The next three Kings of Judah, Amaziah, Azariah and Jotham blew hot and cold. On the positive side they ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord‘ (but not as well as David had done) but this was spoiled by the fact that the high places were not removed and unlawful sacrifices continued to be made. For his sins Azariah seemed to have been afflicted with leprosy for much of his reign.
We then arrive at Ahaz, son of Jotham, one of the worst Kings of Judah. It was an understatement to say that ‘he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God‘, as he not only offered unlawful sacrifices in high places but also sacrificed his own son to alien gods. This was the time of the Assyrians and their invasion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was imminent. The King of Israel attempted to get Ahaz to help him in the fight against this common enemy and, when that failed, decided to invade Judah instead. This backfired as Ahaz went to Assyria for help, taking Temple treasures with him to oil the deal and even going as far as defiling the Temple with a pagan altar.
One man spoke out against this desecration and folly, the prophet Isaiah, who lived in Jerusalem at this time. Through him God tried to calm Ahaz down, telling him just to trust in Him and all would be OK. Isaiah even offered a sign, which Ahaz refused. But Isaiah gave it anyway. It was the Sign of Immanuel. These are verses, in Isaiah 7:14, that we read at Christmas time, speaking of the virgin birth, ‘therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’.
What’s Ahaz and his problems got to do with the birth of Jesus? Actually, nothing directly. It is all to do with how we read and understand Scripture. Up to now we have been looking at the plain literal sense of Scripture as we build up the story of the Jews in the Old Testament. There seems to be no reason to change our approach here. The problem is that there have been arguments as to exactly what the literal meaning of this passage is! Which baby is being born (from Ahaz or Isaiah) and how do we explain a virgin birth in Old Testament times? There’s no room here to investigate further but it’s worth mentioning that the best fit for this particular verse is if we take it as a prophecy for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. And this is why we quote from it at Christmas time.
As I said, Ahaz did not heed the wise words of Isaiah and Judah became just one of many self-administered but subservient Kingdoms to the Assyrian empire, but at least it was never conquered, mainly due to the next King of Judah, Hezekiah. Here was a really good King, one who even destroyed those high places. 2 Kings 18:5 tells us that ‘There was no-one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him’.
The Assyrians were threatening, confident after their defeat of Israel in Hezekiah’s sixth year. Eight years later they came again and managed to capture many of the cities in Judah. Hezekiah was forced to send them treasure to pacify them and things didn’t look good, but it was not God’s plan for Judah to go the way of Israel, which was just as well because soon the massive Assyrian army was at the gates of Jerusalem. Hezekiah, being a godly King, consulted Isaiah, who told him not to worry as the Lord was with him. That night, the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 of the Assyrian invaders in their camp. The rest withdrew to Nineveh, their tails firmly between their legs and their King, Sennacherib, was subsequently slaughtered by his sons, a fate predicted by Isaiah!
That was the Assyrian threat seen off, but a new threat was on the horizon. Babylon was stirring. The last conversation between Isaiah and Hezekiah concerned a ‘friendly’ visit from some Babylonian envoys. Isaiah warned him with these prophetic words: ‘The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ (Isaiah 39:6-7). Hezekiah’s response was stoic and a little selfish. “‘The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,‘ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘At least there will be peace and security in my lifetime.‘” He was a good King, so we’ll forgive him!
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book Outcast Nation)