“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)
What makes the episode with Ahaz perplexing is that he is told to ask for a sign and the one ‘asking’ is not just anyone, he is the prophet, Isaiah! Because he is Isaiah, the implication is that a sign will be given. But Ahaz not only says “I will not ask!” - he reinforces his position, “I will not tempt the Lord!” One can almost picture Ahaz’s defiant posture, the forceful tone of his words, the scowling face and crossed arms. He is all but guaranteed a sign and he adamantly and clearly screams ‘No!’ Why? To offer a response, some recourse to Israel’s history is needed.
So, what does this have to do with a “sign” and Ahaz’s refusal to ask? In Hebrew, אוֹת (ʾowth, sign) can be natural or supernatural. The sign, whatever it is, however, is not effective in-and-of-itself. In other words, a sign cannot cause what it signifies. A ‘stop sign,’ for example, directs that a particular action be done: the motion of a vehicle must come to a stop. The sign only directs or points, it does not cause the actual stopping. Stopping is caused by the driver recognizing the sign, understanding what the sign directs and then making a choice to act in accordance with what the sign signifies. At the bottom line, signs involve choices. Consider the Exodus Event. Numerous “signs” were performed by Moses prior to the Hebrew people leaving Egypt. Pharaoh chose to ‘read’ the signs one way, the Hebrew people in another way. In either case, a choice had to be made regarding the sign; a choice that initiated a series of consequences (good or bad) grounded in the particular choice.
Essentially Ahaz is faced with a choice - accept or not accept a sign. Ahaz knew, even while unfaithful to Covenant living, that accepting a sign meant change. Both on the natural and even more so on the supernatural level, embracing a sign as an indicator of God-is-with-us requires, by definition, a change. A sign draws one from self to other. Biblically, signs require conversion of heart, mind and body. A sign is not necessary an indication of Divine benevolence or agreement with one’s thoughts or plans. A sign indicates a change must be made. Like the ‘stop sign,’ that change is not automatically effected. It can only come about through a choice. One might argue that Ahaz knew this on some level of his life. For him, asking for a sign would be to abandon his self-styled plotting and alliance making with Assyria. It was certainly a challenge. He could physically see the protection Assyria offered whereas Isaiah’s reminder that God would never abandon the house of David seemed far more uncertainly, nebulous and vague. Ahaz’s refusal to ask and his insistence “not to tempt [(נָסָה nacah, which can also be translated “not to do” or “not to follow through”]” was essentially a refusal to abandon his way of doing things and thus make a ‘crazy’ decision. Thankfully, the Good Lord stepped in and provided a needed sign when Ahaz’s own bull-headed stubbornness got in the way of the Divine plan for salvation.
The lesson for Christians on this final Advent Sunday more than 2700 years after the time of Ahaz is clear. In a week we will hear angels speak to outcast shepherds: “... And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) During the Christmas Season, we will listen to accounts of Jesus’ signs performed during His Public Ministry (7 distinct Signs in the Gospel according to Saint John alone) as well as ongoing sacramental life described in one way as “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Signs of Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, are all around. The question we are faced with is the reality of Ahaz, will I ask (accept) the sign and the necessary conversion or not?