The prophesies come in the midst of political context, all of which is unfolding prior to the Babylonian captivity that would destroy Jerusalem. The chapter begins in political crisis. As the Assyrians conquered their known world, they began to demand taxes from the people. Some countries, tribes, and towns voluntarily paid the taxes to avoid being slaughtered by the Assyrians.
The northern king of Israel, Menahem, was one who paid the taxes, but he was assassinated by his captain, Pekah. Pekah made himself king, and refused to give the Assyrians their taxes.
As if that were not trouble enough, Pekah tried to get others to side with him and not pay taxes, either. He got Syria on his side, and so they also started refused to paying taxes. He tried to get Ahaz, king of the southern kingdom of Judah, but Ahaz did not want to be slaughtered by the Assyrians.
This is the background of this chapter, and we know what soon followed: both Israel and Syria were slaughtered and scattered by the Assyrians. It’s a better thing to just pay the taxes, perhaps.
As Isaiah prophesies in this context, there is a double layer to his prophesy: the immediate captivity about to happen when Jerusalem is destroyed, and then the later destruction that will come at the end of times.
Specifically for the tribe of Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israelites), this destruction was fulfilled in 721 BC, when Assyria conquered them – ultimately for not paying their taxes, or rather a “tribute”, like paying the Assyrians not to conquer their kingdom. They were “scattered” when they were carried away, so that other tribes also became known as “the lost tribes” (See 2 Kings 17:22–23 and 3 Nephi 15:15; 17:4).
But before they are slaughtered, Israel and Syria first get mad at Judah for not joining them in civil protest. Instead of realizing that Assyria is about to conquer them, they are focused on arguing with the southern kingdom of Judah. The people of Judah get scared, knowing that they might be attacked by both countries if they don’t agree to the terms of not paying taxes to Assyria. It feels to them like a no-win situation, where they will be destroyed by one country or another, no matter what they do.
But the Lord, through Isaiah the prophet, sends a message of hope to His people:
“Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be faint-hearted…” (verse 4).
This message was for the people of Isaiah’s time, and for the people of the latter days.
“Take heed” – do what He says, for that is the way of protection and provision and preparation. Heeding His instruction is what will safely get us there. He will show us the way.
“Be quiet” – listen to Him! “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Let Him be the God that He is, and know He will do His job. He will take care of things, so let Him.
“Fear not” – we are commanded to act in faith, not from fear. Part of knowing who He is includes acting in faith in response to that knowledge. That demonstrates obedience, and demonstrates our faith. The Scriptures tell us to “fear not” 87 times, and “be not afraid” 28 times. This “fear not” commandment is given to us more than any other commandment. We cannot know the joy that comes from His presence, or experience the peace that He brings, if we are afraid.
“Neither be faint-hearted” – be strong in the Lord! Accept (ACT in FAITH!) the strength that he offers. Be empowered by Him (through the atonement and through the Temple). Be strong and of good courage!
This whole verse echoes what Joshua said:
“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9).
This is the real lesson: the Lord knows better than we do what is going on, and has already promised to fight our battles. The Lord knew that Israel and Syria were against Judah, but He also knew that both Israel and Syria were about to be slaughtered by the Assyrians. He was telling king Ahaz and the people not to worry about them, because this big scary threat was really nothing and would take care of itself. He is tell them not to do anything, not to provoke those countries into war, and just let it resolve itself.
It’s a good lesson for us in situations of trauma-drama. It’s not our job to stir it up, or make it worse, or even worry about it. We are to make good choices, treat people kindly, and keep our covenants – regardless of how others treat us. Let their consequences be theirs, and focus on our own choices and caring for those over whom we have been charged stewardship.
Isaiah explains to king Ahaz about how the northern tribes, including Ephraim, have taken “evil counsel” against their brother, Judah. This takes us back to the politics of war that is happening around them, and Isaiah explains who the “evil counsel” is, and who is above that. So we see who they are in “cahoots” with, and who the leader of the whole mess is.
