Is Ahaz crazy?

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“Ask for a sign (אוֹת ʾowth) from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt (נָסָה nacah) the LORD!””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

Is Ahaz crazy? In a word, yes - but probably not for immediately apparent reasons. Consider for a moment how many times any of us have cried out in prayer, “Lord, give me a sign!” When weighing the pros and cons of a decision especially the big ‘life decisions,’ we know firsthand the difficulty to arrive at a peaceful resolve. We seek the advice of trusted loved ones and often ask people to pray for ‘a special intention.’ In the midst of deliberating the final outcome, we tend to become more aware of our surroundings wondering if the sought-after ‘sign from God’ is knocking on the door of our heart. More often than not we find ourselves disappointed that ‘the sign’ (as far as we are concerned) never materialized and we are left floundering in a sea of foggy dew still looking for some assurance of light and land to guide us to safety and surety.

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.

Ahaz ruled as king of Judah (Southern Kingdom) during turbulent and uncertain times. Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Syria had joined forces to fortify their defenses against Assyria. The kings of Israel and Syria wanted Ahaz to join them in an even stronger defense, but Ahaz would not join and soon Israel and Syria turned their sights on Judah. Isaiah counseled Ahaz that all would work out and that in the present he needed to trust God Who would protect Jerusalem, because this city is the City of David whose reign will never end. Ahaz did the opposite and sought an alliance with Assyria for protection against Israel and Syria which involved compromising much of Judah’s religious identity and practices. Despite his idolatrous actions, Isaiah declared the sign to be the birth of a child whose name, Emmanuel (“God-is-with-us”), was a reminder to Ahaz that God had not abandoned Jerusalem. In fact, by the time the child had grow, Judah’s foes had been conquered not by human ingenuity, scheming or plotting. Rather, because “God-is-with-us” (the promise to David and his household) and Judah’s dependency on God, all worked unto good. Later Christian reflection upon this episode saw a deeper sense of the Sacred Text as referring to Jesus born of Mary.

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?