Tempting the Lord

Tempting the Lord—Isaiah 7

There is one incident in the history of Ahaz which does not appear in the regular narrative, but which we find in the book of the prophet Isaiah.

When the tidings first came of the alliance into which the  kings of Syria and of Israel had entered against Judah, the heart of Ahaz “was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.” At this juncture the prophet received a command to go forth, with his son Shear-Jashub, to meet the king “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fuller’s field.”

What Ahaz was doing there is not stated; but as his being engaged in some matter evincing his apprehensions from the threatened invasion, would afford peculiar point and emphasis to the message with which the prophet was charged, we incline to concur in the conjecture that he had gone out to see whether the fountain could not be stopped, or its waters diverted, so that it might not be used by the enemy, who would thus be prevented from carrying on a protracted siege. This is rendered the more probable by the fact, that this is recorded to have been done by his son Hezekiah, when threatened with a siege by the Assyrians, as well as in later sieges of tie city—especially during the crusades, whence it happened that the besiegers were much distressed for water, which does not appear to have been ever wanting to the inhabitants. In this case, Ahaz, who, like his grandfather Uzziah, appears to have been a man of an inventive turn of mind, must have the credit of devising a defensive resource, which was afterwards found of so much importance.

On such an occasion the king would be attended by many of his counsellors; and, as a considerable concourse of people might be found at this place of waters, the publicity would be given to the prophetic utterance necessary to inspire the alarmed inhabitants of the city with confidence.
Arrived at this place, Isaiah exhorted the king to dismiss all alarm—to rely with confidence on the protection of Jehovah, who, through him, conveyed the assurance, that the confederacy to subvert the line of David in favor of Tabael’s son “shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.” It is clear, however, that the words of the prophet made no impression upon the king, who had, perhaps, already more than  half made up his mind to the course he afterwards took. Perceiving this want of faith, the prophet continued with vehemence—“Ask thee a sign of the Lord God: ask it either in the depth, or in the height above!” Had he possessed the spirit of David, and of many of his nearer ancestors, Ahaz would have been greatly encouraged by the assurance which the prophet gave, and would have put entire confidence in it without further proof. But since he appeared wanting in this strength of faith, the Lord, in condescension to his infirmity, invited him to ask a sign of assurance, which, however miraculous, should be granted, to strengthen his feeble faith, and to satisfy him that the prophet spoke not without due authority from One well able to perform all that He promised. But Ahaz, with keen perception, saw in a moment that, by accepting such a sign, he would leave himself altogether without excuse before the public in following the course to which his own judgment was already inclined. It would, he thought, take away his liberty of action, by compelling his judgment to go where his heart would not follow. He therefore declined the proposed sign, under an affectation of pious humility and deference to the law, which is no less curious than lamentable—“I will not ask; neither will I tempt the Lord.” This has an apparent allusion to the text, Deu_6:16, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

Here the question arises, What is “tempting God?” This is an important question, and has not always been rightly understood. It seems to mean simply the putting the power, the goodness, or will of God, to an unauthorized and uncalled-for test. A test implies, not faith, but mistrust. If one lays untold gold in the way of a servant, in order to test his honesty, this is not because that servant is trusted, but because he is mistrusted. If confidence in him were perfect, the test would not be needed. It is not possible, as some have thought, to tempt God by any degree of trust is him, so that the occasion for that trust arises in the path of duty, and is not voluntarily and needlessly sought  out for the purpose of a test. Take an instance. When Ezra was about to cross the desert with his caravan of Jews returning to Jerusalem, he was quite aware of the perils of the journey from the attacks of the Arabs, who would not be likely to permit so rich a caravan to pass through their wild territory with impunity. He might have had a guard of soldiers for the asking; but he was afraid to ask, lest he should dishonor the Lord in the eyes of the Persian king, to whom he had stated that the God he served was well able to defend his people. He dreaded lest this heathen king should construe such an application into distrust of that protection in the sufficiency of which he had boasted, and that thus some dishonor might be reflected upon that high and holy name. He therefore committed himself and party, in solemn prayer, to the Almighty, and then plunged fearlessly into the perils of the wilderness; and the Lord responded to this call upon him—for they all arrived safely at Jerusalem, without any molestation from “the liers in wait by the way.” This was trust, not test—not tempting. Ezra had a well-grounded confidence in the Lord’s protection—he had no wish to try it. He knew it already; and, being assured that be was in the path of duty, he felt that he might trust in it, and boldly rest upon it.

The case that most perfectly contrasts with this is that which our Lord’s temptation supplies. Being upon the summit of a high tower, Satan tempted him to cast himself down—needlessly, out of any path of duty, in order to test the promise—“He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” This had been a venturesome, foolhardy, and presumptuous test of God’s promises, undertaken in a wagering spirit, and not growing out of any of the circumstances which the coarse of life presents; besides being a falsely literal application of those grandly hyperbolical expressions, by which the Lord strives to render intelligible the greatness of his love for and care over his people. 

That the refusal of Ahaz did excite displeasure is clear from the strong words of the prophet—Hear ye now, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to weary men; but will ye weary my God also?” The king had wearied or tried the patience of the prophet by seeming to question his commission—that, however, was comparatively a small matter—but now he must try the patience of God himself, by refusing the tendered attestation. But he should not so escape his responsibility. A greater sign than any his heart could have devised was forced upon him. He refused to ask a sign—“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and to choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”

On this remarkable passage much has been written and said, and various interpretations have been offered. That in its ultimate signification it has reference to Christ, cannot be doubted, for St. Matthew affirms it. But this could not well have been a sign to Ahaz, since its accomplishment did not in his time take place. It seems. therefore, that the prophet speaks of the birth of a child which should soon take place of some one then a virgin; and that, before the child so born should be of age to discern between good and evil, both the nations he dreaded—Israel and Syria, should cease to be kingdoms. As this could be known only to God, it would constitute a sign to the house of David of the truth of what He had affirmed by his prophet. But in delivering this prophecy, language was designedly employed which would also mark a more important event, and carry the mind of the hearers onward to the future birth of One who should more fully answer to all that is here said of the child to be born, and to whom the name Immanuel (God with us) should be more appropriately given. It had, we know, this effect; for the Jews ever after entertained the opinion, founded on this  prophecy, that the expected Messiah would be born of a virgin. We have thus some reason to be thankful for the churlish obstinacy of Ahaz, since his refusal to ask a sign produced this splendid link in the chain of prophetic testimonies to the coming Savior.

We may wrestle will God, like Jacob, in prayer for his blessing; but we may not wrestle with him in a gladiatorial spirit—to try, as it were, if He be indeed so strong as He tells us that He is.

To accept the sign which He offers, and to which He invites one, is not, as Ahaz foolishly alleged, to tempt him. He would not offer it unless there were cause; and, under certain circumstances, to decline it when offered is an insult to him. Had this been to tempt the Lord, then still more greatly would this king’s son, good Hezekiah, have tempted him by even asking a sign that his life would indeed be spared. Yet this is not mentioned to his blame; and if he did in this somewhat err in the other extreme, the error may with probability be ascribed to his keen remembrance of the displeasure which his father’s self-willed refusal of a sign excited.