August 18, 2017

Isaiah 7—The Historical Setting of a Christmas Passage

Layton Talbert

Most Christians are familiar with the virgin birth prophecy contained in Isaiah 7. Wander out of 7:14 into the surrounding territory, however, and the textual terrain bristles with peculiar terminology and thorny questions.

For instance, what is 7:16 talking about? In the length of time it would take the child to cultivate a moral conscience to the point of independently distinguishing and consistently choosing good over evil (1–2 years), the land that Ahaz abhorred would be bereft of both her kings.

But what does that have to do with this beloved Christmas prophecy? A brief history lesson removes the intimidation of this passage and enriches our appreciation for the trustworthiness of God’s Word. Its historical context revolves around three kings: Ahaz of Judah, Pekah of Israel, and Rezin of Syria.

The LORD had already used both King Rezin (Syria) and King Pekah (Israel) independently to chasten Judah because of Ahaz’s wickedness (2 Chron. 28:2–6). In addition to a massive victory, Israel took 200,000 captives of Judah whom they intended to enslave, until a prophet and several prominent leaders in Israel protested (2 Chron. 28:8–15).

Now the year is 734 B.C. Rezin and Pekah formed a Syrio-Ephraimitic League (“Ephraim” is the northern kingdom of Israel) in order to consolidate their power against the rising threat of Assyria. Judah resisted joining with them and, in fact, tried to bribe its way into favor with Assyria. Consequently, Pekah and Rezin plotted to overthrow Ahaz and replace him with an anti-Assyrian king that would aid them in standing together against the advancing Assyrian menace. Isaiah 7 records God’s gracious assurance to the undeserving Ahaz (clearly out of His abiding loyalty to the Davidic covenant), who was then facing the threat of this Syrio-Ephraimitic League between Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel.

7:1, 2—This is where 2 Kings16:5 seems to fit. Clearly Pekah and Rezin planned a second joint assault against Ahaz. This time, however, their plans were foiled by the LORD (7:1). Nevertheless, the threat was still there (7:2). In fact, that same year (734), Tiglath-Pileaser III, king of Assyria—not graciously pleased with all this insubordination on the part of Syria and Israel—returned to express his displeasure (see 2 Kings 15:29).

7:3, 4—God sent a message of assurance to King Ahaz through Isaiah. The description of Rezin and Pekah as “smoking firebrands” has reference to the tail end of a piece of burning wood; the wood is nearly burned up and gone, the fire is played out. You might see some smoke, but not to worry—they are just smoldering stubs of wood.

7:5–7—The threat of the Syrio-Ephraimitic league is spelled out. This plot of Rezin and Pekah to conquer Judah, depose Ahaz, and replace him with one “son of Tabeel” not only posed a threat personally to the reign of Ahaz, but to the continuation of the Davidic line. It was that divine loyalty to the Davidic covenant—not personal loyalty to the apostate Ahaz—that prompted God’s assurance to Ahaz (7:8). Consequently, within 2 years Rezin was dead and Damascus (the capital of Syria) was taken by Assyria (in 732 B.C.). Pekah was also assassinated almost simultaneously. Just as 7:16 promised!

7:8–9—Within just 12 more years, the northern kingdom of Israel itself fell to Assyria (in 720 B.C.) and the 10 tribes were expatriated (deported). What, then, about the 65 years mentioned in 7:8? Is this a prophecy with a built-in safety feature, a well-padded buffer zone that allowed for 65 years when it actually took only 12 more years? While Israel was conquered only 12 years later in 720, it was not until the reign of Esar-haddon of Assyria (681–669 B.C.) that the repatriation of Israel with pagans from other conquered territories was complete (see Ezra 4:2). So the year the prophecy was uttered (734), minus the 65 years prophesied in 7:8 before Israel would be broken “that it be not a people,” brings us to 669 and the reign of Esar-haddon. He completed the repatriation of Israel with mixed foreigners, so that it was no longer a homogenous people, let alone Israel, anymore—again, perfectly in keeping with the terms of the prophecy!

7:10–14—All of the preceding historical explanation puts this scene in context. Ahaz didn’t want a sign; he had already cast in his lot with Assyria, leaning on the arm of flesh by bribing them to help him. Judah would come to rue that arrangement. But in the meantime, God gives a sign to the unwilling Ahaz, and not to him alone, but to all the “house of David”—the miraculous Virgin Birth of Immanuel.

This is the historical setting and significance of a verse we know so well in isolation (7:14). Knowing this context multiplies the meaningfulness of this surface-familiar passage. Moreover, if the study of past prophecy does nothing else, it invites two vital interpretative observations: (1) past fulfillments of past prophecies confirm our faith in the future fulfillment of future prophecies; and (2) the characteristically literal nature of past prophecies and their fulfillments should inform our interpretation of future (eschatological) prophecies and their fulfillments.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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