But, really, the underlying causes is the same as what we see throughout the entire Book of Mormon: contention. Contention causes war and destruction.
The Lord says, “Stop it.”
But it also shows the Lord knew what was going on, and understood that king Ahaz and the people were concerned and upset. He demonstrated care and compassion for them and their experience, acknowledging their feelings, and giving them comfort. Yet still, His counsel was to do nothing, and just let it be.
Responding to their act of faith and obedience by not provoking a war with their northern neighbors (who were about to be destroyed), the Lord assures them it will all be okay, everything will be fine: He says, “It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass” (verse 7).
Because contention is not of God, He will not let it come to fruition.
There will be natural consequences from those acting outside of His Order, His will, His way, but they will not ultimately – in the end – succeed in their plans because their plans are not of God.
Not only will He put a stop to the bad behavior, but then Isaiah prophesies that the tribe of Ephraim will be scattered, so much so that it will seem “broken”, in less than “threescore and five years”. A “score” is twenty years, so he is saying this will happen in less than sixty-five years. We know, from history, that it did happen right at sixty-five years, that the ten tribes were virtually wiped out by Assyria in 721 BC.
But also the symbolic message is that the people who caused the contention will suffer the consequences and be scattered. So an entire generation will be gone and scattered because of their behavior. This reminds us of the Israelites wandering in the desert for all those years with Moses, until the whole generation – every one of them – had passed away, so that it was their children who actually received the promised land, or temporal blessings that came from their deliverance. This all connects back to the previous chapter, and why we must be cleansed (set apart) from not only who we were before we truly chose the covenant, but also from the people of our generation.
So the Lord makes it clear that we only be established if we believe (verse 9). Our parents being in the covenant isn’t enough. Going through the motions of the covenant isn’t enough. We must be truly living it, which is to believe and be acting in faith in response to what we know to be true. Always, action is required.
A covenant is when we agree with God that we will both do something.
He promises He will do something, and we promise we will do something.
Always, when a covenant is made, there is both a “sign” and a “token” given. Signs and tokens are both literal and symbolic. They serve as reminders to both parties – both to God and to His people – of what has been promised, and their obligation to each keep up their end of the deal.
The difference between a sign and a token can get pretty in depth, but for now we can keep it sweet and simple.
A sign is a symbol that a promise has been made.
A token is a symbol of what that promise is.
So it kind of overlaps, yet is different.
The best place to read about this, or the most famous example, at least, is reading about the rainbow given after Noah’s ark finally lands. The story is in Genesis 9. We all have seen rainbows, but that chapter in Genesis holds their meaning and history.
The Lord made a covenant with Noah. The Lord promised never again to destroy the Earth by water-floods. Noah and his family promised to be obedient and raise their children to be obedient.
The sign of that covenant was the rainbow.
The “sign” of the rainbow reminds us that a promise was made. It’s beautiful, it’s pretty, it catches our breath. We drag people outside to see it, we love them, we celebrate them. They make us feel as happy as butterflies. Because we know it is a sign of love, that He chooses not to destroy us. So it is a sign to us and to God, a reminder to us and to God, that a promise was made.
But there is also a token within the sign. It is a bow. Of all things, it is in the shape of a bow. As in, a bow and arrow.
This is part of the sign, the token part of the sign.
This rainbow itself is a “sign” in that it is a reminder that a promise has been made.
But the shape it takes – that of a bow – is a “token” of what the promise was exactly. The promise is that we would not be destroyed by water, ever again. So the when is after rain, because that is part of the promise. But the what is in its shape: a bow, from a bow and arrow. A bow is a sign of death, and the bow-after-the-rain is given as a token in that it is set facing heaven, not facing us. He has turned away (bow pointing up instead of at us) the bow-after-the-rain.
He has turned away destruction-through-rain.
But we know from science that it only happens when the sun pierces through, and the storm is finished and on its way.
So is judgment stayed only because the Son was pierced.
“He was pierced for our transgressions…” (Isaiah 53:5).
