Imagine a crisis like this: you are a king of a small kingdom and two bigger nations conspire to draw you into a losing battle. They wanted to remove you from the throne and replace you with a puppet king. The coalition was strong. All your political advisers say you are facing a major disaster. What do you do?
This is the story of King Ahaz from Judah. The year was 740-730 BC. Syria and Israel banded together against him. Ahaz was trembling at his looming defeat. Then came the prophet Isaiah with a message from Yahweh.
Isaiah 8:12-15 (ESV) 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”
Now here’s a bit of a snag. Texts like this always seem too distant from our contemporary experiences. To our minds, a regional battle from 2,700 years ago rarely offers something relevant for modern living. We battle deadlines today, not flesh and blood enemies. We work in air-conditioned offices, not in the trenches of war. How can Isaiah offer comfort and encouragement? He spoke of three things in our text:
Do not fear what they fear
While the entire nation was in panic mode, Isaiah was telling Ahaz not to join in the hysteria nor give in to the paranoia that’s consuming the people around them. God is up to something; he only needed to trust God.
The same thing could be said of us. We live in an age of outrage. Everyday there’s always something that triggers our fears, our anger, our panic. We never run out of things to worry about. Isaiah says “do not fear what they fear.” That’s clever phraseology right there. He didn’t say we should ignore our fears. He said we should choose what we fear.
Let God be your fear
If you must dread something, choose to fear God instead—that’s what Isaiah meant.
Now that doesn’t sound right to our ears. Most of us would be quick to say something like, “The words fear and dread in this verse don’t really mean fear and dread.” But why not? Check any Hebrew lexicon and you will be surprised that both words actually mean ‘terror.’ Or you could just take the English translation at face value. Isaiah was saying that we should tremble before Yahweh.
Why should we tremble before God? Because we are going to tremble anyway—we might as well tremble before the right person and for the right reasons. Those who tremble before God won’t tremble before lesser beings and circumstances. Our trembling before his presence fortifies us and eventually makes us strong.
God is both a sanctuary and a stumbling block
The word ’sanctuary’ refers to the dwelling place of God in the temple. If he is present in his sanctuary, that sanctuary and anyone in it is safe. We pretty much know that already.
What we don’t know is that Yahweh is also a stumbling block. Maybe we are just so used to thinking of God as a rock of safety that we tend to skip over the verses that call him a rock that causes people to stumble, to trip up. This is surprising. Dale Ralph Davis noted that Yahweh is “not the easy-going, nonchalant, domesticated deity” we imagine him to be. Depending on where we stand in our relationship with him, he is either our security or ruin. Those who trust him are assured of his safe protection. Those who don’t put their trust in him shall stumble, fall, and be smashed.
This smashing is precisely what happened to Judah. Despite Isaiah’s words, 2 Chronicles 28 tells us king Ahaz didn’t listen to the prophecy but instead made an unholy alliance with Assyria to get Syria and Israel off his back. Assyria “helped” by razing the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah was relieved but that was not the end of the story.
Few decades later, Assyria pounced on Judah and laid a long siege outside its walls (Isaiah 37). Like a bird trapped in a cage, Judah trembled with fear. But because he refused to tremble before the Lord, now he trembled at the sword tip of the Assyrian invaders. God miraculously delivered Judah at this point but history shows us that a short time after this, the Babylonians rose and finished off what the Assyrians started. The rest, as they say, is history.