Friday, 16 December 2016

Isaiah's Prophecy 7:14 and the Bible today

I was cutting it fine the other day when leaving the house and I put out my hand to pick up the keys from the kitchen counter only to find myself outside trying to lock the door with a teaspoon. 

The reason I bring this up is that our passages from Isaiah and Matthew this morning need thinking about. The background is that Ahaz the new young king of Judah is being attacked by his powerful neighbours, modern day Syria and Israel who have formed a strong alliance against him. Isaiah has received word from the Lord that these two enemies will not succeed to overturn the kingdom of Judah. “It shall not stand it shall not come to pass!” Ahaz is disbelieving so Isaiah says “Ask your God for a sign - anything you like.” Now we might recognise Ahaz’s response - we are sometimes very reluctant to ask questions especially when we fear an unwanted answer and this is especially the case where God is concerned - you have to be strong to ask God for something. Isaiah is a little exasperated with Ahaz, knowing that his people who had expected vigorous new policies from their young king to rescue the country from its difficulties were also weary of him, Isaiah says “is it too little that you weary mortals that you weary my God also?” Prophets frequently offered signs to accompany their foretelling so that their hearers would know that God will fulfil the prophesies that the prophet has made. Isaiah then decides to get on with it even if Ahaz will not ask himself:

“A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” (which means God with us)

Now the King James Bible is more explicit:

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

So this verse when looked at in its context and in its place in history is very clearly concerned with the immediate future of Judah, the prophecy that Judah will survive the attacks of these powerful neighbours and indeed this survival was extraordinary – years later Ahaz was able to survive and place his son on the throne of a still intact kingdom. What seemed impossible by human measure was well within the power of God. Isaiah was spooning God’s words into Ahaz even if he did not want to hear.

But then we come to Matthew, who writing seven hundred years later found not a teaspoon but a key.

“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel’”

The Messianic hope burned brightly in the first century Jewish Community and it was natural for Matthew to take this verse from the works of Isaiah and apply it to Jesus. You see, even if Isaiah was at the time talking only of the local situation he was speaking the words of God which have been handed down to Matthew and us as scripture.  Matthew accepted all scripture as prophecy and that it was intended to be interpreted in the time that it was being read. This kind of interpretation presumes that God moves in all ages mysteriously so that later ages may unravel the puzzle to determine God’s intention and direction. 

And I am very happy with that! It is perfectly right that God may have spoken in the 8th century BC about the situation then and about the birth of Jesus in the 1st century. It means that the Bible can and should be read with a view to understanding what it is saying to us today, about our times. Scripture is not like my 1920 Encyclopaedia Britannica which enshrines scientific thought and geography of that time only. Scripture is alive and God continually reveals his intentions to us by his presence in the world and by his holy word and our present day reading of it.

So I return to my idea that verse 7:14 of Isaiah may have been both a teaspoon of medicine for Ahaz but still is a key for us.


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