemptive purposes. For where does Isaiah live; where does Ahaz live; where does this church of the Old Testament at this time live? Where does it exist? It exists between the time of the ascent of David to the throne and the time of the promise of the return of David, even in his greater Son. And redemptively and historically you see the correlation between Ahaz's situation, Isaiah's situation, the church of the Old Testament situation and your own. Where do you live? You live between the time of the ascent of David's greater Son and his return in glory. And that's what makes this word meaningful. It means for you that this word carries with it its own application and it is imperative that you identify with it and live under what it says. The church in Isaiah's day was being called by these various means to consider her circumstance and situation particularly in light of God's greatness and her own weakness. And you likewise, my friends, just what power will you present from yourself, before the God who sits upon the circumference of the earth and looks upon us as if we were so many grasshoppers? I didn't make that language up. It comes from Isaiah chapter 40. So then you have the series of children, one after another, strikingstriking at youstriking at your pride just as they struck at the pride of the Judeans in the days of Ahaz.
Isaiah chapters 7 through 12, has been called the book of the Immanuel. The description which this section of Scripture picks up from the second child to be mentioned in the series. This second child, introduced to you in verses 10 and following of the seventh chapter is dramatically described as that one which is virgin-conceived (v. 14). Now we're really talking about powerlessness, aren't we? The name of this child, Immanuel (meaning "God with us") is repeated in chapter 8 verse 8; alluded to, laid within the lines of chapter 8:10. It is thought that the nature of the person in view and the reign in view progressively builds throughout these chapters to an appropriate conclusion. From the immediate threat introduced at the beginning of chapter 7, these Immanuel chapters extend to coming events in Judah's history and envision even a worldwide dispersion of God's people (chapter 11). But going even further, these Immanuel chapters touch the last days and God's saving purpose for the whole earth (chapter 12). It is as if the book of Immanuel were a book unto itself, complete unto itself. And in it, you have as it were, the history of the entire world set in front of you (that is, from God's perspective.)
The child becomes the appropriate figure then, in God's saving activity. Because, as it should be obvious to you, the child so eloquently communicates first of all, weakness, helplessness, not strength and power. The child is the appropriate vehicle in whom and through whom God is able to speak about the absoluteness of his power in accomplishing his purpose in contrast to human inadequacy. Immanuel is the second child. Actually there are five distinct references to children in the course of chapters 7 to 12. Not that they are all separate and distinct children. The first three appear to be children born either to Isaiah or at least contemporary with him. That is the immediate meaning even of Immanuel. These three children are Shear-jashub (7:3); Immanuel, whom we already identified (7:14); and then the one whose name is a mouthful Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:3). The last two children identified are first, the Glory- child (9:6, 7), the one that is spoken to us along the lines of that famous line, "For unto us a child is born;" and then finally the poetically described child of 11:1, "The rod from Jesse's stem, the branch from Jesse's root." These last two children are undoubtedly the same child, the future messianic child. Nevertheless, even the earlier mentioned children are prophetic and they relate to the future. As such, their meaning is tied to God's activity as that activity will manifest itself in the course of successive events, over which God is absolutely sovereign.
This is the case with Shear-jashub, the first of the children (7:3). Shear-jashub is Isaiah's own child, born to him. His name means "a remnant shall return". The Lord tells Isaiah to take this child with him when he goes out to meet Ahaz. The child in his name is meant to communicate something to Ahaz. It won't be just the words that Isaiah speaks. It will be the child himself. But what exactly is this child meant to communicate? From what follows, the precise nature of that communication is not altogether clear. In fact it seems as if the child in his name is something of an anachronism, out of place, out of joint historically. For Isaiah is to tell Ahaz that Syria and Ephraim will certainly be extinguished. They are smoldering stubs of a firebrand. The plans of Pekah and Rezin will not come to pass. Therefore, Ahaz is not to fear. But this sounds as if Judah then is going to be spared. There will be no defeat; there will be no subsequent exile or displacement for the people as a consequence of the defeat and thus there will be no need for a message concerning a returning remnant. So if Isaiah is calling Ahaz to faith in this passage, what role does Shear-jashub play in accompanying his father on this mission? If the child's name means "a remnant shall return," from the message that Isaiah is verbally communicating to the king, it would seem that the child in his name and in his presence is nothing less than superfluous. Again, an anachronismout of joint, out of sync historically. But before you leap too quickly to that conclusion, the truth of the matter is that Shear-jashub in his name is altogether relevant. You see, that boy, that child carries a name that preaches territorial loss. The boy carries a name, the child carries a name that assumes territorial loss, even the loss of Judah's grip upon the land of promise. The child in his name preaches loss and sacrifice.
What the Lord intends to set before Ahaz in this child (and we assume the child says nothing), what the Lord intends to set before Ahaz in this child is the dynamic of that faith to which the king himself is called. What is operative in that faith? That faith is not merely asked to rest in the promise of a present deliverance, that tomorrow everything is going to be all right, even though today you are quaking in your boots. No, that faith is constrained to look even further, in fact Ahaz has to look past Isaiah to the child. And in looking further, in looking past Isaiah to the child, he is confronted with a walking message that speaks eloquentlythat message touching the futurethe future of Judah herself. The child is preaching a message to Ahaz that he is being compelled to consider: that despite present deliverancedeliverance will not always be there. In fact, you are going to have to face loss. And in the midst of lossit is in that kind of trial that the dynamic of that true faith that I expect from my people will be tested and be confirmed.
Tomorrow the Syrians and the Ephraimites will disappear. But there is coming a day when Judah will be faced with loss. The dimension of that loss is so great that it will seem that restoration is utterly impossible. What of your faith then? A remnant shall return. Here's the king who moves to the hour. Here is the man who is involved in intrigues, who is plotting and scheming all the time ensuring himself against the bets of the nation. Conspiring with Assyria, in order to secure himself and he is being faced now in the figure of the child with the ultimate issue of loss. And it is only in that context that faith in its ultimate reach proves itself. It is the same, you see, for you. Trouble with the job? It resolves itself, doesn't it? Temporary illness? You get through it, don't you? Crisis in the church. We ultimately move past it, don't we? But it's that faith that is tested by the loss of everything that proves itself. What if you die? Will you live?
That's the message. And I think you understand how it is vitally and dynamically connected to the gospel. You do understand, don't you? For your faith by root of the gospel touches ultimate things and it is your confidence, due to that faith that despite death, you will live. Now that's a Christmas message! Those are the kinds of Christmas messages we need. Not mine, Isaiah's. And I hope you delight in it.