2 Nephi 17 tweet: 2 kings vs Judah. Isa tells Ahaz dont worry about them, they r burnt out matches. Immanuel is the sign. Worry about Assyria instead.

At the end of the last post, I mentioned how the next few chapters of Isaiah / 2 Nephi would take up the task of explaining how the remnant of Israel would be produced. In order to understand what’s happening in these chapters, we need to know a little bit about the events that were unfolding in Isaiah’s day. In particular, we need to know at least the broad contours of what is referred to as the Syro-Ephraimite War. This history is largely provided courtesy of Joe Spencer’s book, The Vision of All.1 Additionally, 2 Kings 16 provides some of this history as well.

The Syro-Ephraimite Crisis

The Assyrian empire is on the rise, quickly becoming the greatest world power of the day. They are expanding their borders in an effort try and conquer the world with a devastatingly brutal brand of warfare and torture. As they expand, they have one particular target in mind: the most venerable among their potential enemies, Egypt. As the Assyrians make their way towards Egypt, they’ve got to contend with a host of small nations (large tribes, mainly) who haven’t got a hope against the massive Assyrian armies. If you’re one of these nations/tribes, to try and resist the Assyrians would be suicide. So your best bet is simply to submit to Assyria before there’s any violence, pledging yourself to the new imperial power’s support, which of course involves paying a heavy tribute and a lot of other annoyances.

However, before Assyria turns south towards Egypt to swallow up the little nations and tribes in and around Israel, a couple of the larger nations come up with a plan. While they have no hope of withstanding the Assyrians on their own, they determine that a coalition of smaller nations standing together might be strong enough to resist Assyria. This is, of course, a dangerous plan. The second it looks like the resistance will fail, weaker or more opportunistic members of the coalition will inevitably try to cut their losses, defecting to Assyria’s side to avoid eradication as punishment when Assyria ultimately wins. How do you keep the alliance together? And before that even becomes a worry, how do you get people to join the coalition in the first place?

That’s the situation in the 730s B.C., where we pick up in Isaiah 7. The two nations heading up the anti-Assyrian coalition are Syria aka Aram (to be distinguished from Assyria) and Israel aka Ephraim. Remember that at this point Israel is a kingdom divided in two: the northern kingdom, also known as Israel is made up of 10 tribes, Ephraim being chief among them, and the southern kingdom, also known as Judah is made up of two tribes (Judah and Benjamin), with Jerusalem as its capital city. At the start of Isaiah 7, Judah has refused to join the alliance, preferring to throw its lot in with Assyria. Without Judah, the alliance is already looking significantly weaker. But Syria and Ephraim have a plan. They decide to use military force to secure Judah’s support. They plan on removing (i.e. assassinating) Judah’s king (Ahaz), and replacing him with someone who will support their coalition (“the son of Tabeal,” according to Isaiah 7:6). You can imagine the anxiety in Jerusalem then; they had initially decided to submit to Assyria in order to avoid war, but now that decision is bringing on a war with Syria and Ephraim, in advance of the actual arrival of Assyria.

Isaiah 7 / 2 Nephi 17

With this history, perhaps now we can understand what is happening in Isaiah 7.

v1–2: The chapter opens in the middle of this Syro-Ephraimite crisis. It’s “the days of Ahaz” king of Judah, and the kings of Syria and Ephraim, i.e. Rezin and Pekah, are trying to force Ahaz into joining the coalition. This is of course distressing to all of Jerusalem, and the people of Judah’s hearts are described as being “moved … as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.”

v3–4: God sends Isaiah to meet Ahaz and he’s told to take his son with him (Shear-jashub – literally, in Hebrew, “a remnant will return”). He tells the king to pay no attention to his fears. Why? Because the two kings of Syria and Ephraim can be compared to “two tails of … smoking firebrands,” once-burning sticks that are now giving off smoke. Their power has been spent; their time is up.

v5–7: Lest Ahaz is considering joining their confederacy, Isaiah warns him that actually they plan to remove Ahaz and put their own puppet king (“the son of Tabeal”) on the throne. But, says Isaiah, Ahaz is not to worry, their plan “shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.”

v8–9: And then Isaiah prophesies that it won’t be long before both enemy nations are eradicated, with the northern kingdom of Israel “broken” in such a way that it won’t even be “a people” anymore. But he also tells Ahaz that if he doesn’t trust God, he himself won’t be established.

v10–16: The Lord then has Isaiah tell Ahaz to ask for a sign that this is really a divine prophecy. The king refuses, apparently in a disingenuous act of piety. (NB. Ahaz was a wicked king and may even have used his own son as a human sacrifice – see 2 Kings 16:2–4.) So the Lord gives him a sign anyway. Now, even if we know nothing about Isaiah, we are likely familiar with this sign:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

We read this as a prophecy of Christ. The chapter headings for Isaiah 7 and 2 Nephi 17 suggest this is a prophecy of Christ. And Matthew indicates that Christ’s birth is a fulfilment of this prophecy (see Matt 1:22–23). The problem is this doesn’t make any sense in the context of the surrounding verses or the rest of the chapter.

Read in the context of the chapter, Isaiah appears to be pointing to a young woman (which is a better translation of the Hebrew word than virgin is), perhaps his own wife, and saying that she will give birth to a son and before that child is old enough to know good from evil, Syria and Ephraim will be “forsaken of both [their] kings,” i.e. Rezin and Pekah. To read Christ’s birth into this prophecy just doesn’t really fit with what’s going on here. An alternative translation may make this clearer. For example, the NRSV reads:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:14–16)  

Note that curds and honey is something you can only really eat during a time of peace so Isaiah seems to be saying that before he’s too old, this child will experience peace because the threat of Syria and Ephraim will have passed. The child of this prophecy was possibly Isaiah’s own son (at least two of his other sons were given as signs of God’s work among Israel (see Isaiah 7:3; 8:1,18), or possibly Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, the righteous reforming king of Judah. Now, it may be that there was in Isaiah’s prophecy a trace or hint of the future Messiah that would redeem all mankind. But if we read Isaiah on his own terms, we’ll realise that this prophecy – to be of any relevance to Ahaz – required a much more immediate fulfilment.

As this is getting a little long, I’ll summarise the rest of the chapter with Joe Spencer’s commentary:

This good news [that the plans of Rezin and Pekah will fail] gets doubled with some not-so-good news: “The Lord shall bring upon thee and upon thy people … the king of Assyria” as a trained bee, and Egypt, presented as a trained fly. These world powers will be clashing in Judah’s backyard. But for the moment, Ahaz can forget Egypt, because it’s really Assyria he should worry about. Isaiah tells him to expect his people to be shaved by Assyria, which the prophet describes as “a razor that is hired” (v20). In the ancient world, you shave those captured in war. It’s an act of humiliation. And Isaiah mentions not only shaving of heads and beards, but also “the hair of the feet” (v20). Remember that “feet” is a euphemism for Israelites [see this previous post for an explanation]. Judah’s men will be forcibly shaved bare in the most humiliating way possible. And this is to be done by a hired razor, the king of Assyria as a tool in someone else’s hands. You can guess who’s using the razor from Isaiah’s perspective. The Lord. The result is that things aren’t good in Judah.

This last part of the chapter (v18–25) is made up of four sayings that don’t make a lot of sense to modern readers but essentially expand on verse 17, i.e. Assyria is bringing destruction to Judah’s door.

Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 18

  1. Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 191–3
  2. Ibid. p. 195