Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
The Story: When the armies of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (modern-day Syria) marched against Judah in about 735 B.C., Isaiah met King Ahaz of Judah and promised him victory. To seal the deal, the Lord said to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:10), but Ahaz refused to ask for any sign, thereby trying God’s patience and giving God the opportunity to specify the sign: a virgin bearing a son called “God-is-with-us.” The kings of Israel and Aram were, He said, “smoldering stumps of firebrands” (7:4) and nothing to get excited about. In the short term, this prophecy pointed to a child born soon after Isaiah’s prophecy who by the time he reached the age of discernment (12 or 13) would be eating curds and honey, because farming was impossible during times of war. In the long term, we celebrate Christmas.
The Structure: God was with Jerusalem and Judah, not Israel and Aram. And, as St. Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). The promise of Immanuel, spoken 735 years before its final fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, declared it to be true. God planned to come among His people with His saving power. He is for us. It is, however, a fearsome thing to believe that God is for us. Our desires may or may not coincide with His will. When Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on the side of the Union, he replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” We ought to think the same way, and that begins by understanding the Scriptures, theology, and worldview. These renew our minds so that we can “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Are there areas in your life in which you presume God is on your side? That His will coincides with your desires? Spend some time in prayer reexamining those areas seeking to discern “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the rule’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
The Story: With these words, Jacob blessed his sons in about 1859 B.C. While he blessed his sons from eldest to youngest, he gave Judah the distinction of being their ruler in perpetuity. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. Ruben was the one born first, but Judah became the “firstborn” and chief among the brothers. Kingship, Jacob declared, would come to, and never depart from, Judah’s line. We see this in the unlikely choice of Judah’s descendant David, who received the same promise of perpetual kingship (2 Samuel 7:16). And, of course, we see the promise fulfilled fully in Jesus. His ancestors were Judah and David. He inherited the promises God made to them. And while Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba, was rich beyond measure, received great tribute, and extended his rule over many people, all people will bring their tribute to David’s greater Son, and every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will bow to Him now and forever (Philippians 2:10-11).
The Structure: “God, who is faithful,” wrote St. Augustine, “put Himself in our debt, not by receiving anything but by promising so much. A promise was not sufficient for Him; He chose to commit Himself in writing as well, as it were making a contract of His promises.” Part of a Christian worldview is a proper understanding of God’s promises, beginning with what He has and hasn’t promised. God never promised a life of ease, what Francis Shaeffer called “personal peace and prosperity.” Quite the opposite, in fact. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus promised (John 16:33). There’s no getting away from that. At the same time, He immediately went on with encouragement and another promise, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We overcome in Him, but only according to God’s plan and only “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). As we wait to celebrate the promised Savior’s first coming at Christmas, so we wait for every other promise: patiently, prayerfully, and expectantly.
What has God promised you? How is Christmas a reminder to you of God’s promises and their fulfillment “in the fullness of time”?
“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.”
The Story: Christmas, if anything, is a time to remember, and God through Isaiah called His people to remember two critical things. First, “I am God, and there in no other.” The ancient Israelites and their neighbors were even more prone than people today to believe that all religions were basically true. Not so, God told them. The gods of Babylon are not gods at all, but figments of overheated imaginations. Remember, He said, there is only one God and that is Me. Second, “My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish My purpose.” God knows the end from the beginning and has His plans for this world and its people. Those plans will, beyond any shadow of doubt, be accomplished. Remember, He said, I will realize every one of My goals. Faced with invasion, conquest, and exile, if Isaiah’s hearers remembered these two things, they could and would stand firm.
The Structure: The coming of Christ as the babe of Bethlehem is a clear indication that God accomplishes His goals in ways no one would guess. Joseph? Mary? The time of Augustus and Herod the Great? Nazareth? Bethlehem? The entire plan seemed all wrong and yet the entire plan was perfect. Everything happened in what Paul called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). The same is true today. Despite the fearful state of the world, the challenges in day-to-day living, and the sad state of our souls, God is still God. And He alone is God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—there is and can be no other. He is “the Alpha and the Omega who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). He knows the end from the beginning and His plans cannot be thwarted by circumstances, Satan, or human sin. Remember and stand firm.
When are you tempted to believe that the world has spun out of God’s control? How does remembering, “I have purposed, and I will do it,” help you to stand firm?
The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions,
who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,
who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shuts his eyes from looking on evil,
he will dwell on the heights;
his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks;
his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.