That’s how signs and tokens become symbols to us not only that promises have been made, but what those promises are.
And that’s how all of them point to the atonement, which was the ultimate and premortal covenant (that the Lord would provide the atonement, and we would testify of it).
When we are baptized, as the Earth was, He does turn away destruction.
And so here, Isaiah says that the Lord gives us a sign:
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call us name Immanuel” (verse 14).
A sign is being given, which means a covenant is being made.
The sign will be an “impossible birth” made possible, in that a virgin shall conceive.
This points to the token, which is that our spiritual birth, or conversion, (re-entering Heavenly Father’s presence) is impossible, because “all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) EXCEPT THAT the Lord does make the impossible possible. Through Him, the impossible is made possible, and through Him we are able to return to our Heavenly Father (because she did bear this son).
And the name, which goes with covenants, is given: Immanuel, which means God with us.
God being with us is part of what is the-impossible-made-possible.
Like a bow pointed away from us, it is a sign of love.
In fact, it is the completing of love, because it is the at-one-ment. Because now, not only is the bow pointed away from us, but the one who holds it has come near to us and does embrace us and is with us.
That’s the reason rainbows make us happy: because it is a a sign of love… love that makes us at-one again.
When the Lord tells Isaiah to invite king Ahaz to ask for a sign, that’s a big deal (verse 11). Signs are usually reserved for the righteous, and sign-seeking almost always is of the wicked (and indicates sexual sin of some sort is a habit as well, see Alma 30: The Pattern of Korihor). But in this case, it is the Lord initiating the offer, and it is for the purpose of saving the righteous. If king Ahaz does not calm down, he is going to provoke the northern countries into war. Then the righteous of Judah will be destroyed along with the wicked of the northern countries.
But king Ahaz declines the offer (verse 12). Ahaz was wicked, not a priesthood holder and he did not follow the prophets. However, he condemns himself by acknowledging that he knows the law, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 to get out of having to ask for a sign.
This frustrates Isaiah, who understands that a rare spiritual gift had been offered and refused (verse 13). He basically tells Ahaz that he is getting the sign anyway, whether he wants it or not.
The sign given is that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (verse 14). Saying that he will eat “butter and honey” simply means that this son will be born to a common family without wealth or pride. Saying that he will have this common experience “that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good” simply means that he will be as mortal as the rest of us.
Knowing that Ahaz has chosen to remain spiritually “blind”, and so has no clue what the prophet is talking about, Isaiah returns to the topic at hand. He tells Ahaz that before this son will grow old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, Israel and Syria will be wiped out (verse 16).
But then he says that because Ahaz and his people will not repent, it will be even worse for them, and that Judah will be so destroyed that some parts of it will never be rebuilt (verse 17). Isaiah tells him even the armies of Egypt will be involved (verse 18), and that there will be no place the people can hide from the destruction that is coming (verse 19) and nothing will be left (verse 21). Those who survive will not even have enough food (verse 22), and there will not even be crops to sell for “silverlings” (Persian coins) (verse 23). The land would become a place for hunters (verse 24), and cities and farms would be a place so desolate that only wild animals would live there (verse 25).
Instead of heeding the words of the prophet and leading the nation in repentance, Ahaz panics (verse 20). He goes to the temple, but not to seek the Lord; instead, he strips the temple of all its gold and sends it off to Assyria. This is the evidence against him, that he relied on worldly goods and political power to save him instead of trusting in the Lord. The whole kingdom will suffer for it, because they – as individuals and as a society – did not repent and turn to the Lord.
The people chose destruction, and their leader legalized it.
Assyria destroyed them in 701 B.C.
If we were to liken this to ourselves, we would ask what “gold” have we stripped from the temple and given to our enemies? In what ways are we trading our celestial inheritance for temporal pleasure, immediate gratification, or self-preservation? What fear-based selfishness is causing us to impulsively ignore the prophets instead of carefully and diligently working toward the establishment and protection of His kingdom and the souls who are a part of it?