Unbelief rarely descends like lightning. Apostasy doesn’t happen over night. Men do not wake up one morning and decide to ruin their lives. Unbelief happens like erosion, like water slowly freezing, like a pipe slowly corroding. The process is almost imperceptible. Hearts harden by a million moments, clenched fists, gritted teeth, bracing against pain and agony, loss and disappointment. And near the center of it all is fear.
Unbelief has a tragic, self-fulfilling logic about it. Fear begets fear. Anxiety begets anxiety. Bracing against another hurt, another disappointment, that very bracing, reflexive defensiveness almost guarantees the next disappointment. Self-protectiveness, worry, anxiety can’t help but see anything and everything that isn’t expected or according to plan as some kind of micro- or macro-aggression. Everything is going wrong; everything is coming apart; nothing is going as planned. And quickly this fearful, defensive mindset is projected on everyone and everything else. I think this way, therefore, everyone else must think this way too. I think this way, and therefore, the world must be this way.
Ahaz the Anxious
What kind of man burns his own sons in fire? What kind of man does this? A terrified man, a man enslaved by fear. Ahaz became king of Judah when he was only 20, and all the indications are that his life was characterized by fear, anxiety, dread, massive insecurities. He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. He made metal images of the Baals. He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. He was paranoid, obsessed with what the nations around him were doing. They afflicted him, and he obsessed over them. When he saw the altar of Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria in Damascus, he ordered one just like it built in the temple in Jerusalem. And then he proceeded to remodeled a bunch of the temple because of the King of Assyria. He was anxious, obsessed, insecure. And Chronicles says that “in his distress, he became yet more faithless to the Lord for he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that had defeated him and he said, ‘Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me.’ But they were the ruin of him and all of Israel” (Chron. 28:22-23). Eventually Ahaz even shut up the doors of the temple and only worshipped other gods making offerings on all of the high places. And yes, he even offered his own sons in the fires of Molech. That tragic, anxious logic is seen here: fear of loss, fear of death, fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of losing the kingdom leads to Ahaz willingly causing loss and death and pain and destruction. Surely he thought there was no other way. He felt trapped. There’s nothing else I can do.
It was at some point during these days when the king of the northern kingdom of Israel and the king of Syria banded together to attack Jerusalem. And the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook like the trees of the forest shake before the wind (Is. 7:2). This was no passing anxious thought, not just a little worry. This was a practiced, studied panic. It was his old friend, fear, and not without reason. Previously those two kings had struck Judah and killed 120,000 men of valor in one day (2 Chron. 28:6). You see? This world is a terrifying place. Horror happens. Tragedy strikes. Things go terribly wrong. How you can not be afraid?
When the Truth Comes
But the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz in order to say to him, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint… It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass… And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people…” And again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Is. 7:11). But Ahaz would not ask. Ahaz had practiced his unbelief and anxiety for many years. He had nurtured his fears. His heart could not hear the offer of the Lord to comfort him. What went through Ahaz’s head? Who knows? Did he think it was a trick? Was it a set up? Was he being mocked? Could he simply not believe that what he was being told was true? How could such mighty nations be gone so quickly? Perhaps it seemed impossible for things to change.
When you practice fear and anxiety and worry, the truth seems worthless. This is because fear and anxiety function on counterfeit truth, that is, lies that pass themselves off as truth, or at least possible truth. What if that happens? And then what if that happens? And then what if… ? And the questions and concerns and fears quickly crowd the mind. And untrue conclusions and results start looming up seemingly more and more likely to come to pass. This sickness, that problem at work, these children, my marriage, my parents, my bills… and our worries and fears come to be taken as truth. Our circumstances seem like immoveable realities. And when truth comes we can have practiced our fears so diligently that we are impervious to the truth. The truth seems ridiculous, outlandish, maybe even offensive.
But God chose Ahaz, a wicked man, a hardened fool, as the one to first hear His solution to all fear, all anxiety, all dread, all panic. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). What a strange sign. And there are many puzzling aspects to the prophecy. How is that sign exactly related to the situation Ahaz and Judah were facing? Was it fulfilled in some way during those days? Regardless, Matthew says it was fulfilled at the birth of Jesus.
And yet, the sign is also the answer to the fear of Ahaz, to the dread of Judah, to the anxiety and worry that enslaves all men. The solution cannot come from us. We cannot deliver ourselves from this situation. We cannot heal ourselves. We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves from every eventually, from every threat, or death itself. Perhaps the most insidious element of fear is the hidden pride down at its core. It’s one thing to be afraid of heights or war or childbirth, a certain natural, human fear. But it’s another thing entirely to be ruled by fear, to be enslaved by insecurity and worry and dread. And those habits are always a sort of grasping for security, grasping for control, grasping for the feeling of safety, but they are always ultimately based on the assumption that we can do something to fix ourselves. If I just get this put right. If I just start eating more healthy. If I just get a different job. If I just get married or have a baby or fill in the blank… then I’ll be OK, then I will feel safe and secure. But it’s not true. It’s never true. You go from one high place to another, from one hill to another, from one green tree to another. But you cannot summon up your salvation. You cannot summon up your Savior – any more than a desert can produce a garden or a virgin can conceive a child.
I remember when my wife and I had been married a couple of years and we had not been able to get pregnant. We sought out some medical advice, and we were told that we might not ever have children. That was incredibly hard news for us. And it might have completely crushed us. It might have hardened us. It might have made us fear what else was to come, what else was to go wrong. It might have turned us in on ourselves in fear and anxiety and disappointment and hurt. But in God’s kindness, He taught us to fight fear and anxiety. And the odd thing, the wonderful thing is that I don’t really know where it came from. One day as we were still reeling from this news, we decided to thank God for our situation. And we so we did. We thanked God for not giving us any children. And it became our habit for some time when we prayed to thank God for not giving us any children, and then in the same prayer, in almost the same breath, we would also ask God to give us children. God taught us to fight fear and anxiety, and he taught us to do that by giving thanks. This is what Paul says, “do not be anxious for anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Giving thanks to God is how the peace of God guards our hearts and minds. Looking back, I have no idea where that came from. And yet, of course I do. God was with us.
This was the sign for Ahaz, and his response should have been praise. It should have been thanksgiving. God promised to be with wicked, anxious, doubting Ahaz. He promised to be Immanuel, but he could not hear it. He would not hear it. His heart was hard in its anxiety and fear. But it’s still the sign for us all. We need God to come for us. We need God with us. We need Immanuel. We need the son of Mary to be born for us; we need the son of Mary to be born in us so that He may take away our fear.