The Story: In light of God’s reign (32:1), sinners and the godless, that is, those who by their lives and actions had rejected God’s reign, would be terrified. If God is “the consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:18-19, 29), then fear and trembling are fully appropriate, as is the question of who can dwell anywhere near Him. David asked the same question in Psalm 15 and sang nearly the same answer as Isaiah did. To dwell with the holy God requires, David and Isaiah knew, personal holiness. That holiness included righteous living and upright (that is, truthful) speaking. It would impact how people did business: without oppressing others or benefitting from shady practices. The holy person, he said, guards the entrances to the mind and spirit. No only does he avoid bloodshed, he won’t even listen to tales of bloodshed. Not only will she avoid doing evil, she will not look at what is evil.
The Structure: Yes, we are saved by grace not works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but, no, that doesn’t mean that how we live our lives doesn’t matter (see Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4-6). “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’” asked Jesus, “and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). He expects and requires that our lives change if we are to be His subjects. We too stand before “the consuming fire,” and, says the Scripture in the psalms, Isaiah, and elsewhere, that requires holiness. “Strive for peace with everyone,” wrote the author of Hebrews (12:14), “and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” “Without which no one will see the Lord” is categorical. What we do and how we live in this life makes a difference in the next. Too often the Church has fed people’s cultural expectation that obeying our desires is an acceptable if not the preferred way to live. It’s not. The preferred way to live, the way that leads to joy and fulfillment, is the way of conforming to the holy God who bids us call Him Father. “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
How important to you is living a holy life? In what ways are you growing in holiness?
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
The Story: After the chastisement of God’s people in chapter 31, chapter 32 begins with a messianic promise: “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice” (32:1). Isaiah went on to describe life in the age of the Messiah. Those who refused to see and hear (6:9-10) will have open eyes and ears (32:3). The land will be ruled with wisdom, not foolishness and scheming (32:5-8). The Spirit of God will be poured out on the people, (32:15) and justice along with righteousness will reign (32:17). The result is obvious: peaceful lives in secure and quiet homes. No more war, no more invasions, no more rapacious fools masquerading as wise, beneficent leaders. When the Messiah, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (11:1), arrived, the world as Isaiah’s hearers knew it would change. and all for the better. This vision kept their hope alive in the face of war, invasions, and foolish leaders.
The Structure: We live on the other side of the Messiah’s first coming. We no longer wait “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” (32:15). That happened millennia ago (Acts 2:1-4). So while war, invasions, fools, and, above all, human sin prevents the fullness of the Messiah’s rule until the second coming, Christians can do a great deal—and have done a great deal—to make this world a more peaceful, secure, and quiet place to abide. In studying Christian worldview, you are no doubt aware that hospitals, medicine, science, universities, the abolition of slavery, judgment against tyrants, regard for human dignity, religious freedom, democracy, the limitations of just war, and a host of other benefits to life and peace are rooted in Christianity. Though secularism seems to be holding sway in large parts of our culture, now is not the time to lose the vision in this text, but to grasp it more fully and redouble our efforts to make the benefits of the Messianic age present in our families, neighborhoods, nations, and the world.
What vision for good do you have for your neighborhood or community? How can you bring it about?
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
The Story: With the Assyrians bearing down on Jerusalem, those in charge applied human ingenuity, diplomacy, and management skills to mount a defense, rally the troops, and engage strong allies. Specifically, they sent word to Egypt, the old enemy to the south, asking them for help against Assyria, the new enemy to the north. The Egyptians were particularly noted for horses and chariots (Exodus 14:6-7; 1 Kings 10:27-28), and chariots in large numbers made for a powerful military force. Isaiah seemed to believe all that. Trusting “in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong” made all the sense in the world. The leadership, however, left out of their calculus: “The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit” (verse 3a). And the real problem, as Isaiah repeated over and over, was not invading armies and foreign policy. Their problem was they had systematically ignored God and continued to ignore Him even in distress.
The Structure: As I mentioned in an earlier commentary, there is a parallel between Israel’s attitude and that of the Laodicean church: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” I can fend for myself. I can keep myself safe, happy, and at peace. Jesus’ word to the church is much like the words of Isaiah, “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Prosperity leads us to look to our own resources to solve all life’s problems. The Assyrians are invading! We’ll hire the Egyptians. There are terrorists in the country! Some foreign aid to the right people will keep them at bay. I’m bored, depressed, spiritually dry, feeling purposeless. It’s nothing a little TV, a dinner out, a weekend away, retail therapy, or some other management strategy can’t solve. Is it that we “do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord”? The King who is coming longs for us to seek Him, consult Him, and do things the right way—that is, His way, the way that is for our good.
When are you most likely to rely on our own ingenuity or strength rather than seeking God and consulting Him?