Sunday, 24 March 2019

Some Historical Background to Isaiah 8

The bit I didn't have time for from Sunday's Sermon...

The year is 732 B.C. God’s people (in the bottom left-hand corner of the map) have been divided for about 200 years into the northern kingdom of Israel (light green blob) and the southern kingdom of Judah (brown blob). During that time they have had a stormy relationship - sometimes getting on with each other and at other times brutalising each other.

At the point we join the story, relations are at an all-time low and tensions are running high. This is because Israel under King Pekah and Syria, under King Rezin have joined forces to invade Judah and mount a coup to depose Ahaz. They want to place a puppet king known to us only as the “son of Tabeel” on the throne. Understandably, Ahaz is irked by this threat to his kingdom.

Enter Isaiah, God’s prophet who comes to Ahaz and says do not fear, trust in the Lord and all will be well. Problem is, although he had a godly father and was brought up in a godly household, Ahaz has become a spiritually dark whirlwind of a man. He knows all the right Christian jargon to say, but he has no interest in actually following what God says. In fact, he is hell bent on doing the exact opposite. He ignores everything that Isaiah says.

But there’s more to the intrigue. The reason Israel and Syria are ganging up on Judah and trying to mount a coup is because they fear the rising power of Assyria (not the same as Syria) as represented by the large purple blob on the map. Warlord King Tiglath Pileser III is violently and mercilessly throwing his weight around and creating the largest empire in the world at that time. Israel and Syria want Ahaz on board as an ally so that they can have a chance of fighting off the advancing Assyrians. But Ahaz doesn’t want to join forces with them so they decide to take matters into their own hands, trying to force Judah to join them through a coup.

The reason Ahaz ignores Isaiah and doesn’t want to enter into an alliance with Pekah and Rezin is because, deep down he seems infatuated with Tiglath Pilezer III (Tig for short) and when Pekah and Rezin eventually invade, instead of calling on the Lord for help, he sends messages to godless King Tig begging for him to come and rescue him. That rescue comes, but of course, it comes at a price; unswerving allegiance and lots of money for Tig and his empire. This will mean Ahaz raiding God’s house, the temple in Jerusalem, rather than his own, to pay off Assyria and leading God’s people even further into idolatry, forsaking the Lord who loves them.

In short, everyone seems to be bewitched by the power of Assyria, either living in fear of it, like Pekah and Rezin, or wanting to be like it, like Ahaz. Note that the issue here is not politics. The issue is confidence. In the face of the Assyrian threat, Pekah is putting his confidence in a military alliance with Syria (and Judah if he can coerce them) and Ahaz is putting his confidence in being able to win Assyria over. None of these kings are putting their confidence in God.

And it’s not just the kings who are godless, the people too are hell-bent on pursuing their idols with them. They might follow the living God with lip-service, but no-one is actually interested in meaningfully loving and serving the Lord. All the mighty acts of God in the nation’s past have been forgotten. As they place their confidence in the worship of idols, they are about to embrace catastrophe. The very thing they hope will save them, will soon almost destroy them. That’s the problem with idols, you think they will save or prosper you, but they end up destroying you by giving you what you thought you wanted.

Isaiah and the few left with him in Judah who refuse to go along with this idolatry and sham worship are overwhelmed with fear. For they know that the nation’s spiritual treachery will bring down a mighty judgment from God upon everyone, and they will be caught up in the disaster, possibly losing everything they have along with everyone else. It doesn’t really matter whether Ahaz throws his lot in with Tiglath Pileser on the one hand or with Pekah and Rezin on the other, they see beyond the immediate surface things and see that through the pursuit of dark passion and desire God’s people and God’s nation is suicidally bent at every level on its own destruction.

Now there are many differences between this story and our own times, but here are three similarities worth highlighting:
  1. Our current political crisis of deadlock and division over Brexit is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem. Whether in the form of military might in Ahaz’s day or money in our day, everyone seems to be enthralled both individually and collectively to the false god of worldly power and prosperity and what the best way is to get it and keep it. Irrespective of the outcome over the next days, weeks or months - whether Brexit happens or not, pursuit of worldly power and prosperity will eventually bring catastrophe.
  2. The voice of God coming through his faithful ones seems to have no traction in the public debates that are shaping our collective future. None of our leaders are publically seeking God. Whilst many will be praying in private, none are obviously praying. Though God is the reason they exist, people either don’t believe he exists or don’t believe he can help or they have been damaged by hypocrite Christians or they are just not interested in the kind of help he offers.
  3. The few faithful people who are left like Isaiah and others may have lived following God as best they know how, but they and their families will not be sheltered from any turmoil or fallout that may come. What happens to the nation, for better or worse, will also happen to them.