I’ve totaled your Advent prayers votes. All three of them. Here is a partial tally:
Two votes went to Evil Ahaz’ refusal to pray and the ensuing familiar prophecy: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and she shall call His name Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” Have a look at Isaiah 7:10–25 to read what Ahaz hears.
Around 930 BC, the Kingdom of Israel breaks into two: Israel in the north (a.k.a “Ephraim” of v. 17) and Judah in the south. David’s direct descedents remain on the throne of Judah, some of them good, some of them evil.
About 200 years later, Ahaz becomes King of Judah. He does evil, even burning his children on an altar to the local demon-god. As a consequence, God allows two neighboring kings to attack Judah (2 Chr 28:5). They intend to invade Judah’s capital and set up a puppet king.
Ahaz loses territory (1 Kings 6:16). Then 20,000 Judahite warriors are killed, including the captain of the palace guard, Ahaz’ second in command, and his son. And 200,000 Judahite refugees are carried off (2 Chr 28:6–8).
Would you have believed Isaiah? Ahaz doesn’t. Nevertheless God has compassion on Ahaz. “Ask God to prove it,” Isaiah encourages.
“Nope. Not testing God,” answers Ahaz.
Isaiah loses it. “It’s one thing to test a prophet’s patience,” he roars. “It’s quite another to test God’s! Fine. Whether you want it or not, here’s your sign” (7:13–14).
What? Ahaz said the wrong thing? But how many times has God spit with exasperation because his people are “putting him to the test”? The entire book of Numbers is devoted to this cycle of testing and exasperation (Num 16:11, 45, for example). That is how many.
A few more generations down the Davidic line, Zechariah will stand in the Temple, listening to an angelic messenger. Apparently Z’s old lady will give birth to a son, the final prophet before Messiah.
When Zechariah asks for a sign, the angel hardly restrains his sarcasm. “I’m Gabriel,” he answers. “You might have heard of me. I stand in the presence of God. What other sign is necessary (you dolt)? Fine. Here’s your sign: you won’t talk until you hold the kid in your arms and can no longer deny what I have said” (Isa 40:3; Luke 1:18–20; 3:4).
The rule is very clear: “You shall not put your God to the test” (Deut 6:16; 1 Cor 10:9). So explain the difference between what Isaiah encourages and Gabriel derides. Should I send my Christmas list to Jesus at the North Pole or not? Am I allowed to seek a sign or will that irritate the Divine?
The answer may lie at the point of engagement. Allow me to offer one more example from the Reason for the season, Himself: A man brings his possessed son to the disciples. They cannot heal the boy. The dad turns to Jesus and asks, “If you can heal him, please have pity on us.”
Jesus yelps, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” Equally upset, the father hurries to exclaim, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” And Jesus drives out the demon.
The disciples want to know why they couldn’t do it. “This kind comes out only with prayer,” is their answer (Mark 9:14–29).
Ahaz refuses both to believe and to pray. Zechariah is already praying. He’s offering incense in the Temple, when Gabriel turns up. Z’s “how will I know” accompanies belief. He believes; he just needs help with his unbelief.
That belief, that long relationship with God should have been enough to convince both dads that God is able and willing to do what he has promised. Ahaz had no relationship with God, but based on God’s relationship with his great-grand-dad David, God was eager to start one up. Hence, the offer of proof.
For those of us who pray, however, the rule applies. We have our sign. A virgin did conceive and bear a son. We know him already. God is with Us. We believe.
Lord, help our unbelief.